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Tactical Review (La Liga): Real Madrid 1 - 1 Villarreal

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Real Madrid crossed and crossed and crossed some more...

Real Madrid CF v Villarreal CF - La Liga Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Real Madrid’s Lethargy Was A Problem Again

It’s hard to tell if this is some sort of blip and not a sign of a greater underlying problem, but Real Madrid came out onto the football pitch looking too complacent and unfocused. There’s little to tell us why Real Madrid would underestimate Villarreal like they did with Sporting, but Los Blancos came out onto the pitch and slapped the ball around like they had already won the match. It took Real Madrid about 15 minutes to realize that they were actually playing a proper league game before they raised their tempo and started directing their passes with more meaning and purpose. Even then it wasn’t enough, as the tone they had set in the opening minutes hindered Madrid’s flow for the entire first half.

Real Madrid’s Attacking Strategy Was Highly Unsophisticated

While it is wise for a coach to take advantage of the fact that Real Madrid are the most dominant aerial powerhouse in world football, it borders on utterly unimaginative to constantly push the ball out wide and swing in cross after cross. Yet, that is exactly what Real Madrid did.

In the first half Zidane didn’t even make use of both flanks on the pitch, as he had his players simply push the ball out to the left flank so Marcelo could relentlessly cross the ball.

Coupled with Madrid’s lack of pace and tempo in passing, their attacks were predictably predictable, with Villarreal managing to bat away nearly every single one of Real Madrid’s thrusts.

Zidane obviously wasn’t happy and Real Madrid came onto the pitch with more energy and purpose, leading Ramos to equalize in the 48th minute through an inspired header. But as the effects of the team talk wore off, Zidane’s limitations soon revealed themselves once again, as it became clear that the Frenchman had not identified the problem or even sought to rectify it. Case in point: Real Madrid actually executed more crosses in the second half, completing a mind-boggling total of 53 by the end of the game.

To be fair when Real Madrid were buzzing like honeybees in that 15 minute period immediately following the second half, the crossing game seemed to work. Both Benzema and Ronaldo received excellent chances to put Real Madrid in front, but they failed to capitalize.

So what was the difference in that short period of time? Some of it has to be looked at through a statistical lens; the more you try to score through one particular method the more likely you are to see a result from said method (basically the “if you don’t shoot you don’t score theory” adapted for crossing). But there was an intangible provided by Zidane’s likely thunderous team talk that can’t be analyzed through stats (or at least through the ones publicly available). The boost of energy and adrenaline Real Madrid received from Zidane had Los Blancos playing quicker, albeit disorganized, attacking football, and that knocked Villarreal out of their rhythm.

Once that effect wore off, play became lethargic and Real Madrid only managed to threaten through greater urgency at the end of the game.

And therein lies the juxtaposition of Zidane’s strengths and weaknesses. He possessed the ability to give an inspiring team talk that had a tactical effect, but he was not able to see the tactical plan that would’ve provided for a more effective attacking strategy.

To elaborate, what Zidane didn’t see is that crossing works best when you have your opponent un-balanced or ill-positioned before you deal a ball into the box. This can most commonly be created by a quick switch of play to exploit the transitional phase of a defense shifting across the pitch; but reaching that moment takes a lot of steps beforehand. What creates that key moment is quick and meaningful possession that probes and sucks defenders to the ball. Think Barcelona - they rarely seem to struggle against teams that park the bus because they effectively dance the ball in-between the lines before quickly switching the ball to the opposite flank (whether through a long ball or series of short passes). They then quickly cross while the opposing team is still in transition.

Zidane skipped that entire middle step, and instead looked to attack a deep set defense ready for crosses. Thus, it looked like Zidane had fixed the problem in the opening minutes of the first half, because Real Madrid executed the principles of effective possession play as a by-product of playing things at an energetic and fast pace. But once the motivational effects wore off, it became clear that Zidane didn’t have a tactical grasp of the match, and Real Madrid paid for it.

Villarreal Has To Be Given Credit

Despite all of Madrid’s flaws, Villarreal played an extremely organized defensive line that was only nearly sabotaged by Sergio Asenjo’s poor handling and punching skills. They were set-up perfectly in a defensive 4-4-2 and sat deep in their own half, cutting off any obvious passing lanes before swarming the BBC with numbers any time they touched the ball.

Just take a look at some snapshots that illustrates one of Madrid’s first bouts of possession in the first half.

As you can see, Ronaldo correctly drops deep to receive the ball, but he is immediately followed by the center back marking him while being closed down by one of Villarreal’s midfielders. To prevent Marcelo from exploiting the space in behind, Villarreal’s winger follows the Brazilian.

About 20 seconds later, the ball is worked over to Bale, who like Ronaldo, drops deep. But again Villarreal double teams the man on the ball, cutting off Bale’s space. The Welshman makes the most of the situation and passes it off to Danilo who looks like he has a lot of space to exploit.

But Villarreal immediately reset and cut off Danilo’s passing option to Bale (his passing option to James is also cut off due to some excellent man-marking, as highlighted by the oval), forcing the ball backwards.

Seconds later, Marcelo tries to break through with some individual ability, but once again Villarreal swarms the man on the ball and repels the attack.

Marcelo manages to evade the tackles and passes it off to Benzema, who, you guessed it, was swarmed instantly. Nearly losing the ball, Benzema passes it back to Marcelo.

With seemingly all options cut off for good, Marcelo swings a wild ball towards the box and it is intercepted, allowing Villarreal to launch a counter.

The fact that this happened over and over again is mind-boggling, considering the amount of mental and physical effort a defense plan like this takes. With ill-prepared tactics, it’s a wonder that Madrid were able to create anything at all against such a well-drilled and committed side.

BBC Did Not Connect With Each Other Enough

Another thing that can be gleaned from these snapshots and indeed the game overall, is that BBC were not lacking in their off-the-ball movement (Ronaldo especially). They constantly dropped deep into midfield, moved into pockets in the halfspaces, and made runs into the box.

The issue was that these movements were being made in isolation. Nearly every time Villarreal swarmed one of Bale, Benzema, and Cristiano, they were far away from each other, making it impossible for them to create attacking one-twos that would enable them to play through Villarreal. The trio needed to band together and create tight attacking triangles in the final third to quickly exploit Villarreal in their moment of defensive transition (in this instance, the space created when Villarreal’s defenders and midfielders rush one of the BBC).

And it’s not like they’re incapable of doing so, just look at this goal vs. Valencia.

Or this goal vs FC Basel.

It was more a matter of a concerted strategy to get the BBC together whilst playing a fluid and complete form of possession football.

Zidane has a lot of work to do.

Bits & Pieces

Despite Villarreal’s defensive solidity, they rarely threatened Real Madrid’s goal.

Varane hasn’t shown any real improvement since his breakthrough season in 2012/13. His decision making remains suspect and he still relies too much on his physical abilities to cover up for his weak positional sense.

Ramos executed another brain fart, but we will forgive him because he is a brilliant and passionate captain that can score goals from set-pieces at will.

Danilo was silently Real Madrid’s best player on the night.

BBC don’t look fully fit.

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