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Observations: The Small Details of Real Madrid’s Beatdown over Sevilla

Zidane bested Sampaoli, and the little details mattered


Real Madrid has a brief and recent history against Sevilla in the Copa Del Rey. Since the turn of the century, Real have faced Sevilla five times - with the sixth scheduled a week from today. Of those five matches, Real Madrid have won all but one, and Zinedine Zidane has been directly involved in three of them - twice as a player, and once as a manager. Zidane didn’t instigate much in those two games as a player (no, he saved his best for the league, and did his damage against Sevilla here, here, and here); but in yesterday’s 3-0 win, he unleashed his biggest weapon unto bystander Sampaoli - Doomsday.

Doomsday was stashed in Zidane’s secret lab, tucked away underground beneath Valdebebas. It is a high pressing machine which combats fire with fire, visibly unnerves some of the best attacking teams in Spain, and strips layers of confidence off otherwise confident teams - one dispossession at a time. In other words, it is tear gas on steroids, and Zidane used it when we least expected it - in a match where squad health wears thin and unfamiliarity in the attack reigns free.

Tidbits from Sevilla’s Day of Doom: 01/04/2017

It’s easy to get carried away with yesterday’s performance in a tournament widely recognized as ‘third priority’ among fans - so let’s not. Sevilla had enough chances to turn this result had Kiko Casilla not put in a tremendous shift to deny them three clear-cut chances. Those chances were created with looping balls to cutting attackers behind Real Madrid’s wingbacks. Sampaoli couldn’t play his rabid and relentless gung-ho style, but he did make it a point to catch defenders napping, and in this particular case, bore some luck. Carjaval’s giveaway with a mis-header was followed by a gamble in attempting an off-side trap when neither he nor the defense was set for it:

But those lapses were few and far between, and were masked by Zidane’s blueprint. For the most part, Marcelo and Carvajal were spoiled by the midfielders who each bore extra lungs to play this match as part of the inaugural Doomsday launch. Go through this game thoroughly and you’ll find plenty of examples of this. Here, Real Madrid are in no apparent danger from Marcelo’s advanced position. By the time N’Zonzi looks up to find his outlet — Samir Nasri — to take advantage of Marcelo’s run, Kroos and Casemiro have already snuffed out the attack.

Casemiro was everything in this game, from high-pressing ball-winner to heroic safety net on both flanks. The cover for Marcelo (above) was not an isolated incident, nor was it limited to the left side only. He also acted as Carvajal’s bulwark. Here he breathes down N’Zoni’s neck long enough to chase him straight into the earth’s core. Once N’Zonzi cuts back to avoid Carjaval, Casemiro has already taken away his soul.

In another instance, earlier in the first half, Carvajal has to drift inside to cover the cutting attacker, switching with Varane who goes out wide to close N’Zonzi. Casemiro doubles-up - simultaneously closing the passing lane while pressing N’Zonzi who runs out of time before playing a desperate pass which is easily picked off by Dani. I’ve inserted a tracker for Dani here, but look how important Casemiro’s movement to this defensive sequence is.

And here’s one more, for all you .gif-junkies needing their fix:

Casemiro was a huge protagonist in Sevilla’s disintegration on Wednesday. He may struggle dealing with pressing schemes (I wrote about this the other day, along with some notes on the Casemiro vs Marcos Llorente debate), but yesterday, Zidane didn’t allow Sevilla to press the way they normally do. It was almost surreal to witness, not only because Real Madrid ground Sevilla down to the point where they no longer looked like Sevilla, but also because of the continual surprises Zidane throws at us over time. When everyone expects him to zig, Zidane zags.

Something that shouldn’t get lost in the shuffle about Casemiro - it wasn’t just his ball-winning and press that gave Real Madrid life, but also his ability to do good with the ball, something he’s known to be liable for. His passing and cross-field distribution was fine. Just look at his composure here defending Nasri in the box before coolly clearing it in a way that doesn’t waste possession:

The organization of Real Madrid’s midfield was also spectacular as a whole. You tell me which team in the world can do what Real Madrid did, without six of their starters and two of their understudies and I’ll wait eternally, or long enough to see the sun freeze. Zidane had a plan from minute 1-90. The Doomsday-press jabbed at Sevilla’s jaw in the first 15 minutes of either half, and where none of us expected it to be sustainable, the team morphed into banks of five and four throughout, taking turns rotating as the ball pinged across the field. First Modric, then Casemiro, then Kroos as the ball swung the width of the pitch. It was synchronized. It was eye candy.

Just when you think Real Madrid have their foot off the pedal, playing deeper without the ball, they rev the engine and pounce. Look how well James hounds Sevilla here (something he’s naturally very good at doing), coming up on Sevilla’s blind-side:

And more James hounding:

As a whole, all that organization and cohesiveness led to more than just subduing Sevilla. Timely step-ups from various midfielders in a packed midfield meant counter-attacks and interceptions. You’d be hard-pressed (pun absolutely intended) to try and pass your way past a cyborg on his birthday:

On what wasn’t an isolated incident, Luka Modric found himself the highest pressing player on the pitch more than once. When deep-lying midfielders press that high, it’s usually down to transition, and not design. But this was different. Real Madrid were set-up and primed defensively, and when you play a scheme with a packed midfield the way the team was lined up on Wednesday, you have enough stability to push high and start agitating. In this case, there’s no reason for Modric to drop as a plug when the midfield is already sealed with Casemiro and Kroos.

Nacho, the king of details

Welcome to the era of Nacho praise. About a year ago he started to become truly appreciated. This season he’s been accepted as an important role player, and by now, most fans understand that Nacho is a legitimate contributor who’s made a huge leap at the age of 26 - ripening before our eyes. As I said in my column a few days ago, he’s a lifer. Watch him read the game here like a metaphysical demon just when Sevilla think they’re about to hit back on the break:

Modric, threading needles

This was low-key my favourite moment of the match. Luka Modric has the ball far away enough from goal that Sevilla can be as comfortable as you possibly can be when Modric has the ball looking towards your goal. Then, his gravitational pull brings Sevilla’s entire defensive line towards him in order to close central channels (where James is hovering), and, they suddenly shift into a very narrow line. From there, the defense falls into a vortex and Modric slices Sevilla with a surgical pass. This eventually led to a Modric scissor kick which went off target - becoming one my favourite ‘non-goals’ of the season.

I’m looking forward to more zigging from Zidane.

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