Real Madrid came into this match the heavy underdogs, with many (including me) predicting a defeat against eternal rivals Atlético Madrid. There was good reason to suspect that would happen, since Real were missing Kroos, Casemiro, Benzema, Pepe, and Ramos in the starting line-up and hadn’t defeated Los Colchoneros in the league since 2013.
But Real Madrid are never more dangerous when the chips are down and when the task looks impossible. They played an incredible game from start to finish, proving their title credentials and defying the critics (again, me) for the umpteenth time.
Los Blancos rolled out a 4-2-3-1, with Modric and Kovacic sitting in a double-pivot behind the bandylegged beauty that is Isco (thank you Ray Hudson). Flanking them was Bale on the left and Lucas Vázquez on the right, while Ronaldo led the line.
The strategy from Zidane was simple - play an organized deep block and snatch chances on the break (the exact same strategy used in the 2016 Champions League final).
Atlético Madrid played in their classic 4-4-2; Carrasco-Koke-Gabi-Niguez in midfield and a strike-force of Griezmann-Torres.
As usual, Simeone instructed his side to execute a ferocious counterpress to unsettle Real and create high quality opportunities that would allow them to avoid engaging in complicated build-up patterns.
Atlético Madrid’s Press vs. Real Madrid’s Build-up
Without Toni Kroos, it always going to be difficult to try to set things up against the best pressing side in world football. There simply is no one else who has the same overall impact on opposition presses as Kroos, meaning that several players needed to step up to compensate collectively for his loss.
Things were very difficult in the opening 15 minutes for Real, as Atlético applied their high pressure excellently and suffocated Real Madrid’s passing lanes.
As usual, Zidane chose to avoid the middle and pursue build-up out wide, meaning few options gravitated centrally to help Los Merengues progress through the middle.
But as the match progressed, the lack of central build-up didn’t matter, as Real Madrid escaped Atléti’s press via individual brilliance rather than through a more team-oriented passing system.
While Isco was the most successful in this endeavor by far, the entire midfield trio executed several exhaustive and brave ball carrying movements that broke through Atléti’s midfield line and fed the ball consistently to Real’s front line.
This was an extremely risky plan by Zidane, as demonstrated by the midfield trio’s string of giveaways in the second half (together they lost the ball 7 times), but it generally worked extremely well.
Atléti, so used to exacting one-on-one dominance in opponent’s defensive thirds, were genuinely shocked to see the likes of Isco cruise past 3 markers or juggle the ball over a defender. Even Marcelo got in on the act, making Atlético’s pressing job a nightmarish task.
As mentioned before, this allowed Real to push the ball into the final third with a regularity rarely seen in previous Madrid derbies, giving Ronaldo, Bale, and Lucas Vázquez plenty of chances to make an offensive impact on the game.
Real Madrid’s Offensive Tactics
Zidane’s attacking focus was heavily wing-oriented (partly due to his own style and Atlético’s defensive prowess in central areas), meaning that Real’s players would need to progress play through short passing combinations.
Zidane played a huge role in allowing such a limited strategy to be successful, as he implemented a near perfect structure in possession that provided attacking balance and triangles galore on both flanks.
The left-wing was a particular powerhouse of offensive play, as Ronaldo drifted more to his natural side to help Isco, Bale, and Marcelo pass through Atléti defenders and fashion chances.
But Isco made sure that the attack didn’t become too one-dimensional, as his relentless drifting provided a transitional link from wing to wing, ensuring that Atlético could never create overbearing defensive overloads on one flank.
But perhaps one of Real’s best chance creators was their occasional use of the counterpress, something that has selectively appeared in big matches throughout Zidane’s reign.
The strategy was simple enough, with Real only pressing when three or more players occupied a wing. Thus, this often happened when both winger and fullback were up the pitch and in close proximity to a central midfielder (but also when Ronaldo was next to a winger and a fullback).
The objective was less to win the ball, but more to buy time for Real’s deeper players to organize themselves.
However, this strategy did end up dispossessing Atlético once in a very dangerous area.
While Zidane did have a plan to penetrate the final third (mainly working the ball into the box from the wings and counterpressing), a large part of the Frenchman’s strategy was asking his players to execute out lung-bursting ball carries.
This was extremely similar to Zidane’s plan to beat Atléti’s press (and dribbles into the final third were often as a result of that plan), meaning that Kovacic and Isco often proved to be the greatest individual magicians for Real.
However, Real’s wingers and fullbacks also played their part, with all four of them often single-handedly progressing Los Blancos down the flanks thanks to 30-40 yard ball carries.
Real Madrid’s Defensive Structure vs. Atlético Madrid’s Penetration
Zinedine Zidane set-up his side up in a 4-4-2 on defense, with Bale and Lucas Vázquez required to track back tremendously in order to help out their fullbacks and maintain a tight defensive shape.
In order to further ensure defensive solidity, Zidane employed an ultra-low block, asking everyone but Ronaldo and Isco to get behind Atlético Madrid’s midfield line.
In order to penetrate this deep-set defense, Simeone asked for Carraso, Niguez, Griezmann, and Torres to roam freely before making unpredictable runs into the box that could be found with a lofted ball.
This strategy was meant to test Varane and Nacho’s positioning, anticipation, and defensive coordination, something that slaughtered the pair three seasons ago under Ancelotti.
And while Atléti did create some serious danger from these types of plays...
...Nacho and Varane passed this test brilliantly, showcasing strong anticipatory instincts to snuff out almost all danger that came their way (the pair combined for 2 tackles, 9 interceptions, 16 clearances, and 3 blocked shots).
But while there was little weakness in Madrid’s back line, there was a soft spot in the center of Madrid’s midfield, as Modric and Kovacic allowed Carrasco and Griezmann to receive the ball too often near zone 14.
However, this was to be expected in the absence of Casemiro; so it must be said that Kovacic and Modric did the best they could in the circumstances.
It’s also worth noting that while Griezmann and Carrasco did have too much joy in the hole, few of their shots and creative passes were executed without pressure, as the Croatian duo often made up for their lack of positional acuity with their incessant harrying and relentless work-rate.
Diego Simeone’s Crucial Tactical Blunder
Despite all that Real Madrid was doing well, the game was rather close until Diego Simeone made one crucial mistake - subbing Gabi off for Correa.
Such a move was understandable, as Atlético needed a goal to bring the game level, but Simeone perhaps overcompensated by putting on Correa, an attacking midfielder who sometimes plays as a center forward, for Gabi.
This hindered Atlético’s defensive structure and allowed Real to flood forward with more counter-attacks, eventually resulting in two goals via passes that resulted from Atléti’s weakened center.
Key Individual Performances
A massive contender for man of the match, Isco was simply imperious on the field today. The ball was all but glued to his feet as he consistently maneuvered past several defenders to release beautiful passes into the final third (one of which was a pre-assist).
On top of that, his work-rate was unbelievable, as he would often be seen making a tackle at one end of the pitch, before bursting into the final third to play a pass or take a beautiful volleyed shot on goal only minutes later.
Quite simply one of his greatest ever performances.
Give him that contract!
Key statistics: 68 touches, 1/1 shots on target, 1 key pass, 3 dribbles, 44/48 passes completed, 1 through ball, 4 fouls drawn, 2 aerial duels won, 2 tackles, 1 interception.
The reason I said Isco was a man of the match contender instead of simply the man of the match, was because another player had an equally incredibly performance - Cristiano Ronaldo.
Sure, his first goal was lucky, but his other two were not, and besides, he was easily Real Madrid’s greatest offensive threat on the night. Out of Real’s 7 shots on target, Ronaldo produced 5 - two of which were a brilliant header and a shot following a Cruyff-like swivel.
He was simply the most clinical he’s been all season, a quality that was desperately needed in the absence of Benzema and in the presence of the greatest defensive side in Europe.
There’s also no ignoring Ronaldo’s typically good off-the-ball movement, which consistently provided passing outlets into the final third and even helped break past Atlético Madrid’s press a couple of times.
He also put in an excellent defensive shift, as he consistently blocked off passing lanes and closed down Atlético players when they least expected it.
All-in-all, a brilliant day’s work for the now all-time top goal scorer in the Madrileño derby.
Cristiano surpasses Di Stéfano (17) and becomes the Real Madrid player with most goals in the history of the Derby (18) pic.twitter.com/SeoCuxQy1k— SB (@Realmadridplace) November 19, 2016
More Cool Ronaldo Stats
Cristiano is ONLY 15 goals from being the top European club scorer EVER & is already the highest active one yet!— M.A.J (@UItraSuristic) November 19, 2016
ANOTHER RECORD! pic.twitter.com/5dFqlx04Il
Cristiano Ronaldo has now scored 49 goals for club & country in 2016, 5 of which have been penalties (he has missed 6 this year). pic.twitter.com/QlaP03sI1T— M.A.J (@UItraSuristic) November 19, 2016
Key Statistics: 34 touches, 3 goals, 5/5 shots on target, 1 dribble, 3 fouls drawn, 1 aerial duel won, 1 tackle.
What more can be said about this incredible little man? He rides the bench with no complaints and then almost always performs extremely well even in the toughest of situations. The fact that he was destroyed in similar circumstances 3 seasons ago makes his performance tonight even more remarkable, as it displays his incredible mental fortitude and drive to succeed.
He snuffed out danger when Real were most vulnerable in the opening minutes of the match, and was crucial in helping his side weather the storm in the first 15-20 minutes of the second half.
Key Statistics: 1 tackle, 6 interceptions, 4 clearances, 2 blocked shots.
Equally impressive was Nacho’s partner Raphael Varane, a man who has struggled for most of this season. But just like Nacho, he threw any mental doubts aside and put in a performance for the ages.
Let’s also not forget that his powerful headed pass was crucial in allowing Ronaldo to draw a penalty for Real’s second goal.
Key Statistics: 1 tackle, 3 interceptions, 12 clearances, 1 blocked shot.
Gareth Bale was not great today in the usual sense - he was not that involved offensively and was honestly quiet with his on the ball actions until Gabi came off. So why give him such a high rating? Because he sacrificed his offensive freedom in order to maintain Real’s defensive solidity (which was the groundwork for their dangerous counter-attacks). Every single time Atléti attacked down Real’s left, it was Bale, not Marcelo, marking and tackling the man on the ball.
Bale’s maturity was rewarded, as he was gifted more attacking space after the departure of Gabi, enabling him to seal the deal with a gift-wrapped assist for Cristiano Ronaldo.
Key statistics: 64 touches, 0/1 shots on target, 3 key passes, 5 aerial duels won, 2 fouls drawn, 2 interceptions, 6 clearances.