Real Madrid’s heavily-rotated side coasted to a 1 - 0 victory over Espanyol on Saturday evening. Julen Lopetegui’s side saw several key starters out of the rotation in seek of rest. Carvajal, Marcelo, Bale, Kroos, and Keylor Navas all sat this one out. In lieu, Isco and Asensio started on the flanks acting as interchangeable pieces, Odriozola got his first La Liga start, Nacho slid over to the left-back slot, Courtois commanded the posts, and Dani Ceballos put in one of the best performances on the pitch until he was taken off in the second half.
Ceballos’s performance is particularly noteworthy tonight. Not deploying Kroos is never ideal, but the quality Real Madrid boast in midfield helps eliminate some drop-offs in these La Liga games. Ceballos’s vision and incisiveness has always been a trait, and tonight his four key passes — in just 62 minutes — were a game-high. Even more impressive, as I’ve written about a couple times this season, is his understanding of Lopetegui’s scheme. Once again, he led the counter-press and covered for Nacho who spent a lot of time in the opposing third.
The press behind Ceballos was quite cohesive and in-tact, unlike earlier this season in San Mames. Outstanding in all this was Casemiro, who constantly backed Modric and Ceballos as they hounded Espanyol in the final third, and often helped win possession in key areas. His passing was also great out of the back. This may have been Casemiro’s best game of the season, in truth. He, along with Ceballos, Modric, and the back-four, had prolific passing stats as Real Madrid had some good outlets all over the pitch. An exception here was when Ramos had a couple brain-farts and gave the ball away — but Real Madrid luckily recovered, and on the most dangerous mistake from Ramos, Borja Iglesias (thankfully) hit the cross-bar.
The problem was never ‘control’ tonight. Real Madrid, despite having good movement in the final third, with Benzema, Asensio, and Isco moving in-between the lines constantly, failed to create many chances. The first clear-cut chance of the game didn’t come until the 33rd minute, when Varane got on the end of a corner. Some of this should be credited to Espanyol, who defended well in Rubi’s 4-1-4-1. There was a lack of direction from the flanks, where Isco and Asensio took turns flipping through wings to link up with Odrioziola and Nacho. Often Isco would ask Odriozola to overlap and the ball would eventually just be recycled when Alvaro would look up to cross but only see Modric and Benzema in the box. (Bale would’ve been a clear help in this regard, but Lopetegui seemed keen to give him as much rest as possible in this lawlessly officiated game from Lahoz.) It turns out Mariano’s entrance in the second half helped too, as Real Madrid started crossing with a more clear direction when he came in.
Real Madrid eventually opened the scoring through a beautiful Marco Asensio finish, which proved to be the defining game-winner:
And it counts!— DAZN CA (@DAZN_CA) September 22, 2018
Marco Asensio puts Real Madrid ahead after VAR determines he was onside. pic.twitter.com/luKumjGKaY
Again, Real Madrid basically passed this match to death as we’ve been accustomed to. But Espanyol were respectable in the sense that they didn’t allow Real Madrid to completely overrun them and demoralize them by racking up passes and goals. They were pragmatic in their approach, and although their xG will come out pretty low, they did keep their shape (apart from a few counters for Real Madrid deep in the second half), and may have even equalized as Borja Iglesias came close.
Still — this is Lopetegui-ball. They mask defense with possession. This is yet another clean sheet under Real Madrid’s belt as they looked relatively comfortable. Once Lucas Vazquez came in for Dani Ceballos, the team morphed into a 4-2-3-1 of sorts, and perhaps underrated in all this, is that Casemiro is actually playing as an anchor this season — sticking to his role and providing a more symmetrical blueprint to keep the team balanced.
We’ll break this down more in the coming hours. For now, papa’s proud to see his son come in this match and grace the mere mortals around him with his presence: