A comfortable 1-0 victory over Brazilian side Gremio and Madrid have now been crowned World Champions for the second consecutive year. It was the team’s fifth trophy in 2017. Despite the 5-0 trouncing of Sevilla in which a 4-4-2 with traditional wingers in Vazquez and Asensio dominated and despite the plethora of chances created in a 4-3-3 against Al Jazira, Zidane entrusted in the diamond to secure victory. Say what you will about Zidane, but he will fight for his men till the death and his loyalty was rewarded tonight. There were clear tactical instructions from Zidane in this game. Those instructions coupled with the return to form for some crucial players guided the team to another trophy.
Gremio began the match in a full out press looking to put Madrid back on their heels, but the whites remained calm and collected. Each player simply found the next pass to break the press via triangles formed all along the pitch. It was the setup of triangles and diamonds within the formation that easily beat Gremio’s inconsistent pressure —be it Kroos, Marcelo, and Ramos or further up the pitch between Benzema, Modric, and Isco.
Casemiro drops deep as fifth Center Back
A clear instruction from Zidane, Casemiro dropped deep into the center back position on all dead ball situations as well as long balls from the opposition’s center backs. Gremio would push four forwards against the Madrid backline, targeting the tall and powerful Lucas Barrios to flick the ball on with his head and have three attacking players running through Madrid’s backline. Casemiro allowed Madrid to match Gremio’s attacking numbers and nullify their threat. The midfield—Modric, Kroos, and Isco would then be there to pick up the second ball off of a 50/50 aerial challenge and counter with their numerical superiority.
Casemiro’s positional recognition has improved dramatically over the past couple of seasons. Due to the lack of wingers in the current system, Marcelo has to step out high to apply pressure to the right-sided midfielder or many times, the opposing fullback. This stretches the whole of the back-line as they have to shift over and Ramos then acts like a left back. Casemiro astutely places himself seamlessly into the back-line next to Varane.
Diamonds… Diamonds everywhere!
The diamond formation is meant to create numerical superiority all across the field and specifically in the middle of the pitch. In previous matches this season, Isco’s roaming had led to the opposite instead producing a lack of numbers in transition. Tonight, Isco roamed again, but the difference was another player—i.e. Benzema, Casemiro, Marcelo, or Carvajal, then occupied the pace he left behind. In the formation below, Isco has glued himself to the right wing, so Benzema has dropped into the #10 role, Ronaldo is high as a striker, and Marcelo is beginning to creep forward and occupy the left wing space.
The numerical superiority of the diamond formation means there is more than just one diamond in the midfield. If you look closely at the same picture, you can find three separate diamonds being formed between members of the Madrid attack. When the team is set up in this manner, it gives the player on the ball options. There should always be an angle or an option available to feed the ball to next. Madrid showcased this all game dominating possession and keeping Gremio from even registering a shot on target.
Marcelo and Carvajal return to form and provide width
Arguably, the most integral part of the Champions League and La Liga run late last season was the world dominating form of Madrid’s fullbacks—Dani Carvajal and Marcelo. Each on their own dominated their entire flank. Injuries, suspensions, and inconsistent starts to the season have meant that form has yet to be replicated. Though, against Gremio both were back to their best. Marcelo especially marauded down the left flank and was a constant nuisance for Gremio’s defense. Carvajal was a stalwart at the back. Luan, Gremio’s most dynamic attacking player, could not even get a sniff of goal playing against Carvajal. They both provided the width that is lacked when playing a midfield diamond.
Notice how high up the pitch both fullbacks are playing. It breaks the old school conventional way of thinking—where one fullback goes and the other remains “at home” in the backline. Both Marcelo and Carvajal are the second and third highest players up the pitch in this screenshot. For the diamond to perform and for Madrid to produce their best attacking football—the fullbacks need to be able to provide the width and get up and down the flank.
Luka Modric—Take a bow
Luka Modric was on another level against Gremio. He put in a master class performance. When he plays well, the entire team plays well. He was simply untouchable. He was a workhorse as well as a maestro. There are not enough adjectives to describe the brilliant little Croatian. Casemiro’s importance has been noted, the fullbacks importance have been noted, the spaces occupied by Benz, Ronaldo, and Isco have been noted but above all, Luka Modric is the class that pushes this team from good to great.
The diamond has it’s flaws, but when there is positional recognition to cover the spaces left behind from others—like a roaming Isco and the return to form of players like Marcelo, Carvajal, and Modric—the diamond becomes near impossible to stop. The team looks to be slowly rediscovering their form from late last season and it comes at an opportune time as Barcelona wait in the horizon. The gulf in class between Gremio and Madrid was on full display. The Brazilians could not muster a single shot on target. Madrid denied any counter attacking opportunities, used their numerical superiority in attack, and the fullbacks provided crucial width. Gareth Bale is starting to come back into the fold and was an added spark of dynamism when he entered the match. His introduction as a super sub against Barcelona could be crucial. Zidane and his men should enjoy this success as they close out a historic year for club.