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Tactical Review (Copa del Rey): Sevilla 3 - 3 Real Madrid

Zizou’s hit & miss tactics are covered up by Madrid’s individual quality.

Sevilla v Real Madrid - Copa del Rey: Round of 16 Second Leg Photo by Aitor Alcalde/Getty Images

With a solid 3-0 lead from the 1st leg and a league tie with the same opponent only three days away, Zidane executed massive rotations and chose a conservative game plan under the framework of a 4-4-2.

With Mariano and Morata up front (two classic strikers) and two wingers playing with their stronger foot near the touchline, it was clear that Zizou was looking to counter-attack and play through the wings.

This was a good plan for all intents and purposes, as Zidane needed his stronger personnel rested for the league match and he was playing to Madrid’s strengths by trying out a transition-based system.

However, the change from a 4-3-3 (Madrid’s normal formation) to a 4-4-2 automatically implies different tactics due to the difference in spacing and types of players both formations employ. For one reason or another, Zidane avoided making these necessary changes, leading to weaknesses that Sevilla exploited.

Real Madrid’s Pressing Before Sevilla’s 1st Goal

The failed adjustment in question can be found in Zidane’s pressing scheme prior to Sevilla’s first goal.

In a 4-3-3, Zidane uses his central midfielders as advanced pressers and pressing triggers, making them the main protagonists in Madrid’s proactive defensive scheme. This works well, since there is always an extra central midfielder (Casemiro) to fill in and plug the gaps that the pressing central midfielders leave behind.

When Madrid press in their own half in the same formation, only one central midfielder presses forward at a time, creating a 4-4-2 defensive structure (from a 4-1-4-1). Casemiro then fills in for the advanced presser by stepping up from his deep position, while the central midfielder buys the Brazilian some time by using cover shadows.

When you already play in a 4-4-2, there is no need for a central midfielder to break from his defensive line to press, since you have two men up front who can cut off access to the center.

But for some odd reason, Zidane asked Kroos to continually break from his defensive line to press Sevilla’s men, leaving a gap that could not be filled due to the lack of personnel in midfield. While Kroos’ cover shadow momentarily covered this gaping horizontal compactness issue, Sevilla easily exploited Madrid’s lack of defensive organization once they shifted the ball to the side before playing vertical.

Despite Zidane’s steady tactical maturation, this blip is another example of how much he still is yet to learn (which should scare other teams, considering that Madrid are now 40 matches unbeaten).

Due to this mistake, Sevilla scored a goal, something that is sure to be blamed on convenient scapegoat Danilo, who was forced into such a desperate action thanks to Madrid’s lack of defensive compactness in the first place.

However, credit must be given to Zidane for recognizing the tactical issue, as Kroos stopped marauding forward immediately after Real Madrid conceded, while Madrid’s forwards were asked to do more pressing.

Real Madrid’s Pressing After The Goal

Before the Kovacic Substitution

Los Blancos had been pressing high up the pitch since the beginning of the match, but after they went down 1-0, the intensity of their pressure increased and the structure changed. As mentioned before, Kroos began to play a more reserved role, as he always made sure to stay in line with Casemiro, thus letting Madrid’s wide men and their two strikers do the hard work. Due to the forward movement of the wingers, Madrid’s fullbacks needed to push up to mark Sevilla’s wing-backs, creating a tight marking system that Real operated under.

When Sevilla penetrated the Whites’ half, they chose to abandon their pressing scheme in favor of a medium block, with Kroos once again holding position and forming a bank of four with his midfield line. This did ensure some greater defensive solidity, but the end-to-end nature of the game caused gaps to appear.

These gaps mainly appeared on corners, where Madrid committed a lot of men forward and held an extremely high line, leaving a lot of space for Sevilla to counter in.

After the Kovacic Substitution

Things changed once Mateo Kovacic was subbed on, as Madrid moved from a 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3. One would’ve expected that this would’ve caused the return of the press we saw against Sevilla in the first leg, but the pace of the game rattled Real’s organization, meaning that the supporting structure that enabled the advanced pressing of Madrid’s two CM’s disappeared.

In the below clip, Real Madrid only get away with their lack of vertical compactness because Sevilla fail to occupy the space and pass into it.

As the game progressed into the 70th minute, Madrid began to abandon their pressing altogether, choosing to apply pressure on the wings at the very most.

This ended Madrid’s compactness issues, forcing Sevilla to attack through the flanks for the rest of the game.

Real Madrid’s Penetration

Slow Build-Up

Over the past two games, Madrid’s central penetration has improved leaps and bounds due to movements in-between the lines by Real’s attacking players. However, such off-the-ball play was rare in today’s game, due to the way Zidane set his team up.

As mentioned in the intro, the Zizou played with two classic strikers and two classic wingers, placing an emphasis on width and off-the-ball runs made on the shoulder of the defender. While this maximized the effectiveness of a counter-attacking strategy, it left Madrid rather stale in possession.

As we have been accustomed to, this led to a multitude of crosses that rarely troubled Sevilla’s back-line, except for the few times where Morata or Mariano dropped a little deeper to occupy the opposition’s centrally-oriented markers, allowing for a cross to be played while Sevilla was in defensive transition.

In order to force gaps in Sevilla’s defensive lines, Madrid constantly switched play in an effort to force their opponent to re-organize. However, this worked to little effect, as the width provided by Sampaoli’s wing-backs allowed them to defend against this tactical ploy rather easily.

This led to a very quiet night for both Mariano and Morata, who received very little quality service in slow build-up.


Real Madrid were much more threatening on the counter-attack, thanks to Zidane’s 4-4-2 set-up and the sheer individual brilliance of some of Real’s attackers. As usual, Real Madrid formed nice passing triangles between the winger, central midfielder, and fullback, allowing for good combination play to break through Sevilla’s press.

Sampaoli’s classically risky high-line also played a role, as Madrid found plenty of space to counter in (especially on corners).

Sevilla’s Pressing Scheme

As is characteristic of all Sampaoli teams, Sevilla pressed vigorously on the wings, making full use of their wing-backs to push high up the pitch and mark Madrid’s wingers.

While the deft ability of Asensio and quick of feet of Lucas often allowed Madrid to turn past their markers and burst into space, Sevilla found a fair amount of joy in closing Madrid down on the flanks.

The same cannot be said whenever Sevilla tried to press any of Madrid’s central options, thanks to some uncharacteristically poor compactness issues. Perhaps fearing the pace of Madrid’s two strikers, Sevilla inconsistently applied a high back-line, leading to periods where their defensive line sat too deep and thus created vertical compactness issues with their advanced pressers.

This didn’t allow Sevilla to have the sort of control over the game they would’ve liked, as the game soon turned into an end-to-end jousting contest that created problems in transition for both defenses.

Sevilla’s Offensive Plan

Sevilla’s jekyll and hyde pressing might give the impression that the game was rather even, but that was far from the case. While both Madrid and Sevilla were equal on defense, Sevilla were superior on offense.

In the opening minutes up till their first goal, Sevilla simply looked to exploit Madrid’s bad horizontal compactness due to Kroos’ pressing actions (as analyzed before).

Once the gap was sealed, Sevilla looked for dynamic movement in the halfspaces from their central midfielders, wing-backs, and forwards to work the ball down flank and fire in crosses.

Sevilla also looked to stretch the width of the pitch as much as possible due to the presence of their wing-backs, leading to lots of switches of plays and long balls to create free crossing opportunities and several one-on-ones.

When they failed to penetrate through the wings, they looked to test the partnership of Nacho and Sergio Ramos my launching raking long balls towards their two center forwards.

Only Madrid’s stunning individual brilliance allowed Los Blancos to match Sevilla’s superior collective attacking performance.

Bits & Pieces

Marco Asensio was Madrid’s best player. His touch, passing, dribbling, and overall work-rate was astounding, and his solo goal was simply sublime.

Ramos was at fault for Sevilla’s second goal. He was supposed to be marking Jovetic, but instead he was caught ball watching.

Kiko Casilla had a mixed game. While his shot-stopping was often nothing short of excellent, he should’ve done better on Sevilla’s last goal and his distribution was often sloppy and inaccurate.

Stevan Jovetic was an absolute menace for Madrid, as he popped up into key areas on the blind-side of defenders, took shots from across the pitch, and harried Madrid’s midfield line.

Casemiro had another strong game against Sevilla, as he displayed good distribution, strong tackling, and a powerful run in the second half to win Madrid a penalty. He also was fairly decent under pressure, though it must be noted that he was pressed only sporadically (the same can be said for Kroos).

Karim Benzema is a magnificent player who has gotten far too much stick this season. Just look at this goal.

Jorge Sampaoli’s decision to return to a back three was a good move that gave him greater options on offense and made it easier for him to break through Madrid’s press. His cautious decision to play without wing-backs in the 1st leg was probably the tactical move that defined this tie, for it allowed Madrid to break through Sevilla’s press with ease and press successfully.

Zidane made some mistakes with his tactics today, but that shouldn’t be an issue once Madrid return to their usual 4-3-3. Hopefully he continues to pay attention to compactness and spacing within different systems so he can transition from different formations more seamlessly in the future.

Blaming this draw on Danilo is a lazy argument that ignores the nuances and tactical decisions that affected this game.

I am not really sure what sort of purpose Carvajal’s sub served.

At 40 games unbeaten, Madrid have to be the favorites to win it all.

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