Zinedine Zidane Continues To Show Tactical Improvement
It’s clear that Zinedine Zidane did his homework over the winter break, as Real Madrid defeated Sevilla in a tactically sound blitzkrieg. The pressing Los Blancos implemented was easily the fiercest, most consistent, and most effective system that Zidane has crafted all season, while the structure in defense, passing, and movement off-the-ball was fluid and progressive.
With Real Madrid moving onto 38 games unbeaten and with Zidane continuing to smash big teams on a regular basis, the French manager is showing a strong will to improve and a growing attention to detail.
Real Madrid’s Pressing
The first thing to discuss is Real Madrid’s near perfect pressing. Last seen (quality-wise) against Dortmund, Zidane’s men showed the necessary intensity, work-rate, and sense of positioning to consistently trouble Sampaoli’s men and out-press the pressing kings.
Normally, I would just use stats and a couple snapshots to illustrate the success of Real’s press, but given the lack of Copa del Rey coverage by whoscored, fourfourtwo, & squawka, I have been forced to use a wealth of videos and GIFs to successfully illustrate my point and back up my claims.
The above clip is an excellent example of exactly how Madrid’s high press was structured, as Real applied pressure all the way to the keeper, with Morata always spearheading the effort.
When play started from the keeper, Morata simply looked to mark the center back or central midfielder trying to receive the ball right in front of the box. Since Sampaoli was intent on having Sevilla play their way out of pressure, this always forced a short pass out wide.
Instead of having his wide-men press the wide pass, Zidane made the curious decision of asking Modric and Kroos to abandon their defensive positions and move in line with Morata.
On the face of it, this seems like a bad decision, since it exposes too much space in behind the pressing line, but the deeper positioning of Casemiro, which marked the midfielder near the relevant flank, ensured vertical compactness stayed intact.
The benefit of this strategy was how it allowed Real Madrid to avoid committing their fullbacks high up the pitch (to press), which can always be exploited by a well-timed off-the-ball run and a long ball. With Modric and Kroos pressing high in the half spaces, James and Asensio could drop deeper to mark the fullback, thus ensuring that they had a failsafe (in the form of their fullbacks behind them) in case they lost their individual duels (meaning lobbed passes to the wings would be less successful).
This extensive defensive coverage provided superb horizontal compactness when Sevilla tried to switch the ball, as Madrid had zero trouble closing down the man receiving the switch of play thanks to the 5 men each occupying a zone of the pitch (Morata the center, Modric and Kroos the half spaces, Asensio and James the wings).
With absolutely nowhere to go, Sevilla had no choice but to continue clearing the ball, something that allowed Madrid to regain possession with ease, thanks to the aerial superiority of Casemiro and the center backs behind him (who stepped up to challenge for the ball).
But if Sevilla tried to continue playing through the press, they were punished severely.
In fact, Madrid’s press (in this case a counterpress) was the tactical tool that created Madrid’s first goal, as Modric, Casemiro, James, and Morata closed their net on an unsuspecting N’Zonzi.
Again, I must emphasize how impressive Madrid’s coverage of Sevilla’s passing options was. Casemiro, Kroos, and Modric were 5 yards away from their man at the most, forcing the center back into a bad pass no matter the central option he chose. Unfortunately for Sevilla, he chose the man guarded by Casemiro, leading to a loss of possession and a pot-shot on goal from James.
This was the sort of thing people expected to see from Sampaoli, not Zinedine Zidane.
Real Madrid’s Defensive Structure in Their Own Half
Of course, no matter how good any team’s pressing is, the opposition will always have moments where they find a way to move the ball into the pressing team’s half. Aware of this, Zidane asked his side to form into a 4-1-4-1 when transitioning away from their pressing structure.
This required a lot from James and Asensio, as the two wide-men had to track back from their offensive positioning in a 4-3-3 to form a defensive bank of four. But the commitment and work-rate of the two crafty playmakers were excellent today, ensuring that Zidane could receive the full benefits of having a 4-man midfield line - horizontal compactness.
The reason such a formation allows for greater horizontal compactness, is because the presence of two defensively positioned wingers allows for Modric and Kroos to sit narrower, enabling them to protect each other and cover for each other’s mistakes. They don’t have to worry about monitoring the runs of advancing fullbacks etc., because the wide midfielders will take care of that (if the two wingers didn’t track back, the two CM’s would have to defend the wings as well as the center, meaning that only one player would guard the center – Casemiro). Essentially, each player can focus their defensive efforts on fewer zones on the field, meaning there’s less of a chance of getting stretched and overloaded. If the central striker can position himself correctly (which Morata did) to cut off passing lanes, the center of the pitch can become inaccessible (think Atlético Madrid).
In order to provide vertical compactness, Casemiro sat below that bank of four, ensuring some of the best defensive organization we’ve seen all season.
But what was more interesting was the fact that Madrid didn’t simply sit off. In fact, they engaged in pressing in their own half, as Kroos and Modric both acted as pressing triggers when the ball circulated to their side of the field.
This often meant pressuring N’Zonzi, Ganso, or Nasri when they received the ball, forcing them to rotate possession backwards or to the opposite flank. If Sevilla refused to, Kroos or Modric would hold their positions and create a 4-4-2 defensive structure, pinning Sevilla’s possession play in the middle third.
To prevent Sevilla from exploiting the space that was left behind by the movements of Modric and Kroos, Casemiro would step into their place while the aforementioned duo would protect the area behind them using cover shadows.
Real Madrid’s Build-Up vs. Sevilla’s Press
Something that will probably go unnoticed in the aftermath of this win was how useless Sampaoli’s (the pressing king) pressing scheme was. Part of this was down to the individual composure of every Real Madrid player (yes, that includes Casemiro), but the majority of the credit has to be given to Zidane.
He set his side up in two specific ways to combat Sevilla’s high pressure:
- Long balls from Kiko Casilla
- Short passing when the outfielders had the ball
The first will probably be the most unnoticed part of Zidane’s press resistance strategy, because it was rather unglamorous and backwards as Xavi would probably say.
This was because Kiko Casilla simply arrowed the ball long whenever pressured by Sampaoli’s men, due to the fact that the he isn’t all that comfortable on the ball. While this usually leads to losses in possession (like with Sevilla today), Zidane ensured that Modric and Kroos were stationed abnormally high (at least for central midfielders) up the pitch to fight for flick-ons or receive the ball themselves.
This not only allowed Madrid to retain possession, but also allowed Real to directly attack Sevilla’s back-line.
The second pattern Zidane used was short passing out from the back, which is something we have seen before. Depending on the respective wing, James or Asensio would drop deep to form small passing triangles with Kroos, Modric, and Marcelo/Carvajal to progress play down the flanks and into the final third.
While these two plans mostly dismantled Sevilla’s proactive defending, it must be noted that Sampaoli’s men did successfully win the ball high up the pitch to trouble Madrid on a couple of occasions.
But just like with their attacking plan (which will be elaborated on later), their successful moments were few and far between.
Real Madrid’s Offensive Tactics
Real Madrid’s offensive tactics can be split into three broad categories:
- High Tempo Possession Play
- Low Tempo Possession Play
The first category was the plan Zidane implemented from the first whistle till James’ first goal. The objective was to supplement his press with a quick passing style that stunned Sevilla with the overall intensity of their plan. To achieve this, the Frenchman not only asked his side to zip the ball around quickly, but to continually look to switch play in an effort to constantly keep Sevilla’s defense shifting from side to side.
When combined with the counterpress, it is obvious that Zidane was looking to forcibly create transitions in an effort to attain high quality chances that one would normally only see in counter-attacking situations.
Once Madrid scored, Zidane looked to retain control of the game by asking his players to slow things down and be patient in trying to find an opening. This meant Madrid had to change their style of penetration, since they could no longer play passes into greater amounts of space. Thus, in order to be effective in this slower style, Madrid had to play through Zidane’s worst enemy - the center of the pitch.
At this point Madrid should’ve started lobbing cross after cross into the box (according past trends), making Sevilla’s life fairly easy, but instead, Madrid actually attempted to play through the center, displaying Zidane’s steady tactical maturation.
Modric (who relished his free roaming playmaker role), Morata, James, and Asensio consistently danced in-between Sevilla’s midfield and defensive lines to provide central occupation and passing options through the center.
The effect of this type of movement was clear, as Sevilla’s men were drawn to the central positioning of the aforementioned players (hence the reason such positioning is referred to as occupation), creating space out wide for Madrid to pass to. This then gave Real chances to cross while Sevilla tried to re-organize themselves (or while they were in transition), leading to more effective deliveries from the fullbacks.
When Real Madrid found themselves pinned to the wing and unable to access the center, Modric was instrumental in roaming forward to connect with this teammates, create passing triangles, and switch play to create good one-on-one situations.
Zidane abandoned this plan after Real Madrid emerged from the break at half time, simply opting to sit back, soak up pressure, and hit Sevilla on the break. While such negative changes usually bode ill for Los Blancos, Madrid were able to keep their defensive composure and shape to box Sevilla out and create quality chances on the counter.
Sevilla’s Attacking Plan
Due to the immense defensive organization by Zidane’s men, Sevilla looked to direct all their attacks to wide areas by mainly playing through balls into the channels (the space in-between the center back and fullback) or by simply playing direct passes to the wings when Real Madrid were in transition.
These types of plays were often sparked by Nasri, the prime dictator of Sevilla’s offensive play. He would often knock the ball about before passing or asking his teammate to pass to either Vicente Iborra, Vitolo, Mariano, or Escudero on the wing.
This would then draw Marcelo wide, creating a space in the channel for Correa to run into and receive the ball.
For the most part, Real Madrid were able to defend well against these types of attacks thanks to the individual superiority of Nacho and Varane on the day, but there were occasions, especially from the 30th minute to the end of the first half, where Sevilla managed to trouble their opponent.
But at the end of the day, Sevilla were not able to successfully come up with enough quality attacks through the wings to truly have a shout at winning the game.
Did Jorge Sampaoli Make a Mistake By Changing Formation?
Having had plenty of time to chew over all the tactics, I can’t help but wonder if Sampaoli made a crucial mistake in switching away from his regular back three formation. Surely another center back would have created more deep passing options to circulate the ball around Madrid’s press, whilst allowing Sevilla’s fullbacks to push higher as advanced passing outlets?
Maybe the Argentine switched formations because he recently sold a CB and replaced him with a newbie that is yet to understand the manager’s system?
Whatever the reason, I have a feeling that it was a mistake to abandon a system that has clearly worked so well for him in the past.
Bits & Pieces
Kiko Casilla’s sweeper-keeping actions were crucial in preventing Sevilla from taking advantage of Real Madrid’s high and flat defensive line.
Nacho was immense in his one-on-one duels and it’s clear that he’s reached another level this season.
Zidane’s record against “big” sides is amazing. Slowly but surely, he is eradicating my doubts over his tactical ability through bursts of astonishing improvement. If he could just maintain this attention to detail against the so called “lesser lights,” Real Madrid could truly reach their potential (which is pretty scary when you realize that we are already unbeaten so far this season).
Kroos is an underrated presser and deserves to be recognized as one of the best in the game.
This was Marcelo’s best match of the season.
Modric was magnificent.
James continues to prove why he’s too good to ride the bench.
It’s incredible to think that we played this way without any of the BBC present.
Along with Madrid’s 3-0 win over Atléti, I would rate this game as Zidane’s best tactical performance in his managerial career so far.