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Real Madrid’s Good Counter-press Doesn’t Lead To Enough Attacking Opportunities

Kiyan Sobhani’s latest column: on one of Real Madrid’s few bright spots this season, the counter-press, and how it hasn’t been used to create enough opportunities.

Real Madrid CF v RCD Espanyol - La Liga Photo by Denis Doyle/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 thing. All previous editions can be found here.

If you want to control a match, it’s not enough to keep possession — you have to suffocate opponents in their own third to eliminate their chances of crossing the half-way line. If you lose possession, you spearhead a counter-press and rely on your teammates to support you. The idea is straightforward. When the opposition obtains the ball after not having it for a while, they’ll be cold — eager to find their outlet, string some passes together, and counter. That eagerness, coupled with immediate pressure by the team that loses the ball after holding it for a while, forces deep lines into panic — playing it out of their feet quickly with a decreased chance of breaking through. When counter-pressing teams win the ball back, they can hit waves and waves of second and third-chance attacks. It’s demoralizing to play against.

Lopetegui has all the right resources to implement this scheme. It’s been shaky, the offensive curation has taken a hit, and at times, the press completely breaks — leading to vulnerable defense in transition; but there’s been encouraging signs that can be ironed. The tools that Lopetegui has: Highly-intelligent off-ball attackers who know their defensive spots. Bale, Isco, and Benzema have a proven off-ball track record. Dani Ceballos continues to be one of the best when it comes to understanding the counter-press, albeit from a deeper position, which is still vital.

We hadn’t seen many instances of counter-pressing under Zidane last season, though we did over the course of his tenure. Some of the most beautiful performances — peaking in ‘16-17 — saw Zidane implement a suffocating press. In the Copa del Rey, when Real Madrid dismantled Sevilla 3 - 0 at the Bernabeu; Morata, James, and Asensio swarmed Sevilla when they lost possession and the rest of the team eliminated passing lanes when the tempo curbed. We saw really good glimpses of it in Cardiff against Juventus. Against Barcelona in the Super Copa, Real Madrid’s press was really peaking to form a consummate blueprint.

As the press faded in La Liga, with too many teams cutting through Real Madrid in transition, the team disappeared quickly domestically.

Lopetegui wants to implement it more than just sporadically. There is always a call to play a more counter-attacking scheme rather than a possession-based one by certain fans (or, those fans just want whatever is the opposite of what they’re seeing on the pitch when results go south), which is not easy to do. Zidane did have some blitzing counter-attacking sequences in big games over the years — a scheme you can really only play if it’s a big-game opponent that will jab you in the ring more than they will absorb punches. 90% of teams won’t allow you to counter, so you have to start thinking of new solutions, and engraining a counter-press into your DNA is a good starting point.

This season’s press

One bad counter-press can change your entire game plan. We’ve seen Real Madrid collapse over the years when just one person falls asleep on their defensive rotations. If that moment leads to a goal conceded, the complexion of the scheme changes. In games where a counter-press mistake isn’t your culprit, like in Moscow where Toni Kroos gave the ball away in the second minute, you’re still stuck trying to suck out defensive lines that really have no desire to risk their lead, or throw away a good result. Cliche: Real Madrid need to score first. It was easy to rack up goals against Roma and Leganes, who had no choice but to chase the game and look to impossibly retain possession. That kind of results requires a good start — one that is devoid of giving the ball away or trailing in a given match.

As Ceballos marinates as a footballer, he starts to soak in things to improve on. Things he’s always been good at: Seeing passes no one else in the stadium sees, looking vertically — either with a pass or a pass-and-run behind the lines — and playing with a chip on his shoulder. He could sharpen certain things, like knowing which spots to be off the ball in a slower offensive sequence; but his hounding has always been a big plus. Ceballos has a knack for getting the ball back as soon as he — or any other Real Madrid player — loses it. Sometimes, not everyone is on the same page, and if Ceballos hedges towards the opponent overeagerly and his teammates aren’t ready, it leaves a void:

Real Madrid’s PPDA (passes per defensive action allowed in the opposition’s half) is just 8.88 — a modest fifth best in La Liga. This hovers near the same mark of 8.91 — sixth domestically last season. What’s different is the 6% uptick in possession — less opportunities to counter-press but a more aggressive one when the opportunity arrives.

Losing the ball is unpredictable. Knowing where to be on any given sequence — or knowing when to press or cut the passing-lane — is an on-going battle that requires a lot of positional understanding. It’s a work in progress, and bound to collapse at times:

Two things were at play against CSKA besides the obvious giveaway — Real Madrid’s movement stagnated while the offensive roles looked befuddled; and Moscow were really good defensively and were pragmatic on the counter. For what it’s worth — and it’s probably not worth much for Madridistas — Real Madrid got back well in transition when Moscow countered and waited for numbers to emerge. Casemiro’s positioning was higher than normal (for this season, that is), but the Brazilian did get back in transition when needed. So even when Real Madrid had trouble creating goalscoring chances (yet, they did conjure an xG of 1.48 without a host of regular starters) and failed to retain possession, they recovered the ball in their own half.

That wasn’t the case against Sevilla, in Real Madrid’s worst defensive performance of the season, and maybe that points to other underlying issues that Reguilón and Odriozola masked as the understudies in Russia. Reguilón is comfortable enough in tight spaces and is less gung-ho offensively; while Odriozola got to his defensive spots very quickly in transition — his pace allowing him to get in last-second tackles and clearances.

The idea of a counter-press is to eliminate those situations in transition in the first place. Reguilón will not be starting many games for Real Madrid at this stage of his career, nor will he ever bring to the table what Marcelo brings — particularly to a team that is desperate of offensive curation in the face of organized defensive sides. Limiting teams’ attacks means getting to the source of the fire before it spreads.

Examples of a great counter-press far exceed the inevitable collapses. For the most part, it has become a natural, collective science between the front-six. The hounding is aggressive and cohesive. Players pounce when possession is lost, and they typically do it before the opponent can cross the half-way line or get past their internal-flustering in order to string a pass or two. (And yes, the efficiency in this particular aspect of the scheme was high even in two disappointing results: Atleti and CSKA.)

Once you’re facing a fully-functional counter-press, you need an oxygen mask just to breathe. In the span of 30 seconds or so, Roma run into this twice — first, Marcelo’s giveaway leads to Modric, Kroos, and Isco closing passing lanes immediately; then on Marcelo’s second giveaway, Modric and Kroos unnerve Zaniolo while Casemiro mops up possession:

That’s hard to play against. And it’s not just bad teams that struggle with that kind of pressure, as we saw with Atletico at the Bernabeu.

Real Madrid haven’t received much credit this season, being labelled as ‘the worst Madrid side in years’ by some; but they do certain things at an elite level and scripts get flipped weekly around here. To really gain some respect, they need to show more than just a good counter-press and ‘what ifs’. ‘It would’ve been different had Real Madrid scored their chances or not made x mistake’ is not good enough. The growing pains of the process are understandable, but there is no excuse for coming away without a win in all of your hardest tests, without scoring in four consecutive games, or for mustering up a pathetically-low xG of .45 against Alaves. You either win or you don’t. You either get it wrong as a coach, or you get it right. The good things you do, and morale victories you obtain along the way may help you sleep at night, but they won’t help you win trophies.

As a reminder, at this stage last season, the turmoil was arguably worse. Narratives are volatile and unreliable.

Casemiro deserves some daps, somewhere. He struggled away in Girona as he generally does when opposing coaches draw up blueprints to hector him when he has the ball. But he’s found his feet. He’s become more reliable as a ball-carrier from deep (although, this trait comes and goes with him), and though his requirement in certain games is up for debate — in a vacuum, he’s done a lot of good.

Only a handful of players — and that’s generous — break up attacks on the level of Casemiro in Europe. He’s shown great flashes in Lopetegui’s pressing scheme, and has used that ball-retention to good effect this season.

When the team fails him vertically, he’s there.

Casemiro has the lowest passing accuracy of any midfield starter — a core group consisting of Kroos, Modric, Ceballos, and Isco — but he’s also the most prolific passer of the group apart from Toni Kroos. (Only one unicorn has a 100% pass completion rate this season.) He slings 17 more passes per game than Modric, and eight more than Isco. Casemiro and Kroos, due to the nature of their generally deeper roles in midfield, where they are expected to receive the first or second pass out of the back, will have more of the ball under Lopetegui’s reign.

His ball recoveries from deep are well documented. Underrated is his ball-retention in the opposition’s half, where he’s continually forced to play in a higher line as teams take shelter in a low bunker. He has been continually on the same wavelength as the five teammates in front of him.

Sergio Ramos will pick up the dispossession stat here, but Casemiro deserves just as much credit:

There is a case to be made that Casemiro isn’t a figure that’s needed in every match. Against low-blocks that will be counter-pressed to death, where Real Madrid will hold their opponent to a dramatically low xG (Leganes, Getafe, Espanyol, etc), a more incisive creator or goalscorer could be better. Through no fault of his own, Casemiro is playing heavy minutes, and has done well with specific assignments.

Almost any discussion of a successful counter-press circles back to Dani Ceballos, and his understanding of it. He is an ace — the ultimate energy-thespian whose electricity cascades to the rest of the team. Sometimes his eagerness to win the ball is too ambitious. There is a balance somewhere that Lopetegui needs to find with him and the rest of his teammates who aren’t always in the right position or mindset to follow suit.

Ceballos has a great toolbox that will almost ensure he transitions into a great player once he sheds some of his decision-making kinks. His rare skill-set, general football IQ, and nature to hotfoot into correct defensive positions makes him easy to play with.

That stuff comes easy for Dani, who has a natural instinct for winning possession in the opposition’s third.

“That meant we won the ball back a lot in their half,” Lopetegui said about Ceballos entering the match at half-time against Atletico. “Dani showed the personality and character he has, his physical and technical gifts.”

“Dani came on today and did fantastic. He played very well when the team was more balanced and playing better in the second half.”

Lopetegui has rarely had an issue with controlling possession or having ‘balance’. None of these counter-pressing sequences — although they form good habits — matter if the team isn’t using that ball retention to score goals. After the derby, Lopetegui said “The goals will come, I don’t have any doubts about that. We created a lot of chances, and if we keep doing that then I’ve no doubt the goals will flow.” That’s a fine logic to use after playing against one of the best defensive schemes in the world — but a logic hard to take side with after four matches straight where Real Madrid not only fail to score, but fail to generate clear-cut chances.

Those efficient counter-pressing sequences will have to lead to immediate surgical passing and off-ball runs into half-spaces — not only from the immediate outlet, but by the entire front-line to ensure they’re in position to generate goalscoring opportunities. Waves of relentless attack are the ultimate goal. The possession will come regardless, and it’s usefulness will manifest itself when the team is leading.

Ceballos can generally be the one to conjure that incisiveness after he wins the ball, but he will need to sharpen his skill-set when it comes to being a goalscoring threat from midfield. He is, to be sure, slightly more polished than Kovacic when it comes to scoring and shooting, but his strength has always been the dagger pass more than the final touch on a goal. Those dagger passes haven’t been plentiful this season, and the offense has stagnated in the last few matches. 1-2s with Asensio, which worked so well on the left flank with the U-21 team, haven’t been a thing this season. They almost were in Russia — but CSKA snuffed every attempt.

Regardless of when the goals finally ‘flow’, as Lopetegui prophesizes, the counter-press will have to remain efficient. It doesn’t help that Lopetegui himself has defanged the ball-retention by having players spread on the pitch without anyone to bind the attack together. Alaves defended well against Real Madrid; but Real made it easy by having only Benzema as the central outlet — and even his presence was sporadic. Modric, Kroos, and Casemiro all sat deep, and everyone else on the pitch spread themselves to the flanks. There is no one in that scheme who can properly channel the aggressive ball-winning high up the pitch if the positioning is hooky.

“The best moment to win the ball is immediately after your team just lost it,” Jurgen Klopp has said about his famous counter-press. “The opponent is still looking for orientation where to pass the ball. He will have taken his eyes off the game to make his tackle or interception and he will have expended energy. Both make him vulnerable.” Once teams see they’re being faced with a loose counter-press — one that isn’t systematically backed after the first presser, or lax enough to take an extra touch and thought on the ball; the scheme melts away and those waves of attacks aren’t possible.

Again, though, the counter-pressing generally has been one of the most positive attributes of this team this season, and Ceballos has been a chief-orchestrator:

The play ends in Ceballos just forcing a deep throw. That’s fine. You’ll never score or create with each counter-press. But the ultimate aim is to create. “If you win the ball back high up the pitch and you are close to the goal, it is only one pass away a really good opportunity most of the time.” Klopp says.

When Ceballos, Isco, and others in those swarming-positions intercept an outlet pass after losing the ball, the emphasis has to quickly shift to attack mode. Recycling possession once the ball is won only allows defenders to reset their defensive line once the ball is lost, rather than having to backpedal frantically to close down a good attacking opportunity.

“No playmaker in the world can be as good as a good counter-pressing situation.” Klopp says.

Couple those counter-pressing situations with good playmakers, which Real Madrid have, and you should be generating a lot of chances. That’s a switch that Lopetegui needs to flip.

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