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Tactical Review: Celta Vigo 1 - 4 Real Madrid (La Liga 2017)

Real Madrid’s adaptability shines as their transition offense puts them at the summit of La Liga.

Celta de Vigo v Real Madrid CF - La Liga Photo by Octavio Passos/Getty Images

Model of Play

Following a slightly deceiving 4-1 victory in their last home match of the season against Sevilla, Zidane started his strongest XI in the absence of usual starters in Bale and Carvajal. Benzema, Marcelo. Casemiro, and Modric returned to the starting XI as Los Blancos looked to take a huge stride forward in their quest to regain domestic supremacy.

Pegged as the last true hurdle in Real Madrid’s path to the league trophy, Celta Vigo (who had “nothing” to play for) fielded a very strong line-up including their main danger man, Iago Aspas.

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Real Madrid adopted a fluid 4-3-1-2/4-3-3 formation which at times reverted to a 4-4-2 as Isco would retreat to the middle line to assert possession authority. Casemiro played a little behind Modric and Kroos. He would sometimes completely join the defensive line allowing Danilo and Marcelo to push up aggressively. Real Madrid started the match with a clear intent to strike the first blow — Isco, Benzema, and Ronaldo essentially formed an attacking trident that would strategically look to overwhelm an isolated defense (due to Celta’s commitment of significant numbers in possession and attacking phases). This worked very well and enabled more direct and vertical play progression. The aforementioned dynamic somewhat emerged as a result of the nature of the match as Celta looked to hold the ball and Real Madrid reacted by counter-attacking opportunistically.

This is not to say Real Madrid struggled in possession — they didn’t. They deliberately adapted into a transition-based setup because they had the tools and quality to exploit the gaps that Celta Vigo’s risky approach created. Isco, Benzema, and Ronaldo’s holding and ball retention skills were effectively leveraged to enhance attacking potency. The latter two’s sharp, vivid movements and passing further supplemented offensive efficiency as Benzema and Ronaldo would quickly look to capitalize on mismatches, numerical superiorities, and surrendered space (this particular one was a running theme throughout the match). This strategy was particularly fruitful in the early phase of the first half as Real’s urgency caught Celta Vigo off-guard. After a series of close calls, Ronaldo opened the scoring with a fantastic effort.

Celta Vigo reacted well to going down and their positional structure and approach began to pay dividends. They controlled possession and displayed exemplary ball circulation. The hosts were able to easily bypass Real Madrid’s passive press to move into the middle and offensive thirds of the pitch. Although they had relative success progressing into dangerous zones, Real Madrid’s staunch defending — accentuated by Ramos and Varane’s renowned anticipation and coverage — were able to mostly prevent developing offensive sequences. The central defenders were supported by Real Madrid’s off-the-ball conservative and compact shape. As a result, the match dynamic was reinforced as each team’s role was more explicit with Real sitting in a low block while Celta tried to maneuver with the ball in Real’s half.

Celta seemed to be gaining an edge and appeared stronger and more dynamic. Aspas, especially, caused significant disruption due to his adept movement and excellent touch/dribbling. He was positionally fluid which allowed him to provide good passing options to his teammates to facilitate access to dangerous zones. While this led to some exceptional chances, it wasn’t overly productive, evidenced by the fact that shot generation was limited to fairly poor locations and low-probability attempts. The suboptimal offense was favourable for Real as Celta’s push did not sufficiently compensate for how exposed they left themselves and there was a sense they would suffer the consequences sooner or later. This proved true when Real Madrid doubled their lead courtesy of Ronaldo on a counterattack (which was preceded by perhaps Celta’s best chance of the game).

The match, already in Real Madrid’s control, was practically over when Aspas received a second yellow card with approximately half an hour left. Although Celta scored (off a fortunate deflection), Real Madrid managed the situation well. They gradually adjusted into a more possession-oriented style to arrest Celta’s intensity and steady the tempo of the game. Furthermore, they continued to target the unguarded space (which increased when Celta went down to ten men) in their opponent’s half. Real added two more to their tally before the final whistle and it could easily have been much more.

Summary of Select Key Chances

Minute 10: [Off-camera]-->Kroos-->Ramos-->Isco-->Kroos-->Marcelo-->Isco-->Ronaldo-->Goal

Ronaldo’s stunner gave Real Madrid the lead with a powerful left foot shot outside the box. The play highlighted the space that Celta left in defense as Marcelo’s pass from his own half created a 3 v 3 scenario. If Isco’s eye had been alert, there was a chance to slide the ball to Benzema for an easy finish.

Minute 31: Wass-->Shot on target

Wass’ freekick, although struck directly at Navas, required the goalkeeper to be aware due to the number of bodies in the way.

Minute 45: Marcelo-->Ronaldo-->Kroos-->Benzema-->Shot on target

Another counter-attack started by a brilliant Marcelo pass. Ronaldo received the ball from the Brazilian and played it short to Kroos who delivered an enticing through-ball to Benzema. The striker’s tame effort from a great position is comfortably saved.

Minute 48: Casemiro-->Danilo-->Isco-->Ronaldo-->Goal

Celta Vigo’s best chance of the match is wasted by Guidetti which proved devastating as Real Madrid doubled their lead on the ensuing play. Casemiro dispossessed Guidetti in the box before Danilo cleared the ball upfield. Isco collected it, danced past two Celta players, and played Ronaldo through. The Portuguese made no mistake and accurately dispatched it.

Minute 68: Wass-->Castro-->Jozabed-->Castro-->Sisto-->Castro-->Wass-->Shot on target

Another high quality opportunity for Celta. This sequence is led by Castro who combined with Wass, Jozabed, and Sisto before dribbling past Isco and Modric. He subsequently passed to Wass who beautifully used body movement to open up space for a shot that Navas saved well. Isco (primarily), Modric, and Marcelo failed to mark and defend more tightly.

Minute 69: Sisto-->Guidetti-->Goal

Isco’s poor pass is intercepted by Sisto who passed to Guidetti. The Swedish forward’s shot from a tough angle just outside the box is deflected into the net off Ramos. The goal was mostly misfortune from Real Madrid’s perspective but Isco’s poor pass was the key issue.

Minute 70: Ramos-->Ronaldo-->Benzema-->Marcelo-->Benzema-->Goal

Repeating the theme of the match, Ramos’ interception initiated a counterattack that saw Ronaldo drive into the box before releasing the ball to Benzema. Benzema played a composed pass to Marcelo who — after wonderful work to get past Mallo — returned it for an easy tap in.

Minute 74: Modric-->Ronaldo-->Kroos-->Ronaldo-->Shot off target

Another counterattack started by an interception. It resulted in a great chance for Ronaldo who surprisingly failed to score from close range.

Minute 88: Asensio-->Benzema-->Kroos-->Goal

A goal that fittingly capped a performance by Kroos — a little reminiscent of the agile offensive image he had at Bayern when he broke into the scene. The German cleverly feigned a shot to evade a challenge before placing it into the bottom corner.


A relatively tight affair between two good teams for an hour before Real overran Celta as reflected by the xG numbers. Real Madrid had 13 shots (eight on target) to Celta’s 17 (six on target). The visitors ruthlessly capitalized on Aspas’ red card to put the game to bed. Prior to the send off, although Real Madrid were two goals up, chance creation was fairly low for both teams as they lacked precision and composure with their final moves and decision-making.

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Ronaldo is incredible. The Portuguese’s ability to drive and inspire his team’s offense is nearly unmatched and never ceases to amaze. He is now a goal away from scoring 40 goals in all competitions for the seventh consecutive season. The advantage and impetus he gives the team is invaluable and will be crucial in the next two games as they aim to cross the finish line ahead of the pack.

One more final in La Liga remains. The last final before the final. A journey that began on August 21st is approaching its conclusion and Los Blancos are one draw away from a historic title. They can’t let up for even a second and cannot let the distracting thoughts and emotions that inescapably invades the club at such a moment as this affect their focus. The focus is the next match and that only. 90 more minutes. The culmination of the work, blood, sweat, and tears awaits the team on Sunday and Zidane and his men must ensure they’re up to it.

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