Following a roller coaster week during which Real Madrid unceremoniously exited the Copa del Rey after appearing to finally get into gear with last match day’s 7-1 win over Deportivo, Los Blancos travelled to Valencia to take on Marcelino’s men. Los Che sat in third place directly above the visiting team and a win would be critical for Real’s measured and steady climb into a secured Champions League standing.
Zidane’s starting line-up confirmed the degree of importance placed on the match as he fielded essentially the same eleven (arguably his strongest given Ramos and Isco’s injuries) as against Deportivo. The only change was Benzema who replaced Mayoral.
Valencia pay the price for overcommitting
The start of the match was fairly balanced as both sides settled into their playing styles. Real Madrid were composed and attempted to establish a firm base through controlled possession (highlighted by even ball circulation zonally). Valencia began with higher intensity both in terms of physicality and intent.
They advanced more aggressively than Real and attempted high risk passes directly into the heart of the visiting defense. Accompanying this general urgency were certain structural elements of their tactics such as a light high press and defensive line. The latter was almost exploited early in the match when Carvajal tried to find Ronaldo behind the defense with a lofted long ball from deep.
For their part, Valencia’s intensity resulted in a number of troubling moments for Real Madrid. Their waves of attack slightly overwhelmed the team’s shape (particularly exposing Casemiro’s ball retention issues) as they committed a high number of players in attack. This created numerical superiority in select situations (particularly in transition).
However, it had adverse effects for the home team as it also left them vulnerable in transition. While they were well organized and compact once their shape was established, they were playing a dangerous game by pushing up as much as they did.
Real Madrid’s opener was a direct result of over-commitment by Valencia players on a corner kick and, admittedly, fantastic execution of the counterattacking play by Ronaldo, Marcelo, and Benzema.
The hosts’ intensity temporarily fades
Real Madrid dominated possession after the opening goal as Valencia’s intensity momentarily waned. This didn’t automatically translate into enhanced offensive play as possession was mostly flat and didn’t lead to sufficient vertical actions. Ronaldo acted as a lone spark providing instigation through his dribbling, shooting, and runs to poke through Valencia’s defense.
Ronaldo and co failed to take advantage of the above chances and in general showed sloppiness that prevented them from scoring. There were several instances (involving Bale notably) where simple passes to meet runs were misplaced. This almost came back to haunt the team if not for Montoya’s careless foul in the box that gave Real another penalty – which Ronaldo duly converted.
Valencia’s surge soon re-emerged and the hosts created numerous chances as a result of continued Real Madrid troubles with set piece defending and struggles dealing with the individual quality of their opposite numbers. Kondogbia, Guedes, and Mina were all in good form: they dribbled out of tight spaces and made incisive runs that led to excellent chances such as Rodrigo’s missed volley and Guedes’ shot before the half time whistle.
Valencia thrive in chaotic and gung-ho start to second half
Being a goal down, Valencia came out of the dressing rooms a more extreme version of their first half selves. Their pressing was more certain and defined while their attacking intensity turned into hyper verticality. Perhaps due to their two goal cushion, Real Madrid weren’t as conservative – compared to the first half – in the face of Valencia’s assault. The game became very end-to-end as the visitors looked to get out of their half quickly to exploit the vast amount of space conceded by Los Che.
Overall, the latter enjoyed more success in this dynamic as their energy and intensity was difficult to handle and Real struggled with their passing when they recovered possession. Real were only able to string together measured sequences of possession when Valencia would temporarily recede in order to recover their breath and absorb pressure. Valencia however combined cool and collected combination play with their attacking intent to create several enticing opportunities. Just like the first half, they weren’t able to apply the finishing touch on many occasions but did cut Real Madrid’s lead in half thanks to Mina’s header off a corner kick.
Real Madrid had experienced difficulties defending set pieces all game and this was no different. Somewhat clumsily, Bale accidentally tripped Nacho who was marking Mina. This left the Valencia forward free to attack Parejo’s cross.
A taste of what happens when things click for Zidane’s team
Just as Valencia’s energy started to appear completely sapped, Real Madrid took full control of the match. And Los Blancos didn’t hold back. They showed a merciless spirit as they continued searching for a third goal and put on display some of their best attacking. This attacking is based on sharp passing and decision-making. Being able to identify positive options and take them without hesitation makes the team extremely deadly.
Two such examples could be seen when Bale and Modric were released on the wing (the former in space to leave him 1v1 and the latter after a clever 1-2 with Vazquez) and each made a directed cutback to Ronaldo after an opening became available. They didn’t just blindly cross which is often the symptom of overall inefficient and desperate play but carefully picked out the man in the box leading to two great chances. This proved again that crossing isn’t innately a bad tactic/strategy and it’s how it’s applied that truly matters.
Valencia’s minimal threat at this stage was decisively snuffed out by the defense on the back of another fantastic Varane performance. This allowed the team to continue exerting pressure (including the introduction of fresh legs in Vazquez and Asensio) which was ultimately repaid by two fantastic goals. The first (scored by Marcelo) was created through exemplary wing playmaking and interplay between Marcelo and Asensio. The second, an expert Kroos finish, to comprehensively ice the game was preceded by a sumptuous passing sequence.
This interestingly almost mirrored an earlier Valencia play where Parejo’s shot was saved by Navas.
Real Madrid came away with four goals to Valencia’s one from one of the toughest away fixtures on the schedule. The score seemed a little deceiving from the eye test which suggested the match was closer. In reality, while there is some validity to the score being deceptive, Real Madrid’s periods of dominance were much more fruitful and effective than their counterparts. They had a higher xG (when including the penalties) and shot count.
An encouraging performance but certainly not a convincing one. There are still areas of weaknesses such as dealing with the challenges of a high intensity quality team. Nonetheless, the team admirably claimed full points and made an important step forward in their bid to close the gap between themselves and third and second place.