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Tactical Review: Real Madrid 3 - 2 Malaga, 2017-18 La Liga

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A breakdown of tactics, and key plays

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

Real Madrid were set to face 18th-place Malaga at the Santiago Bernabeu following a convincing win against APOEL in the Champions League. Still ten points behind Barcelona and sitting in third, Los Merengues needed to win against Míchel’s team in order to potentially close the gap as Barcelona will be facing an in-form Valencia on Sunday night.

Zidane made two key changes to the side that started against Atletico. Jesus Vallejo deputized for the injured Sergio Ramos while Lucas Vazquez was deployed in the midfield to give Luka Modric some rest.

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Wing powered offense gives Real Madrid the lead

Isco returned to the starting line-up after sitting out the midweek clash against APOEL. The team played in something that resembled a 4-1-3-2 formation as Casemiro was positioned just slightly ahead of the defense.

The beginning of the match showed signs of Real Madrid’s intent to attack through the wings. Carvajal and Marcelo were hugely involved in the early minutes and looked to create space through combinations or dribbling to deliver crosses into the box. This tactic was supplemented by targeted runs behind the defense. This two-pronged offensive approach caused Malaga all sorts of issues and proved successful as the first goal arrived in this fashion.

A now-standard Toni Kroos pass from midfield to find Marcelo capitalized on the Brazilian’s advanced positioning. The left back looked up and did well to make a deep cross to the back post that Ronaldo met with a spectacular header. The Portuguese’s header was exquisite but came off the post. Fortunately, Karim Benzema was there to score on the rebound.

Malaga would equalize later in the half due to sloppy play. Kroos gave the ball away near Real Madrid’s box and Vallejo failed to adequately mark Rolán who had time to control and shoot inside the box. This continues the unseemly trend of unforced errors leading to fatal dispossessions, and generally less directly consequential, but just as destabilizing, giveaways.

Real Madrid responded well to conceding. Their situationally-activated pressing (i.e. strategically selective pressing in dead-ball plays such as throw-ins, free-kicks etc) and strong aggressive and proactive defending by the central defenders reflected their increased intensity. They eventually regained the lead thanks to Kroos’ fantastic corner and Casemiro’s excellent movement and finishing.

Real Madrid successfully penetrate though the center but are wasteful

After scoring their second goal, Kroos dropped deeper and played more centrally to support buildup and play construction. This helped navigate Malaga’s fairly staunch 4-4-1-1 defensive shape. Unlike what typically happens, Isco primarily focused on the right wing in the latter part of the first half influencing overall play to go through Dani Carvajal. The right back saw more of the ball than Marcelo and participated more heavily in the attacking phase. In addition, Real Madrid diversified their attacking patterns, mixing more direct vertical penetration with wing-based offense. This was fruitful as the team generated a number of high quality chances — albeit chances that they simply couldn’t finish.

Casemiro was particularly instrumental in this regard as he would move up and combine with forwards through quick, one-touch plays, that created inviting openings. Another aspect of the line-up that noticeably enhanced this scheme was Vazquez’s selection. The Spaniard’s natural attacking instincts and movements compensated for the redundancies that can sometimes be created when Modric plays. Isco’s tendency to drop deeper means the forwards are isolated and central attacking spaces are vacant. With Vazquez, the effect wasn’t as significant due to his strong forward runs and willingness to join the forward line when the midfield is clogged.

Kiko Casilla’s error and Luka Modric’s notable impact

The second half saw Real Madrid relax their possession play to a more steady pace as they sought to consolidate their control of the match. Their defense complemented this change in focus as Casemiro and the Varane-led backline and looked to contain Malaga’s threat. Short of a few occasions, the team superbly held off Malaga and limited the visitors to low probability plays. One of those plays however was a vicious Castro shot that Casilla couldn’t parry away.

From a tactical perspective, there is a legitimate case that Malaga were afforded too much space. But the reality is that this isn’t a new or unique issue to the team, game, or this sequence. Kroos and Modric as side midfielders (especially the former) are sometimes caught out of position in transition which gives the opposition numerical superiority resulting in unguarded spaces. In terms of what went wrong with the goal, the biggest culprit was Casilla who — despite how well struck the shot was — should have made the save.

Zidane reacted to the goal by bringing on Modric for Isco. The Croatian’s effect was almost instant. His ability to progress play vertically with little loss of control is a valuable trait that reinvigorated Real Madrid. After testing the defense with dangerous crosses and maintaining applied pressure, the hosts finally scored the winner through a penalty won as a result of fantastic interplay between Modric and Vazquez. The game concluded somewhat uneventfully although Malaga continued to use their speed and strength to challenge Real’s defense.

Conclusion

A strong Real Madrid performance slightly unsettled by goals primarily resulting from defensive and goalkeeping mistakes. Real Madrid’s xG significantly exceeded Malaga’s and even moreso if the penalty was factored in.

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Casemiro played incredibly well continuing on his impressive showing at Wanda Metropolitano last match day. The Brazilian showed attacking dynamism in addition to his usual defensive industry and capability defying some of the criticisms he receives regarding an inability to sufficiently support the team in possession.

This match provided an interesting insight into crossing and how effective the tactic is. The quality of crossing is sometimes excluded from the discussion around the efficiency of such an attacking approach. When the deliveries are good, crossing seems to be quite substantially one of Real Madrid’s best weapons as evidenced by the number of great chances generated through aerial play against Malaga. However, when the crossing isn’t targeted and the delivery is subpar, it can quickly become stale and preventable.

Next up is the second leg of the Copa del Rey against Fuenlabrada where it is expected many secondary players will receive game time.