Real Madrid's prolific 22 game unbeaten streak was always going to come to an end, but their loss at Valencia highlighted the minor issues Carlo Ancelotti's side possess. Real created minimal chances prior to Valencia taking the lead, but neither good fortune, nor individual brilliance could make the difference.
The big news prior to kickoff was Valencia manager, Nuno Santos' decision to align his side in a 3-4-1-2. The change proved beneficial in terms of the result, but at times Valencia's exterior centre backs were placed in 1v1 situations against Madrid's pacy wide forwards Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo. Ultimately, it was Lucas Orban's reckless tackle that led to the buildup of Alvaro Negredo's handball, which resulted in Ronaldo's opener from the spot.
Neither side was capable of playing out the back with Real's front three closing down the Valencia centrebacks passing lanes, while Negredo closed down the Real centre backs, and Paco Alcacer pressed Toni Kroos. But where Madrid encountered difficulties creating chances from open play, Santos' shape exploited Madrid's deficiencies in central and wide areas.
More on Valencia-Real
More on Valencia-Real
While the lack of a natural ball winning midfielder doesn't harm Real against inferior opposition, Gomes' movement in central areas was pivotal to Valencia's threat in transition. Gomes drifted into pockets of space behind Kroos on countless occasions to ignite attacks, but Pablo Piatti's poor crossing thwarted Valencia's attack. Meanwhile, Dani Parejo and Gomes harried and pressed the ineffective James Rodriguez and Isco in the opening half, but the final ball and finishing from their teammates was often underwhelming.
On the other hand, Valencia's inability to build plays from the back didn't necessarily benefit Real. Negredo served as a reliable outlet when Pablo Alves lofted long balls into the away side's half. The Spaniard held up the play well, before playing passes wide, and also slipped incisive balls into advancing runners. Yet, Negredo could be accused guilty for his reluctance to shoot in the final third.
Nevertheless, it was Santos' ambitious wing-backs that tormented Ancelotti's side. Jose Gaya's introduction provided Valencia with a technical wide player, and the substitute grew in prominence as the match progressed. Both Isco and James failed to cope with the Valencia wing-backs, and Gaya and Antonio Barragan were involved in the best moves of the match.
It was Gaya's infield run that saw the left wing-back square the ball across the edge of the box to Barragan, in the buildup to Valencia's equalizer. Afterwards, Gaya's powerful running led to a Dani Carvajal foul in Real's half, which subsequently resulted in Nicolas Otamendi nodding the hosts into the lead. Valencia's best move of the match should have increased their lead, with Barragan running past Marcelo and James to get on the end of a good passing move, but he squandered his shot wide.
Ancelotti's attempt to rescue the match involved Sami Khedira and Jese Rodriguez, but neither player was capable of shifting the result. While Kroos' passing from deep, and ability to break away from challenges to retain possession was key, Luka Modric's short passes that link midfield and attack were truly missed. Madrid's midfield failed to dictate the tempo of the match, and apart from Alves' point-blank save to deny Isco, Real's threat in the latter stages was scarce.
Santos' decision to move to a three-man defence was successful: it provided Gomes freedom to locate pockets of space behind Kroos, Negredo served as a reliable outlet against Pepe and Sergio Ramos, and Ancelotti's wide players didn't cope with Valencia's proactive wing-backs.
Perhaps this is a minor hiccup on Madrid's route to a league title, but two legs against Atletico could further exemplify Modric's significance in midfield.