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A Closer Look At The 4-3-3

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Real Madrid played with a spring in their step against Deportivo. How much of it was down to the new scheme?

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

These observations — where I look at Real Madrid’s history, its players on loan, Castilla, tactical tidbits, and other relevant thoughts -- are now a regular weekly thing. All previous editions can be found here.


Not long had passed after Real Madrid put in their most convincing win of the season, a 7-1 thumping over Deportivo la Coruna, when Zinedine Zidane sat at the podium in the Bernabeu pressroom to downplay his tactical scheme.

“I don’t know if the team has changed too much, the result though is very heavy, that’s the difference,” Zidane said. He later continued to address the main difference between this performance and that of previous ones, alluding that the main distinction was down to attitude and efficiency, more than anything else: “We have changed system many times this year, but the most important thing is our attitude.

When Real blitzed past Sevilla 5-0 back in December, Zidane was asked if that first-half (where Real Madrid scored all five of their goals) was the best half of the season, to which Zidane said that the performances in Anoeta and Dortmund, though less-emphatic on paper, were better.

This one though, was unequivocal. The team went back to what works without overthinking it. Casemiro played as a traditional anchor, Gareth Bale did a bunch of two-way work to help Carvajal, which, in turn, allowed Luka Modric to do wizard-things higher up the pitch without using up all his magic providing defensive coverage, or doing other right-wing duties for 90 minutes. When you free your engine and give it room to rev, good things happen. The tactical differences against Depor were clear. Fixing the midfield structure and carving out more defined roles was the first domino to fall. The rest — a more dynamic attack, off-ball movement in central channels, constant outlets, and offensive creativity — fell into place more naturally as a consequence.

Those were telling signs. Those are the things that are measurable. These intangible feelings which Zidane refers to, namely things like ‘attitude’, can take a backseat for one day. Whether the Frenchman wants to admit it to the press or not, Sunday’s tactics worked, and they worked visibly better than the previous, hum-and-drum, predictable and well-scouted diamond. Attitude is fine, but fielding together a bunch of enthusiastic school boys on the pitch and sending them out with confused roles, tactical mayhem, disorganized chaos, lack of coverage, while taking certain players out of their bread-and-butter rolls, will, lead to disaster. You can mask enthusiasm and attitude with a clear, efficient scheme. It’s hard to pull off the reverse, unless you have 11 infallible unicorns -- even then.

Real Madrid don’t have time to figure things out — they’ve already used up the time they had, and went over it too. Some will allude to this season as ‘lost’ — an asterisk in Real Madrid’s history that should be buried. But the season is very much alive. It’s also treading water. There is zero margin for error — no time to waste, and no more time to get it wrong. The league position, at the very least, needs to be maintained -- and that’s on the lowest-end of the expectation stick. In the Champions League and Copa, the stakes are even higher. The second leg of the Copa del Rey quarter-finals against Leganes on Wednesday night might be the last remaining ‘breathing-room’ match on the calendar in both cups. This is it now. Every game is a final, in the most cliche way possible. We’re entering the home stretch where the gear needs to click in permanently without room for fluctuation. If Zidane chalks up Sunday’s 7-1 win as game measured by better finishing, and better attitude, rather than what it really was — a tactical deviation from the norm, and a degree of unpredictability which makes it harder for opposing coaches to scout, then he might have even more to answer to in the coming weeks

If you want to dig deep to unearth intangibles from the bloodbath on Sunday — the scheme against Depor made Real Madrid play with conviction. Gareth Bale took on an alpha-male role, and every time he touched the ball, it looked like he was about to make you jump out of your seat. With Kroos and Modric ticking, and with less-confusing defensive responsibilities, the whole team pivoted around them accordingly. With Ronaldo hugging the left flank and cutting in -- almost mirroring Bale — Deportivo (who admittedly, have the second-worse defensive team in La Liga, after the black hole that is Las Palmas) found it hard to cope. But let’s not pin this offensive surge on Deportivo’s abysmal defense generally — they weren’t that bad in this game. And, there is obvious truth to Zidane’s point about finally finishing chances. Deportivo ‘held’ Real Madrid to an xG of 3.18 and conceded seven. The script was flipped for Real, for once.

Even the Bernabeu’s support was procured. When good football is brought to the table, fans can be forgiving. As the team started to channel their energies in finding Ronaldo a goal in the second half, the Bernabeu chimed in too. When Cristiano missed a clear-cut chance, the restlessness from previous games turned into applause and support.

“Yeah, instead of whistles, which is always good,” Bale said after the game, when asked about the support from fans.

The caveats are there — Deportivo isn’t a defensive juggernaut, and the sample size (at least this year), is small. Real Madrid actually did concede counters, which Keylor Navas masked, but in a way, Casemiro is built for these moments of defensive chaos. The team didn’t implement a counter-press to retain possession, which had Casemiro upping his game and throwing a cloak on the frailties in transition. But the point is, as an anchor in a single pivot, Casemiro knows where he has to be. His role is more illustrated. And though the team still has flaws, they can start looking like this version of Real Madrid, and not this one.

Most pointed to Luka Modric and Gareth Bale (rightfully so), as standouts, but zoom-out and watch Casemiro get to work. Apart from his giveaway in a deep position in the second half, which Nacho eventually saved off the line, Casemiro was highly conducive to the team’s freedom:

Those are either refreshing plays, or alarm bells — take your pick. A better attacking team will be more hurtful, but having Casemiro in this GI Joe mode is a welcome sign. We grew to love him last season when he took a leap as an evolving destroyer — a player who can bomb forward into the box to create havoc while Modric and Kroos cover for him, shoot from distance, and even aid in a counter-press at times. Real Madrid will never be a perfect defensive team, but if they can plug passing lanes, cover for each other, and play a balanced scheme like they did against Depor, they can mask their frailties with plays like the above.

Casemiro even hounded pragmatically, when he knew the benefits of the gamble outweighed the risk. In previous matches, without this defined role, like against Celta, he wasn’t always in a position to snuff out attacks. Again, defined roles are the most underrated perk of the shift in Zidane’s blueprint.

Look how well Luka Modric buys time here with his press. Casemiro recognizes the situation immediately, sneaks up on the blind side, and simultaneously cuts off the square passing lanes before retaining possession for Real Madrid high up the pitch:

“Madrid break apart, seven players attack and Casemiro stays back on his own to cover the centre,” Xavi told El Pais back in January.

The ‘seven players attack’ shtick, is actually not an exaggeration, as I’ve pointed out in a previous column; but it’s less apparent in this scheme. In the diamond, the midfield trio were defending, but not in the right spots. Kroos was hedged higher up the pitch with no coverage, Luka Modric was playing as a deep right winger (in a non-traditional sense, where he would work hard to provide a constant outlet for the wing back while covering him), and Casemiro was neither here nor there — Isco’s role even less clear. In the 4-3-3 against Depor, not only did Real Madrid not have a need for flooding the box to meet crosses, but when they did concede counters or lost possession, Casemiro finally was there ‘to cover the centre’.

Casemiro as a traditional anchor, rather than one of a quartet of a jumbled, mish-mash of central midfielders, makes sense — but it’s just one part of the equation. With both Gareth Bale and Luka Modric thrown into the mix, the team just looks better. Dani Carvajal defended really well against Deportivo, but he also had help when needed. Gareth Bale is the best two-way winger the team has, and his defensive IQ has always been underrated. Put him on the wing, and stability practically manifests itself. He’s more conducive to the team’s balance in this scheme than he is as a more isolated forward (where he looks good individually, but the team suffers its shape). His presence is what really frees Modric — even moreso than Casemrio. With Bale as a safety net, Modric can explore the open channels higher up the pitch where he can track off-ball runs and create chances. The benefits of having Modric hedge higher up the pitch to act as an outlet to bind the team in transition shouldn’t go unnoticed:

The ensuing cross-field pass to Ronaldo was poor, but if we’re questioning Modric’s footballing ability and decision-making at this point in his career, we have failed as a society. He’s a unicorn.

And in a more subtle way, so is Toni Kroos. The scheme benefited him too. The eye test raves about Modric, but it’s great with Kroos as well, who enjoys similar efficiency in this formation. Against Deportivo, Kroos had the most key passes (along with Marcelo, with five), and the most touches of any other midfielder on the field. He was involved, he was happy, and as was the general theme — so was Cristiano Ronaldo, who was in desperation of a match like this. Ronaldo, like Bale, looked involved and important in this match, rather than isolated and frustrated.

“I think we’ll get back to our best slowly but surely,” Bale said. “We have to keep working hard in the upcoming games and keep on winning.

“We never give in, even if we know La Liga is now extremely difficult.