Model of Play
Real Madrid travelled to Malaga to play the last league final of the season. Their splendid work and effort during the preceding ten months culminated in the opportunity to confirm their domestic supremacy. They needed to defeat Michel’s men to lift the Liga trophy and although, mathematically, they only needed to earn an equal result to Barcelona (meaning a Catalonia loss would have given them the title regardless of the score in Malaga), there wasn’t any time to work out the permutations or concern themselves with how their rivals were faring.
For the first time all season, Zidane played the same XI in two consecutive matches as he fielded the same eleven players that started against Celta Vigo. This seems to be the preferred line-up given the current state of players’ health (albeit there remains question marks regarding whether Nacho or Asensio are still under consideration to start in Cardiff if Bale and Carvajal do not recover in time). Much had been made of Malaga’s impressive form at home of late as they won their last four games at La Rosaleda against Barcelona, Valencia, Sevilla, and Celta VIgo. The Boquerones started with a mostly unchanged line-up from their draw against Real Sociedad last match day.
Real Madrid opened the scoring almost immediately as Isco slipped Ronaldo in behind the backline after a poor touch by a Malaga defender. This was the perfect start for Los Blancos and it helped reduce the tension and pressure the players were likely feeling. Tactically, the model did not change from the match against Celta as Isco occupied a free role ahead of the midfield line while Benzema and Ronaldo partnered as strikers. The three forwards focused on providing outlets to the rest of the team at the beginning of the match. After gaining the lead, Real Madrid receded into a more defensive shape and did not engage in active pressing. Although Zidane’s men circulated the ball patiently when they regained it, they also sought to transition into offense quickly due to the availability of wide passing options in advanced zones. Benzema, Ronaldo, and Isco would break out and capitalize on space on the wings to support their attacking strategy. This revolved around supplying deep crosses into the box which was successful and resulted in several dangerous opportunities.
Isco also acted as a link and was required to carry the ball from his half and the middle third into offensive zones in order to support transitions. The Spaniard executed the task admirably, using his dribbling and ball retention skills to get past players and move into more favourable positions on the pitch. What let him down however was his decision-making with final balls once he reached the final third. Although he made a few excellent passes and optimal plays in those situations, he wasn’t consistently effective and would prematurely terminate sequences due to being dispossessed or giving the ball away. The team dynamic certainly had an impact and placed an undue amount of responsibility on the player. Due to Ronaldo, Benzema, and Isco (lesser so) maintaining a strict higher position than the rest of the team both with and without the ball, a visible and significant gap emerged between the front line and midfield/defense. Isco did not have the level of support in possession he is normally used to.
The disconnection was mitigated when Real Madrid would progress play in their more traditional controlled style. The whole team gradually moved vertically as a unit which made it possible for the passing options and lanes to remain available to every player. Of particular note, Danilo and Marcelo’s participation naturally increased when Los Merengues employed this scheme allowing them to share in the playmaking and chance creation duties. This provided relief to Isco but the fullbacks’ deliveries into the box were somewhat subpar and although they did very well to combine with midfielders and create room to cross, they couldn’t translate that into attractive balls for Ronaldo and Benzema. In a slight reaction to this and adding positive variety to offense, the team would make cutbacks to players (primarily Kroos) outside of the box to selectively take shots, which added a layer of unpredictability and tested Kameni.
Defensively, Real Madrid’s low positioning and commitment of significant numbers in recovery and off-the-ball phases was successful. Malaga could not penetrate or operate in central areas which limited their activity to the wings. This was partly a response to Real Madrid’s shape. The hybrid and fluid 4-3-1-2/4-3-3 meant Kroos, Modric, and Casemiro were required to provide lateral coverage with one less man than in the standard 4-4-2. Consequently, the defenders needed to selectively move up to minimize open spaces and address Malaga’s numerical superiority in the middle. Varane and Ramos’ exceptional anticipation and speed was leveraged to ensure that Malaga could not exploit Marcelo or Danilo’s advancements into the middle line (and additionally, their involvement in possession/attacking schemes). Malaga were forced to rely on set pieces and crosses as a result which were only moderately fruitful. Real Madrid defended crosses and aerial plays fairly well but were still susceptible to fortunate bounces or well taken direct free-kicks.
James, Kovačić, and Morata came on as substitutes in the second half after Benzema had doubled Real Madrid’s lead. Although the tempo and rhythm of the game was unaltered (in that Real sat back and Malaga maintained their possession-oriented offense), chance creation did improve. Kovačić’s ability on the ball helped vertical progression while James’ more incisive passing enhanced instigation. Despite conceding a few dangerous chances towards the end, the score (and primary objective of earning a draw) was never in real jeopardy and the team came away victors. The bench rushed the field and players broke out the champagne, the indisputable and smile-inducing truth became clear: Real Madrid are 2016-17 La Liga Champions.
Less apparent on the eye test but the match was controlled by Real Madrid from start to finish. There were a few glitches here and there as Malaga threatened to make Real Madrid’s confirmation as champions less comfortable than the capital city club would have liked, but Los Blancos held their nerve and performed well. Despite registering six less shots overall (22-16 for Malaga), Real Madrid edged their hosts based on shots on target (eight to six) and more than doubled Malaga’s xG.
There are an infinite number of things that can be said about Real Madrid’s La Liga campaign. You could simply pick any random match from the season and re-watch it. Re-watch the effort, intensity, and focus of the team. Re-watch the heart, desire, and ambition of the players. Re-watch the patience, diligence, and awareness of the coach. Re-watch the sheer tenacity and unrivalled competence of a side that has been dreaming about this title for close to seven years. After the heartbreaking stumbles in 2013-14 and 2014-15 at the very end, this title is worth more than just one La Liga. It restores the confidence and belief (not that they left but it’s reinforced) in the capacity of this club to complete the job — and complete the job they did.
Looking ahead, the question on everybody’s mind is who will be in the starting XI in Cardiff in two weeks. Despite Isco and Danilo being the preferred players in the last two key games in the league, there is an argument that Nacho and/or Asensio deserve serious consideration for the starting berths. Isco offers dynamism and situational authority that is very difficult to replicate due to his innate positional sense and strong technical skills but his lack of consistent playmaking sharpness can hamper the efficiency of play progression. Danilo has performed well, however Nacho certainly guarantees a higher level of defensive assurance which may be advantageous given Marcelo’s attacking propensity. At the moment, these are just questions — questions that may not even need to be answered depending on Bale and Carvajal’s condition as we get closer to the final.