The Flow of the Game
Right from the off, the game moved at a rapid pace, with the ball switching from end-to-end constantly. Madrid embraced this and adopted an extremely fluid asymmetric structure, with James playing almost as a wide playmaker, Kroos and Casemiro as central midfielders, and Ronaldo as a left forward next to Mayoral. This fluidity allowed Real Madrid to maximize their threat on the counter, as the majority of Madrid's attacks were carried forward by Lucas Vázquez (especially in the first half). However, Madrid’s lack of structure in midfield ensured that Los Blancos never had control of the game. They only had a slight majority of the possession and completed only 62 more passes than Levante.
In addition to this Madrid piled on long-ball after long-ball, clearly looking to win the game off low percentage passes and counter attacks.
This was not a very Zidane way of playing, but it was calculated unattractiveness and a necessary adjustment with so many key personnel missing.
End-Product and Lack of Movement Off-the-Ball
But while the approach was good, there definitely was a problem with the final ball and Madrid’s ability to break down Levante.
Only 2 completed crosses out of 31 crosses is poor, and is partly down to the weak deliveries from the entire team. But there was also a distinct lack of movement off-the-ball that was conducive to breaking down Levante, especially in the first half (24 out of the 31 came in the 1st 45 minutes). Madrid often broke with speed and reached the Levante final third, only to dally on the ball or whip the ball into the box towards the waiting figures of Ronaldo and Mayoral. While the aforementioned duo are definitely entitled to prowl the penalty area, the man closer to the ball needs to vary his runs to put Levante’s defense on the back foot. That man on many occasions was Mayoral, but since this is only his 3rd game in the first team, he can easily be forgiven for not seamlessly fitting into the system and for playing a traditional striker's role. Ronaldo eventually began to make up for this in the second half, as he drifted around the pitch, dragging defenders out of position and creating space for his teammates. This paid off handsomely in the dying embers of the match, when Ronaldo made a superb run into the channel and assisted Isco for Madrid’s 3rd goal. That one move illustrates how Real need to tackle teams who sit back like Levante did. The mantra from now on has to be, "off-the-ball movement".
That being said, Madrid were without Benzema, Bale, Modric, Marcelo, Ramos, and Carvajal. So Zidane’s number one goal was to get the three points, and he accomplished that. Kudos to him.
James did tons of work in his roaming playmaker role. He made a match high 7 tackles, made 3 key passes, completed 5 out of 6 long balls, attempted 9 crosses, and 2 shots. However, for all that huffing and puffing, his end-product was poor. Only 1 of his 9 crosses found their target and he wasn’t able to make a consistent impact in the final third of the pitch, other than a good shot and a couple clever passes. Additionally, his positional play was also a bit off.
For a player so good at balancing his role shuttling from the center of midfield to the wing, James stuck to the flanks too much, making it hard for Madrid to retain the ball. This put a lot of pressure on Kroos to gallop across the park to be available for passes.
Lucas also did tons of work today, as he made 5 tackles, intercepted 4 passes, attempted 8 crosses, made 2 key passes and completed 4 dribbles down the right flank for Madrid. But like James, a lot of it was huffing and puffing without too much end-product. However, he did make a decisive contribution in the game, as he drew a penalty with his quick feet, and allowed Ronaldo to open the scoring. All in all a good game from the Spaniard, who did everything that could be asked of him.
While this performance wasn’t vintage Ronaldo, the Portuguese superstar was still very good today. He was essentially Madrid’s offensive firepower up front, contributing 9 shots out of Real’s total of 21. The Levante defense simply could not live with his movement inside the box and later on, his movement into channels, thus making it a surprise that Ronaldo didn’t pick up a hat-trick with the opportunities he conjured. Despite these positives, he did make some loose passes that hindered Madrid’s effectiveness on the counter. But overall, it was a solid day for Ronaldo.
I am fan of the Brazilian, but he didn’t shine today. His positional play was consistently suspect as he lunged into challenge after challenge, giving away 4 fouls and exposing Madrid’s defense on occasion. Additionally, his decision-making was rather poor, as he attempted to take shots from ridiculous distances, instead of passing the ball. However, it must be noticed that his combativeness did serve to break up some of Levante’s play, so it’s not like he was terrible. He just won’t have convinced Zidane that he is ready to start more matches when Modric and Kroos are both fit.
He only got 21 touches of the ball, but boy did he make it count. He will be disappointed to see his strike go down as an own goal, but he should take heart from the fact that his shot was ridiculously good for a player back-tracking with little space to shoot. Like I said earlier, his movement could’ve been better, but it’s still very early days for the youngster and there is really only positives to take from this personal performance.