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Tactical Review: Real Madrid 2 - 2 Valencia, 2017 La Liga

The La Liga Champions present a trophy and drop two points in an eventful night at the Bernabeu.

Real Madrid v Valencia - La Liga Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Real Madrid were set to play Valencia in the first match hosted at the Santiago Bernabeu in the 2017-18 La Liga season. The match had all the signs of a tricky encounter that could result in dropped points. Sky-high confidence — check. Missing key players — check. Playing against serial point snatchers — check. Despite the warning flags, most were still reasonably confident that a win could be secured.

Zidane was left without the services of Ronaldo (suspension), Ramos (suspension), Varane (injury), and Vallejo (injury). The absence of three of his four central defenders meant he needed to make some positional adjustments. The manager moved Casemiro back and played Kroos as the holding midfielder with Isco dropping into the middle and Asensio lining up with Benzema and Bale in attack.

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Isco’s adaptation fractures possession structure

Isco played deeper as a left central midfielder which is different than the floating midfield-offense-connector role he usually occupies. The Spaniard displayed the instincts that make him so effective in the free-moving position at the tip of a diamond midfield. He was positionally fluid and moved dynamically both laterally and vertically to support Kroos, Casemiro, and Nacho in buildup and to create linkages and access points for attacking schemes between fullbacks and forwards.

This wouldn’t traditionally be an issue, as the attackers that Isco had ahead of him when he played in similar positions as a pure midfielder in the past, were more positionally disciplined / fixed (vertically) in that their activity and occupation of space was focused in their opponent’s half. However, Asensio is a different player than Ronaldo, Vázquez, Bale, and even James (the contrast is less stark but just as evident). The young prodigy was everywhere (literally) in the first quarter of the match, often inadvertently creating zonal redundancies when he and Isco moved into the same space.

The consequence was a ‘broken’ possession structure. Real Madrid could not assertively maintain aggressive possession in Valencia’s half. This was interesting as Valencia’s defensive model was very close to Deportivo’s from last week. However, the fullbacks weren’t having nearly as much success in combining with midfielders or delivering incisive balls to forwards. Isco and Asensio’s uncoordinated movements (with one player it’s manageable, with two it becomes destabilizing) affected balance as zones weren’t consistently covered and utilized as well as they could have been.

Positional stability and overlaps on the wing give Real the offensive edge

Real Madrid began to dominate in the latter part of the first half — the score was tied at this stage after another Asensio golazo and an intricate Valencia sequence started by Kondogbia (whose strength in the middle was notable and influential) led to a play that disoriented Real’s defense with Marcelo losing track of the eventual scorer, Carlos Soler.

Part of the reason Real Madrid had started to dominate and display the level of possession and control fans are accustomed to was the natural adjustments made by Isco and Asensio. The former was particularly accommodating and would equalize positional balance by moving into vacated spaces to maximize field coverage. This would occur if Asensio dropped deep (Isco would stretch the field by moving wide or pushing into the forward line) or maintained a high position (Isco would remain disciplined as an interior midfielder).

Real Madrid were able to leverage increased possession control to enhance chance creation through wing playmaking, especially making strategic use of overlaps and runs behind defenders. One interesting aspect of this attacking strategy was the left-wing bias, as most of the dangerous openings came through that side. Despite this, Carvajal was still very involved through intentional midfield switches of play but there was less combination play and he often either crossed or played it back to the middle.

orange arrow=pass, blue circle=start of run, dotted line=trajectory of run

This inventive but repeated tactic was supplemented with fast transitions (Benzema in the 36th minute, and Isco in the 40th) to capitalize on counterattacking opportunities. Furthermore, crosses such as Kroos’s perfect delivery to Benzema towards the end of the half were occasionally made. Poor finishing ultimately let the hosts down as they should have been able to substantially increase their lead before halftime with the chances they had.

Kovačić’s introduction for Isco has negative effects

Kovačić replaced Isco at the start of the second half taking up Kroos’ position in holding midfield as the German moved back into his normal left midfield position. This change, speculated to have been as a result of Isco not feeling well, unfortunately worsened Real Madrid’s game. Firstly, the defensive shape was slightly compromised as Kovačić is less positionally static than Kroos due to the former’s style (dribbler, fast, and likes running with the ball). This exposed the team several times in transition when they lost possession of the ball and Valencia capably counterattacked. Luckily, Casemiro and Nacho were able to provide adequate support in recovery.

The bottom right panel is seconds preceding Valencia’s second goal. Kovačić stepped up unnecessarily. This left Rodrigo free in between the lines allowing him to advance and cause disruption. The Croatian did well to track him but Kroos did not do the same, and Kondogbia was able to score from a reverse pass made by Rodrigo.

Isco’s substitution also undermined attacking quality as Kovačić is not as good a distributive and stabilizing base as Kroos, and Kroos is not as good an instigator as Isco. Essentially, there were two side effects as a result of two players not being able to match the performance and productivity of their first half counterparts. This issue was worsened by Valencia’s renewed defensive intensity and pressure. The visitors’ clogged midfield and effective containment play reduced Madrid’s offense to primarily crossing.

The Asensio factor and Real’s last surge

When Asensio stepped up to take the freekick called by David Fernández in the 83rd minute, there was a sense of expectation. The sort of feeling you only get when the star of your team has the moment to himself. When your best player is about to make the difference. Hyperbole or no hyperbole, Asensio (in Ronaldo’s absence) has unquestionably been just that in the 2017-18 season so far. The young Spaniard accepted the responsibility and curled a delightful effort around the wall into the back of the net to make it 2-2.

In the meantime, Vázquez replaced Bale, and Mayoral came in for Kroos as Real Madrid applied an incredible amount of pressure on Valencia leading to many good chances. The best of those chances was Benzema’s in the box following a blocked shot from Asensio. The French striker was both unlucky and poor in front of the goal all night. Overall, the misses were mostly the fault of the #9 and ultimately cost the team as otherwise the tactical plan to close the game was excellent.


Real Madrid dominated the first half after ironing out a few issues related to overlapping positional movements between Isco and Asensio. They created many more chances than Valencia but couldn’t make it count as the half finished with a goal apiece. Kovačić’s entrance in the second half destabilized the team as they adjusted to Isco’s absence — this hurt them because Valencia easily bypassed the midfield line, eventually leading to Kondogbia’s goal. Asensio answered the call for someone to step up by scoring an exquisite free-kick.

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Zidane put Vázquez and Mayoral on in the second half as he searched for a winner. This was very effective as the offensive talent on the pitch overwhelmed a tired Valencia, resulting in multiple great chances and near misses. Benzema’s finishing woes exemplified Real’s lack of composure in front of the net. This proved to be the deciding factor as the hosts had much more (and better) chances.

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