Lack of a Designated Striker Hurt Real Madrid
Going into this match I was immediately surprised to see a front three of Jese-Ronaldo-Isco in the starting line-up. If there was anything the sporting world had learned from Benitez’s reign, it was that Isco could not play on the right-wing. But I soon realized that playing Isco as a right-winger was not Zidane’s intention. With Isco’s brilliant dribble into the box and opening set of movements, I quickly inferred that he was playing as a false nine. But then Isco started drifting to each flank, forcing Ronaldo and Jese to take up more central positions. Zidane’s post match comments soon confirmed what I only later realized; Isco was not playing as a striker.
Zinedine Zidane: "Isco was not our forward today. I did not make all my subs because I saw that nothing would change." #HalaMadrid— RMadridHome (@RMadridHome) February 21, 2016
In fact, no one was playing as a striker at all.
The heatmap above shows all of Madrid’s attackers isolated to the wings. There was no central-focal point for Madrid’s attack. Zidane came into this match gambling that playing a front three of quality individuals would be enough, but a better tactical plan was needed. The fluid interchange of Jese, Ronaldo, and Isco seemed to work initially, but as the game drew on, such movement will soon reverted to instinct. With a frenetic game against one of La Liga’s stingiest defenses, there was simply no time for the front three to carefully deliberate the movements they needed to make in order to ensure there was attacking balance. This problem was exacerbated by the fact that Zidane didn’t seem to have designated the center forward responsibility to any one player. This was a big tactical bloop by Zidane that had bigger implications beyond stunting the effectiveness of the attack.
The lack of a central presence up top made it very hard for Madrid to find an outlet for possession. With Málaga pressing like maniacs, it was unviable for Modric, Kroos, and Kovacic to pass the ball between themselves in order to retain control of the game. They needed a Benzema-esque player to play the ball to in order to beat the press and work the ball up the field. With no Madrid player seemingly comfortable enough to be the outlet man in the center, Madrid’s CM’s switched the ball wide instead.
Kroos in particular took responsibility for this and launched the ball wide 11 times in order to kickstart something up front.
While this took some smart adjusting from the likes of Modric and Kroos, being forced to only knock the ball wide stunted Madrid’s creativity. Again, with no center forward, there was little ability to play the ball through the middle of the attacking third. This forced Madrid to attempt a maddening 30 crosses in an effort to break Málaga down.
Against the 4th best defensive unit in La Liga, that simply will not do. But things became even worse when Madrid went behind in the match, as the All Whites executed nearly half of their net total of crosses from the 65th minute onwards.
The argument that Madrid lacked a cohesive offensive plan without Benzema in this game, becomes even more evident when you consider the fact that the only other way Madrid could create chances was through individual play. Isco and Jese were constantly trying beat their man (with varying degrees of success) throughout the match, Ronaldo had to make an unnecessary lung-bursting charge up the middle third of the pitch (near the end of the match) because passing options were poor, Vazquez came on and attempted 4 take-ons, and Marcelo and Carvajal were charging up and down the flank trying to weave through defenders in order to cross or shoot. The take-on chart below shows just how many times Madrid tried to break Málaga down as individuals rather than as a team
Who would have thought that the loss of one player would have such a huge affect?
Málaga’s game plan worked wonders
By now, pretty much every team on the planet knows Madrid’s weakness when Los Blancos play away. Press hard and play with passion, and you are likely to get a result against the capital side. Málaga followed that strategy to the tee and deserved to come away with the 3 points.
Playing the game in a 4-4-2, Málaga lined up in a defensively stable shape and looked to create their chances through proactive defense. Hunting in packs, the center forwards in Charles and Cop instigated the press by pressuring Madrid’s back line intensely. They saw instant results, as Ramos played a poor back pass to Navas in the opening minutes of the game. As the match stretched on, Málaga’s frontmen saw support come from their wingers in Juanpi and Horta, and their central midfielders in Recio and Camacho. It was a slightly risky strategy, but Madrid were never able to properly punish Málaga on the counter due to poor passing and the lack of a proper CF. The results of Málaga's bold strategy were clear, as they won 7 out of 11 tackles in Madrid’s half and created several scoring opportunities for their forwards.
Málaga’s profligacy was the only thing that held them back in this game.
Bits and Pieces
I thought Kovacic would be a perfect fit for this game as he brings the requisite energy, dribbling, and defensive work rate to thrive in high-tempo games. But Kovacic was terrible today, as he was dispossessed twice and gave the ball away a further 3 times, putting immense pressure on his back-line. Not a good day for the Croatian.
The goal Málaga scored was preventable. The cross to Albentosa beat 3 poorly positioned Madrid defenders before it was smashed into the back of the net.
Ronaldo had a weird game. He scored a magnificent header (albeit from an offside position), won a penalty with some nifty footwork, and then missed it. Aside from those moments, he was good with the ball at his feet, as he registered 3 dribbles and managed to create shooting angles single-handedly at times. But he was never able to register the off-the-ball movement that would’ve helped Madrid win this game. All in all, not a great way to try to prolong a good run of form.
Carlos Kameni and Keylor Navas both had insane games, proving why they are two of the best goalkeepers in La Liga.
The La Liga title race is OVER.