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Tactical Review (La Liga): Real Madrid 2 - 1 Celta Vigo

Real Madrid grind past Celta Vigo's high press.

Real Madrid CF v RC Celta de Vigo - La Liga Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Celt Vigo Stifled Real Madrid’s Build-up With An Effective Press

Real Madrid began the match in their usual 4-3-3, with a midfield of Kroos-Casemiro-Modric behind a strike-force of Asensio-Morata-Bale. Usually this set-up entails that Casemiro sits deepest or at least level with his two midfield partners, allowing Modric and Kroos to move forward; but Celta’s press forced Madrid out of their natural rhythm and into a weird structural position in possession (especially in the first half).

John Guidetti, Wass, Bongonda, and Orellana formed an effective gladiator’s net that protected the belly of Celta Vigo’s formation by forcing opposition play out wide or over the top.

Celta completed 5 tackles (50% of their total) in Real Madrid’s half in the first 45 minutes of play.
Celta committed all of their first half fouls in Real Madrid’s half.

As mentioned before, Los Blancos morphed into a weird midfield set-up in possession to deal with Celta’s incredible pressure.

Zidane pushed Casemiro up and out of the first possession phase and dropped Modric and Kroos into a double-pivot. The idea was to get the two best distributors on the pitch to pass through the press, but it never came to fruition.

Very few passes penetrated the final third in the 1st half.

There was no midfielder to move into the half spaces to provide an outlet for possession past Celta’s organized press. Technically, an attacking midfielder in front of a double-pivot could have made these movements, but Zidane had opted to play 3 central midfielders with Casemiro pushing up the highest in the early possession phase.

This led to a flat midfield that was totally disconnected from it’s attack. Thus it was no surprise that Carvajal and Marcelo combined to lose the ball 6 times, as they tried to dribble their way past the press in an effort to connect with Madrid’s front three (Carvajal in particular gave the ball away in a terrible area, allowing Guidetti to have a free shot on goal).

When the ball did manage to reach Los Merengues’ front three, Asensio, Morata, and Bale were often isolated (this was due to the fact that Real Madrid’s midfield had dropped deep to beat the press and because Bale and Asensio had spread wide to get the ball, which distanced themselves from possible combination plays with Morata), forcing them to try to create something all on their own.

Asensio managed some slick dribbles and turns (that flick over his opponent in the 18th minute was especially tasty), Morata drove into the channels, and Bale tried to charge down the flanks with pace, but none of it led to anything besides speculative crosses and efforts from range.

Seeing the trouble his team was in, Modric soon gave up trying to pass through the press (around the half hour mark) by abandoning his distributive duties to move up into the right half space (this made Kroos the deepest midfielder in the first possession phase, with Modric and Casemiro ahead of him).

Luka’s tactical smarts and ability on the ball allowed Madrid to attack with more verticality, as he charged into the box chasing long balls and receiving passes high up the pitch to shoot from range. He managed a shot onto the bar after slipping past his marker and slipping himself, but his individual efforts alone were not enough to create a goal.

James Rodríguez’s Substitution Proved Crucial

Even though Madrid managed to score a goal against Celta, it was clear that things hadn’t really improved in the second half. Celta started the half in a dominant mood, combining around and inside Real Madrid’s box before having their final pass barely shut-out. Los Blancos got a lucky break when goalkeeper Sergio Álvarez passed the ball straight to Luka Modric (and not for the first time either) in the 60th minute, thus allowing the Croatian to lay the ball off to Asensio, who’s shot rebounded off the goalkeeper and allowed Morata to score.

Real Madrid created another goal scoring opportunity as Kroos released Morata on a counter 5 minutes later, but they were made to rue their missed chance as Celta replied quickly and tore Real Madrid apart from a counter-attack in the 67th minute. At that moment it was clear that Celta were equals in the match despite Real Madrid’s short burst of quality.

That all changed when Zinedine Zidane brought on James Rodríguez in the 69th minute (perhaps questionably for Luka Modric). The Colombian’s natural offensive mind-set provided Real Madrid with even more of what Modric had tried to provide in the second part of the first half - vertical positioning in the half spaces.

James received nearly all of his passes in Celta Vigo’s half of the pitch.

This greatly improved Madrid’s offensive fluency and finally gave them a consistent link from midfield to attack. From that point onwards, Madrid flowed forward and penned Celta Vigo back with wave after wave of offensive thrusts.

Real Madrid in the final third without James
Real Madrid in the final third with James.

Real Madrid finally reaped the benefits of this tactical change, as James won the ball back high up the pitch and passed it off to Lucas, who laid the ball off to Kroos, who scored a magnificent goal from the edge of the box.

Nevertheless, James’ necessary offensive positioning did lead to some dangerous moments as Celta Vigo managed to launch a couple of threatening counters that cut through Madrid’s midfield with ease. But it is hard to lay too much blame on the Colombian when his purpose on the pitch was to push forward in search for a late goal rather than maintaining structural balance.

The risk proved to be worth it, as Madrid survived the Celta’s scares and settled into an extremely deep low block that allowed them to see out the rest of the match.

Bits & Pieces

It was odd to see all the drivel directed at Morata when his offensive movement off the ball was excellent and his dribbling was dangerous. It was as if people didn’t realize that the service he was receiving was close to non-existent. His goal should shut the haters for now.

People have rightly focused on Asensio’s technical ability this season, but it is worth noting the sprinkles of tactical intelligence he has displayed over the past few weeks. In this match, his ability to anticipate and cover for Carvajal’s first reckless run displayed intelligence far beyond his years, and his willingness to drop deep (albeit not always in the right areas) to help out his midfield displayed that he had a basic understanding of what was going wrong with his side.

Asensio’s dynamic heatmap shows up that he dropped deep into midfield to help transition play.

Carvajal and Marcelo both had bad games, but their performance was definitely influenced by Madrid’s bad structure in possession.

Bale was extremely quiet, but he still managed to fire off dangerous shots from range and connect with two crosses. He was very unlucky not to score.

Sergio Álvarez’s distribution was abysmal.

(All statistics and charts taken from or fourfourtwo statszone unless otherwise stated)

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