Real Madrid resumed action against Deportivo la Coruña after coming away with a win and an away goal from Leganés in the Copa del Rey earlier during the week. The team was still looking to record its first La Liga victory of 2018 (and first in three games). The Spanish media focus for this match had turned towards the possibility of Los Blancos dropping out of Champions League qualification with a draw or a loss after being temporarily supplanted by Villarreal.
Deportivo la Coruña, for their part, were without a win in four games and sat in 18th place. If there was an opportunity for Zidane’s men to change their fortunes in the league, this was it. Zidane opted for a 4-3-3 in this match compared to the standard 4-4-2 diamond. The only change from the last league game was Isco — relegated to the bench — being replaced by Mayoral who slotted in between Ronaldo and Bale to form an attacking trio.
4-3-3 without Isco gives the team a different look
Structurally, the team functioned differently without Isco. Although the primary tactical themes were still evident, the team as a whole seemed to have a different flavour without the Spaniard. The focus on the wings and high press to disarm Deportivo’s buildup and initiation were present but there were certain factors that made these more effective as a result of the 4-3-3. The first factor was numerical presence – Borja Mayoral as an additional body upfront gave Madrid more numbers in attacking situations providing them with more options for crosses, deliveries, and passes.
The second factor was positional balance in midfield and consequently the whole team. Casemiro was stationed at the base of the midfield while Kroos and Modric played laterally. The now common controlled advancements / drives by the Croatian and German were implemented strategically. This ensured that the team had vertical compactness and optimal spacing which improves connectivity across the field. This could be seen by the consistent application of one-two plays and excellent combinations between the wingers (Ronaldo, Bale) and their fullback/midfield support.
The positional balance had a double effect as it also enhanced the defensive capacity of the team. Varane and Nacho were alert and spent a lot of the game (when Real had the ball) close to the halfway line to cut off potential counter-attacks before they could develop. Casemiro, whose performance was one of his best this season, was stellar in aiding the center backs and almost didn’t put a foot wrong the entire match.
Real Madrid stunned by Deportivo’s opener
After dominating the opening exchange of the match and creating mismatches through creative overlaps and wing playmaking, Real Madrid were stunned by Adrien Lopez’s goal in the 23rd minute. Reverting to some of the incisive and highly effective varied play selection on the wings (as opposed to the all too common low probability low crossing) seen earlier in the season, the team had fashioned a number of quality opportunities.
Deportivo’s goal was completely against the run of play. The biggest threat they had posed before their solitary goal was taking advantage after Varane slipped and gave up the ball in a risky position. As for the goal itself, it was the result of a cocktail of errors.
Carvajal was on the wrong side of his man letting him slip behind the right back. This caused some confusion and created a gap behind Varane. Varane’s man (Andone) nodded the ball cleverly into Lucas Perez’s path and the latter played an excellent ball across the face of goal that Adrian tapped into the net. Marcelo was a step slower than Adrian and seemed initially unaware of the attacker.
Intensity, intensity, intensity
If anyone was ever curious or intrigued by Zidane’s repeated calls for the team to play with more intensity whenever they are in a bad period, today’s match (especially the first half) was a prime example of what he probably means. The sharpness and energy shown by every player and every decision they made was suffocating for their opponents. Real Madrid were relentless going forward and attacked with terrifying vigor. In addition, their intention was clear and their offensive schemes and patterns were purposeful.
In line with the wing scheme employed all game which was to utilize an additional body (either through overlaps or positioning) to create numerical mismatches, Real Madrid scored their equalizer after a magnificent play between Marcelo and Nacho (of all people).
The hosts weren’t done there. They continued to storm up the pitch at every opportunity and a Marcelo delivery after another great play with Nacho led to a fantastic curler from Bale that found the back of the net. And that was that for the first half.
Real Madrid take over the game
Real Madrid employed a mix of strong possession play and fast transitions in the second half. Prior to the barrage of goals, they showed good composure to evade Deportivo’s sporadic press. They would rarely clear the ball out of their own half and instead insisted on bringing it out in a controlled way. This enabled them to stifle Deportivo’s attack and prevent the away side from building any momentum. Supplementing this possession control, Los Merengues also excellently counter-attacked — which was significantly aided by Modric’s facilitation of vertical sequences.
Including another scene where Carvajal failed to find Ronaldo after being brilliantly played in behind the defensive line by Kroos, all these chances were squandered within 10 minutes of the second half kickoff. This evidenced the extent to which the home team were dictating proceedings. And fortunately, unlike other matches, the team finally took advantage of their dominance when Bale leapt above his marker to score off Kroos’ corner.
Somewhat unsurprisingly, Real Madrid almost conceded soon after making it 3-1. Luck combined with Nacho and Navas’ heroics were the reasons they didn’t. This short period of nervous play were the only true signs of Deportivo’s threat observed for the remainder of the match. Real Madrid returned to pushing for more goals and were able to add another four at the cost of Ronaldo’s face (the Portuguese suffered a cut when he nodded his second of the night). The best of the lot was Modric’s effort from just outside the box.
The audacity of Ronaldo’s flick was beautifully matched by Modric’s measured golazo. Another notable aspect of the second half was Benzema’s first minutes of action in the new year which saw him hit the ground running. His passes and touches were as silky as ever and one hopes his luck in front of goal going forward will be better than it has been so far this season.
Real Madrid overcame Deportivo’s goal to ultimately overwhelm them and register a comprehensive 7-1 victory.
Although Deportivo were poor and didn’t offer a particularly strong challenge for Real Madrid and it appears that the latter heavily outperformed their expected goals, it would be remiss not to consider the effect of the formation (4-3-3) and squad selection (no Isco) on the performance of the team.
Bale and Ronaldo were surpreme today. Bale had a case for man of the match but both were decisive and supported chance creation and overall ball circulation extremely well. Other formidable players on the day were Nacho, Casemiro, and Modric. May this be the beginning of a long run of positive results.