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

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Real Madrid battle past an intense Real Sociedad press.

Real Sociedad de Futbol v Real Madrid CF - La Liga Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images

Real Madrid’s Build-up Vs. Real Sociedad’s Press

Real Madrid beat Real Sociedad 3-0 in what was a tough opening game of the season for both sides. The All Whites got off to a blazing start, when a long ball from Sergio Ramos found Carvajal on the right-wing, and the right back’s subsequent cross was turned into a goal virtue of Gareth Bale’s prolific head.

The goal came in the opening 72 seconds of the match, stunning Real Sociedad and forcing them to immediately search for an equalizer. La Real responded by pushing their back-line high up the pitch in order to press relentlessly for the ball. This forced Real Madrid’s back-line into a series of mistakes that bothered them for the whole game. Ramos was the culprit in the first half; initially mis-controlling a ball that allowed the opposition to win possession and build play down the left flank, then once again mis-controlling the ball which forced Casilla to come far off his line, and finally misplacing a pass that put his side in immediate danger.

But he wasn’t the only one. Marcelo had his fair share of mistakes and the rest of the midfield found it tough to play a short passing game through the middle of the park.

Real Sociedad completed 7 tackles in Real Madrid’s half.
Real Sociedad completed more fouls in Real Madrid’s half than in their own.
All this pressure forced bad mistakes from Real Madrid’s defense in dangerous areas.

They could’ve coped had Casemiro positioned himself to overload the press, but Zidane seemed to actively push Casemiro away from pressure zones by converting him into an auxiliary center back.

Casemiro played deep and focused nearly all of his efforts on defending.

It worked for Casemiro, as he had a beast of a defensive game (a stunning 9 tackles and 2 interceptions), but Sociedad’s press could have been dismantled with smart positional play.

This situation is a perfect illustration of how Real Sociedad’s press could be broken with intelligent positioning from Casemiro. With Marcelo forced onto his weak foot and nearly all of his options cut off, he is preparing to swing a wild pass in the hope that he will find a teammate. Casemiro should recognize this and move 10 yards left from his man in order to exploit Sociedad’s weak horizontal compactness, but that simply isn’t his game. He’s never been one to make these kind of moves and it’s quite unreasonable to point a finger at him and suddenly expect him to become a genius at positional play. Such a skill is extremely rare, and that’s why pressing is often so effective even when done poorly.

Marcelo’s wild pass leads nowhere and Madrid scramble to recover.
A brilliant chance is created which Illarramendi wastes.

Someone like Julian Weigl would provide a great alternative to Casemiro in these instances (without truly benching him, thus pleasing a large portion of the fan base and rewarding Casemiro for his form), as his press resistance and ability to pick passes through high pressure would’ve avoided the situation outlined above.

Instead, extra responsibility was placed on Real Madrid’s center backs to distribute play past the press, with their heatmaps making Varane and Ramos look like two holding midfielders.

Ramos (even more so than Varane), relished this role, pushing forward with the ball to get closer to his teammates and control play.

EDIT:

The two center backs did rather well in their distributive duties, sparking Real Madrid’s first two goals of the game with wonderful long balls. But overall, their influence in build-up forced Real Madrid into heavily wing-oriented attacks, with Ramos and Varane smartly choosing to play the ball wide when faced with the daunting task of trying to distribute through Real Sociedad’s press.

The influence of Real Madrid’s build-up can be seen in the way that their successful attacks almost exclusively came through the wings.

Usually this leads Real Madrid into stagnant play and useless crosses, but one man’s intelligent positioning allowed Los Blancos to thrive out wide.

Alvaro Morata Was Key To The Success Of Real Madrid’s Wing-Play

Morata occupied the left halfspace for most of the game, but also dropped into pockets in midfield and drifted out to the right when needed.

On the back of overly harsh criticism following pre-season and the Spanish Super Cup, Alvaro Morata turned in a golden display for vs. Real Sociedad and demonstrated just why Real Madrid need him so much in the absence of Benzema. Mimicking the French striker’s uncanny ability to read the game and find space, Morata used his furious offensive work-rate to dip into channels and combine with Marcelo and Asensio to progress play incisively.

The result was a cohesive and dynamic Real Madrid attack that had a strong focal point and a sense of purpose, leading the Whites to outshoot La Real 18 to 8.

But Morata also had a great influence with the ball at his feet, as his hold up play and smooth ball control generated counter-attack after counter-attack. In several instances, he single-handedly left his markers for dead before working a shot off, making him the single biggest threat to Real Sociedad’s defense.

He ended the night with an exemplary 5 take-ons, 4 shots, 3 fouls drawn, and 1 key pass. The only thing missing from his performance was a goal.

Real Madrid’s Pressing Was Disorganized & Confused

While Real Madrid’s offense clicked, there were some defensive problems that Zidane needed to sort out. After featuring a heavy press in pre-season, Zidane looked to tone things back vs. Sociedad, but the compromise he struck was uneasy and often led to some unnecessary confusion.

Zidane had Kovacic (probably recognizing the Croatian’s boundless energy and work-rate) engage in a passive press with Morata, with Bale dropping deep to create a 4-4-2 pressing structure. But this led to too many problems in the transition of the press, as the lack of support from the rest of the team when Kovacic pushed forward opened up a window of space for Sociedad to vertically bypass Real Madrid’s midfield.

Thus Kovacic often hesitated in rushing forward, negating the surprise element of the press, while his teammates were often caught in two minds; whether to support the Croatian or hold position. This exacerbated the problems in Madrid’s defensive structure and made Madrid’s press useless.

The problem ended in the second half, when Zidane asked his team to sit back and preserve their lead.

Bits & Pieces

Gareth Bale didn’t have the all-round impact we are used to seeing from him, but his two goals and tireless defensive work-rate were the crucial factors in Real Madrid’s win.

Marco Asensio is simply a gem of a footballer. His first-touch, passing, and finishing are way ahead of his years.

Raphael Varane also had a very good game, snuffing out any danger that came his way whilst staying calm and composed with the ball.

With Ronaldo, Benzema, and Modric out, James still sat on the bench. I wonder what he must be thinking...

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