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Real Madrid vs Real Sociedad (La Liga) 3-1: Tactical Review

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In-depth analysis of Madrid's offensive and defensive decisions and the contradictions that exist between them.

Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Real Madrid's General Strategy: Ultra-Attacking Football

Madrid once again started in a loosely defined and fluid 4-3-3. It was stacked with offensive talent in the form of BBC, James, Kroos, and Modric and it was clear that Madrid were out to dominate the game from the get-go and overwhelm Real Sociedad through sheer firepower. This is the 5-6th time in 7 matches that Benitez has fielded this midfield trio and it is clear that the Madrid manager has decided to form an identity around ultra-offensive football in line with what the fans want.

Real Sociedad's General Strategy: Press and Counter

With Benitez’s lineup being fairly predictable, Real Sociedad decided to play the game in a conservative manner by largely looking for direct passes that would break the Madrid offside trap and create a route to goal. But in an effort to take the game to Madrid, Real Sociedad also fielded a press in order to put pressure on Madrid’s central midfielders and ultimately win the ball back in extremely threatening areas.

In-depth analysis of Madrid’s offensive tactics

As I mentioned before, Real Sociedad’s press was initiated in an effort to take the game to Madrid without the ball, and in the first 10 minutes it worked extremely well. The trio of Illaramendi, Bergara, and Canales hounded Madrid’s midfielders, winning fifty-fifty challenges and creating dangerous one-vs-one situations with Madrid’s defenders. With Modric and Kroos looking rather uncomfortable with this situation, I expected Sociedad’s midfield domination to become a feature of the match. But Modric and Kroos adapted well to Sociedad’s vigorous approach and began to take a more direct approach in dissecting their opponents.

They barely spent time on the ball past the 10-minute mark, as they aimed to quickly zip the ball into Madrid’s front three. With the name of the game being speed, the BBC had three options to make something happen before Real Sociedad CM’s could recover from their advanced positions: make a solo run at the defense, create combinations between themselves to find a way to goal, or wait half a second for the marauding runs of Marcelo and Danilo out wide. A tangible way in which this worked was Bale’s brilliant run to beat two players (after receiving the ball quickly from his midfield generals) and put in a cross that led to Madrid gaining another lucky penalty. The Sociedad midfield was scattered in that phase of play and simply couldn’t cope in general with Madrid’s zipping passes in the first half.

But such a strategy should be fairly easy to stop if you think about it. The Sociedad manager could have asked his players to cool the press a little bit and look to drop just 5 yards deeper and intercept the fairly simple passes towards Madrid’s forwards. With Madrid suspect in their possession football strategy under Benitez, such a decision would probably have resulted in Madrid piling in millions of crosses instead of intricately trying to work their way around the medium to low block. But this didn’t happen. Why? One word, James.

To many, the Colombian was a little quieter than he should’ve been for Madrid, but for me he was brilliant in the first half.

As you can see on his heatmap, his movement off the ball was dynamic and unpredictable. Benitez gave James a free playmaking role with fewer defensive responsibilities and the Colombian made it count. If the BBC weren’t open for the direct pass to beat the Sociedad press, James was there to be the intermediary. He was the extra-man in every attacking scenario and ensured that Madrid could distribute the ball with efficiency and attacking verve. Beyond that, James was also decisive in his playmaking abilities. He completed 3 out of his 6 crosses, fashioned 2 long balls, created a through ball, and produced a stunning 5 key passes (all in the first half). He was the X-factor for Madrid and was the keystone for Benitez’s ultra-attacking strategy.

Thus I found it strange that Benitez took him off for Kovacic. The Croatian has the potential to do what James did, but Kovacic is still very raw and didn’t even come close to providing Madrid with what James did in terms of movement and end product. If Benitez wants to play this ultra-attacking style, an advanced playmaker that understands the space of the game along with the movements of all his teammates is a must. James is that guy.

In-depth analysis of Madrid’s defensive tactics

After praising Benitez for his offensive tactics, I am going to criticize him for his defensive decisions (oddly enough). From minute 1 to minute 90 Madrid applied almost no tangible pressure on Real Sociedad midfielders and attackers. I don’t know how many times to say this, but if you leave Madrid’s defense out to dry, they will suffer against players who are: quick, decent in their off-the-ball movement, and marginally skillful.

However, what infuriated me more is that Benitez was absolutely fine with this. It’s not like the players were ignoring their coach’s instructions, they were actually following them. Modric, Kroos, and James (and occasionally Bale) kept trying to develop a solid wall in front of their defensive line to force Sociedad to uselessly knock the ball around. This sounds all well and good, but there is a serious problem with this strategy. Forming two lines of organized defense works best when your opponent is dominating. Unless I have gone completely bonkers, I am under the impression that Madrid were the ones trying to dominate, with their offensive line-up, superior possession and greater number of attacking third passes.

What resulted was a contradiction between Madrid’s attacking philosophy and defensive philosophy, leading Sociedad to find the easiest of gaps in between Madrid’s defensive line while Modric, Kroos, and James were desperately trying to organize themselves. This clear weakness in Madrid’s game vs Sociedad lies firmly at Benitez’s doorstep and he has to correct this discrepancy immediately. The fact of the matter is, when you want to attack and dominate the opposition the way our line-up and offensive tactics suggests, you have to embrace the fluid nature of this decision with your defense. That means you have got to press (even if it isn’t at Barcelona’s or Borussia Dortmund’s level). It is the only way to ensure defensive stability and maintain the level of offensive output Benitez clearly wants. If Rafa wants to continue his traditional defensive organization that we saw work so well against PSG, he has got to sacrifice some of his stars and embrace a less glamorous side of the game. Pick one or the other, you can’t have both Benitez.

Bits and Pieces

Nacho disappointed me today. I usually have great faith in him, but he couldn’t seem to handle the extra pressure on the back line created by Madrid’s poor defensive tactics.

Ronaldo looked like he was going to have a terrible game but he did something that we have been longing for him to do since the start of the season: make the difference. After skying a penalty, he showed great character to step up once again to the spot and score. But more importantly, his stunning volley from a corner in the second half proved to be the winner and the boost Madrid needed to take control of the game.

Bale was Madrid’s outstanding attacker out of the BBC. He really benefitted from Madrid’s more direct approach to passing today and he was Los Blancos’s best ball carrier.

(All stats taken from whoscored.com or FourFourTwo)