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Real Madrid 3 - 0 Villarreal (La Liga): Tactical Review

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An analysis of the intriguing tactical battle between Zidane's press and Marcelino's block (among other things).

Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Villarreal’s Organized Defense Made Things Tough for Real Madrid

From the first whistle to the last, the Yellow Submarines were a disciplined and compact side that forced Real to sweat for every goal they scored. Villarreal did this by playing the game in a defensive 4-4-2, with Suarez, Bruno, Trigueros, and Santos forming a medium to low block in front of their defense. They sat somewhat narrow, conceding the flanks to Madrid, thus making it incredibly difficult to pick out key passes through the middle of the final third.

Few passes penetrated the area around the box let alone the box itself.

Few passes penetrated the area around the box, let alone the box itself.

This forced Real to pummel crosses into the box in search of a goal, and while this worked in crucial moments, on another day Villarreal might have managed to shut the Royal Whites out.

Real Madrid's crossing strategy nearly didn't work.

Real Madrid's crossing strategy was largely ineffective, but came through in the end.

This disciplined approach forced Madrid to try to break down Villarreal’s defense in more indirect ways.

As can be seen above, Real tried to switch the ball from flank to flank in order to destabilize the structure of Villarreal’s somewhat narrow defensive block. But it didn’t work, as the spacing between each midfielder proved to be perfect as Villarreal shuttled from wing to wing and kept their shape with ease. Thus, for most of the 1st half and for a large part of the second half, Real Madrid had useless possession, as the ball circulated from player to player until it was lost.

Yet to Real's benefit, it almost seemed like Villarreal’s defensive stability compromised their attacking potential. Surely when sitting so deep it was unrealistic to expect Villarreal to create anything? While this might be the conventional belief, it wasn't perfectly true, as while Villarreal’s cautious approach definitely hindered their attacking potential, they were still set-up to score (theoretically).

As can be seen on the heatmap, wingers Suarez and Santos were positioned surprisingly high for a team that seemingly had no intention of scoring. This along with evidence matched with careful observation, tells us that Villarreal were always trying to counter-attack with 4 players. This was a bold scheme meant to create overloads on Madrid’s empty flanks, but Zidane ensured that it never came to fruition.

Real Madrid’s Press is Becoming Zidane’s Go-To Containment Strategy

In the first 3 minutes of the match, Zidane implemented a press akin to what was seen in the second leg of the Wolfsburg game. Ronaldo, Benzema, and one of three central midfielders hounded Villarreal’s defense and midfield, looking to blitz a goal early on. But as the opposition began to exploit the space left behind by such a risky scheme, Zidane quickly called his players back and shifted the responsibility of the press from the front line to the midfield. Employing Casemiro in an advanced destroyer role (thus the reasoning behind him being played in line with Toni Kroos and Luka Modric rather than behind them), Zidane used his midfield to contain Villarreal in the middle third of the pitch. Every time the Yellow Submarine tried to break, Madrid’s midfielders closed in like a gladiator’s net and won the ball. When the fullbacks joined in, Villarreal really had no chance of escaping the cobweb Zidane had spun around them, like a spider prepping a fly for the kill.

Look at the little work the CB's had to do in comparison to the FB's and CM's. Danilo was the defensive beast on the night, and was ably supported by Casemiro, Modric, and Kroos.

Look at the small amount of work the CB's had to do in comparison to the FB's and CM's. Danilo was the defensive beast of the night, and was ably supported by Casemiro, Modric, and Kroos.

This idea was not only to prevent Villarreal from threatening Real's goal, but also to ensure that Los Blancos had as much time as possible to probe a resolute defensive wall. The strategy was vindicated as Real ended up scoring 2 goals late in the match as their pressure finally told.

But such a game plan also has its risks, as Villarreal began to break through the trap with more frequency in the second half. The obvious reason for this is because of fitness. Spectators often forget this, but pressing is an exhausting art form of the game. It not only takes immense physical energy, but it also takes a truly elite level of mental focus. As any good coach will tell you, when you’re tired, your mind is the first to go. Passes will fly astray, your positioning will waver, and you’ll misconnect with balls more often. And even though Real’s players are amazingly fit, they are still human and will make mistakes. Signs of that showed as Madrid became half a second to slow when tackling or intercepting on some attacks in the second half.

But this plan isn’t only risky because of its predication on fitness, it’s also risky because this plan hinges on Casemiro. As Madrid’s only true CDM, he’s the man best qualified to lead Zidane’s press, but in many ways he’s also not ideal. Playing as an advanced defensive midfielder requires an excellent understanding of the nuances of positioning and demands excellent decision-making. Those two aspects of the game are arguably Casemiro’s two biggest weaknesses, and the latter especially showed as Casemiro made 3 fouls, resulting in 2 yellow cards (one was wrongly given to Danilo). Probably better at sitting back where his suspect positioning becomes less of a problem, teams could take advantage of Casemiro pushing up, by closing him down immediately every time he wins the ball. This counter-pressing strategy would not be easy to implement, but if worked correctly, it could have massive positive benefits. With Casemiro’s weakness under pressure making him easy to tackle, teams could win the ball and bypass Madrid’s entire defensive line along with our fullbacks. This could create ridiculous overloads that would lead to inevitable goalscoring opportunities. While this plan remains theoretical, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that one of our remaining opponents (most notably the underrated Manuel Pelligrini) will devise such a plan and execute it. While it will be difficult for Pelligrini to do in such a short time, Zidane has to prepare for any tactic he could face in order to win trophies.

Ronaldo and Benzema’s Quality was Key in Attack

But all of this pressing and tackling would’ve been useless had there been no attacking moves at the end of them. In this respect Ronaldo and Benzema were essential tonight, as Ronaldo made the difference with the ball and Benzema made the difference without it. For all the complaints about Ronaldo’s inability to take players on, he completed 4 dribbles for the second consecutive game and truly tortured Villarreal with his footwork. He was the only one that was able to break down Villarreal’s defensive lines and he did so with a purpose that saw him take over the latter stages of the first half. With the desire to see Madrid get the breakthrough, he made the decisive move of the game in the 41st minute. Running at the terrified Villarreal fullback, Ronaldo accelerated before shifting the ball inside and then outside again. Leaving his marker stranded for a fraction of a second, Ronaldo created the space he needed to pummel a cross into the box. Luck played its role as the keeper’s clearance landed straight to Benzema and then later into the net, but there is no doubt that Ronaldo was crucial to the creation of the chance. Such a game continues Ronaldo’s good run of form come the crucial end of the season. His upturn in fortunes since the arrival of Zidane has been truly scintillating, as he has returned to executing the all-round performances that we have all come to love. But most impressive has been his improvement in dribbling, moving from an average of 1 dribble per 90 minutes at the end of Rafa’s reign, to the current average of 1.4 dribbles game (this is not a separate average from Rafa's time with with the club, it includes the games Ronaldo spent under this manager).

Benzema wasn’t nearly as present as Ronaldo in terms of taking on defenders, but he was just as important for what he did off-the-ball.

Looking at his supremely balanced heatmap, you can see that Benzema was the foil and sounding board for any Madrid attack. He dropped deep to receive the ball, selflessly ran into channels to create space, offered attacking options in the box, and linked up with players all over the pitch. He also had a hand in Madrid’s 1st two goals, as he was the beneficiary of Ronaldo’s fantastic piece of playmaking and was the creator of Lucas Vazquez’s goal. It was a truly complete performance and at this point, I’ve lost all faith in Madrid fans who still think we should sell him for someone like Aguero or Lewandowski (or even worse, Jamie Vardy).

Oh, and there’s also this not so important stat:

Zinedine Zidane’s Man-management Abilities are Becoming Legendary

First there was the boost after Benitez left, then the El Clásico win that destabilized Barcelona and lent a hand to their recent collapse, then there was the Wolfsburg comeback, and now today we saw him in action again (well, we didn’t see him). Madrid struggled to find any sort of flow or rhythm in the first half, isolating their moments of attacking genius to individual runs from Ronaldo. But in the opening phase of the second half, Madrid came out firing, dominating Villarreal and pounding them with shots. This was clearly due to the work of Zidane at half time, who by now has a proven track record (in less than half a season mind you) of being a man-managing genius akin to Carlo Ancelotti. As things stand now, Real Madrid are playing with a 12th man, as the energy and vivacity Zidane injects into this team in key moments of games is extremely similar to the way a substitute comes onto the pitch in order to change things.

Bits & Pieces

Lucas Vazquez scored a brilliant individual goal and I’m sure every Madridista in the world is happy for him. He’s such a hard worker and a role model for every aspiring player around the world. I wouldn’t mind having this guy for the next decade.

Luka Modric was the man of the match. From making 4 interceptions, to completing 9 out of 11 long balls, to creating 5 key passes, and to scoring once from 3 shots, Modric had a complete performance and absolutely dominated the pitch in a way that maybe only Toni Kroos can at the moment.

Navas once again made a clutch save as he thwarted Villarreal’s most dangerous counter-attack in a key time in the match. What makes this save especially impressive, was the fact that Navas had no help from Ramos, because his captain was nonchalantly jogging back to defend after blazing up the pitch at a 100 mph only seconds before.

Danilo made a brilliant cross for Real Madrid's third goal and was solid throughout in a crucial game. But, but, "Danilo bottles big matches and Arbeloa is better."

La Liga referees can’t even tell the difference between players anymore...

Why can't Kovacic seem to get a minute?

(All stats & charts taken from whoscored.com & FourFourTwo statszone)