The reigning domestic champions began their quest to retain the La Liga trophy with a visit to the Estadio Riazor. Real Madrid were looking to continue their triumphant start to the season by earning full points away against Deportivo La Coruña in Los Blancos’ first league match of the season.
Zidane played arguably his strongest XI with the exception of Varane who was replaced by Nacho. The manager selected essentially the same players that took the field in the first official match of the season against Manchester United. This showed how important the game was especially as Barcelona had obtained a win in their curtain raiser.
Real Madrid take the game to Deportivo
Real Madrid were in a 4-3-1-2 shape where Isco was afforded the flexibility and freedom to operate dynamically to provide support in all areas across the field. The visitors were aggressively positioned from the start and forced the game into Deportivo’s half as they searched for the opening goal. Marcelo and Carvajal’s general positioning is usually a strong indicator of the level of pressure applied by Zidane’s men. The fullbacks essentially joined the midfield line in this game which consequently pinned Deportivo back.
This advanced support and structure suited Kroos and Modric, particularly, very well. The Croatian drove the game in the first half being at the intersection of progressive possession in the final third. His linkup play was effective in engaging Benzema, Bale, and his partners. That being said, offense and general activity was focused on on the left side of the field in the first quarter of the match as Kroos was disciplined as an LCM, Isco gravitated towards the left wing and Modric stayed fairly central. This left Bale and Carvajal somewhat isolated.
This positional imbalance wasn’t too much of an issue as Isco and Marcelo were having success on the left side. Their success was characterized by very deliberate and inventive playmaking from the wings. They limited the amount of crossing (a very contentious aspect of Real Madrid’s play last season) and focused instead on vertical low passes to the feet of forwards in and around the box. The below are some key examples.
The selection of this strategy is apt against low block defenses such as Deportivo’s. The intricacy of sequences causes more disruption and confusion than repetitive crossing would. Bale’s goal to give Real Madrid the lead was preceded by exactly this type of creative play (bottom right panel in above graphic). Marcelo received the ball in an area where it wouldn’t be surprising to see him cross it but instead of doing so chose to play it laterally to Modric at the top of the box. The new 10 took advantage of the sumptuous shooting opportunity with a driven effort which led to the rebound and ultimately Bale’s goal.
Risky Gamble of the High Line
Real Madrid’s aggressive positioning did not come without a price. This match saw one of the more extreme versions of the common high defensive line instituted when the team pushes up as much as they did against Deportivo. Varane and Ramos’s athleticism and speed enable them to handle the intense requirements of managing huge amounts of space. Nacho was a slight downgrade to the Frenchman but still proved capable to meet the demands of his role. Deportivo tried to take advantage of the high line (which combined with the fullbacks offensive focus worsened the exposure) to isolate Andone against the centerbacks in 1v1 opportunities.
The above are two moments that perfectly illustrated the risk of Real’s aggressive positioning. The team as a whole was susceptible to transition offense as there is a natural scramble and difficulty in reorganizing into a compact shape. Furthermore, the centerbacks are forced to mark opposition players furthest forward to deny them time and space due to reduced numerical presence in defense. This meant Nacho and Ramos were many times close to the half way line in the first half with the rest of the team beyond it. Whenever Deportivo was able to recover the ball and play it to the forward, it was able to lead to danger such as Andone’s tow chances in the 5th and 8th minute.
Cooled Pressure and Score Management
In a continuation of the theme from the European and Spanish Super Cup contests, Real Madrid gradually but very noticeably began to relax their pressure and positioning after securing a strong lead.
Halfway through the first half, Real began utilizing what can be called constrictive possession that allows them to retain influence on the tempo of the match without expending as much energy. Casemiro dropped deeper into a more defined CDM role and Kroos and Modric’s spacing became much more symmetrical. Isco’s positioning also evened out as he was now popping up more visibly in deeper midfield positions as well as the right side. This overall balance helped possession and combination play.
Casemiro was the protagonist of the second goal scored as his now frequent tendency to venture forward (Kroos also did this regularly in this game) was rewarded with a beautiful low and driven delivery from Marcelo that the Brazilian put past the keeper. Reflective of the slower possession game described above, the goal came about as a result of an audacious 44-pass sequence.
This balance translated well defensively as the compact spacing and alignment needed to optimize possession also enables effective defensive coverage and containment. Deportivo’s access to favorable central locations on the pitch was completely shut off and they were limited to operating on the wings. This led to their best chances coming off speculative crosses which the defenders handled superbly.
Miscued Passes and Other Notes
One area of play for Real that stands to be polished is the quality of final third passing and incisiveness to take advantage of high quality attacking opportunities.
Isco — due to his role, position, and preferred spaces — is the main proponent in this regard. This has been a longstanding issue with the Spaniard and is something that if bettered would provide significant positive benefits. His pass to Bale after receiving a super feed from Benzema led Kroos’ goal which practically sealed the win. To be clear, Isco is not the only one at fault: Bale (one of several others including Kroos) was another culprit in this game. In matches Real is comfortably leading — and the opponent fails to capitalize on their chances — such as this one, it is not very problematic. However, these missed passes can make all the difference in closed games.
Going back to the match: despite Deportivo’s strong push by committing more men forward and applying increased pressure that ultimately led to a penalty call (saved by Navas!), the final score was never in jeopardy and Real remained firmly in control of the match. Asesnio, LLorente, and Vazquez were the substitutes chosen by Zidane and all three did well. The end was more fiery than Real would have cared for as Ramos saw a second yellow card and was sent off for what appeared to be an elbow while challenging a ball in the air.
Real Madrid put in a solid performance which made use of high positioning, strong possession, proactive pressure, and deliberate wing playmaking and creative play to overcome a packed Deportivo defense. This strategy left them a little exposed but without much consequence as Deportivo could not take their chances.
Overall, Real created better quality chances based on shot and expected goals statistics.
This makes it four wins in four for Los Merengues since the season officially kicked off. A tricky Valencia awaits them next week at the Bernabeu which they’ll have to manage without the services of Ramos or Ronaldo.