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Real Madrid's midfield need changes to turn the Supercup around

Atleti's defending on Real's midfield was superb.

Denis Doyle

Atletico Madrid's indomitable mentality and spirit was tested by city rivals Real, following a summer that witnessed the reigning La Liga champions lose Diego Costa, Filipe Luis and Thibaut Courtois to Chelsea. With Diego Simeone bringing in adequate replacements, along with keeping the core of his defence and midfield, it was evident that Atletico's philosophy would persist.

This was your typical Madrid derby: far from a spectacle, the Santiago Bernabeu hosted a slow-burning, stop-start match that required Real to break down an organized Atletico unit. Carlo Ancelotti's decision to field Luka Modric, Xabi Alonso and Toni Kroos in a midfield trio ensured Real dominated possession, but the hosts struggled in the opening half.

Atletico's preference to sit deep in their third, with four central midfielders across the first bank signified their approach. Simeone's decision to instruct his side to align themselves in two banks of four was logical as Atletico effectively covered spaces in central areas; further impeding Real's attack.

While Real's midfield featured three world-class ball-playing midfielders, the hosts lacked balance in central areas. Each midfielder recorded over a 90 per-cent pass completion rate, as the trio was free to change the route of attack from flank-to-flank in deep positions. However, once Kroos and Modric stepped into Atletico's third, the duo was consistently harried and fouled.

This forced majority of Madrid's attacks into wide areas, but Cristiano Ronaldo's influence was scarce, while defensive cover from Koke, and occasionally Mandzukic, prevented Bale from exploiting Guillherme Siqueira's defensive frailties. Siqueira received an early warning when Bale stormed past down the right flank, forcing the left back to commit a cynical challenge that merited a booking.

Still, Real conceded possession easily and lacked guile in the final third, which explains why Atletico created the better chances in the half despite Ancelotti's side's territorial dominance.

Although, Mandzukic's work-rate was imperious - tracking back to help his defenders and pestering the opposition with his physical presence - there was a noticeable contrast in Atletico's attacks in transition, as the Croatian doesn't possess the pace to replicate Costa's tireless running into the channels or behind the Real defence.

The Croatian, however, did pose a threat around the box, as he latched onto Moya's goal kick but fired a tame shot directly at Iker Casillas. A minute later, Ramos' defensive blunder set Saul Niguez free on goal, but the new signing's effort rolled into Casillas' arms. Atletico opted to break into wide areas, while Saul and Mandzukic both received more opportunities to take the lead, but their finishing was underwhelming.

With Ancelotti searching for a winner, the Italian was forced to replace the injury-riddled Ronaldo for James Rodriguez. There was an immediate response from the hosts, as Bale was now given the license to roam, which created space for Carvajal to push forward. Bale combined with the Real right back down the right side of the pitch, and the latter's exceptional first touch evaded Diego Godin, but Moya parried his powerful shot aside.

Real continued to dominate possession in the second half, but they encountered similar issues, creating one legitimate chance from a Bale free kick, which in fairness should have led to a Kroos goal. In that time Simeone turned to Antoine Griezmann's pace upfront alongside Mandzukic - thus dropping Garcia into midfield - and replaced the vulnerable Siqueira for Cristian Ansaldi.

The key moment in the match, however, came with 12 minutes remaining, as Angel di Maria replaced Luka Modric in midfield.

Di Maria offered the penetration and direct running that Madrid lacked throughout the game, as he instantly combined with Marcelo down the flank, and forced the opposition into a few fouls with his powerful running. Although di Maria wasn't involved in the build up to the goal, his introduction ignited a spark in Real's performance, and his positioning created additional space in midfield for Kroos and James.

It was Carvajal's advanced positioning and Kroos' incisive pass that led to James opener, but Atletico's immediate response was impressive. Quick combination passes in Real's third forced Casillas to make an important save to deny Koke, and it saw Griezmann exploit space between the lines to play his teammates into key areas. Ultimately, Garcia's equalizer followed a similar template to Godin's goal in the European final, as poor set piece defending allowed the unmarked 28-year-old to direct Koke's corner into the net.

Despite the addition of several new players, the belief and dogged work ethic demanded by Simeone still breathes within his Atletico side. They limited Real's activity in the final third, and their reaction to James' fortuitous goal was remarkable.

Nonetheless, this match highlights the various selection issues Ancelotti may encounter in the opening stages of the season, along with di Maria's significance to the squad. Madrid's midfield trio didn't offer penetration and guile in the final third - Ronaldo's poor outing and Bale's quiet night played a factor - and they only looked dangerous subsequent to di Maria's arrival.

Changes in Madrid's midfield are necessary to turn this tie around.

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