Real Madrid traveled to Catalonia to face 15th place Girona. The recently promoted team was in fairly bad form having won only one game in the league season to date — despite making a strong statement with a draw against Atletico Madrid on the opening match day.
Zidane indicated in his press conference that Real Madrid would not underestimate their opposition and would approach the match with the focus and intensity it was due. The starting line-up he chose reflected the sentiments he expressed as the manager essentially played his strongest XI (of the roster he available for the game).
One can argue about certain positions (particularly Achraf over Nacho) but this was decidedly the manager’s preferred team. Barcelona’s incredible start to the season with yet another win against Athletic Bilbao made winning this match especially crucial for Los Blancos.
Quality play and stroke of luck gives Real Madrid the lead
Real Madrid assumed a a 4-3-1-2 shape offensively and a 4-1-3-2/4-4-2 shape in defense. Zidane’s men exercised a significant level of control to start the match and maintained a positive structure in possession that facilitated ball circulation and retainment. With the ball, Modric and Kroos would often drop deep to enable buildup from the back. They would provide outlets for Casilla and subsequently engage the full backs and center backs with deliberate passing for initiation. Casemiro and the other midfielder would move centrally to provide options with Isco roaming actively to create triangles and connections.
Real Madrid have had some notable issues with converting possession into great chances due to miscued passes and sub-optimal decision-making in the final third and that was no different today. It’s true that this sort of problem is standard for most teams as some opportunities to play teammates in will always be missed but it seems to be happening with more frequency and in more clear cut situations for Real Madrid.
To counteract this (at least the element dealing with overlooked runs and passing lanes), Modric acted as a proactive instigator and would look to play Ronaldo and Benzema in regularly throughout the match. These balls were not always successful and some (such as the top right panel in the above graphic) were poorly executed but the general intent fostered a good attacking dynamic for the team. Ronaldo’s chance in the 26th minute along with Isco’s goal to open the scoring were direct evidence of what can happen when the forwards are fed with timely accurate passes.
Recovering from Girona’s attack that led to a shot that fortunately came off the post, Real Madrid efficiently counter-attacked as Ramos brought the ball out from the back before dispatching it to Benzema. The striker did well to brush off a Girona player and then released a good pass to Ronaldo who used great feet to create space to shoot. Isco scored from the subsequent rebound.
Left side bias and Hakimi’s isolation
The first half (specifically the first quarter) was characterized by left side dominance in attacking sequences. This is also not a new phenomenon as a variety of factors can lead to our offense being biased to the left. Isco for one has a preference to attack from the left due to prior history as an inverted winger combined with the general playmaking and possession benefits of viewing the field from an angle (closer to half spaces than central). The lack of balance offensively is often not a huge issue as it leverages the supreme dribbling and touch qualities of Marcelo, Isco, and Ronaldo (Benzema secondarily as well as he often drifts to the left).
However, in matches like today where the team weren’t able to identify any weaknesses on Girona’s right side or create chances consistently, play should have evened out zonally to involve Hakimi more and test the left side of Girona’s defense. The Real Madrid right back only had two touches in the attacking half in the first 23 minutes. This was compared to Marcelo’s 11 touches. In fairness, it did get better as the game progressed but it’s almost certain that the overall performance was negatively impacted by this attacking asymmetry.
Casilla’s positioning and defensive “unforced errors”
Kiko Casilla had a nervy outing and there were several instances where he showed hesitation and questionable positioning. This is not what we have come to expect from the Spaniard who is typically a commanding, assured, and assertive presence between the posts. In both of Girona’s best chances in the first half as well as other moments, he seemed to be too far off his line overextending and leaving himself vulnerable to deep and high far post crosses/shots.
On the defensive side, Real Madrid did well to hold Girona in the first half and did not allow the opposition to manufacture many threatening chances with the exception of low probability set pieces and shots. However, the players in the white shirts were their own worst enemies and caused themselves more heart ache than was needed with dangerous giveaways.
This is something that should be remedied and minimized going forward. While the insistence on controlled buildup certainly places pressure on players at the back and carries an inherent risk, defenders should be more cautious with passing.
Studying Girona’s two goals in quick succession
Real Madrid didn’t start the second half badly upon reflection. There was certainly some back and forth as the hosts pushed forward and looked to take advantage of space between Real Madrid’s lines in defense. However, looking at the nature of match at the point, Real Madrid were actually on the ascendancy until Stuani’s goal in the 54th minute.
Los Blancos were having more success with interchanges and combinations in the final third and saw Isco and Benzema create two great chances that the team couldn’t take advantage of. In light of this and to better understand what happened, let’s take a look at Stuani’s first goal more closely.
The play starts with a throw-in. When it’s taken, Real’s Madrid shape is far too loose and the Girona players are not properly marked. The infamous zone 14 is completely vacated giving the home team the opportunity to drive into the heart of Real’s defense. Poor positioning is immeidiately apparent as there are two free Girona players that are not closely guarded.
Casemiro should have moved up and stuck closely to Pere Pons. It could be argued that the Brazilian may have been hesitant to do so because Pablo Maffeo was alone to his left and the defensive midfielder wanted to stay aware of his movements. Kroos (also out of position) moving back to close Maffeo down early would have helped in this regard.
The rest of the play from this moment on is the result of fantastic dribbling and anticpiation by Girona players (Pons and Stuani) combined with poor defending by Casemiro, Modric, Ramos, and Nacho. Nacho is arguably the biggest culprit as Stuani bypassed him right before scoring which along with the fact he had replaced Varane (who was playing very well) did not make a great impression.
Nacho was also at fault for the second goal as he failed to track Stauni. The Girona forward sneakily got in behind the defender to shoot at net. Casilla parried the shot but the ball fell kindly for Maffeo whose shot at goal was flicked into the net by Portu. There was a question of offside but it was really close and would have been a marginal call either way.
Real Madrid’s gamble with more attackers doesn’t pay off
Zidane reacted to going a goal down by taking off both Marcelo and Achraf and bringing on Asensio and Vazquez. Casemiro had already moved back and slotted into the middle CB spot between Nacho and Ramos in anticipation for the substitutions. The team essentially adopted a chaotic 3-3-4. Players aggressively pushed up in possession with the intent likely to have more presence in the final third to combat Girona’s significant numbers at the back. This approach however wasn’t very effective as a result of the below.
- Isco’s disruptive influence: the diminutive Spaniard was everywhere and tried to do everything. This caused confusion in roles and responsibilities and created unnecessary duplication in some areas and critical gaps in others. Isco’s purpose in the scheme devised once Asensio and Vazquez came on should have been to be the central link and flow through for possession into attack. He needed to play more in the middle of the final third (i.e. like a traditional no. 10) and give options for the team to play in dangerous zones. However, Isco played deeper instead joining the same line as Kroos and Modric (who were already supported by the defenders). To a lesser extent but with similar ramifications, he would move to the wings encroaching on Asensio and Vazquez’s spaces.
- Asensio and Vazquez inadequate impact: Asensio and Vazquez were poor individually. They did not offer any inspiration and couldn’t execute basic tasks well. Their crossing and deliveries were needlessly delayed and often too easy to defend. They didn’t play inventively looking to linkup with Benzema and Ronaldo and couldn’t offer the energy required to mount a comeback.
- Central defenders’ discipline: this wasn’t as problematic as the first two but Casemiro and Ramos constantly pushed up a little carelessly which greatly exposed the team. This led to several dangerous openings for Girona which could have rendered any success upfront futile if Real Madrid conceded at that point.
- Girona’s stauch defending: the Catalonian team’s organized and compact defense was very tough to overcome. They closed down extremely well and did not allow any spaces to be exploited. They also packed the box allowing them to deal with crosses and block attempts from close range.
Real Madrid’s best available eleven were fully matched by Girona. The hosts approached the tie smartly and managed to reverse a one goal deficit to win the game 2-1. They defended astutely and excellently used transitions to exploit Real’s stretched shape and the Varane-Nacho substitution. Overall, they created better quality chances than Real as shown by xG numbers.
A dramatic result in Girona leaves the reigning La Liga Champions eight points behind Barcelona. Some recurring problems (creativity, defensive discipline), Varane’s unplanned exit, and the emergence of Isco’s “double edged sword” dynamic hampered the team’s performance. Ronaldo still only has one goal in the league, the team has now lost two games (compared to just five for the whole of last season in all competitions), and no Real Madrid players appear in the Top 15 for goals or Top 5 for assists. These worrying signs will be food for thought for the manager and club moving forward.