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Tactical Review (La Liga): Espanyol 0 - 2 Real Madrid

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James Rodríguez’s magic leads the way.

RCD Espanyol v Real Madrid CF - La Liga Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

Individual Errors Hindered Zidane’s Tactics

A lot is often said about tactics and their importance to a team’s success, but most of the time they’re not the only factor in play. In matches like this one, players play a huge role in deciding the outcome of a match outside the set parameters a manager wants the game to operate in. In other words, players can do something positive or negative on the pitch that affects the game in a way a manager didn’t plan for.

For example, Carvajal, Pepe, Ramos, Marcelo, James, Modric, Lucas, Asensio, Kroos and Isco, combined for 14 dispossessions and 13 mis-controls vs. Espanyol (many of them completely unforced). This doesn’t even count for other inexplicable mistakes, like the usually reliable passers in Ramos and Kroos passing to the opposition inside their own half.

This made it extremely hard for Madrid to be a cohesive passing unit for large sections of the game, rendering the team ineffective because the team had forgotten how to control the ball properly.

Zidane’s 4-2-3-1 Formation Wasn’t the Best Set-up

But it wasn’t like Zidane’s tactics were a stroke of genius that never saw the light of day. His decision to play a 4-2-3-1 was questionable, especially considering the fact that Espanyol would obviously look to flood the midfield and cut off Madrid’s passing options.

However, the basic reasoning behind this decision was sound, since Zidane was missing Ronaldo and Bale in attack and needed to find a way to fit James into the squad. Wanting the Colombian to play in his best possible position, he pushed James into the hole ahead of a double-pivot of Modric and Casemiro. This theoretically should have gotten the best out of James and therefore Los Blancos, but it instead led to some basic problems in possession that seriously hindered not only James, but also Madrid’s progression to the final third.

This was because new manager Quique Sánchez Flores drilled his men into an organized medium block that swarmed James whenever he had the ball. With James often cut off from his midfield because of this, Espanyol chose to flood forward and press Modric, Casemiro and the rest of the back-line, drawing several mistakes and hampering Madrid’s progression towards the final third.

James did his absolute best to move everywhere across the pitch to receive the ball, as demonstrated by his heatmap, but whenever he dropped deep, Madrid’s midfield became flat due to the fact that there was no one in the pockets to receive the ball other than him.

The lack of cohesion and fluid passing in this formation possibly had something to do with the fact that Real Madrid have rarely played this way under Zidane, but it’s pretty clear that Madrid would’ve done better on the ball if they had two options to pass to in midfield (a 4-3-3 naturally creates two flanking midfielders). It might’ve been a better idea to have had Kroos (or Kovacic if Zidane wanted the German maestro to rest) in the line-up so that Madrid could’ve kept their usual 4-3-3, thus providing Madrid a better and more familiar base for build-up whilst allowing James to still play in a position he excels in - the right-wing.

The result of Zidane’s miscalculation was an isolated James who failed to create any impact besides his goal (1 shot, 1 key pass, and 1 dribble), and a Madrid side that struggled to create any real chances in the final third.

Real Madrid’s key passes lacked any penetration in the 1st half, as they were all played around 25 yards away from the box and moved either sideways or backwards.

James’ incredible moment where he dribbled past two men and smashed the ball into the bottom corner from range, was the only saving grace for Madrid in the first half.

Zidane Understood the Problem & Changed Things in the Second Half

Zidane was obviously unhappy with the way his team were playing in the first half, because he changed things rather drastically when his team re-entered the pitch. Understanding that Madrid needed more midfielders in a deeper position to help with build-up, Zidane had Lucas Vázquez and Asensio drop extremely deep into the halfspaces to create the necessary triangles to help effective ball circulation.

This snapshot shows Madrid’s first real bout of possession in the second period of play, and it is notable to see Lucas hurry all the way back into his own half from an advanced position to win the ball.

As if to demonstrate that such movements were intentional and not merely a fluke, Asensio sprinted away from the wing and into the left halfspace, to receive a pass from Ramos only six seconds after Lucas had done the same.

This pattern repeated itself over and over again and Madrid showed improvements in possession. The ball zipped around the pitch quicker, and Real entered the final third with more regularity and greater accuracy.

1st half - 76.1% accuracy
2nd half - 89.4% passing accuracy

But things still didn’t work perfectly with Lucas and Asensio dropping deep, as Madrid often had to wait for the two to push back into attacking positions before they could progress, slowing Madrid’s attacks at several moments in the match.

Espanyol should’ve pressed Madrid in this transition phase, as they would’ve caught out their opposition in a time where they had no outlet, but their decision to sit back for most of the second half let Los Merengues off the hook.

Seeing these flaws, Zidane understood that his adjustments weren’t enough, causing him to toke off James for Isco in the 63rd minute, finally changing Madrid’s formation to a 4-3-3.

Isco did not play in the hole, and instead dropped into the left halfspace as an LCM

Isco wasn’t spectacular or any better than James was, but the tactical change finally returned Madrid to a better structure in possession, thus allowing Madrid to finish off their opponent with relative ease.

Bits & Pieces

Espanyol played a ridiculously physical match, completing 19 fouls that led to some brutal collisions and an injury for Casemiro.

Benzema answered his oddly timed critics with a key goal that secured a crucial three points for Madrid.

Make of it what you will, but Real have now equalled Pep Guardiola’s record for most consecutive wins in La Liga (16).

Kiko Casilla had little to do, but he made one truly superb save to give Madrid a clean sheet.

James Rodríguez just doesn’t score normal goals does he?

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