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Total Football Is Not Total Freedom

Zidane is trying to play fantasy football, but he’s missing out on some some pragmatic steps.

Real Madrid v Tottenham Hotspur - UEFA Champions League Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Zidane’s tactical evolution has been one of the more interesting Real Madrid subplots over the last two years. His development has been tumultuous, non-linear, frustrating, and exciting. And it’s only just the beginning, as evidenced against Eibar on Sunday, where we saw inklings of what may be a new experiment in the Zidane era.

Real Madrid’s passmap vs. Eibar

As can be seen in the above passmap, it is incredibly hard to discern what Real Madrid’s formation was. Modric, Ceballos, and Isco, all seem jumbled in the same area, while Asensio seems weirdly disconnected from the midfield. This visual mess is the result of extremely fluid movements across all areas of the pitch, which brought the midfielders’ average positions to the center in @11tegen11’s chart.

Real Madrid’s midfield heatmaps vs. Eibar

Heatmaps reveal more precise positional information, telling us, that while Isco and Asensio started on the wings, they moved deep to receive the ball, got into the box, and swapped flanks frequently. In “central” midfield, Ceballos basically played every single position on the field, while Casemiro and Modric seemed to operate throughout the entire defensive and middle thirds of the pitch.

It’s hard to look at this and not feel reminded of the idea of total football, a concept developed in the Netherlands international team in the 1970’s. The basic idea was to craft a team of complete footballers that could be capable of seamlessly interchanging with each other, rendering traditional positional markers (striker, winger, center back, etc.) useless. Everyone could defend, everyone could participate in build-up, and everyone could score.

Another key ingredient of this philosophy was defending from the front, or “pressing” (if your men up top can tackle and intercept, why not just start your defending with them?). Holland’s adaptation of this strategy was gung-ho and, frankly, kind of ridiculous by today’s standards, which is why several coaches have looked to significantly improve on the beginnings of total football (see Pep Guardiola and Maurizio Sarri).

When Zidane first began as Real Madrid coach, it appeared that he wanted to play in a similar style, while getting closer to the roots of total football by offering great positional freedom to his players. Much had been made of his private lessons with Guardiola, and his initial matches saw his team attempt to play short passes from back to front through free-flowing passing combinations.

But as time wore on, it became clear that Zidane lacked the tactical nous to make such a style effective, and he soon reverted to a more pragmatic approach. He stuck Casemiro in the side and began to favor classic winger Lucas Vázquez over James Rodríguez and Isco, as the former duo provided greater rigidity and stability to the team’s overall structure.

As the 15/16 season passed and a new season arose, Zidane’s grasp of footballing structures grew, and in the middle of 2016/17, Real Madrid began pressing extremely effectively. The stability afforded by players who stayed in position when possessing the ball, allowed for Real to be well set-up to counterpress and press.

But then, Bale went down with a long-term injury, causing Zidane to change everything. He put Isco back in his starting eleven and gave him a free role as an attacking midfielder at the tip of a diamond. Real Madrid’s pressing became less effective due to this (and due to the lack of horizontal coverage afforded by the formation), but Isco’s ability to pop up anywhere and provide overloads in all parts of the field simply overwhelmed opponents.

With Bale injured again in the 17/18 season, it seems that Zidane has attempted to expand this freedom to all players in his midfield. He likely reasoned that Madrid would be an even greater attacking force if not just one, but four or five Madrid midfielders, had the freedom to roam and destabilize opponents. We saw Zizou tinkering with this concept even last season, with his use of Casemiro as an auxiliary attacker, but in recent matches he’s gone all in with the total football style he initially wanted to use way back when.

However, this hasn’t been as positive of a change as Zidane might’ve hoped, because he has made the mistake of equalling total football to total freedom. This may seem counterintuitive, but constant positional interchanges will only work if the structure remains constant. In other words, if a central midfielder moves into the striker position or shifts out wide, the winger or the striker needs to fill in the gap the central midfielders left behind. This adequate spacing between players is paramount for two reasons: ball circulation and pressing.

The first cannot be optimally achieved if players are bunched together within the same 5-10 yard space as each other. If there aren’t players acting as links in the center of the pitch and players acting as outlets on the wings, it will be impossible to switch the ball from flank to flank and attack the opposition from different angles. Against Eibar, Isco, Asensio, and Ronaldo biased to the left-wing, forcing Modric and Ceballos to shift to the same area, leaving Nacho isolated. This made Real’s attacks more predictable and somewhat easier to stop, though Los Blancos’ individual quality eventually overrode such predicaments (as they almost always will).

But the more important reason for maintaining a stable structure is for adequate pressing, something that Real have been unable to achieve of late. As was noted before, in order to press or even stop a team from advancing quickly into your own half, it is necessary to prepare your structure in advance when possessing the ball. If Isco and Asensio are playing cards in the box and Modric and Ceballos are munching on churros out on the wing, this becomes impossible, as it leaves massive spaces through the center that can be exploited with one pass.

This was incredibly evident on Sunday, as Eibar repeatedly romped into Madrid’s defensive third in favorable 2v2/3v2 situations, only to be stopped by the brilliant Varane and their own poor decision-making. The same happened against Tottenham, as Harry Winks single-handedly took advantage of the massive spaces left in midfield to create quality chances that called Navas into heroic action.

If Zidane wants to utilize an ultra-fluid total football-style game, he needs to go back to focusing on the tactical component that makes coaches so successful - structure. He has to decide on a team shape and drill his players into becoming comfortable in several positions on the field. He also needs to train his men to seamlessly adapt to the changing shape around them so that they know where best to be in order to ensure team-wide stability. That isn’t an easy task, and if Zidane only wishes to use total football as a side tactic when he rotates or has key players out (i.e. Bale), then it’s probably best he tries something else altogether.

However, one should hope that Zizou’s experimentation with attacking fluidity continues, for it possesses the potential to take this team to the next level. If Isco, Ronaldo, Modric, Ceballos, Casemiro, and co. can rapidly switch positions and keep opponents guessing, without compromising our ability to press and circulate the ball, then we might just be invincible.


Should Zidane go forward with this Total Football-style experimentation?

This poll is closed

  • 65%
    (489 votes)
  • 23%
    (174 votes)
  • 10%
    Maybe next season
    (80 votes)
743 votes total Vote Now

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