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Tactical Review: Real Madrid 1 - Athletic Bilbao 1; 2018 La Liga

Madrid have room for improvement prior to facing Bayern

Real Madrid v Athletic Club - La Liga Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

On the 18th of April, Zidane and his men entered yet another mid-week fixture. This time, there would be no Champions League hymn. The ilusión, the aura, and the immense pressure that accompanies a European heavyweight battle was certainly lacking; Atheltic Bilboa were safe in mid-table mediocrity and Real Madrid were safe in the top four. Due to Madrid’s poor start to the season, it was a La Liga match that meant virtually nothing. After watching the match, you cannot help but think many players had the clash in Munich on their mind. With a week of rest before the big match, it was interesting to see what line-up Zidane opted for, did he consider the match a dress rehearsal? If so, it would mean the Frenchman was leaning towards a 4-4-2 in Munich with Lucas and Asensio hugging the touchline. The match ended in a draw, but if it were not for the stellar performance of young Kepa in goal for Athletic Bilboa, Madrid may have come away with more. The expected goals (xG) for Madrid was 1.43, despite Ronaldo’s crossbar and Asensio mazy run that resulted in a brilliant foot save from Kepa. After securing their goal through Inaki Williams on the counter, Atheltic sat in a very low block. At times, all eleven men could be found defending within 25 yards of their goal.

Photo courtesy of Understat

Tighten your lines!

The old saying, Inaki Williams- “The fastest palyer in La Liga”. Now whether Varane, Bale, or others want to dispute that is another question, but Athletic have opted to deploy their former speedy winger as a number nine. This may be partly be due to the fact that Aduriz is finally starting to show his age and with a strict Basque-only transfer policy, the pickings for a top quality striker are slim. Inaki did his confidence as a number nine a world of good by bagging a goal at the Bernabeu, but Madrid’s structure was to blame. Take a look at the images below:

Madrid are set-up decently well in a clear 4-4-2. For a team to successfully defend in said formation, the lines between the midfield and the defense need to be tighter. Raul Garcia just waits in the space between the lines. Even worse, he has all day; Raul Garcia turns and slips Inaki through on goal with virtually zero pressure applied. Inaki gets himself in a foot race with Ramos and the veteran simply couldn’t keep up. Had the defense stepped five yards further up the field and the midfield dropped three to five yards deeper and tightened the lines/limited the free space, Raul Garcia would have been trampled under pressure and likely cough up the ball or at the very least fouled. If Madrid are to roll out a 4-4-2 without Casemiro, then that’s the space a Thiago or a James will target. It’s imperative that the team tighten their lines defensively.

Battling Against a Low Block

Madrid had 29 shots and 47 crosses in this match, 17 crosses higher than the normal average. Athletic sat in a low block, at times they had all eleven men behind the ball. The plan was simple, sit deep and counter through Inaki Williams.

Cross-Map vs Athletic

Without a player like Isco on the field, it’s difficult to break through a tight-knit defense. Granted Modric and Marcelo were on the field, but they acted as facilitators rather than a “10” looking to slice through an inch-perfect through ball. When playing against a low block with packed numbers centrally, the natural tendency is to switch flanks and utilize the overlap provided by fullbacks. Thus crosses are a by-product of that formation. It was surprising to see an xG of 1.43 for Madrid when Ronaldo hit the crossbar, Asensio nearly pulled off an incredible solo run, and Marcelo had a shot go narrowly wide. Kepa was unstoppable and certainly gave the Bernabeu faithful a taste of his talent. One can only hope those bridges were not burned.

Benzema’s Influence Wanes:


If Benzema is to play as a “10” and occupy the position above in the pass map, then his impact needs to be far greater. Zidane said it after the match and most fans would agree, Benzema can play in that position. Though the production needs to be there on both ends of the field—whether it’s key passes, assists, or goals, and on the other side—interceptions or tackles. A player like Kovacic, Isco, Ceballos, Bale, or Asensio could all occupy that position. His confidence is lacking and the struggle for goals seems to be weighing heavy on the Frenchman’s shoulders. If he gets the start in Munich a good performance and a goal would do wonders for big Benz.


Despite the relative irrelevance of this match, there were some important tactical points to take away for Madrid. If Zidane opts for a 4-4-2 in Munich, then the defensive lines—the four in midfield and the four in defense— will need to tighten and close the space between them. There should be no more than 20 meters. Without Casemiro sitting in the open space to break up play, a James or Thiago could exploit that space with ease. After nabbing a goal, Athletic sat back in a low block clogging the center of the field. Madrid was forced to switch the play and switch the play often. Carvajal and Marcelo looked to overload on the flanks, but ultimately Madrid’s 47 crosses failed to produce a goal. A player like Isco would have been crucial in breaking down the Athletic defense. Benzema occupied the second striker role for most of the match, but his influence waned as the match went on and his confidence continues to suffer. Zidane will take a few notes from this match and now has a week to prepare for another season defining clash, this time against Bayern Munich.

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