In what was a tale of two halves Madrid ran out as the deserved winners in an encapsulating and high-energy affair. So let’s investigate what happened in each half and what we learned from our crucial win.
The first half was ours and we probably should have killed the game off in the first 45 minutes. I mentioned before that Kroos and Modric vs the flow of the game would be the most important battle of the match and so it proved. The two central midfield geniuses combined to effectively protect the back line and control the pace of the game (Madrid slowed down and sped up the tempo at will; with things being slowed down at corners and throw-ins and things being sped up when playing route one to Ronaldo). They enabled Madrid to play their way out of defense against Athletic’s relentless pressing and expose vast spaces in behind the Basque club’s defense.
It is obvious that Madrid’s unfazed approach to Athletic’s intensity stunned the red and whites. Athletic's passes were nervous and they found few gaps behind a resilient Varane-led defensive line. In addition, there was no way for Athletic to relieve the pressure as both Madrid’s center backs shut out Athletic’s attacks. Both of the center backs alternated as the stopper for their team, as they looked to push high up the pitch to battle Raul Garcia and Aritz Aduriz (Varane did this more than Pepe however) from corner kicks. Not only was this highly successful but Pepe and Varane also combined to close down Aduriz when the Basque center forward looked to make his devastating runs in between the center backs.
All of this paid off as the Basque defense nervously made a poor back pass to Gorka Iraizoz and Benzema took advantage to make it 1-0.
Summary of Team Shape
Los Blancos set up in a 4-2-3-1 with Kovacic as the CAM and Isco as the right-winger. However, in the first half an hour or so, our formation looked more like a warped 4-3-3 due to the fact that Kovacic was playing a bit withdrawn to help Madrid’s back-line absorb Athletic Bilbao’s pressure. Kovacic’s inclusion in the line-up may have been a surprise for some, but in retrospect it is obvious to understand Benitez’s thinking. Kovacic provided the perfect blend of dribbling ability and tenacity to match Athletic’s high-paced style. He really threw himself about in the first half and charged forward well.
A repeat of the 1st half performance would’ve ensured a comfortable victory for Benitez’s men. However, Madrid looked to play negative and sit back. From the first whistle of the second half to the last whistle of the game, the Basques applied intense pressure. Navas was forced into some truly superb saves while his side struggled to stay in a robust and defensive shape. The negative approach eventually back-fired as Pepe gave the ball away and Athletic countered swiftly to allow Sabin Merino to brilliantly head home the ball.
But Madrid responded with the grit of potential champions. Only two minutes later, Madrid made their first significant attacking foray in the second half and scored. Isco was played into acres of space on the counter and he made no mistake in finding Karim Benzema with a pin-point cross.
The rest of the match involved Madrid sitting back once again, but this time successfully keeping Aduriz and co. at bay. Jese came on soon after the goal to continue to give Real Madrid a counterattacking edge and Casemiro came on for Benzema in the 80th to shut up shop for good. While Athletic were the better team in the second half, Madrid were lethal enough when it mattered to take home the 3 points and leapfrog Barcelona at the top of the table.
Summary of Team Shape
Kovacic charged forward more and began orchestrating attacks as a CAM should do. This made our formation an obvious 4-2-3-1 until Casemiro came on in the 80th minute and switched us into a highly defensive looking 4-4-2. Vazquez’s introduction in the 89th minute for Kovacic gave us even more defensive structure.
Best Player Performances
The Frenchman has been in absolutely superb goalscoring form, netting in every single game he has played. His two goals were unspectacular, but stank of lethal positioning and finishing (something Madrid fans beg Benzema to have). In addition his willingness to drop extremely deep to provide a possessional outlet in the first half was crucial to beating Athletic Bilbao’s press.
Without a doubt the man of the match was the Costa Rican that many wanted to sell for some chap named David De Gea. He made 4 key saves and was instrumental in keeping Madrid in the game near the end of the second half. Kiko Casilla must be looking forlornly at grass every time he sees it now.
Bits and Pieces
I’m still not convinced by Isco on the right. He played well, but I feel like so much potential is being wasted. He was his usual tricky self, but his threat on goal was seriously nullified. He showed a willingness to cut onto his left foot to shoot, but he got nowhere near the target. Something for Benitez to consider.
This is by far Kovacic’s best performance for Madrid. He was great with the ball at his feet, and showed an incredible desire-not required of a CAM-to battle for 50-50’s. He was definitely key in matching Athletic’s intensity and giving Madrid an edge on the counter.