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Tactical Review (La Liga 2016/17): Real Madrid 3 - 0 Real Sociedad

Los Blancos overcome a shaky performance with clinical finishing.

Real Madrid CF v Real Sociedad de Futbol - La Liga Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Real Madrid overcame a shaky start to flatten Real Sociedad 3-0 at the Santiago Bernabeu. To facilitate this victory, Zidane went back to the basics and deployed his men in a 4-3-3, which was allowed by Varane’s return to the lineup. One would expect that this would cause Casemiro to sit deep in order to free Kovacic and Kroos to roam up the pitch, but this wasn’t exactly the case.

Real Madrid’s Structure in the 1st Phase of Possession

Kroos was almost always the deepest man in possession, as he acted as Real Madrid’s deep lying playmaker. The German was the one who received the ball short from the center backs and looked to work Madrid into the final third.

This saw Casemiro push up as in an interior with Kovacic, meaning that Casemiro had to make movements to break Sociedad’s defensive structure, receive the ball under pressure, and make a pass.

Whichever side you stand on the Casemiro debate, you cannot argue that this is a favorable situation to put Casemiro in. The Brazilian is a destroyer and is not at all used to making the playmaking movements, touches, and passes, necessary of an interior in a 4-3-3.

This saw him lose the ball clumsily a couple times, but in general, he actually did fairly well to hold onto possession and create decent opportunities to break Sociedad’s midfield line.

But as has been common for awhile now, Kroos and his teammates mostly ignored Casemiro because they don’t really trust him in these types of situations, meaning that Madrid were set-up in a poor structure to play short passes up the pitch.

Real Madrid overcame this impediment in three ways:

  1. Kroos and Kovacic engaged in extensive ball carrying movements to push up into Real Sociedad’s half and attack the final third.
  2. Real Madrid’s center backs played a big role in possession and looked to be extremely direct at times.
  3. Ronaldo and Benzema made a lot of deep movements to create passing options to progress play.

The first tactical adjustment was the most common and was most probably observed by every fan watching the game. Kroos and Kovacic consistently burst up the pitch from deep positions to break past Real Sociedad’s medium to high block and create some sort of forward momentum for Madrid.

This strategy was quite successful, as it led to Los Blancos’ second goal of the night.

Kroos avoided Casemiro and burst past a couple of markers before playing an unbelievable pass to Kovacic, who then played a through ball to Ronaldo to finish.

The second adjustment merely saw Varane and Ramos try to vertically push the ball into Sociedad’s attacking half, therefore bypassing the midfield and any structural problems that might exist there.

This worked generally well when the ball was spread wide, but it also allowed Real Sociedad to recover possession rather easily at times, hurting Madrid’s ability to retain the ball (Real Sociedad out-possessed Real Madrid 56.8% to 43.2%).

As per past matches, this should’ve led to zero penetration through the center and an over-reliance on wing-play, but the deep movement of Ronaldo and Benzema actually ensured that Madrid had options centrally.

A key reason for Real’s inability to create consistent chances throughout the game (Madrid only created 7 shots the whole match) was Ronaldo and Benzema’s sloppiness and wastefulness - especially in the first half.

Ronaldo and Benzema were both dispossessed once and picked up 3 and 5 unsuccessful touches respectively. Add in the wayward passes the forwards committed and you begin to understand why so many of Madrid’s attacks broke down in the final third.

Real Madrid were highly inaccurate with their passing in the final third

Nevertheless, one cannot ignore the big tactical adjustments that are being made to make room for Casemiro in midfield. If Zidane trusted his destroyer to carry out distributive duties, you would see Kroos and Kovacic receiving the ball high up the pitch instead of having to dribble into the same situations, thereby allowing Madrid’s forwards to stay higher up the pitch by default.

However, it must be said that there’s no practical alternative to the current situation other than dropping the Brazilian, which would be a big mistake given his defensive prowess.

Casemiro completed 12 tackles, 3 interceptions, 1 clearance, and 1 blocked shot.

Remember, Zidane makes all these adjustments to fit Casemiro into his system because Casemiro is arguably the best ball winner in the world bar none. He’s a one man defensive wall and can single-handedly stunt opposition attacks as shown today.

Thus, it’s probably worth Kroos and Kovacic carrying the extra playmaking load and Ronaldo and Benzema having to execute more prolific and deeper off-the-ball movements to accommodate someone that greatly improves Real Madrid’s defensive solidity.

Regardless, if Marcos Llorente lives up to the billing, he can likely eliminate this trade-off next season.

Real Madrid’s Poor Pressing

While Zidane did well to cover Casemiro’s flaws and still create a viable offensive system, it was extremely frustrating to see the Frenchman abandon focus on the necessary details that made Madrid’s press so successful shortly after the winter break.

Aside from a couple regains of possession high up the pitch due to Sociedad mistakes, Real Madrid’s players mostly wasted their energy in an ineffective press that was beaten 90% of the time.

As can be seen in the video above, this was not only due to bad structure that led to depressing compactness issues, but also because Eusebio Sacristán had set his side up in an excellent press-resistant structure that would have troubled some of the best pressing sides in the world.

Asier Illarramendi was crucial to this system, as he was often the player who created triangles in possession to overload Madrid’s pressers whilst passing past the press himself.

This is an issue that Zidane really needs to have solved by this point and it’s disappointing to see Real Madrid only press as a cohesive unit in the so called big games.

Real Madrid’s Counter-Attacks

If there was one thing that was the highlight of Madrid’s night, it was their devastating counter-attacks. Present intermittently in the first half, Real really began to turn on the afterburners when Real Sociedad threw caution to the wind and played an insanely high defensive line after going 2-0 down.

Needless to say, Los Blancos punished such foolhardiness with an excellently fashioned third goal.

Real Sociedad’s Game Plan

Other than their structure in the first possession phase, outlined in Madrid’s pressing video above, Real Sociedad’s game plan was relatively simple.

In defense, they sat in a high defensive block that looked to clog the center and make it difficult for Madrid to enter the middle third of the pitch...

Real Sociedad’s high defensive block.

...while in transition, they focused all their attacks down the wings to exploit the space left behind by Real Madrid’s fullbacks.

In possession, they played a slow passing game that looked to work the ball up the flanks and create combinations between Zurutuza/Canales, Juanmi/Oyarzabal, and Rodrigues/Zaldúa.

With only two shots inside the box, it’s safe to say that Real Sociedad’s wing-oriented game plan failed to really threaten Madrid’s defense bar a couple of occasions.

Select Player Performances

Mateo Kovacic

Rating: 9/10

Kovacic was undoubtedly Los Merengues’ best player and the man of the match. His bursting runs, ball control, penetrative passes, tireless defense, beautiful assist, and clinical goal, all made up a complete performance that decided the outcome of the game.

Key Statistics: 46 touches, 1 goal, 1 assist, 3/5 dribbles, 25/28 passes, 6 tackles

Cristiano Ronaldo

Rating: 8/10

Cristiano Ronaldo started off the match poorly, wasting play and slowing down Madrid’s attacks with poor touches and passes. But as the match progressed, he worked through his bad form and flattened Real Sociedad with a clutch one-on-one finish, an excellent assist for Kovacic, and several good crosses.

Key Statistics: 38 touches, 1 goal, 1 assist, 1/2 shots on target, 1 key pass, 1 dribble, 3 crosses, 3 unsuccessful touches.

Bits & Pieces

Karim Benzema does not deserve to be an undisputed started in this side at the moment. Morata has done everything in his power to convince Zidane that he deserves to start the next couple of games. It’s up to the coach now.

Lucas Vázquez had a solid and clean match and consistently threatened with the ball at his feet.

Danilo made 1 key tackle inside Madrid’s box and avoiding making any big mistakes. Decent game from the Brazilian.

Nacho was oddly sloppy with his first touch in attack.

Kroos did well considering that he had to shoulder a lot of Madrid’s duties in the first possession phase, but he uncharacteristically misplaced a lot of passes.

Illarramendi was Real Sociedad’s best player.

Madrid weren’t perfect, but they needed this win against a tough opponent to boost their confidence and belief.

(All statistics & charts taken from & fourfourtwo statzone)

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