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Real Madrid vs. Espanyol Preview (La Liga)

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An analysis of Real Madrid's and Espanyol's tactics and key players, a player to watch section, and a prediction.

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Real Madrid needs to bounce back

The feeling was all too familiar: a depressing concoction of frustration, anger, and disbelief. Another opportunity gone, another chance missed. "How did we not win the fans thought?" The players must have been feeling the same way. "1-1, that isn’t fair," they must’ve fumed. "We simply got unlucky."

But while luck may have played a part in Madrid’s disappointing draw with Real Betis, their destiny has been firmly in their hands this season. Too often Madrid have squandered opportunities to assert themselves in La Liga away from home.

Their record on the road is an upsetting read: 4 wins, 4 draws, and 2 losses. That is only 16 points taken from 30, just over 50% of what is possible to achieve. For a club harboring title ambitions, such an appalling record is unacceptable. Too often we have taken teams for granted, looking at the opposing team’s recent poor run of form as a reason to be complacent. But that didn’t matter vs. Villarreal and it certainly didn’t matter vs. Betis.

For Zidane, a match at home will come as a timely relief (we only have 1 loss and 1 draw out of 11 matches at home). With Barcelona having been gifted the chance to open up a 7 point lead over our beloved Los Blancos, the next match is a must win to keep any hopes of bringing home the La Liga title alive.

How will Espanyol play without Marco Asensio?

After about an hour searching for concrete proof of whether Asensio could or could not play against his parent club, Phil Kitromilides finally came to my rescue.

With that confirmed, the question arises as to how Espanyol can beat the mighty Real Madrid without their creative hook. As outlined here, Asensio is remarkable for his ability to time defense-splitting passes and for his ability to turn defenders onto their backsides. While his production has been a bit erratic this season, there is no doubt that he is one of Espanyol’s top players.

With the whoscored.com's tables ordered from highest to lowest, you can see that Asensio is number 1 for assists and key passes, number 2 in dribbles, and number 3 for fouls drawn. Literally everything goes through him, and the playmaker floats all over the place to maximize his effectiveness.

While Espanyol are lucky to have such a talented player, their reliance on him is also a big weakness. Even with their star player, Espanyol aren’t a very creative or strong attacking team in the first place. They only average 9.6 shots per game, with a paltry 3.2 finding their target. This has resulted in them scoring only 20 goals in all competitions, with 25% of those goals coming from set-pieces. But because Asensio is their primary delivery man, Espanyol’s threat on the dead ball, and thus 1/4th of their ability to score, will decrease in his absence. So what do Espanyol do?

Well, when Asensio hasn't played, Espanyol have abandoned their 4-2-3-1 and have gone for a 4-4-2. No player has shone in this formation, and as a result Espanyol have lost all of their matches playing this way. Without Asensio, Espanyol lack a player to hover in-between the lines and make the difference, causing Espanyol to struggle immeasurably when pushing forward to attack. For the Catalán club to stand a chance versus Madrid, their approach needs to change.

They have an affinity for passing the ball about in their own half, in an effort to hold onto possession and look for a prime passing opportunity. Against a big team like Madrid, that simply will not work. In the 4-4-2 that they will probably play, they must look to be direct and quick in an effort to stun Real Madrid’s back line and grab 3-4 good chances. There is no question that Madrid’s back four is highly uncomfortable when defending against fast counters, and thus Espanyol has to exploit this weakness to the fullest.

They will most likely find the ability to do this through their flanks. Zidane instructs his fullbacks to push up very high in order to act as auxiliary wingers (creating an automatic defensive weakness), and as shown below, Espanyol are accustomed to playing out wide.

But while such an approach is all well and good, the ball has to get their first. Thus Pape Diop will be key in making this strategy work, as he completes 3.3 long balls per game from central midfield. Center backs Álvaro González and Enzo Roco must also be willing to do the same from the back, and with their 5 and 4.5 completed long balls respectively, they should be more than capable of completing that task.

In defense, this counter-attacking strategy would mean sitting back with discipline and with composure in an effort to shut down passing lanes and constrict space in the midfield. Defensive midfielder Victor Sánchez is one of Espanyol’s most combative players with 3.3 tackles per game and 2.2 interceptions per game. His positional nous and ability to break up Madrid’s attacks will be key in giving his team the chance to get a draw or a win.

Who else can make the difference for Espanyol besides Asensio?

There are really only two other players besides the Madrid loanee that have had that special something for Espanyol this season. Top goalscorer Felipe Caicedo is a quality finisher and good dribbler, and thus will be paramount to Espanyol's chances of scoring in this game. Madrid’s center back pairing must keep a tight pair of eyes on him at all times to prevent the mobile forward from running off the shoulder of the defender and onto goal.

Espanyol’s other top player is right-winger Hernán Pérez. The best dribbler on the team by far with 2.3 dribbles per game, Pérez is the primary reason Espanyol choose to play down the flanks. His ability on the ball will be more important in this match than others, as he will receive little support due to Espanyol's necessary defensive game-plan. This will probably inspire Pérez to change things single-handedly more than usual, making it necessary for Marcelo to curtail some of his own runs, or at least be constantly aware of the positioning of his man at all times.

What should Real Madrid do?

Tactically, there are a lot of things that need to be fixed. After the Zidane euphoria wore off, Madrid’s defensive frailties were once again exposed and Madrid’s transition play from midfield to attack wasn’t perfect. For Madrid to keep a clean sheet in this game, Zidane must resist the urge to push both fullbacks high up the pitch at the same time. His wide defenders must alternate runs and man-mark their wingers to ensure that any of Espanyol's creativity is clogged.

In midfield, emphasis should be put on controlling the tempo of the game. Against Betis, things were often frenetic and fast-paced, which suited the home side much more than it did Madrid. As a result, two of Modric, Kroos, Casemiro, or Kovacic, must slow things down just a tad when necessary, to ensure that the game doesn't get away from Real.

Up front Ronaldo and Benzema don't need too many instructions as they know what to do out there. They will be joined by either James or Jese. If James starts, he will be more of an advanced playmaker rather than a winger, giving Madrid in-swinging crosses and incisive through balls. If Jese starts, his positioning as a traditional winger will give Madrid's attack more pace and punch on the counter. Either way, both should be good enough to do the damage vs. Espanyol.

Player to watch

Cristiano Ronaldo

After disappointing once again in an away match, the Dark Invader’s influence at Real Madrid seems to be waning by the week. I’ve backed him for a long time this season, but he hasn’t been able find a good run of form to hush his doubters. While it is difficult to pin the blame on any one player, it is clear that if Ronaldo was playing with the form of last season, Madrid would be on top of La Liga right now. If you don’t believe me, let me put it this way: Ronaldo had the most winning goals in La Liga last season, while this year he has only one. That pretty much says it all, and thus Ronaldo must do better, starting vs. Espanyol. If he manages to pick up his form, the race for La Liga isn’t over yet.

Prediction: Real Madrid 3 - 1 Espanyol

(All statistics and charts taken from whoscored.com)