Before anything can be said analytically, it must be acknowledged that this match was absolutely crazy. I lost count of the number of times Rafa Benitez and Gary Neville forayed into their technical areas in a desperate attempt to regain control of the match. But due to the atmosphere created by the fans, the weight of the fixture, and the pumping adrenaline and testosterone of each player, it was clear that the coaches did not have regular control over proceedings and that their tactical plans weren’t fully implemented. Due to this, my tactical analysis is also limited and thus might not be as in-depth as you are used to.
One thing I noticed straight off the bat was Madrid’s urgency to play the ball in a quick and decisive manner. It was clear that Benitez had anticipated Valencia’s intensity and organization and was looking to bypass it with direct football. Thus in the first 15 minutes or so, Madrid were content to allow Valencia to come onto them before releasing speedy counters through the pace of Bale and Ronaldo. However, Valencia soon figured out Madrid’s strategy and began to sit back themselves, forcing Madrid to take the initiative. Los Blancos welcomed such a change with open arms, as they dominated possession and kept their passing quick and sharp to destabilize Valencia’s shape. They were soon rewarded as Bale, Benzema, and Ronaldo combined beautifully to rip Valencia to shreds and open the scoring. However there was a downside to Madrid’s change in tactical approach that Valencia eventually exploited.
Remember how I talked about Benitez’s contradiction in his attacking and defensive philosophy in my previous tactical article? Well, we saw the same thing again vs Valencia. With the initial plan being to play a more conservative game, Benitez hadn’t implemented a proper pressing scheme and had instead focused on keeping Madrid’s shape and structure. But as Madrid gained more of the ball and pushed forward to attack in numbers, it inherently became harder to form a medium to low block in front of the defensive line. With Madrid’s defensive organization scattered and no press in place, Valencia created numerous counter-attacking opportunities that were all spurned bar one. While this seems like damning criticism of Benitez’s tactical decisions, it must be noted that his team were actually playing against his original instructions. However, blame can’t really fall on the players either. They weren’t ignoring Benitez on purpose, the flow of the game just changed against them. After being more conservative, Madrid suddenly found the ball more often and saw Valencia draw back into a shell. With Madrid’s natural attacking instincts present in pretty much every player on the pitch, it was only a matter of seconds before Madrid began to assume their de facto position of domination in terms of possession and attacking movement, thus creating a discrepancy in their offensive and defensive philosophies.
It was clear that Benitez spent his time talking tactics after the half time whistle, as Real came out and executed their original conservative plan for large swathes of the second half. Madrid at one point in the first 45 had 60%+ possession, but that dramatically dropped as Madrid re-organized themselves into a defensive shield. My interpretation of what Benitez was trying to do is only strengthened by the fact that Benitez replaced Karim Benzema with Lucas Vazquez in order to better construct Madrid’s defensive shape, even though Madrid were still 1-1 with Valencia (and remember, this is before the red card). While I understand that the flow of the game was making it quite hard for Benitez to implement his plans and Lucas could solve that, the second Benzema came off Madrid’s attacking expression was hurt. Despite not scoring, Ronaldo was imperious in his connection with Benzema in the first half, and the Portuguese winger ended the match with a team high 4 key passes as a result of this. But without Benzema Ronaldo often found himself isolated on the counter as Bale was looking to make the exact same movements as Ronaldo instead of playing the role of facilitator (when Bale had the ball Ronaldo was no different and wasn’t dropping deep enough). Thus Madrid just didn’t create enough in the second half once Benzema came off and this has to go down as a mistake on Benitez’s part.
Things became even harder for Madrid once Kovacic was sent off harshly, as from the 70th minute onwards things went absolutely crazy. From then on, it was all about passion, team spirit, and a desire to win the game. And after all of the criticism aimed at our beloved Blancos for not truly wanting to win, Madrid showed real heart and character to push forward time and time again. We were the better team in the closing stages of the match, but a lapse in defensive concentration cost us (how many times has that been said over the years) and Valencia earned a draw.
Can you guess the most under fire player in Madrid’s midfield right now? Did I hear you say "Toni Kroos?" Congratulations and grab a cookie, because you are spot on. Kroos is the Madrid player under the most pressure right now, but he quietly had his best performance of the season vs Valencia. In a frantic game that really doesn’t suit the German, he bit the bullet and took control of the game. As a result Madrid always had the offensive upper hand until Kovacic was sent off. Kroos’s distribution and ball retention was impeccable, with 100% of his 80 passes completed (most passes in the team).
Before you go and say that all Kroos did was pass the ball sideways, note that he completed 12 out of 12 long balls, allowing the team to make full use of their extra men in wide areas. Add in 2 key passes for good measure and this could be one of Kroos’s most tangibly productive games in his short history with the whites.
Thus I have to end my article with this statement: there are plenty of reasons why Madrid didn’t win this game and Kroos isn’t one of them. So lay off him for a bit will yah?
(All stats taken from whoscored.com and FourFourTwo statszone)