Model of Play
The visit to Gijon sat as the odd match out in the five game stretch that began with hosting Atletico Madrid at home. On the back of a massive 2-1 away first leg win against Bayern Munich and several days before the return fixture, playing a team battling for relegation provided Zidane an apt opportunity to rotate some of his key players. The coach did not miss his chance as nine of the starting eleven were changed from the XI that played against Bayern. Notably, Coentrao was the selected left back featuring again after a prolonged absence. The CB duo of Nacho and Ramos were the two that kept their place from the last game.
Sporting de Gijón, for their part, also started a significantly changed line-up mixing things up in an attempt to get out of their funk - they had won just one of their last nine La Liga games before this match.
Starting a trio of traditionally offensive players in Isco, James, and Kovačić in the midfield line gave Real Madrid’s play a certain texture from the start. The lack or absence of deliberate tempo setters in Modric and Kroos affected the positional consistency of the team’s shape. The midfielders weren’t as disciplined as the primary starting band (Casemiro, Kroos, Modric) due to their penchant for pushing into higher attacking zones and the unrestricted free roles they tend to best be suited to. As a result, possession play was not as effective as it could have been. It wasn’t as disjointed as it has been in the past with this midfield combination but the fluidity, smoothness, and team engagement wasn’t optimal. A key example was that Kovačić wasn’t a proactively responsive and distributive base and slightly compromised play progression by overly dwelling or holding on to the ball.
On the positive side, the midfield trio and forwards were able to dominate possession and obtained superiority in ball utilization through accumulation of individual and advantageous matchups across the pitch. No one was a better example than Isco who shined the entire match. The Spaniard enchanted the hosts as he danced and jazzed around El Molinón with exquisite grace. Isco’s movement and ball play was magnificent and compensated for the lack of relative constancy in midfield positioning. He was able to support transitional holding schemes by retreating to work with the defenders to bring the ball out of the back. At the same time, he was the principal actor in the offensive third, coordinating — along with James (and Asensio and Vazquez in a lesser context) — attacking actions and sequences.
Unfortunately, this did not materialize into fruitful chance creation partially due to subpar showings from Morata, James, and Vazquez but mainly due to the systemic imbalance. Danilo and Coentrao were very active and participated well offensively, providing great options and cutbacks throughout the match — so it wasn’t particularly a personnel issue on that front. And despite Sporting playing very conservatively for large periods of the match (even moreso because of how much of the 90 minutes they spent leading), Real Madrid should have been able to manufacture better quality opportunities.
It should be acknowledged that Sporting’s deep block was challenging to deal with and would have been so regardless of the team put on the field. While Marcelo and Diaz’s introductions, for Coentrao and Vazquez respectively, in the second half did provide more vigor and urgency to our attack, the same issues essentially remained. Possession wasn’t being converted nor was sufficient offensive pressure being applied. And to make matters worse, defensively, the midfield combination proved to be a double edged sword as the absence of Casemiro compounded by decreased collective organization allowed Sporting more excitement than they were due.
Real Madrid worked the channels persistently and leveraged the skill at hand allowing Isco (and in extension Asensio, James etc) to probe the defense to determine whether there were any holes or weaknesses that could be exploited. As mentioned above, Isco was able to capitalize on this with the greatest efficacy and it ultimately paid dividends as he scored two stunning goals - the second being the game winner.
Summary of Select Key Chances
Minute 13: Cuéllar-->López-->Carmona-->Čop-->Vesga-->Čop-->Goal
Sporting quickly broke after Cuellar collected Asensio’s cross. They caught Real Madrid in transition and employed good interplay to create the opening. Čop played a one-two with Vesga, continued his run, and received a beautifully lobbed pass behind the defense that he guided past Casilla. Kovačić and Nacho failed to pick up and track the runner.
Minute 15: Nacho-->Ramos-->Isco-->Coentrao-->Isco-->Ramos-->Kovačić-->Coentrao-->Morata-->Coentrao-->Asensio-->Danilo-->James-->Vazquez-->Isco-->Goal
The first of Isco’s two gems. The dexterity, awareness, and deft touch he showed to receive the ball, beat two men in such close quarters before dispatching with his left foot was otherworldly. The play was further accentuated by the great teamwork that preceded - Coentrao in particular did very well.
Minute 49: Carmona-->Babin-->Vesga-->Goal
A fairly straightforward goal. Carmona sent in a cross from a freekick called close to the halfway line. It was met by Babin and finished by Vesga - all without the ball touching the ground. Though the execution was quite good, Nacho and Danilo should have been more aware of Vesga and challenged him for the ball.
Minute 58: Nacho-->Marcelo-->James-->Isco-->Danilo-->Morata-->Goal
This goal illustrated one of the primary modes of attack used by Real Madrid during the game. Quick vertical passes to advance the ball and a cross delivered by the fullback (in this case Danilo). Danilo’s cross was superb and Morata made no mistake in finding the back of the net.
Minute 90: Marcelo-->Isco-->Goal
The star of the show ended it with a bang. Isco received the ball from Marcelo near the edge of the box and decisively drove it into the bottom left corner to give Real the win. Funnily enough, Marcelo had tried to pass to Isco right before and it was intercepted. The Brazilian immediately regained the ball and fed him again... Almost as if he knew what was to come.
Real Madrid thoroughly dominated Gijon from a shot perspective, registering 18 (six on target) to Gijon’s four (two). Los Blancos did enough to secure the win but questions remain about the viability of the midfield combination played on Saturday and whether it hinders the team’s possession fluidity and defensive solidity.
ISCO ISCO ISCO. It shouldn’t surprise anymore. This isn’t the first time he has taken over a match and it isn’t the last time that he will. It isn’t the first time that he has singlehandedly won a match and it won’t be the last. This isn’t the first time that he has dazzled with his sultry skills and it won’t be the last. That does not however take away from just how jaw dropping and breathtaking these performances are.
On a final note, mission accomplished. Zidane managed to rotate the team and still come home with three points. It was not as easy to do as was hoped and there were some familiar (and somewhat unsettling) issues that arose but all in all, it was a good outing and a fantastic result.