Model of Play
Following FC Barcelona’s surprise loss to Deportivo de La Coruña prior to kickoff time between Real Madrid and Real Betis, the match between the latter two seemed to have greater significance. An opportunity to build a bigger and more tangible safety cushion ahead of the other title contenders was not to be missed by Zidane’s men. Perhaps aware of their opponent’s dismal form and 14th place standing in the table, the manager fielded a rotated team featuring Nacho as a centerback; with Isco, James, and Morata in an adjusted formation.
Real Betis for their part also played a competent XI as they attempted to reverse their recent downturn results wise.
The most noticeable aspect of Real Madrid’s approach even before the ball was played was the presence of four midfielders. More midfielders, the thinking goes, promotes better possession control and ball retention. This was proved true in the match as Isco and James strongly supported a patient (if at times, slow) ball circulation scheme. Real Betis were extremely conservative and conceded a lot of control — not helped by Real Madrid’s intense press in recovery. This was clearly reflected in the start to the game as the hosts maintained strong dominance over proceedings dictating tempo and establishing rhythm. It was perhaps the best phase for Los Blancos from an attacking perspective as they managed space and movement very well to create danger in their opposition’s defensive zone.
Unfortunately, the offensive dynamism didn’t last and the combination of silky midfielders utilized wasn’t automatically translating into enhanced and intricate chance creation. Overall play with the ball was a little stale and didn’t proactively lead to quality options when attacking. Furthermore, transition was hampered due to the absence of Bale. James brings different qualities to the table but being deployed in a wide role provides less width and counterattacking potential than the Welshman or more traditional wingers. And on the flip side, Real Madrid seemed vulnerable to isolated situational defensive lapses in part because of Casemiro (not being there) and in part naturally due to heavy possession. This manifested itself into incidents such as the break-away opportunity Betis had in the first half and the game’s opening goal.
Once they had the lead, Real Betis became more compact and the positioning of their low block further retreated. This made it more difficult for Madrid to operate in the center of the field consequently increasing focus on the wings through the full backs and floating, free-moving forwards. Despite applying standard pressure by crossing the ball as they typically would, there were also coordinated efforts to diversify play on the wings. This was mainly on the right but also occasionally the left when Isco drifted to that side of the pitch. Carvajal and James would look to engage teammates with interplay and quick passing to create room and inch closer to better locations.
Marcelo, on the other hand, was quite one-dimensional, becoming slightly predictable with his decisions as he would primarily try to cross as soon as he had enough space to. This, though lacking inventiveness, did end up being rewarding as he provided an assist with a cross to Ronaldo who scored the equalizer towards the end of the first half. Despite this paying off, the assist was a product of an excellent delivery at an opportune moment when the dynamics of the players in the box were favourable. A case for Marcelo to be more selective with his crossing decisions and secondly improve the consistency/quality of his crosses exists.
Ronaldo was the the biggest danger man as Real Madrid sought to score the winner. Although his individual actions weren’t perfect, there was a greater sense of urgency and anticipation when he had the ball at his feet and drove towards the defense. Similarly, his supporting runs and movements were essential in the development of many of the most promising sequences of play in the second half. Morata’s slight difficulty working in a very ball-focused context as well as a lack of incisiveness from the midfielders burdened Ronaldo with much of the scoring responsibility.
Although he got close a few times, he was ultimately unsuccessful in helping the team get the winner. This became easier after Zidane brought on substitutes and Betis went down to 10 men but the goal remained elusive. Luckily Ramos was there to save the day and once again reminded the world the aerial prowess of not only him, but this Real Madrid team.
Summary of Select Key Chances
Minute 6: Ramos-->Navas-->Carvajal-->James-->Morata-->Ronaldo-->Shot off target
One of the highlights of Real Madrid’s dominant spell to start the match. The team effectively worked the ball up the field to exploit a gap between the lines. James found Morata’s great run and the Spaniard fed Ronaldo who should have done much better with the chance.
Minute 24: Adan-->Sanabria-->Pardo-->Durmisi-->Sanabria-->Goal
Carvajal tries to help Kroos win the second ball after Sanabria controls a goalkick by Adan. Sanabria comes away with the ball and plays it to Pardo who makes an excellent one-time pass to Durmisi completely free on the left wing. He finds Sanabria’s late run in the box who just gets it past Navas.
The error for the goal is clearly Navas’ as he fails to hold on to a ball that he should have. The error for the chance is shared between a few players but Carvajal is probably the key culprit for needlessly abandoning his wing.
Minute 24: Modric-->Kroos-->Modric-->Marcelo-->Ronaldo-->Goal
Real Madrid quickly recover possession after Isco loses the ball. Modric and Kroos play a one-two before the Croatian passes it to Marcelo. The left-back creates space and delivers an exquisite cross that is nodded home by Ronaldo. Morata’s run to the near post as the cross came in was part of the magic that made the goal.
Minute 76: Navas-->Ramos-->Benzema-->Isco-->Ronaldo-->Shot off target
A very good sequence of play building up from the back in a decisive vertical manner. Ramos’ directed pass, Benzema’s turn and layoff, Isco’s dagger through-ball, and Ronaldo’s positioning/run are all excellent. The Portuguese’s control was a little off as was his shot.
Minute 81: Kroos-->Ramos-->Goal
That man Sergio Ramos. The captain lost his man with an adept feint and aggressively tracked the flight of the ball as it sailed over the near post. He made no mistake and hammered it into the net when his head connected with the ball.
Minute 92: Petros-->Pardo-->Ceballos-->Pardo-->Alegria->Navarro-->Alegria-->Durmisi-->Sanabria-->Shot on target
Late dangerous opportunity for Real Betis. Quickly restarting after a foul was given near the half-way line, they diligently progressed forward on the right side before switching play to the left. Durmisi held off Carvajal before twisting to cross into the box as a poorly marked Sanabria almost equalized. Navas made a brilliant save to secure the win.
A game of relatively few chances but Real Madrid had the advantage in terms of shots and exG — 12 shots (4 on targets) for Madrid and 9 (4) for Betis.
Real Madrid did not sufficiently create chances or at least not at the level that would be expected of the midfield that was played in the game. The profile of players such as Morata and Isco were partially responsible as the former’s relative suboptimal interplay and the latter’s lack of consistent incisiveness constrained the ability of the team to strategically break down Real Betis.
Something to note: over the last few seasons, Marcelo has had a notable dip in form around the same time (spring) — there is a question if the same thing will happen (or is happening) this season. During these bad spells, the Brazilian’s offensive play and output diminishes significantly making him a higher risk due to his defensive weakness. Beyond this suspected dip, the Brazilian’s style of play can make Real Madrid predictable as he rarely explores non-cross options when attacking — although this is something he can do very well when he chooses to.
Ramos and Real Madrid’s aerial strength is amazing. It is an important part of the team’s attacking threat and an element that fans will hope can continue to make the difference as the season enters its final stage.