clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Tactical Review: Espanyol 1 - Real Madrid 0; 2018 La Liga

No true focal point diminished Madrid’s scoring opportunities

Espanyol v Real Madrid - La Liga Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images

Five games, five wins, 20 goals scored, a fixed formation, minutes for young players, and some quality football, and it was all for not after a rainy Tuesday night in Barcelona came along. All of Madrid’s momentum was washed away as they suffered a 1-0 loss to host Espanyol. The heart-sinking feelings and negative emotions came seeping back into Madridista’s souls. A number of things went wrong for Madrid on the night, least of all their attitude. There was no sense of urgency and the hunger for a goal came far too late. Tactically, it was a mess. Zidane made one too many rotations and changed to an unfamiliar system. That combination was disastrous. There was no rhythm, no familiarity, and no positional discipline. Gareth Bale was playing as a center forward, but his heat map proved otherwise; continually drifting to the left leaving no central option to feed. Defensively the team was pretty solid for ninety minutes, tightening their lines and defending in a traditional 4-4-2 with a block of eight. It would be in the final two minutes of stoppage time, going gung-ho for the win (Ramos as an auxiliary forward and Ceballos pressing like a mad man), that left a huge gap for the impressive Gerard Moreno to smash home the winning goal. If we take a deeper look at the attacking formation, 4-2-3-1, we see some major flaws:

The Lack of True Center Forward: No Focal Point for Madrid’s Attack

Gareth Bale heatmap vs Espanyol

Zidane opted for a 4-2-3-1 formation in attack, and had both Kovacic and Llorente hold as a double pivot. Isco played as withdrawn forward with Vazquez and Asensio flanking him. Leading the line was Gareth Bale, despite his recent sub-par performance in this role, Zidane trusted the Welshman to spearhead the attack. With no true striker in the lineup, Madrid lacked a focal point; a player who could hold the ball up and allow runs to be made around him. As is natural to Gareth, he shifted towards the left side of the field, but no other player replaced his presence in the middle meaning Madrid had no targets in the box when crossing or looking to link up through the middle.

The images above could be replicated time and time again in this match. There is no forward or central presence occupying the Espanyol back line. It was a walk in the park for the back line in blue and white. No Madrid player acted as a decoy, no Madrid player forced that back line to think and to draw them out, and no Madrid player acted as a target nor physically tested the Espanyol back line.

Direct Approach Leaves Gaps between the Lines

Given the issues in attack, it was surprising at just how long Zidane took to throw Benzema on to the pitch. There was a huge gap between the midfield and attack. Bale was looking to use his pace and go in behind the back line, but he had no supporting options when the ball was played direct to him. If Espanyol won the header, Madrid’s midfield line was too far behind to pick up the second ball.

As soon as the ball leaves Varane’s foot, the backline needs to be pushing up as quickly as possible and the midfield needs to follow suit. If Bale does not win the ball, as is the case above, then the rest of the team needs to pin Espanyol in and win the second ball. The team overall was far too reactionary. It starts from the backline with Ramos and Varane pushing their team forward and forcing a proactive press. With Bale as the lone forward, he made a number of runs to stretch Espanyol:

Again, only Vazquez is following up behind Bale’s run. The rest of the team is lagging behind, not even in picture. As soon as Isco plays that pass he should be sprinting up the middle of the field to either 1) support Bale and be available as an option to lay the ball off to or 2) push himself and the team higher up the pitch to get on the end of a 2nd ball like Lucas Vazquez and pin Espanyol in their eighteen. It’s moments like these where, even if the scheme isn’t right, it’s further damaged by the lack of effort and the failure to be “switched on”.

Positives: Mateo Kovacic and Raphael Varane

Mateo Kovacic has shined since coming in for the injured Luka Modric and Toni Kroos. Finally given some match rhythm, the Croatian has repaid that faith with good performance after good performance. He is one of the most complete box to box midfielders in the game and his ball carrying ability is second to none. If Ceballos was playing the way Kovacic is now, and granted he hasn’t had the opportunity, the Madrid press would likely be labeling him the next Balon D’or. Hyperbole or not, the Croatian’s performances and talent alone deserves more adulation than he currently receives. He led the team in tackles with seven, had the best passing accuracy at 93.7%, and had the most completed dribbles. Zidane has thrown multiple tactical schemes at him, 4-4-2/ 4-2-3-1/ and 4-3-3, yet he usually answers the call and puts in a good shift. Out of a disappointing game, Kovacic was a bright spot. Zidane would have been better off playing a 4-3-3 with Kovacic and Isco ahead of the lone pivot of Llorente. Marcos then would have been relieved of some attacking responsibility and Mateo would have had more freedom to drive through the midfield and create.

Another bright spot in an otherwise forgetful game was Raphael Varane. He was the best of the back line, and how often has that been said this season. Made clearance after clearance, won six aerial duels between Moreno/Garcia, and has the ability to use his weak foot to distribute a long range pass and break pressure. Used his speed on countless occasions to bail Madrid out and end any Espanyol counter attack. Freed from the shackles of his constant competition with Pepe, Varane has grown not only as a player, but as a leader as well. He is decisive in the back line and when he does not play his presence is missed.


After seemingly patching the holes and growing confidence, Zidane has ripped the band-aid off and reopened the wounds that have become oh so familiar this season. The decision to play a 4-2-3-1 can be questioned, but even more so will be the decision to play Gareth Bale as a lone forward. With no true striker in the lineup, Madrid lacked a focal point; a player who could hold the ball up and allow runs to be made around him. Among the attacking four—Asensio, Isco, Vazquez, and Bale—very little was created. Bale tended toward the left while his teammates tended toward the right, leaving gaping holes in the middle of the pitch; Espanyol’s back line had their easiest game in weeks. It never felt like the team “switched on” and it was a lackadaisical performance with Madrid failing to commit the necessary effort. Zidane’s men failed to win the second ball and failed to push their lines higher when searching for a direct option to Gareth Bale. A lot of the blame should fall on Zidane for the way he set the team up and the failure to define clear roles for key players, but partial blame should be on the players for the lack of desire and the inability to win their individual battles across the field. Kudos to Espanyol who played to their strengths and had a clear plan. Marc Navarro and Aaron Martin were particularly impressive. Both were able to drive the Espanyol attack down their wings and overload Nacho and Achraf. Quique Sanches Florez wanted to match Madrid with a 4-4-2 and exploit the counter attack, much like Alberado failed to do just three days earlier. Madrid’s gung-ho approach in the final minutes came back to haunt them as Gerard Moreno put away the goal he deserved in the dying minutes. On to the next game for Madrid, as they look to put this behind them and rediscover their goal scoring touch.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the Managing Madrid Daily Roundup newsletter!

A daily roundup of Real Madrid news from Managing Madrid