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Tactical Review: Real Madrid 2 - 0 Espanyol, 2017-18 La Liga

Real Madrid suffer a few panics but win full points for the first time at the Bernabeu.

Real Madrid v Espanyol - La Liga Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Zidane selected a strong XI as the team sought to claim their first win of the season at home. Achraf Hakimi earned his first start and selection of the season following Carvajal’s medical diagnosis earlier during the week.

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Espanyol packed defense holds Real Madrid at bay

Espanyol’s defensive structure was solid and based on clogging the centre of the field in deep positions to completely deny access to Real Madrid. Ronaldo, who was isolated at the start, and Isco/Asensio did not offer sufficient compensation in the form of presence in central zones to invite passes. Ronaldo’s isolation occurred as a result of the lack of true wingers on the pitch in the technical sense. Isco and Asensio’s interpretation of being a winger in the context of the current team sees them more focused on midfield support and creating a link between lines. It should be noted that both are formidable footballers and would be more than capable of succeeding in a more traditional version of the role if needed.

Real Madrid responded to Espanyol’s compact defense by employing deliberate and frequent switches of play either from the midfield or the sides. This tactic was effective as it established a balance offensively with both Nacho and Achraf being prominent and active participants in gameplay. It also increased the number of reference points Espanyol needed to maintain awareness of which directly and indirectly reduced their defensive focus. Utilizing the wing in a non-predictable manner (i.e. intentional switches) also allowed the team to exploit lateral spaces vacated by Espanyol. Were it not for poor deliveries and crosses (particularly from Nacho), Real would have been able to create more significant danger given the room and time both fullbacks had.

Los Blancos pick up the pace and push forward

Sensing a lack of bite to their initial strategy, Real Madrid progressively moved higher up the field in possession — particularly highlighted by Kroos and Modric (in turns) almost advancing as far up as the forwards. This solved Ronaldo’s isolation while at the same time activating desirable zones. As Real’s shape stabilized and Isco and Asensio floated less, Modric and Isco ended up being the designated attacking linchpins. Both became more firmly positioned between the lines which galvanized Ronaldo as he saw more of the ball as a result of the defense’s attention being spread out.

The first goal arrived around the half hour mark and illustrated almost to a T what was described above. Isco was stationed between Espanyol’s central defenders while Modric and Casemiro were being closely marked midway between the goal line and half. Ronaldo dropped in between Espanyol’s defense/midfield lines providing an excellent passing channel to Ramos. The captain did not disappoint and played a fantastic vertical pass to the Portuguese. The remainder was a testament to Ronaldo’s underrated vision and Isco’s great run and finish but was ultimately catalyzed by smart positioning.

The goal unsurprisingly forced Espanyol to come out of their shell which made the game more stretched. This dynamic favored the hosts because they could attack more directly capitalizing on the speed and transition quality of players such as Asensio, Ronaldo, and Modric. Poor finishing prevented Real Madrid from extending their lead further and putting the game to bed.

Defensive mistakes or overexposure? Zidane’s men concede great chances

Real Madrid gave up several huge chances in the first part of the second half. This led to the question of whether, in considering similar occurrences in other games, the leakage is a player issue (i.e. lack of focus, error-prone) or a tactical issue.

The answer for this match was a bit of both. The adverse effect of relying as heavily as the team did on the fullbacks to stretch the field and give width to offense is that the defense was overextended and exposed. Ramos and Varane were often left with no side covers when the team was attacking or transitioning from attacking to defending.

In the above example, Achraf charges forward to challenge for a ball past the halfline leaving his station unguarded at the back. Espanyol win the ball and work it to his wing where the visitors take advantage of numerical superiority to create a good opening.

In another example, Nacho loses the ball in Espanyol’s half. The Periquitos counterattack wonderfully with the speed of Léo Baptistão outmatching Casemiro who was providing cover. The sequence ends with a 2 v. 1 situation that Varane was fortunately able to deal with.

There were other instances showing the vulnerability of our defense during counter-attacks but many involved individual mistakes. There was a poor Kroos pass, a reckless Ramos failed dribble in the box in the box as well as Nacho’s giveaway above (2nd example).

A blitz counter-attack gives Isco his brace

Although Real Madrid were susceptible to quick attacks on transition, the reverse was also true as previously stated. The second goal showed how dangerous Real were on the break and Isco who started the sequence with a great tackle finished it off.

The goal allowed the Bernabeu to breathe a huge sigh of relief. Zidane substituted Kroos, Modric, and Isco. The rest of the game was generally uneventful with each team continuing to attack but failing to create real genuine chances.


The team played a great first half where they applied more and more pressure until they cracked Espanyol’s compact defense. However, the beginning of the second half was marred with errors and tactical defensive issues. Overall, Real Madrid boasted an incredible 3.04 xG (higher than actual goals scored!) compared to Espanyol’s 0.33. Shots (22-8) and shots on target (8-3) also heavily favored the home team.

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Zidane will be happy with the home win and three points and look for some rest and additional recovery period for the long list of injured players over the international break.

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