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Real Madrid vs. Espanyol (La Liga; 6-0): Tactical Observations

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An analysis of the Espanyol match, but also an explanation of why Madrid's fullbacks are the key to everything and why that is a double-edged sword.

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Real Madrid bounced back

After failing to meet the mark versus Real Betis, the Whites responded with an emphatic win vs Espanyol. Los Blancos smashed 6 past Arlauskis and created several other chances in a frenzied 90 minutes of football. It’s clear that Zidane got his side pumped up once again for a home match as every single one of Madrid’s players were razor sharp right from the off. Straight off the bat a pass was fired into Ronaldo, who laid the ball off to James beautifully, who created a chance that Marcelo skied. Only moments later, Ronaldo turned his markers with ease to sting the hands of Espanyol’s keeper. These 2 attacks happened in a rapid 3 minutes, signaling Madrid’s intent and the motivation of the home side. Such passion and focus is delightful for fans to see, however I am still waiting for this to carry over into an away match.

Real Madrid’s attacking tactics

The fullbacks are the key to everything

It is now absolutely clear that the Madrid’s fullbacks are critically important to Zidane’s game plan. Marcelo and Carvajal are playing in more advanced roles than they ever have before (as fullbacks; remember, Marcelo was actually a winger once), as they are being instructed to push up as high as possible to influence the game. Both fullbacks are clearly now the engines for their respective flanks, having possibly more responsibility than anyone on the team except for Toni Kroos. Marcelo and Carvajal are required to create the width for Real Madrid, spreading play to provide Madrid’s CM’s with the option to switch play. Once they receive the ball they have the responsibility of acting as wide playmakers and ball distributors, as their speed of thought and accuracy of passing is crucial to keep Madrid’s tempo ticking. Quite simply no play creates a chance without the ball first going through the fullbacks in build-up play. They are the creators-in-chief in the attacking third, with options to recycle possession, cross, dribble, or cut inside to shoot. Beyond that, they have to constantly create overloads, with selfless runs that drag away opposing defenders and ruin the opposition’s defensive shape. Not only does this give more space for the likes of Ronaldo and James, but it also leaves them one-on-one with defenders, something that is a dream scenario for both superstars. On the off-chance Carvajal or Marcelo receive the ball on an overlapping run, they will find themselves one-on-one with a fullback or clear in space to cross the ball to a waiting predator in Benz or proven goalscorer Cristiano Ronaldo.

If you still don’t believe that Madrid’s fullbacks are that critical to Zidane’s game plan, you only need to look back as far the Betis game to see how a bad day in the office for Madrid’s wide defenders negatively affected the team. Play became stagnant, the ball wasn’t distributed as effectively in the past, and unimaginative play resulted in cross after cross. Yet it can be argued that Madrid’s fullbacks were less effective due to the early offensive threat provided by Betis. The green and whites pushed forward like madmen, forcing Marcelo and Danilo to rethink their cavalier style of positioning.

Madrid have traded defensive stability for an ultra-attacking strategy

Which brings me to my next point, if teams apply the proper pressure down our flanks, Madrid’s offensive system is dismantled. Right now, Zidane is trying to play a hyper-offensive style in order to please the fans and defeat teams with the sheer firepower. But this won’t always work, as we saw versus Betis. If teams are gutsy and brave, and take the game to Madrid, they will find vast amounts of space to exploit on the flanks. This often leaves Toni Kroos exposed and overworked, making it very easy for skilled players to run at the back line. Madrid didn’t face the full force of such a weakness today, as Kroos made 2 interceptions managed to stem the tide of several other attacks. I am sure Zidane is aware of this problem, because there is no way someone as intelligent as he believes that he can play Marcelo and Carvajal as auxiliary wingers and still give them the time to track back and defend.

Check out how far Marcelo and Carvajal pushed up today

Check out how far Marcelo and Carvajal pushed up today

The problem is that Zidane doesn’t seem bothered by this at all. It is evident in his unwillingness to hinder Marcelo and Carvajal’s attacking movement even a touch, and in his substitution of Jese for Modric. Sure, Madrid were 4-0 up, but at that point keeping a clean sheet is the most important thing. Espanyol had 16 shots (yes, you heard that right, sixteen), with 5 of them forcing Navas into emergency action. That is not good enough and Zidane has to find a better balance between Madrid’s attacking and defensive mentalities, lest they be blown away by Barcelona the next time they meet.

But Madrid have longer-term worries surrounding this hyper-offensive style beyond a big loss vs. Barcelona. Right now Zidane is trying to defend from the front, with Madrid’s front line engaged in earnest pressing, and a supporting cast of 2 central midfielders arriving seconds later. This "hunting in packs" strategy, as it is often called, is not inherently a weakness. In fact, when employed properly, it makes life miserable for the opposition and creates enough chances to win a game comfortably solely through tackles in the opposition’s defensive third. But my worry is that Zidane is throwing all his eggs in one basket with this high-octane pressing strategy. Since Madrid press so high up the pitch and leave only two men at the back, there is immense pressure on Madrid’s central midfielders to burst their lungs running from flank to flank in order to give Los Merengues some defensive integrity.

A high line like this has inherent weaknesses

A high line like this has inherent weaknesses

Things will be fine now, as everyone is mentally buoyed by Zidane’s fresh methods and is very fit, but it is highly feasible that the squad experiences a burnout come the tail-end of the season. Zidane has partly addressed this by reportedly instituting a new rigorous fitness routine, but that will only help his players till a point. Only vigorous rotations, something that Zidane doesn’t seem too keen on (at least at this point in time), will make this system somewhat physically sustainable.

Things Zidane can do that will make an immediate impact.

The defense for Zidane might be that "it’s only been 4 games" and that "he still needs more time." That is a valid argument, and I don’t deny Zidane needs all the patience in the world, but some of the tactical decisions he has made are easily reversible and need almost no time to implement. Madrid have not come close to looking defensively solid under Zidane’s reign and that is something he has to address now. One step that can be put into immediate effect is the positioning of his fullbacks. It isn’t hard to have a chat with Marcelo and Carvajal and ask them to stay back more, or be more cautious with their positioning. Such small tweaks will have an immediate impact for Madrid, and so far Zidane has ignored making these obvious changes. Also, it’s time for Zidane to start trying some rotations. 4 games are in the bag and the likes of Kovacic and Casemiro must be starting to feel a little rusty. Substitutions when the match is practically over aren’t enough anymore. Additionally, this needs to happen not only for the wellbeing of Zidane’s players, but because if the Frenchman wants to continue his pressing strategy, as I stated before, he needs to rest his starters appropriately. Ronaldo’s played every game this season in La Liga. Time for a rest? Modric? Kroos?

Special Mention: Cristiano Ronaldo

In my preview for this game, I put the spotlight on Ronaldo for the poor season he’s been having for Madrid, and said that he needed to step up his game starting versus Espanyol. Well he must have been listening to me, because that is exactly what he did today. He clearly played his best match of the season, as he tortured defenders with moves from the past, enabling him to complete 4 dribbles and draw 3 fouls. In addition to his tricks, he made 3 key passes, completed a cross, and maintained a pass accuracy higher than 85%, all while scoring a penalty and a header that sandwiched a wonder goal that oozed class. But despite all of this, my optimism for Ronaldo remains cautious. We will have to wait and see if this man of the match performance translates into either: a consistent run of form that leads to a good performance against a top side, or another false start that peters out disappointingly.

(All statistics and charts taken from whoscored.com)