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Tactical Review: Deportivo Alavés 1 - 2 Real Madrid, 2017-18 La Liga

A Ceballos brace gives Real Madrid full points as they dominate at the Mendizorrotza Stadium. However, their possession without end product makes it a nervier contest than it should be.

Deportivo Alaves v Real Madrid - La Liga Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Seven points behind Barcelona, the league leaders, after only five matches, and on the back of the first loss of the season where the team’s scoring streak was broken made this match an extremely important game for Real Madrid.

Zidane fielded a rotated team having to work with a depleted as he was without the services of both primary left back options, Kroos, Benzema, and Kovacic. Furthermore, the manager decided to give Modric and Bale a rest, probably with an eye on the midweek Champions League match against Dortmund.

Real Madrid control possession but lack incisiveness

Real Madrid employed a high press to support their possession-based approach to the match. Without Kroos and Modric, Los Blancos appeared to line up in a 4-1-4-1 (shifting into a 4-5-1 without the ball) with Casemiro sitting in front of the defense. Ronaldo, Vazquez, Asensio, and Isco were all active in disrupting play construction from the back and forced Alaves into clearances and giveaways. This was done in a selective manner targeting especially vulnerable situations based on certain triggers including the availability of support for and positioning of the goalkeeper and ball playing defender.

orange dotted arrow=player being marked, orange shaded area=marked space

This press allowed Real Madrid to control possession but they couldn’t utilize it well enough to generate high quality chances. Alaves were compact centrally in their ball recovery and containment phase which was a big factor. However, from Real Madrid’s perspective, the possession structure was a little vertically stretched. As a result, Ronaldo was isolated and the team as a whole didn’t have a sufficient presence in the offensive third. Asensio and Vazquez stayed fairly wide and although the former would float (in a coordinated fashion with Ceballos and Isco positionally adjusting depending on the movement of the three players), there weren’t enough outlets into halfspaces and between the lines.

One positive of the high press was that it kept Real Madrid on the front foot and allowed them to exert continuous and significant offensive pressure on Alaves which had desirable outcomes such as Ronaldo and Nacho’s efforts off corners and Ceballos’s second goal.

Ronaldo’s invention becomes a key weapon

Following a forced giveaway after high pressing from Real; Ronaldo unlocked the game with a beautifully weighted pass to Asensio in the ninth minute. Asensio found Ceballos at the top of the box who buried it into the net after riding through a defensive challenge.

Ronaldo would look to make things happen with provocative play throughout the whole match. Below are two examples of his willingness to try and break down the Alaves defense with combination play and direct vertical passing. While this wasn’t necessarily very successful in terms of goals and end product, it was one of the few aspects of the attacking strategy that created danger.

red arrow=unsuccessful attempted pass, green arrow=successful pass

In addition to his passing, Ronaldo was altogether the most dangerous offensive proponent. The advantage of having someone like him in a sort of freed role as a striker is that his incredible shot productivity and individual ability can be leveraged. The Portuguese talisman self-engineered numerous chances throughout the match and was unfortunate for the second successive game to not to register his name on the scoresheet.

Vision continues to be a problem

As observed in previous matches, Real Madrid are very inefficient in their decision-making when passing in ideal playmaking situations. This is an issue that has plagued the team the entire season to date and is becoming more and more noticeable. There is also a tendency for midfielders to play a little “selfishly” by preferring to shoot or dribble when a simple pass to an open man could lead to a great chance.

red dotted arrow=unsuccessful pass/shot/dribble, black dotted arrow=possible optimal pass

While the forwards and Ronaldo in particular did not capitalize on the chances and good passes they received, that should not in any way detract from the need for the team to always look to make the optimal and highest potential plays in all situations.

Isco’s pass to Ronaldo in the 46th minute counter-attack is clear evidence of how much Real’s attacking stands to benefit from more consistency and effectiveness with final passes and deliveries.

Real Madrid’s defense is solid but not tight enough

Real’s defensive structure based around a 4-5-1 shape and aided by a selective high press was sound for the most part but came undone due to individual errors at different points.

Alaves’ goal occurred because Casemiro shifted to the left to double team the ball carrier leaving the centre exposed. Despite this, Varane and Ramos should have communicated and had better awareness for one of them to step up and challenge Manu García for the ball. Alaves’ other best chance in the match was a deflected shot in the box around the 71st minute in a play that should have been halted earlier.

Overall, an impressive defensive performance where each player did their part to nullify Alaves’ (admittedly tame) attacking threat.


Real Madrid took control of the match with a possession-based approach and showed their intent with an effective high press. Although the possession was stale at the start, the team exerted significant offensive pressure on the hosts which led to several good chances. Ronaldo’s instigation also led to numerous openings and chances including the first goal.

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Alaves were kept relatively quiet during the match based on shots (ended 7-3 shots on target in Real Madrid’s favour) and xG, and couldn’t penetrate Real Madrid’s staunch defense. Their goal and second best chance of the game arrived courtesy of individual defensive mistakes. Three points in the bag are what matter but Real should have been able to make the match less tense than it was.

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