The players returned from international break and preparations were complete for the away trip to Bilbao. Lopetegui had guided the team to a rosy start to the league season with a 100% record in the previous three matches. Confidence was brewing among Madridistas and in the club as a path to move forward – following a tumultuous summer – began to form. The manager didn’t take too many risks as he again fielded a very strong line-up. The major and only change from the Leganes game was Casemiro’s exclusion following reports in the buildup to the game that the Brazilian would be rested. Ceballos earned his second start of the season as he was called on to replace Casemiro.
Athletic Bilbao, who had played one less game than the visitors, were looking to stay undefeated. The Basque outfit had recorded a draw in the same fixture last season and would likely be seeking for a similar if not better outcome in the match.
Real Madrid’s stale possession and difficulties in defense
Athletic Bilbao’s intent was clear from their aggressive press to kick off the game forcing Real Madrid into unwanted long clearances. This was a signal of the hosts’ incredible defensive organization and performance in the first half. They denied Real Madrid space turning Los Blancos’ possession into stale ball circulation that only sporadically threatened to break through the Basque shield (most prominently as a result of Asensio’s pace and touch). Usual instigators in terms of chance creation such as Asensio, Benzema, Marcelo, and Modric suffered under the duress of Athletic’s intense defensive shape as nifty touches and flicks were easily intercepted and didn’t work as effectively as intended.
Defensively, Real Madrid did well as Ramos and Varane successfully combatted Inaki Williams’ threat and for the most part kept him in check. However, as Athletic grew into the game towards the latter part of the first half – Inaki was offered more support in the offensive third which proved difficult for Lopetegui’s men to manage. Los Merengues were set up in a 4-1-4-1 formation off-the-ball with Kroos sitting behind a midfield line of Asensio-Ceballos-Modric-Bale.
The change in functionality of the team this caused (due to Kroos’ positional switch) as well as, plainly, the absence of the best ball winning midfielder on the team led to struggles guarding zone 14 and defending in transition (as well as counter-attacks).
This manifested itself in Athletic’s first goal as Real Madrid’s tracking and marking was poor. The most crucial mistakes were Ramos and Kroos failing to maintain awareness of their men – Ramos let De Marcos slip through into the box which precipitated the chaotic scenes that followed. Munain escaped Kroos’ watch to get the final touch on the goal.
Momentum swings with Lopetegui’s changes and Munain’s injury
The beginning of the second half wasn’t too different a story from the first half. Athletic Bilbao continued to control tempo and manufacture the better opportunities while Real Madrid struggled with chance creation. However, the game opened up for Los Blancos approximately 15 minutes into the half as a result of several factors that all coincided:
- Casemiro replacing Ceballos: this returned Real Madrid to their more natural composition. Kroos was relieved of defensive duties and able to more readily influence play and organize possession. Secondly, Casemiro’s defensive prowess limited Athletic’s attacking impact and improved ball recovery enhancing Real Madrid’s control.
- Munain injury: the loss of the diminutive midfielder to injury severely affected his team as they struggled in possession without him.
- Isco substitution: the Spaniard’s fresh legs and positional advancement gave Real more numbers in the offensive third.
- Isco equalizer: the equalizer combined with all the above to fully change the dynamic of the game as Athletic were required to chase the game. This fractured their defensive structure and left them stretched. Real Madrid began to swiftly take advantage with the pace and dynamism of their forwards.
Although the visitors couldn’t turn their significant opportunities in transition and via counter-attacks into goals, they did nab an equalizer (as noted above) thanks to a notable scheme that has been a tactical highlight this season. Kroos made a diagonal switch to the right where Bale received the ball and swung in an impeccable cross that Isco nodded in.
Lastly, Asensio deserves a note for his breathtaking performance. Despite some issues with decision-making (missed passes to Bale and Benzema in the second half), he put in a very complete performance showing his incredible offensive prowess. He was a nightmare for the Athletic defense and almost gave Real Madrid the win (when he beautifully latched on to Ramos’ long ball and also after a spectacular run late in the game to feed Benzema).
A mixed evening for Real Madrid as they struggled to deal with Athletic Bilbao’s defensive discipline and organization falling behind after consistent issues with zone 14 coverage – particularly in transition phases. The second half saw a significant improvement due to Munain’s exit, Lopetegui’s changes, and score effects following Isco’s equalizer.
The stats reflect a fairly even affair overall with Real Madrid having the edge in the major shot statistics. The team is now two points behind Barcelona which is an uncomfortable position to be in given the recent state of La Liga and the Catalonian’s usual relentless pace. However, it’s still very early and the focus should remain on getting the most out of the coming games.