Model of Play
Going to San Mamés was one of the trickier away games on Real Madrid’s La Liga schedule for the remainder of the season. Getting a win in their new stadium where Athletic Bilbao have not lost since August 2016 would be a significant step in Los Blancos’ march towards domestic dominance. In light of the importance of the game, Zidane started his gala XI (except Nacho; as Pepe and Varane are recuperating from injury).
Athletic Bilbao, fighting for a potential Europa League spot and coming into the match on the back of two consecutive wins, started a strong line-up as well.
Athletic Bilbao exerted a significant amount of pressure at the beginning of the match, making it difficult for Real Madrid to have stability with the ball. Los Merengues for their part seemed somewhat content to let the hosts aggressively push up the field as Ramos and co looked to absorb and contain the pressure. Athletic Bilbao’s attacking strategy focused on capitalizing on the qualities of their personnel. They explicitly sought to create danger in the air through Aduriz and Raúl García as much as possible. In addition, they targeted gaps in the flanks taking advantage of their forwards’ pace (primarily Iñaki Williams). Although this didn’t lead to many truly threatening chances, it put the defense under a significant level of stress as the Basque team were afforded too much time on the wings allowing them to continuously test Navas and the central defenders with crosses.
Real Madrid, unexpectedly, didn’t counter-attack as consistently and deliberately as many would have thought given the nature of the match. However, when they were able to compose themselves and any time they managed to work the ball up the field, they did so clinically and with lethal precision. There was difficulty breaking through the first line due to Athletic Bilbao’s incredible intensity and discipline closing down passing lanes and options. Benzema reacted to this constriction by strategically gearing his movements to create openings and channels for defenders and midfielders. His positional dynamism was vital as he popped up in the right locations at the right time to unplug spatial congestions.
The vistors grew into the game as time wore on and became more comfortable in possession although the same issues with play progression persisted. Midfield passing was fairly flat and engagement of the attacking trio wasn’t very productive. Bale and Ronaldo seemed isolated and unsupported when they received the ball and couldn’t connect with Kroos, Modric, or Casemiro in a fluid manner. These issues didn’t completely compromise the game plan and Real Madrid were still able to create good chances — especially when Marcelo and Carvajal joined the attack. It’s interesting but as has been observed in previous games, Real Madrid can be extremely deadly “spontaneously” and are able to activate a controlled vertical scheme without warning. Almost like a scorpion sting. The opening goal was a perfect illustration of this.
Real Madrid maintained a solid defensive shape after they took the lead and played cautiously. They denied even more space for Athletic Bilbao to operate in and Casemiro led the proactive defending approach employed making the centre of the field particularly hard to play through. The match slowed down suiting Real as they held on to the ball for more extended stretches. This left them more susceptible to Athletic Bilbao’s fast transitions. This would not normally be a big risk but due to individual lack of sharpness and the number of mistakes with the ball; and when passing, it created a worrying dynamic. It was a dynamic made worse by the second wind Athletic found midway through the second half, partially as a result of the energy of the substitutes Valverde brought on.
Zidane responded by bringing on Vazquez for Modric to provide better defensive balance as Bale would drop deeper to form a band of 4 when Real Madrid didn’t have the ball. This was logical, but the switch seemed to require an adjustment period as Vazquez integrated into the match and the team adapted to the new scheme. Consequently, in this state of slight disorganization, Real Madrid conceded shortly after the substitution in a phase of the match dominated by Athletic Bilbao. Fortunately, Casemiro equalized almost immediately from a corner and Real Madrid’s plans to close the game off was back on. The team managed the remainder (using Isco and Morata to further steady play) of the game well limiting Athletic Bilbao to very low quality chances.
Summary of Select Key Chances
Minute 15: Beñat-->Garcia-->Álvarez-->Shot off target
Probably Athletic Bilbao’s best chance of the first half as Beñat’s cross was flicked on by Garcia and fell to Álvarez in the 6-yard box. He missed the target — Navas deserves credit for disrupting his focus.
Some of the Real Madrid players called for an off-side and this may have affected their concentration.
Minute 16: Navas-->Marcelo-->Benzema-->Ronaldo-->Shot on target
After conceding the big Álvarez chance, Navas restarted quickly and found Marcelo with a long ball, who played a fantastic one-time pass to Benzema. The number 9 immediately picked out Ronaldo’s defense splitting run and fed him. The Portuguese controlled and got off a good shot that Kepa denied with an excellent save.
Minute 24: Ramos-->Marcelo-->Casemiro-->Ronaldo-->Benzema-->Goal
A marvelous sequence of play that led to the opening goal. Ramos headed the ball to Marcelo who passed to Casemiro. The Brazilian, understanding he had a lot of space, turned and noticed Ronaldo peeling off on the left wing to make a run. He delivered a superb ball that Ronaldo controlled and layed off to Benzema in two touches. Benzema made no mistake and placed it into the net out of Kepa’s reach.
Minute 62: De Marcos-->Williams-->De Marcos-->Williams-->Shot on target
This play is a great example of the gaps that existed in our flanks. Marcelo and Bale ran up the field chasing a goal kick but it was intercepted by the Athletic Bilbao right back who played a great 1-2 with Iñaki Williams before returning it to the young forward. Williams’ shot was luckily saved by Navas.
Minute 64: Beñat-->Balenziaga-->Laporte-->Iturraspe-->Álvarez-->De Marcos-->Iturraspe-->Beñat-->Iturraspe-->Laporte-->Balenziaga-->Aduriz-->Beñat-->Williams-->Garcia-->Aduriz-->Aduriz-->Goal
A long spell of possession preceded Athletic Bilbao’s equalizer. 16 passes in total were made before Aduriz headed in the goal. The possession was effective in serving as a tool to disorganize and blindside Real Madrid’s defensive shape but Nacho and Ramos were completely at fault for failing to adequately mark both Garcia and Aduriz.
Minute 68: Kroos-->Ronaldo-->Casemiro-->Goal
Another Kroos corner, another goal. The entire sequence was quite beautiful. Kroos’ wonderfully floated delivery was met well at the near post by Ronaldo who deflected the ball into Casemiro’s path. The Brazilian controlled and coolly slotted in the ball to quickly reestablish Real Madrid’s 1 goal lead.
A very even and close affair based on shots and expected goals. Athletic Bilbao pushed Real Madrid to the brink but the latter came out with the win.
This was a professional performance by Real Madrid but they were almost punished for leaving too many gaps on the wings that their opponents attempted to play through. Ramos and Nacho were enormous in defense, clearing an endless number of crosses into the box. They protected our defensive zone impressively, compensating for the lack of security we had on the wings.
Zidane subbing Modric and Ronaldo reinforces his commitment to following a type of rotational system that does not exempt any player. The fast approaching month of April will seriously test the club, and specifically the depth and fortitude of Real Madrid’s roster. Although, how much control the coaching staff have over fitness and injuries is slightly unknown, we can only hope that these bold decisions Zidane has and will likely continue to make bears fruit in a very important period of the season.