The odds were stacked firmly against Sporting Gijón for obvious reasons; Real Madrid were at the top of the table, possessed a star-studded squad, and had just smashed Atlético Madrid away from home. Meanwhile, Gijón were languishing in the relegation zone with a mere 9 points from 12 matches.
Thus, it was extremely impressive to see Abelardo Fernández’s men come away with a hard-fought 2-1 loss, even if that had to do with some of Real Madrid’s own failings (as will be discussed later).
Sporting Gijón’s Defensive Set-Up
Nevertheless, credit must be given to Gijón for their tactical set-up, something that became braver and more fruitful as the game progressed.
The Initial Plan - The Medium Block
In recognition of the immense firepower on display, Fernández opted to pack his defense with five defenders, clearly looking to suffocate Madrid’s lines through the middle. In order to further achieve this objective, he set-up a medium block that was to be guarded by a horizontally compact midfield line.
However, Fernández made the risky decision of sacrificing vertical compactness in order to negate Madrid’s use of direct football to expose Gijóns back line, something that often left Benzema and Ronaldo in plenty of space.
In order to make up for this structural weakness, Fernández asked one of his center backs to aggressively push up the pitch and tackle or foul Ronaldo or Benzema whenever they received the ball behind Gijón’s midfield line.
This had mixed affects when trying to stop Madrid’s build-up, as all it took was a good touch from one of Real’s forwards to keep possession and transition their team into the middle/final third.
Understanding that Madrid were too comfortable on the ball and that Gijón needed to score a goal after Ronaldo’s converted penalty, Fernández shifted his side into an aggressive press around the 10th minute.
This required Duje Cop, a winger, a central midfielder, and a fullback to push up and tightly mark Madrid’s passing options whenever the ball shifted to the flank. This was most evident on throw-ins, where Gijón had time to set up their scheme.
In this play, all of Madrid’s passing options are tightly marked, with Gijón even possessing numerical superiority on the flank.
The ball is thrown to Modric, who is forced to pass the ball back to Pepe due to the pressure he receives and the cover shadow blocking off a pass to Ramos.
As Pepe lays the ball off to Navas, two Gijón players converge, with the rest of the team taking up marking positions that will force a long ball.
Gijón win the header, but Lucas eventually wins possession thanks to his feisty work-rate.
When Madrid managed to start off play through the center, Cop would furiously press RM’s CB’s to force them to pass wide and into Sporting’s tight marking scheme.
They managed to pull this off rather successfully, as they won the ball in Madrid’s half 9 times.
But the visitors really felt the benefit of this defensive style in the last 25ish minutes of the game, where Gijón increased their pressing intensity, allowing them to launch wave after wave attack in an effort to snatch a point.
As a reward, Gijón won a penalty in the 77th minute, which was wasted horribly by Duje Cop.
Real Madrid’s Build-Up
Vs. the Medium Block
It was worrying to see Real Madrid enter this match with an obviously lackadaisical mindset. They were clearly aware of Sporting’s league standing, and initially played like they were owed a win. This was evident with Danilo’s tame giveaway in the first minute of the match, which resulted after being subjected to the mildest of pressure from Gómez.
Nevertheless, Sporting’s lack of a press in the first 10 minutes gave Madrid time to focus themselves on the ball. Once this happened, Modric and Kovacic began to find the deep movement of Ronaldo with regularity.
While the middle third pressing from Gijón’s center backs did provide a challenge for CR7 whenever he received the ball, his usually impeccable first touch, strength, and clean passing allowed Madrid to successfully circulate the ball through Gijón’s medium block and progress into the final third.
From there, Madrid’s attackers were given a large dose of creative freedom, as the likes of James, Ronaldo, and Lucas looked to combine with the barnstorming runs of Nacho and Danilo in order to penetrate the box.
Vs. the Press
Things became less easy for Los Blancos once Fernández implemented a press, as Madrid had less time to pass the ball around comfortably in their defensive third. This initially rattled Zidane’s men, as they struggled to adjust to the sudden change in tactics from Sporting, leading to several losses of possession from the 10th to the 15th minute.
But Madrid soon adjusted and began to play through Gijón’s press, as Lucas and James dropped out of the forward line to create passing triangles between their respective fullback and central midfield partners, before switching play to the other flank.
This was usually enough to progress Madrid into their opponent’s half due to the superior 1v1 quality Zidane’s squad possessed, but just for insurance, Ronaldo would often provide key overloads that routinely beat Sporting’s pressure.
If Real had played this way on a consistent basis, they probably could’ve ensured a much easier game for themselves. Instead, their press resistance strategy was applied on an inconsistent basis, allowing periods of play where Sporting had chances to get back in the game.
This manifested in two main ways: long balls and unintelligent passes to the wings.
The former was the most irritating thing to watch and was a result of Navas’ and Pepe’s lack of composure on the ball (both combined for 12/29 completed long balls). Instead of looking to pass the ball into Kovacic or Modric (both of whom consistently dropped in between the space opened up by the center backs), Pepe and Navas bombed the ball forward with little accuracy.
The second flaw, was Ramos and Pepe’s occasional insistence on carrying the ball forward and spraying the ball wide, instead of using Modric or Kovacic (who had dropped deep to overload the press). This frustrated Modric to no end (who wasn’t afraid to voice his displeasure to his teammates) and often helped Gijón’s press succeed unnecessarily.
Both these characteristics occurred with greater frequency in the final stages of the game, where Madrid’s players lost their cool under the renewed vigor of Sporting Gijón’s press. Considering the lax mentality that Los Blancos entered the match with, it perhaps should’ve been expected for Madrid to lose their concentration when they needed it the most.
Nevertheless, when Madrid did follow their successful formula, the results proved to be spectacular - as proved by their second goal:
Play started from a throw-in deep inside Madrid’s own half. Benzema and James combined after Nacho’s throw, before switching play to progress Madrid into the final third. From there, Ronaldo and co. worked the ball over to the left, before Kovacic zipped in a vertical pass to James, who played a one-two with Benzema before squaring the ball wide to soon to be assister Nacho Fernández. The resulting cross and diving header were glorious.
Real Madrid’s Defensive Compactness vs. Sporting Gijón’s Penetration
As usual, one of Madrid’s biggest problems was keeping defensive compactness, something that is probably Zidane’s greatest weakness when not playing against big sides. Of course, it didn’t help that Madrid were missing Casemiro, but these issues are often present even when the big Brazilian plays.
The main problem was Modric’s and Kovacic’s defensive positioning, a weak point for both players. While they generally managed to keep compact when Gijón attacked them in slow build-up, any attack that happened in transition always troubled the Croatian double-pivot. This was because Modric and Kovacic would often step out of their midfield line in order to execute a tackle to hinder a fast break, thus leaving a pocket of space in behind them that could be exploited by a smart off-the-ball run.
This not only allowed Sporting to try decent quality shots with no pressure from outside the box (something that Navas did well to parry away), but also allowed them to execute a high number of passing combinations in the final third.
Select Player Performances
Once again, the furiously declining, extremely overrated, and useless Cristiano Ronaldo was the clear man of the match. His movement off-the-ball as a left forward in Zidane’s 4-4-2 was simply superb, as he move all across the pitch to link play and provide penetration in the final third.
More importantly, he scored Madrid’s two goals on the night - one a cool penalty and the other a spectacular diving header.
Ronaldo's World Class movement inside the box - fakes one way to create space for a free header. Most underrated aspect of his game. pic.twitter.com/IuoXBdt9FY— Om Arvind (@OmVArvind) November 26, 2016
Key Statistics: 52 touches, 2 goals, 5/7 shots on target, 4 key passes, 1 dribble, 4 fouls drawn, 2/4 accurate crosses.
Benzema had a very quiet game and was close to invisible in the first half.
Part of this was due to some structural issues that will be elaborated on under the Bits & Pieces section, but it cannot be denied that Benzema’s off-the-ball movement was often lethargic. However, his one contribution in the first half proved to be crucial in creating Madrid’s second goal, as he worked with James to beat Gijón’s press and set-up Nacho.
He managed to improve significantly in the second half, as he picked up 22 touches and managed two shots inside the box, but his performance paled in comparison to Ronaldo’s.
Key Statistics: 29 touches, 1/2 shots on target, 1 foul drawn, 2 tackles.
Mateo Kovacic quietly had a very solid performance in central midfield. His hustling work-rate, excellent ball control, and superb passing were all crucial for Madrid’s attack, as he used those qualities to provide his side with ball retention and penetration in the final third. His brilliant vertical pass to James to open up Gijón, before Nacho crossed the ball to Ronaldo for Madrid’s second goal, was the highlight of his night.
His only downside was his inability to keep vertical compactness with his defensive line on a consistent basis.
Key Statistics: 69 touches, 2 key passes, 5 dribbles, 49/54 passed completed, 3 fouls drawn, 2 tackles, 1 interception.
Bits & Pieces
While Madrid were strong in possession and displayed better penetration than usual, there were some problems that resulted out of Zidane’s necessary rotations ahead of El Clásico. James’ inclusion in the lineup was important for the player after several matches spent on the bench, but he would’ve been better utilized as a right midfielder. Due to his one-footedness, he drifted inside more than central midfielder Kovacic, often clogging the spaces that Benzema occupied. Not only did this make James less effective, but it also probably played a role in reducing Benzema’s influence.
Danilo and the rest of the backline had some really shoddy concentration that simply shouldn’t exist in the opening minutes of any match.
The above moment could’ve easily resulted in a goal for Sporting.
Modric gets frustrated at teammates just as much as Ronaldo yet no one notices it lol. Been especially annoyed today.— Om Arvind (@OmVArvind) November 26, 2016
Real Madrid weren’t perfect, but at the end of the day they deserved to win.