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Real Madrid vs Sporting Gijon (La Liga, 5-1): Tactical Review

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Real Madrid make up for the goals they didn't score in their first encounter with Gijon.

Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Zidane’s strategy: All out attack

With Madrid’s gung-ho approach to the first half, things might have gotten a little confusing for Madrid fans around the globe. The team was amazingly fluid with both fullbacks overlapping on the flanks and cutting inside, but there was some structure. The most obvious thing to identify as part of Zidane’s gameplan, was Madrid’s focus on short passing, with 629 short passes completed out of 654 of Los Blancos’s total passes (96% of the total). With this attractive style clearly the backbone of Madrid’s game, they retained the ball with ease, finishing the match with a dominant 67.4% of the possession. And boy did they make that possession count! As Madrid worked the ball up the field, the spectacle was scintillating. There were several times in the Rafa Benitez period where I saw Rafa attempt to play possession football and Madrid simply lumped the ball out wide to swing a million crosses in. It frustrated me to no end because it was obvious he was implementing tactics that he was not very familiar with. However, it is evident that Zidane has dedicated his short coaching career to learning possession football theory as it showed today in spectacular fashion.

The ball was often worked between the CM’s: Modric, Kroos, and Isco (who operated as a CAM at times as the formation adopted the look of a hybrid 4-2-3-1 – 4-3-3), to move up the pitch and patiently wait for gaps to open up in Gijon’s defense. As Carvajal and Marcelo pushed up liberally, the ball was switched from flank to flank with speed to shift the point of the attack and destabilize Gijon’s shape. When Madrid finally found an opening, they played a through ball to one of the fullbacks, who would then deliver a cross to a forward. That forward would then enjoy immense space to fire on target as a disheveled and disorganized defensive structure struggled to regroup. This was evident in Madrid’s 4th goal of the night, as Madrid’s midfield recycled the ball, waiting for Carvajal to create an overload on the right flank. Once the Spaniard had the ball it was only the matter of a good delivery and a solid finish from Ronaldo to seal the win for Real Madrid. The BBC will get all the credit, but the patience and purpose of the passing was the real winner today.

Another thing to take note of is Zidane’s insistence on having numerical overloads in every attacking situation. That is why you often see Carvajal and Marcelo acting as wingers with Isco given the freedom to roam wherever he pleases in attack. This ensures that as Madrid rotate the ball and shift it out wide, they have a glut of options to ruin the structure of Gijon’s shape. By the time a man gets free to release a cross, the defenders have usually lost sight of whomever is waiting to spring into the box, such is their focus on the 3 floating players.

Zidane’s tactical system is incomplete and needs work

This may be fairly obvious given that this is only his second match in charge, but you would be forgiven for thinking that Zidane has got everything down from day one. But the goal-gluts are covering up the existing problems in Madrid’s defensive structure. Part of the reason why Zidane is so keen on playing such over-the-top attacking football is to create the best conditions for the BBC to carry his side until he truly finds the tactical identity this team needs. That actually isn’t a bad idea as Madrid certainly have the time to do it with their fixture list. But this problem must be noted if only because the problems in defense are so obvious.

This was Sporting Gijon, but they still found an ample number of chances or at least an ample number of attacking positions to threaten Madrid. Halilovic was the prime protagonist in this case, and while the wunderkid is no slob, he shouldn’t have been allowed to dictate things the way he did in the first half. The fact that both Carvajal and Marcelo were pushing up at the same time, instead of alternating runs, put too much pressure on the positional sense of Toni Kroos and the recovery ability of Pepe and Varane.

Carvajal's positioning

Carvajal's positioning

Marcelo's positioning

Marcelo's positioning

While Kroos and Modric were dominant in their passing and distribution, they were often bypassed on the counter as evidenced by their mediocre defensive numbers: Kroos with 1 tackle and 1 interception and Modric with 1 interception. This gave Gijon and Halilovic several one-on-one chances with Real’s center backs. Such a trend was evident early on as Pepe had to close down a Gijon attacker on a mazy run and Halilovic in quick succession with the game only minutes old. Varane for his part had to do the same in the second half. But despite the quality of Real’s center backs, Madrid were playing with fire and Gijon’s goal exemplified the current weaknesses in Madrid’s game plan. The fullbacks were not back to defend and Kroos and Modric were left in the dust, giving ample time for a late runner to poke home a good goal. Madrid may have scored 5, but tightening the ship will be key versus the bigger sides.

Zidane gave one of those "go out and have fun" speeches

With lowly Gijon visiting the Bernabeu and Madrid still not free of the pressure created from the Benitez era (and, let’s be honest, from the pressure of being Real Madrid), Zidane must’ve told his players to just go out onto the pitch and have fun. You can’t imagine Rafa said that too often and Madrid seemed to breathe a sigh of relief as from minute one they looked to pull all of the tricks out of the bag. Ronaldo and Benzema both executed Hollywood strikes, Bale and Carvajal’s combo, followed by Isco’s juggling, set up Benzema’s second, and Marcelo had fun down the left flank just because he could.

This kind of motivation is smart from Zidane, as the flow of goals and attacking impetus of the squad is going to be the only thing that will buy him sufficient time to wrap his amazingly shiny head around the necessary tactical system for this team. Meanwhile, we will all enjoy the temporary and entertaining freedom of 8 out of Madrid’s 11 players.

Bits & Pieces

Bale can’t stop scoring at the moment and is easily the most dominant player in the air right now.

The injuries killed a bit of Madrid’s flow and confidence, contributing to a rather lackluster second half.

I touched on Halilovic before, but his confidence, ball control, and decisive passing against one of the world’s best teams means Barcelona have made an excellent piece of business.

To those saying that the injuries are evidence that the ban is bad, think about whether we would actually buy a superstar (or if one is indeed needed) to be a stopgap option for two weeks or even two months while our own galacticos are out injured.

(All stats and charts taken from whoscored.com and fourfourtwo statszone)