Model of Play
Bale replaced James in the starting XI as Zidane again fielded his strongest available squad for this tricky encounter - Pepe in the place of Varane due to the latter’s injury. Much had been said about Villarreal’s exemplary defensive record and performance against the top sides in the league this season. They had only conceded 15 goals coming into the game and had yet to lose against any of the teams in the top six. Needless to say, this affair had all the signs of a classic tough trip away from the Bernabeu. Villarreal fielded a strong team comprised of many players that started in their consolation victory against AS Roma and the preceding win in the league against Real Sociedad. Their high profile danger players, Bakambu and dos Santos, started.
Every Real Madrid fan would have been happy with the first ten minutes of the game given the horror start in the previous league outing versus Valencia. The visitors began the game with moderate intensity and cautiously probed Villarreal’s shape. Despite the opening exchanges suggesting this might turn into a one-sided affair involving Los Blancos launching an assault on a staunch defense for ninety-minutes, every time Villarreal held possession showed they were more than willing and capable to attack. On top of this, they made it extremely difficult for Real Madrid to penetrate through the middle and forced Zidane’s men to look to the wings.
This proved advantageous for the hosts as although Real Madrid were able to comfortably work the ball through the wide channels, their delivery from those positions was generally poor and did not ask a lot of Villarreal’s defense. This pattern of play was slightly reminiscent of the team’s overreliance on wing based offense when facing a clogged unit. It didn’t help that Modric and Kroos couldn’t exert their typical influence through passing and controlled ball retention in part due to sloppy individual play and systemic issues. Villarreal’s positioning and structure in the defensive phase excellently countered Real’s standard possession schemes. Modric and Kroos’ engagement of the forwards was strongly hindered by focused and proactive defending.
This exacerbated squad profile issues as Casemiro was not able to offer an additional layer of dynamism needed to both: 1) Support Modric and Kroos in advancing the ball in a clear progressive manner and 2) Create additional reference points for Villarreal to be aware of through enhanced movement and passing. These two things would have had a disorientation factor allowing holes to open up for Real to exploit. The Casemiro issue would not exist, at least to this degree, if not for the lack of mitigating elements. A good example is the presence of James against Napoli and Valencia and how he was able to work with Modric and Kroos to adopt the ball-centered style that promotes ‘controlled’ verticality. Bale, for all his evolution, is still a lesser proponent than James when it comes to steadying the tempo of the game and connecting midfield and attack.
Villarreal, for their part, were very efficient with the ball and were almost telepathic when moving it forward. Their passing was crisp and this led to several good opportunities in the first half. They weren’t able to convert these chances but it was a warning of what was to come. Although it’s hard to fault any individual in particular for the match’s opening goal, it was a consequence of Villarreal’s continued pressure. They didn’t relent and shortly after scored another to gain a 2-0 lead mostly due to poor tracking by Ramos. Real Madrid immediately increased their intensity sensing the urgency of the situation and Zidane introduced Isco for Casemiro. The former’s influence on proceedings was palpable as the ball began to show up in places it just couldn’t manage to before. From better interplay with Marcelo and his midfield partners to directly impacting activity in the offensive third, Isco’s effect was undeniable.
Real Madrid’s newfound control and dynamic offense led to Bale’s goal and Ronaldo’s equalizing penalty. The last piece of the puzzle was Álvaro Borja Morata Martín. The match was begging for his entrance and there was a sense of inevitability that he would score after coming on. His statistics this season are incredible and, once again, he made the most of his minutes to score another big winner his team. Except one or two scares, Real Madrid held on to their lead until the final whistle. This marked a record equalling 44th consecutive match that Zidane’s Real Madrid found the back of the net.
Summary of Select Key Chances
Minute 24: Bale-->Marcelo-->Benzema-->Marcelo-->Benzema-->Ramos-->Modric-->Bale-->Carvajal-->Modric-->Bale-->Marcelo-->Benzema-->Shot on target
This play was a good illustration of the frequent offensive scheme employed during the first half. The team circulated the ball well until they provided enough room for Marcelo to deliver a cross. The Brazilian’s cross was marvelous but Benzema mistimed his header as the ball diverted off his shoulder straight to Asenjo.
Minute 30: Castillejo-->Costa-->Castillejo-->Shot off target
Probably Villarreal’s best chance of the first half. Real Madrid were caught after Bale made a poor pass slightly behind Carvajal who couldn’t fully control it. The yellow submarine pounced on the loose ball swarming an out of position defense. Costa’s cross was excellent but Castillejo’s accuracy was off.
Minute 46: Casemiro-->Modric-->Bale-->Benzema-->Shot on target
Casemiro intercepted the ball and passed it to Modric who played an amazing throughball for Bale. Bale did fantastic work to get into the box and lay off a great pass to Benzema whose tame effort from an inviting position close to the penalty spot was saved by Fernández.
Minute 50: Bruno-->Adrian-->Castillejo-->Trigueros-->Goal
This play wasn’t exceptional in terms of anything Villarreal did but did highlight the amount of pressure they put Madrid under in certain moments. The main culprit (if someone has to be faulted) was Marcelo who was on the wrong side of Castillejo when he played the ball back for Trigueros.
Minute 56: Bruno-->Bakambu-->Goal
There wasn’t anything spectacular Villarreal did as a team for their second goal either. Ramos failed to properly mark Bakambu leaving the forward an open lane to drive towards net and score. However, indirectly, this again was a result of the overall momentum Villarreal had during this period of the match.
Minute 64: Kroos-->Marcelo-->Isco-->Ronaldo-->Bale-->Isco-->Carvajal-->Bale-->Goal
This was one of several chances Real Madrid rapidly generated upon Isco’s entrance. He was the architect of this goal as he exploited the half-spaces to connect Kroos-Marcelo to the offensive zone. Tried to play Ronaldo and then switched to the other wing when the ball came back to him. Carvajal’s beautiful cross was expertly dispatched by the Welshman.
Minute 74: Ronaldo-->Goal
The Portuguese took the penalty really well scoring the equalizer. Modric (pass), Carvajal (dribble into the box and layoff), and Kroos (shot causing handball) were the key players in winning the penalty.
Minute 83: Isco-->Kroos-->Ronaldo-->Marcelo-->Morata-->Goal
This sequence showcased another benefit of Isco’s presence on the field. The team isn’t as positionally static — Isco won the ball back in the center of the field. Kroos played a swift pass to Ronaldo who did great work to meet Marcelo’s run down the left wing. The left back delivered a remarkable ball which was headed in by super supersub Morata.
This was a surprisingly even contest for the better part of the game (up to about 60 minutes when Real Madrid went into overdrive) based on quality of chances created. Overall Ronaldo and co. outshot Villarreal 25 (6 on target) to 11 (4). Score effects were at play as Villarreal became much more defensive after their second goal. In spite of this, Real Madrid must be credited for fashioning and taking advantage of great chances on their way to dramatically collecting full points from the match day. This was another case of the perception of performance being affected by the end product - to a certain extent. On the balance of chances, the final score reflected the team which had the edge.
Rudimentary defensive mistakes continue to be an unfortunate theme for Real Madrid. The second goal conceded, especially, should not happen if Ramos is more vigilant in his marking duties. At this point, although we can reasonably expect that these errors won’t be committed every game, it is a legitimate risk factor (Marcelo’s defensive frailty being a prime example) that has to be taken into consideration when looking at the team.
The contrast between having ball maestros (Isco, James) on the field and not is very evident and can be leveraged to its very best outcome in matches such as this one. For many reasons — primarily Casemiro’s limitations progressing play and Kroos’ lack of varied support when played as a wide midfielder — the Isco substitution completely changed the game and allowed Real Madrid to attack with more precision and imagination in a fruitful way.
Lastly, Morata scored another terrific winner coming off the bench. His level of production this season has been amazing and he will no doubt make player selection and rotation decisions harder for Zidane. He is a very valuable asset that offers a good alternative, both quality and personnel wise, to Benzema.