It is the 72nd minute. The scoreline is 0-0. You’ve already made two substitutions; one five minutes ago and one barely seconds in the past, where you brought on a defensive right winger on for an injured left fullback. You have one sub left. What do you do?
It’s not an easy question. Your team has managed to create chance after chance, and some of your most reliable players, some of your best players, have failed to convert them. You wouldn’t be human if the thought of putting on another striker didn’t appeal to you. If the problem is finishing chances, surely putting on a young, hungry finisher, who just scored in his last game, would help? Maybe, putting this kid on while keeping your Welsh dragon and the greatest goalscorer of all time on the pitch would be even better? Right?
Well that depends on whether you can continue to supply chances to those finishers at a regular rate, something that almost entirely depends on the players behind them and the structure they operate within.
But that structure has been threatened. With one fullback now off the pitch injured, you’ve been reduced to three players at the back. You have a left-winger on the pitch and a right-winger just subbed on, so you move to a back three with Casemiro dropping into a deeper defensive position. Your midfield is thinned out, with only Kroos and Modric available to dictate proceedings. So what do you do?
You sub out Modric, your first or second best player on the night, for your finisher. That leaves you with only Kroos to connect your makeshift defense and your overloaded attack. Maybe your heart sinks over the next couple of minutes as you realize your mistake, or maybe you have faith in your plan to the very end, but at the end of the day, you’ve learned a valuable lesson: offensive dominance is predicated on sustained pressure, not haphazardly throwing men forward.
This may not always be the case, as sometimes you’ve gotten away with your gung-ho strategy, thanks to your keeper pulling off amazing saves, or your brilliant defender making multiple amazing tackles, but you’re far likelier to achieve victory if you design your offense around a balanced system.
Zidane’s decision to bring on Borja Mayoral for Luka Modric against Real Betis illustrates this. Prior to this change, Zizou had actually designed a strong offensive system. His team was fairly organized, and they pressed in a 4-1-4-1, with Modric and Kroos pushing up to press Betis’ CB’s. Isco and Bale pushed wide to cover the fullbacks, while Casemiro provided vertical compactness. The counterpress worked similarly, though Los Blancos’ personnel appeared in different places due to the fluid offensive interchange between Ronaldo, Isco, and Bale. The result was sustained pressure, meaning that Real could try to create a chance, fail, win the ball back, and try again. It allowed Madrid to probe Betis relentlessly until cracks in the away team’s defense appeared.
Put in another way, imagine being a defender for Real Betis. You do everything you can to beat Ronaldo in the air, the greatest header of the ball in history. Euphoria rushes through your system. But then, all of a sudden, there comes another cross - 30 seconds later. Your heart sinks. Ronaldo misses. You breathe. You watch as your team builds from the back. You watch pass after pass after pass, until... Modric wins the ball back. There comes Gareth Bale running at you. It couldn’t have been more than a minute since you last tried to hold off Ronaldo. You gulp as one of the fastest players in the world screams towards you...
Now imagine that repeated over and over again; to the point where Cristiano Ronaldo manages 12 shots and Gareth Bale creates 6 chances. There’s absolutely no way any defense can stand strong unless they have luck on their side (which Real Betis did).
Zidane killed that system by taking off Luka Modric. Forget that Luka’s offensive positioning was causing nightmares for Betis’ midfielders, forget that he was the one that created a 1v1 for Isco with a brilliant through ball, forget that he was pressing well; taking off Kroos would’ve had the same effect.
It is simply impossible to consistently get the ball to your forwards without first, winning the ball back, and second, having the necessary links to connect defense to offense. When Modric came off, the game turned into complete chaos. Due to the lack of players guarding the central lanes of the pitch, our press fell apart, Kroos simply had too much space to cover, and when that was coupled with Real’s frantic urge to get into the box, Betis had acres of space to counter into. If it wasn’t for Casemiro, Real likely would’ve conceded far sooner than they did.
To compound this misery, the tradeoff on offense failed to materialize, as Madrid gave the ball away cheaply and failed to create a consistent barrage of opportunities. Then, in the 93rd minute, Betis scored.
But that’s football.
After all of Zidane’s good work, Real still lost. Most of the blame can be placed on Los Merengues’ finishing, but Zizou shot himself in the foot. He panicked. He gave up on his well designed system and became impatient. And it cost him.
After so many victories and so many accomplishments, it’s a bit surprising to see Zidane make such a fatal mistake. But sometimes we forget that he’s less than two years into the job, and he’s still got a lot to learn.