We have entered the tail end of February and the final third of the season, the time in which Zidane insisted his team would begin to hit their stride. Real Madrid have done just that, scoring 20 goals in their last five matches. Since turning the PSG match on it’s head with implementation of a 4-4-2, Zidane has continued with a different variation of said formation over the past three La Liga games. With injuries to both Kroos and Modric, the center of the midfield has been occupied by Kovacic and Casemiro who both perform box-to-box roles. The lack of a third central midfield means the introduction of a four-man midfield with two-way wingers. Lucas Vazquez and Marco Asensio had been playing those roles to perfection; Lucas Vazquez now has four assists and one goal in his last three games. Marco would not feature against Alaves due to a wisdom tooth extraction, but it would give Zidane the opportunity to role out the BBC and play Bale in a deeper left midfield role. The Welshman would thrive. Despite the scoreline, the opposition did cause some danger. Keylor Navas was in “panther mode” and would not be denied a clean sheet. Abelarado, Alaves manager, would match Madrid’s 4-4-2 and look to counter at every opportunity. In the end, Madrid’s quality was too much with Ronaldo, Benzema, and Bale all getting on the score sheet.
Casemiro: The Good and The Bad
Defensively, Casemiro was tremendous. His ability to snuff out attacks and put an end to dangerous counter attacks are vital to Madrid’s success. Against Alaves, the Brazilian put in three tackles, had six interceptions, and one clearance.
Playing in a midfield two, it is often Kovacic who comes deep to start the play and link the team’s play from midfield to attack. Thus, Casemiro is forced to move into advance positions in order to free Kovacic’s passing and dribbling lanes while giving the opposition more to think about in dangerous attacking positions. The Brazilian found himself in a “10” role multiple times and in most occasions struggled to maintain possession and continue the flow of the attack:
The above three instances, were all within a short space of time in the first half. Ultimately, Casmiero becomes a black hole in those advance positions. He’s meant to be deeper, but has to move higher up the pitch to allow a Kroos or a Kovacic to build the play. The question then arises, if the 4-4-2 is the future of this Madrid side is Casemiro sacrificed? Or are his defensive capabilities to crucial to leave out?
Gareth Bale: Creative, Goal-Scorer, and Defensive Work-Horse
Many question the defensive work rate of the team when the BBC are present, but there would be no such questions against Alaves. Benzema and Bale in particular hounded the opposition (see video below). In a deeper role, Bale had to prove that he could perform on both the sides of the ball. In the dying moments of the first half, Gareth tracked Alexis all the way back to the byline putting in a crucial slide tackle to impede any cross:
Gareth not only has the capacity to play as a left midfielder, but he has the skills.
Seconds into the start of the second half, it would be Karim again who pressed Alexis into a heavy touch, then disposing the Alaves man and setting the blazing Gareth on his way to put Madrid’s second away:
The Madrid three, were rewarded for their defensive work with four goals between them. Bale in the deeper role was able to take players on and display his beautiful long range passing, his left in-swinging crosses, his blazing speed, and his eye for a pass. In the second sequence above, Gareth—in the 89th minute—starts the play from his own eighteen with a gorgeous driven ball across the field to Lucas. The team fires up the field and on the end of the final pass is who else but Gareth Bale, earning a penalty for Madrid to score their fourth.
Alaves looked to strike on the counter
The men from Mendizorrotza were most dangerous in the first half. The plan was clear from Alberado, match Madrid’s 4-4-2 and break with Gudietti and Sobrino up top. Sobrino looked to come deep and occupy the space between Madrid’s midfield and defensive lines while Gudietti acted as the target man to hold up the play and allow for runs to be made around him. As dangerous as Madrid were on the counter, Alaves created similar opportunities, but were unable to convert against a sublime Keylor Navas.
In the instance above, both Carvajal and Casemiro get drawn to the ball in attempt to stop any counter. With both chasing rather than one, a huge hole is opened up in midfield. John Guidetti gets on the ball and leads his team through the middle as Pedraza and Sobrino fly down the wings. Fortunately for Madrid, Keylor cobbled up both the shot and rebound, but Alaves were able to find success on the counter all evening.
The 4-4-2 looks to be Zidane’s now favored formation. Gareth Bale’s performance in a deeper left midfield role means that the BBC can still function while also maintaining the balance so often lacked this season. It is clear Zidane is managing Gareth’s minutes in order to have the best of the Welshman come the end of the year. It will remain to be seen if Gareth occupies that left flank moving forward, but in that role he thrived with greater responsibility defensively and offensively. The Welshman had far more opportunities to create chances for teammates than when isolated in the striker position. In the 89th minute, it was Gareth on the edge of his own eighteen that sprayed the ball out to Lucas and then made it up field to the oppositions eighteen and earned a penalty kick. While Gareth is finding his feet, there remains a question mark on Casemiro as a box-to-box midfielder. There is no doubting his defensive work and the crucial tackles he makes to stop counter attacks, but when in advanced positions he is found very much wanting. Zidane has done a good job of rotating the team and rewarding in-form players like Lucas Vazquez and Mateo Kovacic. If the team can continue to perform in the 4-4-2 and build momentum, there may still be hope for this season after all.