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

Zidane’s tactical gamble doesn’t pay off.

Sevilla FC v Real Madrid CF - La Liga Photo by Aitor Alcalde/Getty Images

Following a wild 3-3 draw away to Sevilla, Zinedine Zidane probably decided that he needed to solidify his defense, setting his side up in a 3-5-2 in today’s game. It was a move that produced mixed results and was something that was too cautious at the end of the day.

Still, it must be noted that there were several positives from this set-up, as the presence of a back five neutralized Sevilla’s wing-play and essentially stopped Sampaoli’s men from creating quality chances for the majority of the game.

Zidane’s 3-5-2 on Defense

Stifling the Wings

As is typical of Sevilla this season, they concentrated the vast majority of their attacks down the flank, with a particular focus on Samir Nasri and Vitolo’s side this time out.

The objective was to work short passes between each other, overload the left-wing, and fire in a cross to Franco Vázquez and Ben Yedder. While this certainly worked a couple of times, Sevilla’s huffing and puffing down Madrid’s right-hand side was almost fully neutralized by the defensive width covered by Madrid’s back five.

The presence of an extra center back in Madrid’s back-line allowed for greater horizontal compactness, as Carvajal and Marcelo were both free to stretch as wide as was necessary to mark Sevilla’s wingers.

In order to further reinforce the flank being attacked, Zidane asked at least two of his central midfielders to overload the defensive sector in question, to provide numerical superiority against Sevilla’s attackers. That superiority was used to cut off as many passing lanes as possible, forcing Sevilla to play the ball backwards or try risky combinations in the half space that were likely to fail.

One option for Sevilla that would’ve allowed them to beat this block, would’ve been to switch play quickly to the other flank, creating a brief 2 vs. 1 situation against Madrid’s fullback.

Sevilla’s decision not to pursue this tactic could be seen as a tactical mistake by Sampaoli, but it is understandable that Sevilla chose to avoid such a strategy, since there was no viable way of switching play through ground passes. Not only did either Kroos or Modric cover Sevilla’s horizontal passing options really well, but the presence of either Ronaldo or Benzema near the center circle made it risky to attempt low passes.

Of course, Sevilla could have always gone the aerial route, but only an arrowed pass would’ve been quick enough to allow Sevilla to exploit the 2 vs. 1 against the fullback (due to the fact that one of Madrid’s strikers were always reasonably close to Sevilla’s far-side passing options). But such passes are often inaccurate (if not perfectly executed) and difficult to control, meaning that executing such a play consistently would’ve required a better support structure to fight for fifty-fifty balls that might result from mis-controls.

As can be seen in the passmap above, both N’Zonzi and Iborra were heavily focused on the left flank, meaning they were almost never in a position to aid their teammates if a switch was made to the right flank.


While Madrid were more than happy to sit patiently in a low block in their own half, they also pressed fairly consistently in their opponent’s defensive third. However, the press was not nearly as intensive or effective as Zidane’s previous iterations due to the lack of horizontal coverage that could be provided by Madrid’s narrow formation.

Real Madrid didn’t win the ball often in Sevilla’s half.

As can be seen in the above clips, Ronaldo and Benzema were Madrid’s advanced pressers, who sought to close down Sevilla’s center backs and goalkeeper and cut out central passing lanes.

Depending on the flank, one of Modric or Kroos would initiate the press and aid CR7 and Benzema in a triangle formation. While the pressing work was structurally sound, it wasn’t the most effective.

As mentioned upon previously, this was because Madrid’s central midfielders could not press Sevilla’s wider passing options without leaving a gaping hole in the half spaces that could easily be exploited by a vertical pass. Thus, as long as Sampaoli’s men kept their cool, they could work their way around Madrid’s press without too much trouble.

Where Madrid did see success in their attempts to pressure Sevilla, was when they counterpressed, because Marcelo sometimes elected to stay up the field instead of tracking back. This allowed Madrid the necessary horizontal access and numbers up front to truly cause Sevilla problems.

Real Madrid’s Issues on Offense

While Los Blancos were supremely solid on defense, their offense left a lot to be desired.

While the spacing of Madrid’s players were decent and everyone seemed to understand their roles well enough, there was zero penetration coming through the center or from out wide.

The reason for this is simple - Madrid had too few attackers up front.

Aside from the fact that fewer attackers are easier to deal with, the presence of only two attackers made it very hard for Madrid to create quantitative advantages in slow build-up.

When the ball was played wide, both Carvajal and Marcelo were left in tough one-on-one situations vs. Escudero and Mariano unless Ronaldo or Benzema split wide to help their wing-back. While this did create a strong 2v1 situation vs. the opposition fullback, it also left a lack of men in the box to receive the cross. Whichever way Ronaldo and Benzema tried to adjust, Madrid lost out.

From the center, Ronaldo and Benzema did their utmost to move in-between the lines to receive the ball...

...but they were often ignored for wider passing options in the rush to take advantage of the width provided by Madrid’s wing-backs. If Madrid had suppressed their instinct to play wide and chosen to consistently penetrate the center, they could’ve drawn in Sevilla’s defensive lines before using their width to cross in time and space.

Another mistake Madrid made was playing at such a slow tempo. With a lack of quantitative superiority in attack and a well organized 4-4-2 defensive shape from Sevilla, Los Blancos could not afford to pass the ball around in a slow fashion. The lethargic pace of play allowed Sevilla to comfortably shift from side to side as a unit and negate the effects of Madrid’s superior width.

If Los Merengues had looked to switch the ball from side to side at speed, they could’ve forced Sevilla into defensive transition and given their wing-backs plenty of space to run into.

But because Madrid failed to do that, their greatest chances came on the counter-attack, where they were able to quickly shift the ball from flank to flank and truly take advantage of Carvajal and Marcelo’s gallivanting runs.

Sevilla’s Pressing

Unlike many facets of play over this three-match encounter between Real and Sevilla, Sampaoli’s pressing remained largely the same.

On the wings he chose to counterpress with his striker, winger, central midfielder, and fullback, whilst generally conceding the center due to Madrid’s quantitative superiority.

Sevilla also pressed Madrid on goal kicks, but other than a couple moments where Navas collapsed under pressure, Madrid easily passed their way through opposition pressure thanks to the overloads provided by the two center backs flanking Sergio Ramos and the movements made by Toni Kroos.

Considering how structured Sevilla’s spacing was, it was rather astonishing to see Modric and Varane escape their markers most of the time through slick dribbles and excellent one-two plays.

But this impressive press-resistance crucially didn’t last for the full game, as Sevilla stepped up their pressing level after Ramos’ own goal, harrying Madrid’s players with a vicious ferocity that led to Benzema being dispossessed and Jovetic scoring from distance.

Sergio Ramos’ Libero Role

Sergio Ramos thoroughly enjoyed his role as Madrid’s central center back in Zidane’s 5-3-2. Clearly given instructions by Zidane to act as an auxiliary central midfielder, Ramos took control of Madrid’s first possession phase and sought to control his team’s entry into the middle third of the pitch (Ramos attempted the most passes out of anyone in the team).

Not only did he do an excellent job of passing through Sevilla’s press, but he also did well to exploit one vs. one opportunities out wide by spraying long balls to Carvajal.

He also roamed forward into the final third to act as an extra passing option and give Sevilla something more to worry about.

In defense, he took on the passive role of sweeper, looking to protect the box from dangerous crosses whilst tracking the runs of Sevilla’s strikers.

Ramos had only one tackle, but had 2 interceptions and 9 clearances.

In many ways, Ramos played the role of “libero,” a once common type of “total” defender who acted as his side’s safety net, primary distributor, and extra attacker, all at once.

Only a bad own goal blemished what was otherwise an excellent performance from Ramos.

Concluding Thoughts on Zidane and Sampaoli’s Tactics

While Zidane’s new formation proved to be defensively sound, it was an unnecessary precaution considering the circumstances. If Sevilla had played with wing-backs, the change might’ve been more understandable, but instead, Sampaoli chose to go with a 4-2-3-1, the same formation that got trounced 0-3 by the 4-3-3 at the Bernabeu.

At the end of the day, Zidane shackled his side offensively and never gave Madrid a chance to truly win the game.

But it’s not like Sampaoli was perfect either. While his pressing was great, his decision to try to only penetrate the wings in slow build-up was a mistake for the reasons outlined before and he should’ve done more to try take advantage of Madrid’s lack of defensive width in transition.

As can be seen in the video above, Sevilla looked most threatening when attacking the space left behind by Marcelo and Carvajal, something they didn’t do enough of.

With both coaches organizing solid defenses and facilitating uninspiring offenses, a fair result would’ve been a 0-0 draw, but a bad tackle on Carvajal, a bit of luck with an own goal, and some individual brilliance from Jovetic allowed the game to end 2-1 in Sevilla’s favor.

Bits & Pieces

Casemiro had an excellent game in the first half. He completed 4/5 of his tackles, was immaculate in possession, and displayed some cute Samba touches.

However, he was the exact opposite in the second half, as he completed a poor 0/4 tackles, struggled a bit more under Sevilla’s pressure, and gave the ball away stupidly inside his own box.

Nevertheless, as many have already observed, it looks like Casemiro is becoming cooler and neater under pressure as well as more level-headed and cleaner in his tackles, though these improvements are being overstated by some.

Luka Modric was Madrid’s best player. He was positionally superb on defense (he completed 4 interceptions), wonderfully press resistant, and magical on offense. It’s a pity that he was often spread too thin due to the need for him to often act as an auxiliary right midfielder.


Keylor Navas hasn’t had the greatest season. He should’ve come out to deal with the cross that led to a Ramos own goal and his positioning was poor on Jovetic’s winner. He also looked nervy when pressed (an already known weakness of his), leading him to waste possession on too many occasions. While Kiko Casilla isn’t really an automatic upgrade over the Costa Rican, Zidane should consider giving the Spaniard a chance to force Navas to improve.

Having looked at both goals several times, I no longer think Navas is at fault for the first goal.

He had two defenders in front him and it would’ve been simply impossible for the Costa Rican to claim the cross.

As for the second goal, I still believe Navas was too far off his line and too close to the near post.

If you look closely at the curve of the shot, you will realize that it was going to center itself as it approaches the goal line.

If Navas had been closer to the goal and more centered, he would’ve been best positioned to save the shot at its most favorable angle. While coming off your line usually presents goalkeepers with the best angle to save shots, that mostly isn’t the case when saving from distance.

At the end of the day, it’s a nit-pick to go after Navas because of how fast things happened and because it took a series of mistakes for the shot too even occur.

Zidane’s decision to use only one substitute was simply inexcusable. Marcelo and Carvajal both looked gassed and a formation change was in order anyway.

The unbeaten streak was always going to end. Finally losing doesn’t mean that disaster is ahead or that Madrid will suddenly dive downhill. However, Zidane must remain extremely vigilant to ensure that Madrid’s mentality is not affected by their first loss of the season.

Cheer up, we’re at the top of the table with a game in hand.

(All statistics & charts taken from & fourfourtwo statszone)

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