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Tactical Review: Athletic Bilbao 0–0 Real Madrid; 2017 La Liga

Reoccurring tactical issues haunt Madrid

Athletic Club v Real Madrid - La Liga Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images

The stage was set, a wet cold night in the north of Spain with everything to play for after Barcelona had dropped points against Celta earlier on Saturday. Zinedine Zidane played the same starting XI that won the 12th European Championship for the first time in 185 days. Gareth Bale and Marco Asensio were the notable absentees from the squad as they missed out through injury. The stakes were high and once again with crucial points on the line, Madrid couldn’t find the back of the net. Zinedine Zidane deserved the plaudits he earned last season, but now equally deserves the criticism coming his way. The team has serious systemic issues, all of which are apparent after each match. Yet, Zidane has refused to alter anything in the system and instead has persisted with the same tactical scheme. Some of the glaring issues from tonight’s match include Isco’s positioning and the midfield overall, poor counter attacks, and the inability to combine and break a team down through the middle of the pitch. It’s true, players like Ronaldo and Benzema may be on the decline and the numbers they are producing are a testament to that, but the system is grossly glorifying their decline. The Madrid attack is lacking dynamism and a change in personnel or a change in system is the only way to rectify the problems.

The pitchforks will be out for Benzema again after another lackluster performance, the time may very well have come for Madrid to replace the Frenchman. Zidane’s unwavering faith in his compatriot makes the plausibility of such a move unlikely, but fans frustrations are only growing louder. The Mister has shifted from what made him great, trusting every member of his squad, it is now apparent he only has faith in 11-12 players after waiting to make substitutions against Atletico and now Athletic until late in the match when the team was crying for a spark.

Isco, everywhere but the #10 spot:

Earlier this week Isco had praised Zidane for being the only coach he has ever had to play him in his preferred center attacking midfield position. Though for much of this season, Isco has been everywhere except at the tip of the diamond. Throughout different spurts in the game, Isco could be found on the left wing, glued to the right wing, and coming deep to pick up the ball of the center back. It is not to say that Isco had a poor performance today, but his total freedom leaves the rest of the team guessing at which hole they will need to cover defensively in transition. Oftentimes in attack, he has come so deep to get on the ball, that when Benzema and Ronaldo are set free in the final third it is a 2v4 or 2v5. The midfield and the team as a whole lacked rhythm and created little to no service for Benzema and Ronaldo outside of crosses.

Isco’s freedom has him roaming everywhere, but he is not where the team need him most: in the final third connecting with Ronaldo and Benzema.

This season in particular, Isco has come deeper and deeper to get on the ball. Oftentimes, he is picking the ball up from Ramos or Varane and flooding the space that Kroos and Casemiro are meant to occupy.

The team’s best players should be the in the middle of the field (the core) from top to bottom: Ronaldo, Isco, Modric, Kroos, Ramos, and Varane. Yet too often there are large gaps of space in the middle of the field with no one occupying them:

Counter attack’s lacking spark:

At their peak under Carlo Ancelotti and Mourinho, no team could counter attack quite like Madrid. Opposing teams corner kicks were seen as an opportunity to strike rather than a goal scoring chance for them. The same cannot be said of Zidane’s team. The same issue was apparent against Atletico Madrid in the Wanda Metropolitano. Ronaldo, Benzema, and Isco are not going to burn past defenders on the counter and with Modric or Kroos distributing the pass, the only width comes from Marcelo and Carvajal who have to cover 80 yards. There is such little width in the current formation, that Kroos and Modric are often forced out wide rather than playing where they are best, the middle.

The team does well to surround Williams and win the ball. Immediately they look to go forward and find the distributors for a quick counter—Kroos and Modric. With absolutely no options wide, Modric forces a ball into Karim who takes a poor touch and sends the ball over the top for Ronaldo to chase. The play breaks down with Benzema, but the counter was over before it began. Benzema and Ronaldo are in virtually the same space allowing four defenders to easily defend them. Instead of stretching the defense with width and speed, Benzema and Ronaldo are static in the middle with no other options.

Kroos, Modric, and Isco...Wingers!?

When in doubt…Cross! And Cross Again!

The de-facto attacking tactic has become crossing. Unsurprisingly, Madrid lead all European teams with their crosses per match ratio. Given the immense technical ability of Toni Kroos, Luka Modric, and Isco there should be no excuse for this team to not be able to break tough defenses down through the middle of the pitch. Zidane himself was the master of this during his playing days yet his team does the opposite. It is combinations like that against Manchester United in the Super Cup—where Isco and Bale combine for a quick one-two on top of the eighteen to break through the defense, that should be constant in the Real Madrid attack. The team needs to revert back to playing quick intricate football in the oppositions half.


The issues for this Madrid squad have been on going all season, even falling back as far as the poor preseason. Zidane, a man once famed for placing his faith in every player, now only seems to believe in his starting eleven. The Frenchman’s team lacks ideas and the current tactical structure laid out does not play to his players’ strengths. Some tactical displine needs to be placed on the little magician, Isco. If the teams wants to emphasize the counter attack, players like Asensio, Bale, Vazquez, and Kovacic need to be utilized. The tools are at Zidane’s disposal, but the tactical set-ups used need to squeeze the best out of their ability. San Mames is no easy stadium to come to and win, but these were vital points in the La Liga race and team continues to fall at the big hurdles for the same reasons.

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