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Real Madrid 3 – 2 Valencia (La Liga): Tactical Review

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An analysis of Real Madrid's terrible vertical and horizontal compactness, Real Madrid's midfield trio, and the flow of the game.

Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Toni Kroos Held Real Madrid’s Midfield Together

Zidane opted for a Kroos-Casemiro-James midfield, something that should never be chosen in the future. While James truly works hard in his central midfield role, his place as a CM simply isn’t viable in the bigger games. James doesn’t have the right mentalities to sit back and dictate play in the same way that Isco or Kovacic can. He should be positioned in the attacking third of the pitch because that is where he naturally wants to make an impact, as seen by his 5 key passes and 5 attempted crosses. While those figures coupled with his assist for Cristiano Ronaldo might be enough for some to justify Zidane’s decision to start him, James’ class in the final third of the pitch did little to help Real control the game.

His passing map demonstrates a player who was involved in the game, but not someone who was truly controlling Real Madrid’s passing play.

Casemiro for his part offers strength in the defensive third of the pitch, but obviously offers little in terms of ball distribution and control of the game.

His passing map shows this and should’ve been obvious to Zidane.

This left Toni Kroos completely on his own when it came to dictating the flow of the game. While he clearly looked stretched at times, he executed his job extremely well.

His passing map shows organization and incision (7 out of 8 long balls completed), combined with an excellent passing accuracy of 97.3% (a team high), while his heatmap shows a player who ran all over midfield.

The game clearly flowed through Kroos as everyone on the team looked to pass the ball to him, which Kroos used to often connect with Danilo and Lucas on the right flank – Madrid’s main attacking channel. While this allowed Real Madrid’s attack to stay functional, Kroos truly missed his regular partner in Luka Modric, who would’ve shouldered some of the burden of distributing play. For the first 25 minutes the only attacking plays created came from the boot of Kroos, as Valencia effectively stifled Real’s lethargic sense of purpose in the final third.

Attacking third passes in the 1st half were completed with an accuracy of only 73%

1st half attacking third passes were completed with an accuracy of only 73%

Ronaldo’s goal changed this, providing a boost of morale that allowed Real’s individual quality in James and Marcelo to take over. But alas, this was only enough to help Real Madrid control the first half of the game.

Zidane’s Tactics Were All Wrong

As stated before, the decision to field the midfield three of Kroos-Casemiro-James was a poor decision that hurt Real Madrid’s chances of controlling the game. While Kroos managed to hold things together in the first half, Real Madrid’s entire structure fell apart in the second period of play. Valencia instigated an end-to-end style that blew the game wide open, something that should’ve set off alarm bells in Zidane’s head, as Madrid were already 2-0 up. Instead, Zidane was comfortable to let his team engage in this open and fast style of football, doing nothing to instruct his team to slow down the tempo. It probably didn’t help that two of his central midfielders – James and Casemiro – do not possess the natural mentality to engage in slow possession football; since the former is an incisive attacking player and the latter is a defensive midfielder who’s passing strength lies in long balls.

Zidane seemed like he was addressing this issue when he brought on Kovacic for Benzema in the 65th minute, but after a couple minutes of slowish play, Real Madrid reverted to a chaotic style that benefitted Valencia. This is evidenced by the fact that Valencia out-shot us 12 to 5 in the second half, something that will be forgotten a week from now thanks to Casilla’s heroics. While some might try to absolve Zidane of blame in regard to Madrid’s style of play in the second half, one of the manager’s powers on the touchline is the ability to communicate the type of style that he wants executed on the pitch. It’s clear that Zidane didn’t see the problems Valencia were creating, as evidenced by his decision to bring Arbeloa on.

True, the introduction of the Spartan didn’t directly result in a goal conceded, but it was still a huge risk considering the way our tactics thoroughly suited Valencia in the second half. The risk might’ve paid off, but Zidane wasn’t thinking smart this match.

Real Madrid’s Vertical & Horizontal Compactness in Midfield was Terrible

Another problem with the Kroos-Casemiro-James midfield was the defensive structuring of the trio. It was absolutely terrible, as Valencia had several chances to attack Real Madrid’s defensive line with a simple vertical pass.

The left half space is completely unprotected thanks to Madrid's poor defensive structure in midfield

The left half space is completely unprotected thanks to Madrid's poor defensive structure in midfield

Looking at the first screenshot, Real Madrid’s compactness in both directions is absolutely criminal. Kroos is at the bottom of the screen on the far right of the pitch, while James is above Casemiro, who is also completely failing to cover the left half space. There is zero horizontal compactness in this screenshot, as none of the midfielders are remotely in line with each other, and there is no vertical compactness as there is a massive space between the midfield and defense.

Ronaldo sees the danger of this and goes to close down the player on the ball, but it isn’t enough. An easy vertical pass is slipped through Madrid’s entire midfield line, allowing Valencia to create a two vs. two situation on the right flank.

Poor compactness horizontally and vertically allows two Valencian players to hang out in the pocket

Poor compactness horizontally and vertically allows two Valencian players to hang out in the "pocket"

On this second screenshot the vertical spacing of Casemiro is perfect, while Kroos and James are too far from their defense. This allows a Valencia player to play a through ball that dissects Madrid’s entire midfield again. Thankfully, the pass was a bad one, not allowing Valencia to take advantage of a possible three vs. three situation through the middle.

Lack of vertical compactness leads to the left half space being totally undefended

Lack of vertical compactness leads to the left half space being totally undefended

This third screenshot is particularly annoying, because Real Madrid’s midfield nearly did half of their work right. The horizontal spacing between the midfield three is almost good, but Kroos is positioned too high, thus not allowing him to cover the left half space. But the vertical compactness is the real problem, providing massive pockets of space in between Real Madrid’s defense and midfield. This combined with the unprotected left half space, allows Valencia to play a simple through ball to a man who makes a run off-the-shoulder of Marcelo.

Terrible compactness all-round leaves the right space completely open, allowing Valencia to create a great chance

Terrible compactness all-round leaves the right half space completely open, allowing Valencia to create a great chance

For the last and final screenshot (for this section of the article at least), I have another example of putrid horizontal and vertical compactness. Kroos is the man highest up the pitch in this screenshot, and while it looks like he hasn’t done anything in this passage of play, he had been pressing the man on the ball only moments earlier. But the fact that only Kroos was doing it was a problem, as it drew the German out of position, immediately ruining the horizontal compactness of Real Madrid’s midfield line. Lucas steps in to make a challenge, but the damage is done, as a ball is played to a man in the pocket, who then passes the ball out wide, which results in Danilo being sent packing and a dangerous cross into the box. Vertical compactness would have helped stop this chance even with Kroos’ one-man press, but as you can see, only Casemiro is close to his defense, with Kovacic, James, and Lucas miles away from their back line.

These four screenshots weren’t the only moments in the game where things like this happened. Real Madrid’s midfield structure was consistently poor, and is something that Zidane needs to work on urgently with only one match before the Champions League Final. Either he needs to commit to a press with a high line or he needs to sit back properly and allow the opposition to dictate play so that his horizontal and vertical compactness stays intact. Atlético Madrid will make mincemeat of a midfield that allows them this much space.

Cristiano Ronaldo was the Game Breaker

Playing with a midfield that struggled to control the game, Ronaldo was truly efficient in his play today. He scored two goals, put all three of his shots on target, and created a key pass off of only 32 touches. His first goal was a particular beauty, as he received the ball from Marcelo and took on a Valencian defender. Using his raw pace, Ronaldo created room for a shot and punished the opposition from range with his deadly accuracy. This goal also said a lot about Ronaldo’s mentality, as it came seconds after he fired straight at Diego Alves from a one-on-one chance created by a brilliant Toni Kroos long ball.

Not content with the one goal for his team, Ronaldo created a goal late into the second half. Streaking down the left-wing, Cristiano dazzled his marker with a couple step-overs and whipped in a cross for Benzema. While the offside Frenchman was unable to convert the pass, he scored soon after from a rebound off a defender. While Ronaldo won’t record an assist for Big Benz’s goal, we all know who created the chaos that led to the chance.

Ronaldo's third goal was just pure finishing beauty, as CR7 pummeled the ball into the back of the net after racing onto goal with immense pressure applied by his marker. That goal eventually proved to be the game winner and an invaluable goal in this title race.

Bits & Pieces

Casilla was a legend today. I had to check the team sheet ten times to make sure it wasn’t Keylor Navas.

Real Madrid’s defense was terrible today, which was probably masked by the fact that Varane was even worse. But let’s just ignore Varane for a second and look at how badly we dealt with this Valencia chance.

Lots of questions: Where is Marcelo? Why is Ramos break dancing? Why is Varane not the one challenging the player since he’s closer? Why is Danilo playing everyone onside? Why is it that what Real Madrid does is called defending?

I love Arbeloa’s passion for the club, but subbing him on in a potentially title deciding match was not a good idea.

For all the criticism I directed at James, let’s not forget that he was electric on offense.

Final Note: This piece might seem overly negative in its tone, but I assure you that I am utterly delighted to have gotten the three points. I am just dead scared about playing this badly in terms of our midfield structure vs. Atlético.

(All statistics and charts taken from whoscored.com and FourFourTwo statszone)