Racing Santander used a five men defense to try to neutralize Real Madrid but this was a massive failure and showed why such a strategy is not suitable against a 4-2-3-1. Racing lost the game 6-1 and it could have been worse as they played into the hands of the Real Madrid attackers. The two formations are outlined below:
When NOT to use three centerbacks
As I showed in my article on Rangers, three centerbacks work very well against two central forwards because the defense always has an extra man. However, as can be seen in the above diagram , Racing had three centerbacks marking only one forward, Higuain. Making things even more complicated is the fact that Higuain is not a traditional center-forward and likes to drift wide or drop deep to link with the midfield. This makes him very difficult to man-mark so the three Racing centerbacks were often left with no one to pick up and getting in each other’s way as they tried to figure out who should close down and who should cover. This redundancy and confusion negates any advantage the team would have had from playing three centerbacks. Madrid play with a fluid front four with plenty of off-the-ball movement and any of the attacking players can end up in the center-forward position. Playing three centerbacks against a team that doesn’t even use a traditional center-forward is dangerous because you will be outnumbered in midfield and won’t be able to deal with runners coming from all angles. Centerbacks cannot man-mark attacking midfielders so the two extra men were just passengers and actually weakened the team. Miguel Angel Portugal realised his error at half-time and took off one of the centerbacks for a midfielder.
As can be seen above Higuain(in white) has drifted out wide and the three center-backs have no one to pick up. Higuain easily gets behind them and scores.
A high defensive line is asking for trouble
Racing Santander chose to play a very high defensive line against probably the quickest team in La Liga. This was a huge mistake and played into the hands of Madrid’s front four. To make things worse, the Racing midfielders did not do a good job of pressing Alonso and Khedira so they had all day to deliver through-balls to the front four. The Racing wingbacks seemed to be under orders to play very high up the pitch but this left huge gaps in behind. Real Madrid were able to get in behind their defense at will and Higuain would often drift out wide to the flanks knowing there would be lot of space there.
As can be seen above, Higuain has drifted to the right and one of the Racing centerbacks has been forced to follow him, with the left back no where in sight.. One of the other centerbacks should have come out to act as cover in this situaion but the other two centerbacks have stayed central, essentially marking no one. Ronaldo is actaully making a run from deep and will end up with a tap in while the the two “spare men” just watch. Ronaldo, Higuain and Di Maria are at their best when they have a lot of space to run onto with the ball and Racing gave them this space the whole game.
Racing Santander provided the perfect illustration of why five-men defenses are no longer widely used. Against a fluid 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 this kind of defensive set-up is not effective and leaves the team outnumbered in other areas. Racing made things worse for themselves by playing a very high defensive line against the quickest front four in the league. It was a recipe for disaster and they were duly punished.