Zinedine Zidane took a very lax approach to today’s game, choosing to rest Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, and Luka Modric against 16th place Deportivo La Coruña. This attitude was reflected by his team, as they never once moved out of first or second gear until they were suddenly 2-1 down and in danger of losing the match.
Real Madrid’s Tactics in Possession
Nevertheless, Zidane did get several things right tactically, demonstrating his slow but sure improvement as a coach. There have been signs of this for a while now, but today it all came together rather nicely.
Real Madrid’s Build-up vs. Deportivo’s High Press
As is pretty much common nowadays, Real Madrid had to once again deal with a frisky opposition high press.
From Depor’s side, this meant that central attacking midfielder Colak would consistently join Andone to create a 4-4-2 defensive structure, which created numerical equality when pressing Real’s center backs. Gil and Babel would move up to loosely mark Real’s fullbacks, whilst defensive midfielders Guilherme and Borges looked to keep vertical compactness with their forward pressers.
But this pressure was often dissected pretty well, especially when Depor pressed all the way back to Navas.
This is because Real Madrid’s center backs often split wide, often causing hesitation in the minds of Andone and Colak as to whether they should press the keeper or stick with their man.
On several occasions this left Madrid with easy short passing options that would allow them to play through Depor’s press.
However, Navas only used these outlets to a moderate extent (which has been a consistent theme this season). In the above play, he ignores Ramos and punts a long ball to Nacho on the left-wing. While the pass was successful, Zidane would do well to instruct Navas to play the ball shorter when there is an obvious overload available to beat a press. Against tougher teams, Navas’ direct nature could lead to unnecessary losses of possesion.
As Real Madrid moved up the pitch, Marco Asensio and James would drop deep in the half spaces to provide vertical passing options that Pepe, Ramos, Casemiro, and Kroos could use. Isco would occasionally do this as well when play circulated to a particular flank, thus creating passing triangles between him, Nacho/Danilo, and James/Asensio.
The success of Madrid’s passing against a relatively organized high press can be seen above, with Real showing much stronger connections on the left side. This was due to several things:
- Kroos is Madrid’s regista, and therefore he demands the ball in order to control Real’s play. Since he was a left central midfielder, ball circulation skewed to his side.
- Casemiro didn’t offer the same passing skill as Kroos, which explains the weaker passing connections surrounding the Brazilian (thin line to Isco, almost nothing to Danilo and Asensio) and therefore the right-hand side of the pitch.
- Pepe chose to avoid Casemiro in build-up in favor of Danilo.
But despite their skewed passing connections, the All Whites were rarely caught out by Depor’s press with the exception of one occasion.
Casemiro once again showed his weakness under pressure, giving the ball away right in front of his own box and conceding a goal.
Real Madrid’s Offensive Struggles
Nevertheless, one individual’s mistake does not change the fact that Madrid’s collective press resistance plan was successful in getting the ball into the final third plenty of times.
As usual, Real Madrid focused on getting the ball to the flanks in order to make use of the bombarding runs of Nacho and Danilo.
While this often occurs through mainly long switches of play, the pass-map in the attacking third shows that there were actually pretty good transitional links from the middle that allowed Madrid to play their way from flank to flank with greater accuracy.
This phenomena can easily be explained by the presence of several natural No. 10’s (James, Isco, Asensio) in the squad, who are incredibly used to hovering in and around zone 14 to link play from one wing to another.
But despite these links and all of Madrid’s solid build-up, their offense was seriously inept.
This can be put down to one main factor - lack of positioning in-between the lines (though the absence of intensity and urgency for most of the match also played a role).
As can be seen in the above snapshot, James, Morata, and Asensio are all looking to play off-the-shoulder of the defender. Isco is the only one in-between the midfield and the defensive line, but there is no possible way he can receive the ball from Nacho.
This was not some sort of isolated occurrence that has been taken out of context. This happened every single time Madrid looked to progress from the middle third to the final third of the pitch.
Against an organized 4-4-2 defensive structure, it is going to be extremely hard to play passes through balls that mean to break a defensive line, which is exactly what Isco is asking Casemiro to do in this situation. For obvious reasons, the Brazilian turns away and passes to Sergio Ramos.
In the above snapshot, the same problem exists; there is utterly no presence in-between the lines.
Some might blame Morata here, as he is a bit lazy in getting back, but it must be noted that it is his instinct as a central striker to play off-the-shoulder of a defender (in other words, this bad possessional structure isn’t really his fault).
What is more worrisome is the fact that Isco stays stuck to his marker whilst James overcorrects by dropping much too deep.
The negatives of such positioning manifests in the above snapshot, as Depor’s midfielders are left free to press Kroos and Casemiro and therefore force the ball backwards.
As a result the ball is played wide and Madrid are now stuck on the wings.
There was a lot to digest in the above play, so let me explain some key points further, namely the idea that Depor’s midfielders were “left free to press.”
Depor’s midfielders are left free to press Kroos and Casemiro
The term that best gets at explaining the above observation is occupation. In the way I am using it, it refers to how many defensive players an opposition player demands the attention of.
In Real Madrid’s context, all of their players are looking to make off-the-shoulder runs, meaning they occupy only one defender.
If they dropped five yards deeper, so that they were spaced in-between the midfield and defensive line, they would then be able to occupy two players at the very least.
This above is true because such positioning would immediately force the opposition to ask the question, “which defensive line marks who?” If the defense tries to stay near their men by stepping up the pitch, they create a higher defensive line that can easily be exploited by a long ball. If the midfield decide to step back, they offer space for Madrid’s central midfielders to drive forward. If the midfield and defensive line stay in place, the cleverly positioned attackers can receive a pass in space and in the middle channel of the pitch.
But getting back to the original point I made earlier:
In Depor’s case, such positioning would also confuse their pressing system, as any movement made by the midfielders to press would leave a free man to pass to. Such a tactical conundrum would probably pin Depor’s midfield line back and allow Madrid’s central midfielders to pick penetrative passes with greater time and accuracy.
If you still haven’t really understood what I’m saying, professional analyst and coach Stevie Grieve explains this topic in-depth in the video below (around the 4:10 mark).
But since Zidane did not employ positioning in-between the lines, Depor found it rather easy to prevent Los Merengues from creating high quality chances.
Thus, it was no surprise that Madrid’s first goal came from a low xG-value shot from outside the box, virtue of some brilliance from Alvaro Morata.
In the end, Zidane’s strategy of ignoring the center to put crosses in the box was vindicated, thanks to some heroics from Mariano and Sergio Ramos, but he would be wise to diversify Madrid’s attack in the future.
Real Madrid’s Pressing
Despite the fact that Los Blancos conceded two goals, it would be harsh to criticize Zidane’s defensive tactics, as Depor’s strikes were down to individual mistakes. Besides, other than those two goal-scoring opportunities, the visiting side created almost nothing.
This was mainly due to the implementation of something that Zidane has recently improved on - a high press.
This system worked exactly the same way as it did vs. Borussia Dortmund when Madrid pressed up to the keeper; Morata closed in on Tyton and blocked off central passing lanes using a cover shadow, while James and Asensio marked the opposition fullbacks.
If Depor managed to move the ball into the middle third, Madrid formed a 4-1-4-1 defensive structure that looked to assert vertical compactness via Casemiro and horizontal compactness through a four-man midfield line.
Madrid would sit in this defensive block until Kroos, the pressing trigger, chose to break from his ranks and pursue the ball.
In order to protect the space he left behind, Kroos would intelligently run at an angle and position his body in order to create an effective cover shadow.
This would force play wide and either Asensio or James would close down Depor’s winger or fullback in order to force play back. Kroos would continue to push forward (making sure he kept central passing options in his cover shadow) in order to apply pressure with Morata, in a 4-4-2 defensive structure, with the objective of buying Madrid time to push up the pitch and therefore push Depor back.
However, it is important to notice that Casemiro never pushed up to provide horizontal compactness with his midfield line. While this can be risky if the forward pressers don’t provide the right cover shadows, Casemiro’s deeper positioning ensures permanent vertical compactness.
Once play moved away from Kroos’ side, Morata would cover the German’s abandoned space with an angled run of his own, thus forcing play wide again.
Usually whenever Madrid tried this in the past, they were burned through the center due to the frankly amateurish provision of cover shadows by the man breaking compactness and his partnering forward.
But, after a long time, it finally looks like Zidane has managed to build a disciplined pressing side that can finally control the game without the ball.
Bits & Pieces
Sergio Ramos is a maddening player...
...that we would probably all hate if he wasn’t the clutchest dude in the history of sports.
A new position needs to be invented for Sergio Ramos on @FootballManager: "Defensor Ofensivo" or some shit like that.— Om Arvind (@OmVArvind) December 10, 2016
Dabbing is dumb and ruins celebrations and IDK why anyone does it.
Zidane’s decision to move to a back three in order give more offensive freedom to Marcelo was a solid decision (seeing as that theoretically maximizes Real Madrid’s ability to put more crosses into the box), but it’s a little disturbing to see that Zidane’s solution is to always look for more crosses.
Morata currently has 7 goals for Real Madrid in only 769 minutes of football. 4 of them have been crucial to Los Blancos’ good results.
MARCA:— M•A•J (@UItraSuristic) December 10, 2016
Another comeback header by Sergio in the '90thRamos' minute!
Zidane holds the new Madrid record of 35 unbeaten! pic.twitter.com/heCOKkEKIW
Despite what the critics et al. say, the Zidane machine continues to roll on.