Zinedine Zidane used his 90 minutes versus bottom feeders Granada creatively, as he experimented tactically while Real Madrid comfortably disposed of their opponents five goals to nil. More specifically, Zizou tried out a diamond midfield with Kroos, Casemiro, and Modric, sitting behind Trequartista Isco Alarcón.
This changed at halftime, when the manager brought on James for Kroos, allowing Madrid to resume a more familiar 4-4-2 shape.
While this was a bit of curious tinkering from Zidane that will require more explanation (as I will duly oblige below), it must be noted that tactics didn’t mean that much against a side that has only picked up one win in La Liga so far.
Real Madrid’s Diamond Formation on Offense
As noted before, Madrid’s midfield comprised of 3 central midfielders behind one attacking midfielder. The objective of such a formation is to overwhelm the center of the pitch with superior numbers in order to dominate the game.
This places a lot of responsibility on the two lateral CM’s, as they must act as box-to-box engines to provide overloads, combine with their fullbacks when needed, and track runners into the half spaces and wider areas.
Juventus was a great example of this in the 14/15 edition of the Champions League, when they employed a diamond structure to outmuscle and overwhelm Madrid’s defensively questionable midfield to eventually reach the final of the competition.
It’s necessary to understand that this tactical scheme worked since it suited Allegri’s personnel perfectly, as Pogba and Vidal were perfect B2B’s behind the more creatively gifted Claudio Marchisio and ahead of the regista Pirlo.
In Madrid’s case, it’s less arguable that the diamond fits Madrid’s personnel (at least with the eleven playing today), as neither Kroos nor Modric are typical B2B’s, as they lack the physicality, speed, and aggression typical of say, an Arturo Vidal.
But it must be said that Modric did surprisingly well (or perhaps not) in such a role. This is probably because a B2B is only the more physical (and sometimes less technically gifted) version of a roaming playmaker (Modric’s natural role), meaning that Modric was tactically comfortable in the constant off-the-ball movements he had to make.
On the other hand, it was clear that Kroos was not comfortable in this role at all, as he was much more static and preferred to sit deep with Casemiro in order to dictate play.
This meant that Isco was often required to provide off-the-ball penetration in the left halfspace and the left-wing, creating a somewhat asymmetric 4-2-2-2.
This lessened the number of overloads Madrid could’ve had in the final third, but it hardly mattered against an opponent as inept as Granada.
Isco was comfortably able to cover for Kroos’ own offensive duties as well as his own, while Modric provided a consistent and occupying threat on the right hand-side.
Perhaps Kroos was just being merciful.
As usual, there was plenty of crossing from Zidane’s men in order to take advantage of the aerial superiority of proven kangaroo Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema.
But unlike in many matches in the past, there was a better balance between crossing and passing through the middle.
This was due to the improved movement in-between the lines that we saw in the recent clash with Sevilla, as Isco, Modric, Ronaldo, and Benzema each roamed in the middle of Granada’s two defensive lines, thus creating greater access to zone 14.
Zidane continues to demonstrate improved tactical improvement in terms of penetrating central areas. pic.twitter.com/muLwE6IdKV— O.Dembélé fanboy (@OmVArvind) January 7, 2017
On many an occasion this forced Granada’s defensive line to narrow, allowing for Madrid’s fullbacks to receive a pass in space and fire in a cross while the opposition was in defensive transition.
In other instances, this type of movement allowed for short passing play that broke down Granada’s low block through the center and created good scoring chances.
Real Madrid’s Diamond on Defense
One thing Zidane didn’t change was Madrid’s pressing scheme that we saw against Sevilla. While it wasn’t nearly as intense as what we saw last time, the general structure and style of compactness was still very much the same; Casemiro was the key provider of vertical compactness, while Modric and Kroos acted as the pressing triggers.
The main difference was the two up top, which allowed Modric and Kroos to press a bit deeper than they did vs. Sevilla, which was a necessary adjustment considering the lack of wide midfielders in a diamond formation.
But this change didn’t hinder Los Blancos a bit, as they successfully pressed Granada off-the-ball in the 13th minute to score the first goal of the game.
While people could say this is only Granada, the evidence from the Sevilla match suggests that pressing is turning into a legitimate scoring weapon for Zidane.
Despite the generally impressive defensive performance from the All Whites, there were some issues that Granada tried to exploit.
Due to the lack of familiarity with the formation, there were some spacing issues that occasionally led to some bad vertical compactness, but more importantly, there was a lack of protection for the fullbacks when in defensive transition.
This is where the lack of elite speed and stamina comes into play, as Modric and Kroos were hard pressed to cover their fullbacks when Granada switched play on the counter.
This was because the narrowness of the midfield line asked for Modric, Kroos, and Casemiro to defend one flank. While this provides numerical superiority in that defensive sector, if Granada could play their way out of that congested area and switch play, Madrid would be momentarily exposed.
It’s safe to say that Granada failed to do this more than a couple of times due to their general lack of quality, but bigger teams will surely exploit this weakness if Zidane employs the diamond against them.
Needless to say, that was the exact reason Zizou tried this tactical scheme vs. Granada, as he could safely experiment and observe the pros and cons of his scheme in a professional setting.
Real Madrid’s Switch to the 4-4-2
Perhaps realizing that Kroos was not a good fit for the B2B role, or perhaps because this was pre-planned due to the German having 4 yellow cards, the cyborg was substituted at halftime for James Rodríguez.
This saw Real change to a 4-4-2 formation, with James moving out left and Isco playing on the right.
This didn’t really change things much offensively, as Madrid’s patterns of penetration through the center and crossing game stayed the same, but Real’s decision to sit back a bit and lay off the intensity in their press did see them lose some of their domination, leading to less passes in the final third.
Defensively, Madrid moved to two banks of our that looked to defend wider areas better thanks to Isco and James’ work-rate, while Madrid’s pressing reverted back to their structure vs. Sevilla, where Modric and Casemiro pressed ahead of Madrid’s wide-men, leading to Real’s 4th goal of the game.
Bits & Pieces
I like the fact that Zizou is experimenting when he has the chance, especially with narrow formations that look to exploit the center. It shows his relentless desire to improve and his ability to identify tactical issues. Nevertheless, I hope Zizou realizes that our personnel don’t fit this type of set-up.
I touched upon this before, but Ronaldo and Benzema’s movement off-the-ball was really impressive. They provided consistent penetration in-between the lines and roamed all over the final third to create passing triangles with their midfield teammates.
Casemiro had another typically physical and aggressive defensive game, as he picked up 9 tackles, 5 fouls, and a yellow card.
Marcelo looks like he’s in a rich vein of form after his impressive display vs. Sevilla and his dazzling performance vs. Granada.
He was so influential, that the majority of the crosses in the first half originated from his flank.
@OmVArvind @managingmadrid— Gal Kahoonay (@OhalimCourtois) January 7, 2017
Interesting stat: only 1 cross from Madrid's 18 in the first half was from the right side pic.twitter.com/qdw3tEclAs
James is the best set-piece taker on this team - shooting or passing.
Nacho’s consistency continues to impress.
As usual, Madrid had to concede 1 clear-cut chance, which Navas thankfully saved.
xG-wise (scoreline-wise) we smashed Granada.
(All statistics & charts taken from whoscored.com & fourfourtwo statszone)