The match away at Almería had trap game written all over it. It was on the road, with a thin squad list, with the Club World Cup around the corner, as well as the upcoming holiday break, and they're facing a downtrodden opponent with a new manager. In the first half, it felt like Madrid were falling into the trap. Lots of fouls and a crawling pace played into Almería's style. Here's a look into how Real broke through.
This midfield trio debuted together against Ludogorets, and on paper, it makes sense -- Ancelotti can play a genuine 4-3-3. Per WhoScored, this was their average positions against Ludogorets. Now, here's their positions against Almería. Generally the same, but Isco is a bit wider out, and Illarra a bit deeper in defense. It's almost a 4-2-1-3, with Isco in an attacking midfield role. Which also makes sense, given he scored from the corner of Almería's box.
I got a little Paint-happy here, but hang with me because I think this is precisely how Madrid aim to play. Kroos and Illarra are deep in midfield, Isco is forward a bit more, and Bale, Benzema, and Ronaldo in natural forward positions. What makes Madrid unique is their love of attacking fullbacks. Here, Carvajal overlapped with Bale and was able to pass him open. Notice Marcelo all alone on the opposite side, something which got Madrid in trouble later on...
What you cannot see, you cannot stop
As Bozz mentioned in the match preview, Almería get their chances by booting the ball up field, hoping it meets someone's feet, and putting in crosses. And they produced a few chances this way, but really failed to catch Madrid sleeping as often as they'd hoped.
All respect to Verza, who's been a good player for a long time, but not a person in the stadium saw this goal coming. Almería did their thing and got a cross in and Varane cleared it, but on the second bounce Verza walloped the ball past everyone into the net. Most of the time, that attempt doesn't get taken, or if it does, the ball goes into the stands.
Maybe, maybe, Madrid should have had someone in that gaping area. But having bodies in the box to clear the lines makes more sense. Verza hit the ball perfectly, and Madrid probably won't regularly concede goals with these defensive tactics.
(Skipping past Bale's goal because it was pretty textbook: a cleared corner becomes a second chance, and Kroos puts in a perfect cross for Bale to nod in)
The downside to aggressive fullbacks
For better or for worse, Almería were dedicated to playing the big ball. Prior to this screencap, Madrid were attacking and Rubén Martínez booted the ball up field (out of frame). Marcelo was on his way back when his man was released, and to his credit, he got back in time. The only problem was he drew a penalty in the process. Édgar Méndez may have gone down a bit easy, and maybe one of the midfielders should have been marking him. But Marcelo put himself in a position where the referee could call a penalty, and fortunately for him, Iker made the save.
BBC & Carvajal bury the game
In a relatively simple situation -- 3 attackers vs 3 defenders -- the defense usually has the upper hand. Almería had help defenders on the way, and Bale and Ronaldo came together before splitting off on their runs. Most of the time, the defense will be able to get in front of a pass here, but Bale, Benzema, and Ronaldo bested the Almería defense. I can't tell if BBC's off-the-ball movement was planned or just improvised, but how they were able to turn an even-sides matchup into a tap-in for Ronaldo is remarkable.
(Skipping past Ronaldo's second because it was more individual effort than tactics: Carvajal goes on a magic run and sets up Ronaldo who buries it through a tight angle)
The moment the referee pointed to the penalty spot, I was convinced Madrid were destined to drop points in this game, but greatness from Casillas, Ronaldo, and Carvajal helped bury Almería. Despite helping produce eight goals in two games, the Isco-Illarra-Kroos midfield is still unpolished, and a weakness in Madrid's defense was exposed. Who knows what interesting formations and lineups are in store for the Club World Cup, but Real Madrid will rest easy knowing they'll be clear at the top of La Liga over the break -- Barça will be on top if they win both of their games but Real will have a game to play --.