While the attention will be on the hero of the show Yevhen Konoplyanka, much of the post-match focus should be centered around the managers Rafa Benitez and Unai Emery. Their tactical battle was intriguing and at times difficult to decipher, but at the end of the day it was their decisions that decided the game.
Real Madrid’s Pressing vs Sevilla’s Low Block and Escape Plan
Coming into this match, Unai Emery would have been very aware of the fact that Real Madrid have used their pressing to great effect. In fact, recently, it has served as Real Madrid’s primary chance creation technique, with the likes of Casemiro, Modric, and Kroos winning the ball high up the pitch to release Madrid’s attackers into acres of space.
Benitez didn’t change much this match as he looked to rely on his pressing to stifle Sevilla’s options and ensure Madrid’s hegemony of the game. Initially it worked. Kroos and Modric quickly moved in unison to close down opposition players on either flank. If the player under pressure could get the ball to a free man, Casemiro would then pounce on him immediately to win the ball.
For the first 20 minutes this ensured that Real Madrid had the control they needed to patiently probe over and over again. Things would have been quite comfortable for Madrid if things had stayed the same. However, Emery had other plans.
Before I go into detail into how he countered Rafa’s press, the first thing to understand is Sevilla’s shape. In defense it was pretty simple. They settled into a medium to low block (Vitolo being the one who dropped into the midfield line) for much of the match and looked to clog the middle and force things out wide. Their two banks of four were extremely organized until Madrid reached the last 20 yards of Sevilla’s half. Then Sevilla’s defense became surprisingly organic as the Sevilla midfield became openly combative in not only the search to win the ball back, but also to track the fluid movement of Bale, Ronaldo, and Isco. This quick change in attitude from Sevilla’s players allowed them to cope with Madrid’s efforts to destabilize their defense. However, the real magic happened once Sevilla had the ball.
Instead of looking to bomb the ball upfield (which would have been an understandable tactic due to the pace of Konoplyanka, Vitolo, and Immobile), Sevilla looked to play their way out of defense. This was a risky tactic that paid huge dividends for Unai Emery’s side. To beat the inevitable press, Emery did two things. First he had the full backs bomb forward to provide the man on the ball a direct route away from Modric and Kroos. Since the passing in this case was on the flank, Casemiro was unable to close the man on the ball down and Madrid’s defense was momentarily exposed.
This problem was further exacerbated by the fact that Benitez had ordered both his fullbacks to push forward to provide Madrid’s width. Thus, when Sevilla countered down the wings, they often had loads of space or faced a Madrid fullback who was unbalanced because of a long run back to defend.
The second way Emery defeated the press was by employing the technical qualities of Ever Banega. Utilized as the primary playmaker for hiw side, the Argentine dropped into unoccupied space to receive the ball. His quick feet and ball control often allowed him to escape the attentions of Modric, Kroos, and Casemiro and play the ball out wide. In addition to this, his willingness to drop deeper ensured that he had more time on the ball than if he received the ball in Madrid’s half.
With Banega receiving the ball around the 30-35 yard line (from Sevilla’s perspective), the likes of Casemiro was unsure of whether to commit due to fear of being exposed. This gave Banega the extra second necessary to pick out a well thought out pass.
Sevilla’s Attack Connected and Fluid; Madrid’s the Exact Opposite
Once Sevilla got the ball past the incoming press, the connection between the attacking players was truly impressive. The likes of Konoplyanka and Vitolo already had a slight advantage as they faced a scrambling Madrid defense, but the speedy arrival of Tremoulinas and Mariano created overloads that wreaked havoc down both of Madrid’s flanks (evidence: Mariano provided an assist for Llorente’s goal). This quick transition play was a feature of Sevilla’s attack throughout the whole match and Emery must be commended for his bold decision to push his fullbacks forward and his personnel choice of Ciro Immobile to add more mobility to his attack. As Madrid seemed incapable of coping with Sevilla’s lightning strikes, tactics became less important in the second half. Immobile’s first half goal and the shakiness of Madrid’s defense gave Sevilla the belief and confidence to win the game. Konoplyanka took full advantage of this spirit as he turned up the tempo of the match several times in the second half and eventually created a goal for Banega.
Madrid’s attack on the other hand, was all out of sorts. It seems as if there wasn’t a real plan for where the likes of Ronaldo, Bale, and Isco were supposed to be and how they were supposed to move. There were several moments where this was evident. One of them was in build up, where Madrid’s attackers were encroaching on each other’s space.
As you can see in the diagram, Ronaldo was positioned on the left flank and Bale and Isco were both crowded on the right wing. No one was in the box and each player was searching for the ball. This made it very easy for Sevilla to defend against Madrid in this situation and the problem was only worsened as Danilo entered the already crowded right flank. While this was only a recurrent theme 3-4 times in the first 20 minutes, it demonstrated the lack of a clear game plan for Madrid’s forwards.
So why was this the case? Benitez gave Ronaldo, Bale, and Isco too much freedom and fluidity. Bale did the best under these circumstances, as he drove at the heart of the defense and pushed wide to stretch the Sevilla defense, but Ronaldo often looked unsure as to whether he should drive into the box or stay wide to receive a pass. This doubtful movement made it even harder for the likes of Modric and Kroos to break down a well-organized Sevilla defense. Isco for his part vacated the flanks too often to come deep where he would have little impact. The result was a slightly lopsided attack that became totally disorganized as the game went on late into the second half and Madrid became desperate.
However, I do believe there was some thinking behind Benitez’s decision to give so much freedom to his front line. If you remember, what typified Madrid at the beginning of the season was their high tempo performances and unbelievably fluid movement. The ball was zipped around at speed and Bale was the center of the attack, moving where he pleased and tearing defenses to pieces. With Bale finally back, it is understandable that Benitez went back to his old notebook to try to implement a tactic that worked so well. However in hindsight, such a move was probably unwise when you consider the fact that Madrid have been playing very differently for the past month and that Sevilla was supremely organized and well prepared.
While some might infer from my tactical analysis that doomsday is upon us, I implore calm and patience. Our starters are finally just coming back and Benitez has done an admirable job holding down the fort uptill now. A La Liga loss had to come eventually, and it came against a worthy opponent who beat Barcelona 2-1 when they (Sevilla) were in terrible shape. It is still undeniable that there are certain weaknesses in the way that Benitez attacks, but he has improved our defensive qualities and deserves more praise then criticism. Have faith Madridistas, Benitez has surely done enough uptill now to deserve that!