There is no doubt that optimism and confidence was sky high after Madrid defeated Sevilla 3-0 in the first leg of the Copa del Rey, due to Zinedine Zidane’s masterful tactical scheme that demonstrated key improvements in pressing, compactness, and central penetration.
But progress is rarely linear and it seems that Zidane fell back on some of his old habits in Madrid’s 2-1 win over Málaga. Los Blancos were once again over-reliant on crossing and wing-play, due to the interchanging vices of poor positional structure and a lack of movement in-between the lines.
Nevertheless, it must be said that Real created enough chances to deserve a win from this game, due to Kroos’ sublime deliveries, their aerial superiority, and chances from their press.
Real Madrid’s Defensive Tactics
Defending in Málaga’s Half With the 4-3-3
Real Madrid initially shaped up in a 4-3-3, with Ronaldo-Benzema-Lucas spearheading a midfield of Kroos-Case-Modric.
The Whites set up in a medium-high block, as they looked to contest Málaga’s entry into the final third while occasionally pressing when necessary.
Madrid’s centrally positioned attacker (often Benzema or Ronaldo), looked to block off vertical passes from the keeper, while Real’s wide attackers sat narrower to block off passes to and from the center backs (who were always split wide in the 1st phase of possession).
When Modric and Kroos decided to initiate a press, the central attacker would move to close down the keeper while the two wide attackers would look to close off the center backs. Modric and Kroos would spread wide to mark the fullbacks, while Madrid’s fullbacks would provide vertical compactness.
These types of central pressing moves were often very passive, with Benzema, Ronaldo, and Lucas often trying to rush a pass instead of vigorously attempting to win the ball.
The lack of intensity from the forwards was only a problem when Modric, Kroos, or Casemiro got overexcited and pushed too high up the pitch to close players down. This was partly because the pressure of Ronaldo, Benzema, and Lucas was too lax to cover for any lack of vertical compactness, meaning Málaga often had just enough time to pick a pass through bad defensive structure.
In other words, Madrid’s frontline was not pressing in a way that could cover for any positional deficiencies behind them.
This selective open play pressing was a bit different than Madrid’s pressing on throw-ins, which was a lot more aggressive. In most cases, Benzema would shift over to the flank being pressed while Casemiro and the closest interior would mark any passing options in the half spaces. The fullback would push up to mark his counterpart.
This proved to be a pretty successful way for Madrid to win the ball back and counter, as demonstrated by the chance Kroos was able to provide Ronaldo in the 12th minute.
Defending in Málaga’s Half With the 4-4-2 Diamond
When Marcelo went down injured in the 25th minute, he was replaced by Isco, morphing Madrid’s shape into a 4-4-2 diamond (Nacho moved to left back, Lucas became right back, and Isco became a CAM).
One might expect that Madrid’s style of defending would’ve become drastically different due to the change, but that didn’t turn out to be the case. Madrid still held their same medium-high block and chose to selectively press when asked to by Modric and Kroos. Isco pushed up and pressed Málaga’s central areas, while Ronaldo and Benzema split wide to mark the fullbacks.
The same compactness issues appeared when Modric, Kroos, and Casemiro, got too excited with their pressing actions.
The only thing that was different was Madrid’s pressing frequency, which dropped even further with the formation change.
Defending in Their Own Half With the 4-3-3
Once Málaga entered Madrid’s half, Lucas Vázquez joined his midfield to create a 4-4-2 defensive structure in an effort to create team-wide compactness and shut off access to the center.
But due to Málaga’s attacking patterns, which were focused out wide, Madrid soon ended up shifting their entire midfield over to one flank to deal with Málaga’s attempts to penetrate using intricate short passes.
Defending in Their Own Half With the 4-4-2 Diamond
Madrid’s defensive shape in their own half was a bit different from when they played in a 4-3-3. Instead of looking to position themselves in a flat 4-4-2, Zizou ensured that Real kept their diamond shape in an effort to provide an even greater obstacle to central penetration.
When the visitors inevitably played the ball wide, either Modric or Kroos would be aided by Casemiro (and occasionally Isco) in defending the flank. The central midfielder farthest from play would also shift over considerably to mark any short square passes that a Málaga player could attempt.
As one would expect, this left Madrid vulnerable to quick switches of play, especially since Modric and Kroos are not box-to-box midfielders. Luckily for ZZ and his side, Málaga never really seemed to figure that weakness out, though they did exploit Madrid’s lack of defensive width in transition a couple times.
Real Madrid’s Offensive Tactics - Lack of Central Penetration
As mentioned in the intro, Real lacked any meaningful central penetration throughout the game. There were two reasons for this:
- Bad positional structure from Casemiro
- Lack of movement in-between the lines
For some reason, Zinedine Zidane thought it fit to ask Casemiro to often push up higher than Modric and Kroos in the final third. While Case’s movement wasn’t nearly as offensive and box-to-box as the last match, his runs were still frequent enough to seriously affect Madrid’s positional structure.
As mentioned in my last article, Casemiro’s weird CAM positioning shackles Modric and Kroos into deeper roles. This is because they can’t afford to push up with Madrid’s prime safety net too far upfield - it would leave Madrid too vulnerable to counter-attacks.
The result of this is a lack of central occupation that would usually be provided by the interiors as they move into the half spaces. This creates a flat midfield line and forces distribution out wide, where crossing is Madrid’s only attacking weapon.
While this is undoubtedly a mistake by Zizou, it must be noted that Casemiro’s average distribution skills don’t help either.
In other words, there’s sort of a natural lack of balance in Madrid’s midfield that aids this sort of weird midfield set-up. Kroos, Madrid’s main controller of tempo in all thirds of the pitch, plays as an LCM, while Casemiro, who’s sole role is to win the ball, plays as a DM. With Casemiro not trusted by the manager to control play in the final third, there is actually little Zidane can do to free up his interiors and create central occupation using his midfield. Kroos will continue dropping deep from the left to control play, creating a flat midfield line that is very difficult to solve.
One way to work around this is to ask your forwards to make the necessary movements in-between the lines, but as can be seen in the video above, this rarely happened. Even when Madrid shifted to a 4-4-2 diamond (a formation that is supposed to naturally aid central play), Madrid rarely penetrated centrally because Isco often dropped too deep to receive the ball.
As a result, Madrid were forced to fire in cross after cross after cross.
It’s a bit a disappointing to see Madrid’s old problems recur, but it must be noted that big tactical changes tend to take a while to sink in over the long-term. Let’s hope Zidane can continue to reinforce central penetration so Madrid can be a more dangerous team in the future.
In case you were wondering why central penetration and occupation is important, just check out how effective it was the few times Los Blancos actually decided to use it vs. Málaga.
Málaga’s Pressing On the Wings
I’ve spent a lot of time talking about Madrid and their tactics, so it’s time I touched upon a key tactic from the opposition - pressing on the wings.
Probably understanding that Madrid relied heavily on their wings in build-up play, Marcelo Romero asked his side to continually press and overload the flank Real was using to progress the ball.
This involved setting up in a sort of diamond shape, where the striker cut off backwards passing options, the winger marked the fullback, one of the DM’s provided vertical compactness, and the attacking midfielder looked to block off any horizontal passing lanes. In many ways, it mimicked the shape of Madrid’s diamond midfield in defense.
What wasn’t similar was the intensity with which Málaga pressed, which was a couple notches above anything Madrid showed. Romero’s players showed intense commitment and desire to win the ball, resulting in a couple chances and some extremely dangerous moments for Real Madrid that were narrowly averted.
However, just like with Madrid’s diamond midfield, Málaga’s pressing was vulnerable to switches of play, something that Real figured out rather quickly, allowing them to beat the press more times than Romero would’ve liked.
Málaga’s high line was also a double-edged sword. While it allowed them to ensure great vertical compactness when they pressed, it was also exploited on several occasions, leading to dangerous attacks that could’ve resulted in a goal.
Select Player Performances
Player Rating: 9/10
Toni Kroos was easily the best Real Madrid player on the park. His passing was simply sublime, as he controlled the tempo of the play, demonstrated excellent passing range, created 1 vs. 1 situations with long balls, played vertical passes whenever he was provided good central movement, and executed laser-guided set-pieces
Key Statistics: 9 key passes, 60/64 passes, 4/8 crosses, 6/7 long balls, 1/1 through balls, 3 tackles, and 1 interception.
Player Rating: 6/10
Casemiro had a bit of a mixed game. As usual, he was strong in defense, but he also made some pretty sloppy mistakes with and without the ball.
With the ball, he was extremely vulnerable when pressed...
...and without it, he executed an unnecessary sliding challenge from behind that caused the referee to show him a yellow card.
Key Statistics: 8/8 long balls, 7 tackles, 1 interception, 2 clearances, 3 fouls, 1 yellow card, 1 dispossession, 1 mis-control.
Bits & Pieces
Sergio Ramos is simply amazing.
Ronaldo was sloppy in the first 10 minutes of play, but then improved with his dribbling and ball retention for the rest of the game. Despite that, his finishing was extremely wasteful and is something that will haunt him tonight.
Benzema was not as involved as you’d expect him to be and his one clear-cut goal scoring chance was wasted with a stupid attempt at a backheel. Like Ronaldo, he has not been nearly consistent enough this season.
Carlos Kameni made 5 saves, some of which were excellent stops, but he also took too many risks when distributing from the back and his bone-headed mis-control on a back-pass nearly cost Málaga a goal.
Keylor Navas had a very good game, as he made 5 excellent saves and avoided the mistakes of his counterpart.
Madrid conceded a goal thanks to bad positioning from their right fullback for the second consecutive time.
Lucas was great for most of the match, but his gamble to stay higher up the pitch instead of tracking back was a costly mistake.
(Statistics & charts taken from whoscored.com & fourfourtwo statszone)