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Tactical Review: Real Madrid 0-1 Villarreal, 2018 La Liga

Villarreal stuns Real Madrid to record their first victory at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Real Madrid v Villarreal - La Liga Photo by fotopress/Getty Images

16 points off first place, seven off second, and five off third place is not the position Real Madrid thought they would find themselves in La Liga at the turn of the year. But that is the grim reality the team faced ahead of the Villareal match. The match offered another opportunity to begin a recovery and start slowly climbing out of the terrifying hole they are in.

Zidane did not change his starting line-up from last matchday – fielding the Ronaldo-Bale pair ahead of the infamous midfield diamond. Nacho again partnered with Varane while Carvajal and Marcelo assumed fullback duties.

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Villarreal, upset by Leganes in the Copa del Rey, made a few changes to the team from their game against Deportivo last week as Bonera and Trigueros replaced Ruiz and Unal.

Real Madrid start brightly but still show signs of the same problems

Real Madrid adopted a similar approach to the last league game. They imposed the same type of pressing scheme and this unsettled Villarreal’s possession and buildup. However, as a result of the high pressing and consequential advanced positioning, Real Madrid were susceptible without the ball because of how exposed they were whenever they were dispossessed near or ahead of the halfway line. A good example was in the 12th minute when Kroos’ misdirected pass was intercepted and within seconds Villarreal came close to playing Bacca through on goal.

From a big picture perspective, the tactic was successful as it led to attacking superiority and dominance by the home team. Villarreal couldn’t counter-act Real Madrid’s aggression and intensity and were forced to absorb the pressure. While both teams alternated in terms of ball possession, Real’s spells were defined by more threatening and decisive play. The problem was converting this intent and momentum into real chances. Villarreal’s defensive shape (organized, compact, and packed) blocked access to central areas. The reason this occurred was two-fold and reflected themes that have been present all season. The first reason was lack of incisive and clinical passing.

Miscued passes.

The second issue was the vacant space in the central attacking zone. This along with an inability to instigate vertical progression through central channels handcuffed the team’s offense. In the few moments that players attempted to use this space as a platform, it worked incredibly well. Kroos in particular made a couple of drives in the heart of Villareal’s half that produced two great chances. Isco also had a similar type of action. Modric, more through direct passing, also activated this zone.These types of plays open up the game immensely and significantly enhance the quality of chances created.

Ronaldo moves wide leading to two great chances

Due to inadequate service accentuated by poor deliveries and crosses, Ronaldo moved wide to create easier passing lanes for his teammates which would both support overall ball circulation and give him better opportunities to test the Villarreal defense. He and Bale (the latter significantly more so) had struggled to be involved and couldn’t impact the match from Villareal’s box. As has been the case this season, the crossing and deliveries from the fullbacks have been severely subpar with Marcelo in particular struggling (often to even get his cross past the first man).

Moving wide worked well for Ronaldo and capitalized on the high pressing to manufacture a great chance. The pressing cut off supply options and forced a simple giveaway that Real Madrid quickly took advantage of. Unfortunately, Ronaldo couldn’t finish but the sequence was highly positive.

Pressing creates great chance.

Real Madrid also started showing more vibrancy in their combinations and playmaking. Optimized and even spacing appeared to have enabled this. Isco dynamically moved into open spaces creating balance (both vertically and horizontally) that meant that players were able to find each other more easily. In addition, he was able to provide support to the fullbacks who would sometimes be isolated (he did this with both Marcelo and Carvajal). Kroos and Modric also systematically regulated how much they pushed up.

The combination play led to the best chance of the match when the hosts cut through Villarreal. Ronaldo was again the recipient of the final ball and couldn’t get it past Asenjo after it appeared he had been tripped.

Like Celta, Villarreal start second half with increased intensity

Similar to Celta Vigo in the last match, Villarreal actively increased their intensity at the start of the second half leading to a reversal of roles. The yellow submarine pressed aggressively which caught Zidane’s men out a few times including at the 47th minute when Cheryshev snuck behind Casemiro to latch onto the ball and get a dangerous shot off from inside the box.

As Real Madrid did not slow down their rhythm, the match became stretched and end-to-end given both teams were able to counter the other. Real did so with more effectiveness creating two great openings. The first was a Kroos volley taken extremely well while the second (Ronaldo’s cutback for the German in the box) did not materialize in a shot – despite being a better chance based on the eye test.

After the open nature of the game persisted for about 15 minutes, Real Madrid gradually regained control of the match and Villarreal receded. The latter became limited to almost exclusively counter-attacking. Notably, also, Bale became more involved and combined well on the right wing to play good balls in attacking situations.

Vazquez effect and Real Madrid defensive vulnerability in transition

Zidane brought on Vazquez and Asensio for Isco and Bale to give the team more energy and vitality. Vazquez immediately gave the right wing a different complexion. His running/dribbling and interplay caused the Villarreal defense trouble. The wingman created two excellent chances when he fed Ronaldo and Modric.

Chances created by Vazquez.

Asensio’s efforts were focused on the opposite wing as he worked with Marcelo to try to fashion good crossing opportunities. The young Spaniard also gravitated towards the box when needed.

As many Madridistas likely feared, Real Madrid never found the goal they desperately sought. Instead, almost inevitably given the state of the team at the moment, Villarreal scored. They did it in exactly the same manner they had threatened all night which was counter-attacking. And unfortunately the biggest culprit defensively was Marcelo – a player who has not been in the best of form lately.

Marcelo had a significant advantage over Unal yet was still outrun by the Villarreal substitute whose parried effort led to the chipped goal. And that was that. Like usual, Real Madrid didn’t give up and tried very hard to secure a result. But as usual this season, they were unable to change the score.


After the game, Zidane said: “We have done everything possible to win but this is what we’re left with. The ball didn’t want to go in. We tried as best we could and I can’t really offer any explanation[.]

He wasn’t entirely wrong as Real Madrid registered significantly more shots and a higher xG than VIllarreal.

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You can say a lot of things about Real Madrid today but they didn’t play badly. It’s not clear whether that’s a good or bad thing or whether it even matters. The results are not favoring Zidane and his team but it would be a disservice to how well they have played in certain parts of this bad stretch to claim the team is “broken” or requires significant change. Luck and the form of players (granted an argument exists as to whether the tactical setup influences form) is compromising the team.

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