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Tactical Review: Celta Vigo 2 - 2 Real Madrid, 2017-18 La Liga

Celta Vigo ruthlessly exploit Real Madrid’s high pressing and make the visitors pay for not capitalizing on their chances and opportunities.

Celta de Vigo v Real Madrid - La Liga Photo by fotopress/Getty Images

Real Madrid returned to league action after the devastating loss to Barcelona two weeks ago. Sitting 14 points below first place (albeit with a game in hand), Los Blancos critically needed to pick up full points against Celta Vigo to maintain their faint title hopes. Missing Ramos (inury), Benzema (injury), and Carvajal (suspension), Zidane called on Nacho, Bale, and Hakimi to complete the standard starting eleven.

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Celta Vigo, coming off an impressive draw against Barcelona in the Copa del Rey earlier in the week, made four changes to the team fielded in that match. The center back pairing was rotated while Rodaja and Hernandez replaced Jozabed and Lobotka.

Real Madrid’s high press does not produce results

Real Madrid started brightly in a 4-1-3-2 / 4-4-2 (diamond) hybrid. The visitors displayed great passing and interplay to move the ball forward and create chances such as Bale’s missed header inside of two minutes. Bale and Ronaldo moved dynamically, intuitively switched sides, and alternated vertical staggering to support play progression and chance creation. Bale’s speed in particular was a dangerous weapon that was used to constantly test the defense with piercing runs. The overall offensive scheme was supported by a sporadic high press. The press was triggered during Celta Vigo’s initiation phases to force the Galician club to clear the ball or make uncertain passes that led to quick possession recoveries.

The pressing approach was moderately successful. Real Madrid were able to make Celta give up the ball on several occasions – a key dispossession leading to a fantastic opportunity squandered by Marcelo – which allowed the former to attempt to quickly transition into offense. However, Real Madrid weren’t able to take advantage as well as they could have – due to poor crossing/deliveries into the box – and additionally, their pressing left them greatly exposed in the centre which the home team targeted vigorously. Celta committed significant numbers in attacking situations which allowed them to outnumber an already depleted Real defense when they were able to circumvent the high press (either through their excellent ball circulation or exploitation of inadequate application from Zidane’s men).

End-to-end action leads to 3 goals in 5 minutes

As the first half reached the midway point, Real Madrid began searching for a goal more eagerly. As a result, their pressing became more intense. This adversely fractured the team’s shape in transition as players were too far advanced and couldn’t recover in time. The first Celta goal was an apt example. After Ronaldo loses the ball following a spell of possession, his teammates immediately try to recover the ball high up the pitch as opposed to retreating to reorganize. Marcelo (who is entirely out of the picture for the whole sequence) is nowhere to be found as Wass blitzed through the open right wing before chipping a poorly positioned Navas.

Real responded well and scored shortly after. The team counterattacked excellently with huge credit to Kroos and Bale in particular. The inherent risk of Celta committing as many men as they did forward and adopting a possession-based offense was being vulnerable to fast transitions. In fact, Real Madrid had fashioned a similarly swift counter-attacking action in the 28th minute.

Bale’s second goal arrived as a result of brilliant overall play from the team. The ball moved from the right wing, to Marcelo on the left side, and was worked back to Hakimi before Isco played a 1-2 with Ronaldo and delivered an enticing through ball to Bale who deftly finished.

Isco’s vision / pass and Bale’s movement / finish standout but it is important to acknowledge the role Ronaldo played. His movement to play the 1-2 dragged Roncaglia out of position widening the channel Isco was able to capitalize on.

Nervy but controlled period ends with Navas Save

For the most part, Real Madrid did well to manage the match for the beginning of the second half up till around the 70th minute. Despite Celta’s increased intensity, Real maintained the tempo (albeit without pressing nearly as much) by holding possession when possible and generally denying their opposition space in prime locations. Celta leveraged Gomez’s strength to dispatch long balls that he would control before releasing to a midfielder for quick advancement. They also began targeting the wings more exclusively searching for good looks to provide crosses into the box with one in particular requiring a Nacho clearance to prevent what appeared to be a certain goal. Kroos and Marcelo’s side was especially threatened due to Kroos’ seeming tiredness and Marcelo’s poor defensive positioning.

This was evidenced when Celta won a penalty in the 72nd minute after Ronaldo (who along with Bale to a lesser extent struggled to control and get to balls first in the second half) misplaced a pass. Real Madrid who had overcommitted were torn to shreds on the counter with Kroos and Marcelo easily bypassed. Keylor Navas amazingly stopped Aspas’ effort but Real Madrid didn’t manage to reverse Celta’s ascendancy (Zidane substituted Modric and Isco for Vazquez and Kovacic in the meantime).

Complete break-down leads to Celta’s equalizer

Consistent failures to execute simple passes on fast breaks, questionable decision-making, and a notable lack of caution prevented Real Madrid from scoring a third. For example, in the 82nd minute, Marcelo (who was extremely ineffective in the match) unsuccessfully tried to pirouette past a player.

The Brazilian lost the ball and neither he nor Kroos made any effort to track back. Celta played smart passes to get the ball to a wide open Wass on the right wing who had all the time in the world to expertly pick out Gomez in the box. The forward powerfully headed into the net. Real Madrid tried very hard to score the winning goal and came extremely close with Vazquez but his effort was directed straight at the keeper. The match ended 2-2.


Celta played an efficient match to exploit key weaknesses such as a fragile defensive shape in transition. However, despite poor individual performances and ineffective counter-attacking in key situations, Real Madrid still created the better chances attaining 8 shots on target (to Celta’s 5) along with a higher xG (excluding the penalty).

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The breakdown in the second half will sting for Madridistas as they now see their team fall to a desperately worrying position in the league. The team’s chance creation and finishing woes continue and are compounded by resurfacing defensive issues. The hope is that the team can rebound positively and go on a consistent run.

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