“Wait, what position?”—that very well could have been the remark from every fan, analyst, or scout watching the match between CSKA and Real Madrid in Moscow on Tuesday evening. Lopetegui’s midfield had no true shape and no positional discipline to account for any type of formation or system. One could feasibly argue that the opening 45 minutes consisted of a variety of mismatched formations for Real Madrid, featuring the likes of a 4-2-2, a 4-2-3-1, and a 4-3-3. It appeared that Julen Lopetegui wanted the control of Kroos as a deep-lying playmaker, but did not have enough trust in the German, or rather his fellow teammates, to leave the Brazilian wall formally known as Casemiro, on the bench. Thus, Kroos operated deep centrally, like an anchor, which pushed Casemiro forward in the right central midfield position, usually occupied by Luka Modric, who was rested on the night. Modric—who has been a shadow of the player we saw at the World Cup, mostly due to extreme mental and physical exhaustion imposed on the 33 year old during the last 6 months—was not the only starter missing for Madrid. Make no mistake, other notable key figures in the squad were missing: Gareth Bale, Sergio Ramos, Luka Modric, Marcelo, and Isco. Their absences were felt as Madrid lacked a player to take responsibility and lead the team against adversity—Kroos was alone in this pursuit, while captain Karim Benzema simply played the passenger role for a third consecutive game.
Lopetegui’s Midfield Mess vs CSKA’s Low Block
Not only did Lopetegui experiment, as mentioned above, but he experimented with young players and those with less minutes this season—a dangerous risk. Dani Ceballos was given a free role, but whether by his own accord or Lopetegui’s instructions, he severely abused that freedom. He was everywhere—and not in a positive sense. Ceballos role was eerily similar to that of Isco’s in Zidane’s diamond formation last season. He roamed about from left, to right, and centrally with no real purpose and no one to occupy the vacant space left behind. What ultimately happened, was a cluster of Benzema, Asensio, and Ceballos occupying the same spaces—hedging just above Toni Kroos towards the left side of the pitch deeper from the opponent’s box, which destroyed the fluidity required for Madrid’s possession based game. CSKA, after being gifted a goal, set-up in a low block; it was more than your typical block of eight—it was a 5-4-1 that sat so deep with the midfield line just hovering outside of the 18 yard box and never more than a few yards from the backline. That defensive wall coupled with Madrid’s messy positional play, meant CSKA were extremely difficult to breakdown. To beat a deep block, quick give-and-go’s are required where teammates connect via runs of the shoulder of their marking defender. That was so rarely present in Madrid’s game, Asensio and Ceballos tried to connect on a few occasions, but the urgency, pace, and conviction in the play was always lacking.
The passing stats above say it all—what’s glaring from those stats? One through ball attempted from 819 passes. One through ball. Where was Guti when you needed him? This match was screaming for a Guti pass—even at 41, I would have pulled him out of retirement, suited him up, thrown him out there for the last 10 minutes and he would have slipped passes that no one else could see—Madrid were lacking that player in between the lines who could spot the gaps in CSKA’s water tight defense. Maybe a certain Isco Alarcon was sorely missed. Madrid were a mess tactically, largely in part to Lopetegui’s experiments, and there was no one in the side—despite Kroos’s best efforts for redemption—to take the team by the scruff of the neck and will them to victory.
Quality Shot Generation and Real Madrid’s xG
Without Gareth Bale in the side, Madrid’s shot volume immediately declines. Karim Benzema has not put a shot on target in the past three games—simply not good enough. Yes, Benzema is not your prototypical #9, he’s a 10, but when you are leading the line of attack, you have to produce quality shots and quality chances and they have been nonexistent for the Frenchman in recent matches. Let’s not forget, the narrative could have been completely different, if just one of Madrid’s chances went in the back of the net—Benzema did hit the crossbar, Casemiro the post, and Mariano the post. Lopetegui’s men generated an xG of 1.48—the score line very well could have been 1-1 or 2-1 in Madrid’s favor had the ball moved mere inches on those opportunities. The fact of the matter is Madrid failed to produce quality shots over 90 minutes where they dominated possession and produced 24 shots in total. Of those 24 shots, only 1.48 factored into the xG---the volume was there, but the quality was not. With the options he had available, Lopetegui’s best bet would have been to switch to a 4-4-2, put Lucas and Asensio in more natural roles, hugging each flank, and put Mariano as the #9 supported by Benzema to get on the end of their crosses. Mariano is not going to aid build up play, but he is an athlete and has the physical attributes to out-leap his opponents and muscle them off in a scramble within the box. Mariano can cause chaos and there simply was not enough chaos. Not just chaos, but there was not enough attacking players with the mentality to stretch the CSKA backline and to make them think with mazy runs that constantly recycled. Mariano has the energy to produce those types of runs and recycle time and time again. Lucas Vazquez is a player with a limited skill-set, if you are going to utilize him and his skillset then pair him with the players that accent those skills, A.K.A. Mariano Diaz.
Ultimately this loss has to be blamed on Lopetegui. He failed to provide direction and positional discipline to players like Ceballos and Asensio and he failed to lay out a clear formation with clear roles. Casemiro and Kroos were sometimes a double pivot and other times Kroos was the deep-lying playmaker and Casemiro was in the unnatural and uncomfortable right central midfield role—needless to say it was a mess. The lack of direction meant Ceballos, Asensio, and Benzema were on top of each other, occupying the same space and stifling the fluidity of the attack. Against CSKA’s low block, a possession game with no player in between the lines coupled with a slow, methodical circulation of the ball meant it would be a long night for Madrid. All game long, Madrid’s play lacked the pace and urgency that is required when behind against a defensive side. They failed to pile on the pressure and failed to build any true momentum. Despite racking up 24 shots, the quality of those shots were severely below standard. Moscow was a night to forget and Madrid have now gone 5 hours without a goal, something that has not been done since 2007 under Fabio Capello. Lopetegui only has a few days to right the ship before facing high-flying Alaves under Alberado away from home—the pressure is mounting and both Lopetegui and the team need to responds.