The fifth match week of the 2018 La Liga season has come to an end and Real Madrid now sit a top of the table after their slender 1-0 win over Espanyol followed by Barcelona’s home draw to Girona. Espanyol, who are a vastly improved team under Rubi, pushed Madrid to the final minute—their compact resolute defending coupled with their quick transitions on the counter meant the match was no walk in the park for Madrid. Lopetegui’s possession based philosophy has two critical functions to prevent lethal counter-attacks: immediate transition into a high press to win the ball back and the starting position of both full-backs as well as Casemiro in said transition. If Casemiro and the full back’s are not occupying the right spaces, the opposition can run riot—which Espanyol did on more than one occasion. Madrid controlled possession for much of the first half and pieces of the second, but failed to create any incisive looks at goal, thus the reason for their low xG. There were moments of blissful football, but the lack of a killer pass followed by a clinical finish meant Madrid were circulating possession and imposing control, but lacked conviction in the final third.
Dissecting Lopetegui’s Press
Only five match days into La Liga and we are seeing a more consistent and cohesive press than we did under Zidane. This will be one of the corner stones to Lopetegui’s game plan. To control the game with the ball, you have to win it back as quickly as possible when dispossessed. It is all about hounding the opposition, getting in their face, and putting them under so much pressure that they cannot find a quick escape route against the remaining back three (Casemiro, Ramos, and Varane). Just four minutes into the match, we saw a well-executed press:
Modric initiates the press while Benzema, Isco, Ceballos, and ultimately Casemiro all collapse on Granero and suffocate Espanyol, destroying any chance of them breaking through to Madrid’s backline. Over the course of the season, Lopetegui’s tactics will be come habits for his players. For some, it has already become second nature:
As soon as the ball is lost, Ceballos sprints to close down the opposition. It was immediate recognition. Lopetegui’s Madrid will be implementing Guardiola, or rather Bielsa’s famous “golden rule”, as soon as possession is lost, the team has 4-5 seconds to immediately press and win the ball back, if you don’t succeed then the team drop back and fall into a default defensive shape like “a block eight”—two lines of four, often implemented by Zidane and Ancelotti. For this method to work, the position of both fullbacks, when Madrid has the ball, as well as the position of Casemiro is vital.
The Crucial Role Played by Casemiro and the Fullbacks
Take a look at the above graphic, and you may notice how high both full backs are up the pitch. If Sam Allardyce were coach, there would be no way Nacho would be that far up the field if he was on the weak side with his opposing full back already high supporting the attack. With Lopetegui, and most modern day coaches, it’s crucial that Nacho be just outside the 18-yard box. If the ensuing cross is cleared, Nacho has to be the first to recover it on the weak side. Likewise, Odriozola, after the cross is sent in, has to tuck in to around the same zone as Nacho, but on the opposite side—again to be the first to close down the opposition and pick up any scraps that fly out. With so many players forward, you see why a player in the mold of Casemiro is so vital. Toni Kroos does not have the athleticism nor the defensive nous to do the job that Casemiro does as the single defensive pivot in midfield. Only Ramos, Varane, and Casemiro are the three players holding back when the team attacks and Case is the designated “stopper” to thwart any counter-attack. If the Brazilian finds his way forward, with no adequate cover behind, then Madrid will continually be sliced on the counter, like so:
When a press is not organized, if just one person switches off, it is a domino effect and chaos ensues. Usually, the opposition will find itself 2 v 1 or even 3 v 1 on the counter. It is a high risk, high reward game. In the above video, Casemiro is forced out of his anchor position to cover for Modric, Varane is then late to step out to Casemiro’s initial mark, and Modric fails to track his runner all together, followed by the last domino, Nacho, who gets caught in between two minds—he neither closes down the ball carrier nor sprints back to track down the winger on his side thus leaving Sergio Ramos 2 v 1. Casemiro is valuable to this team because eight times out of ten he will get his positioning right or will have the speed to recover and make the tackle to stop any counter attack. Though, when he gets it wrong, Madrid are in trouble:
Casemiro gets caught flat-footed, watching the ball rather than preparing to drop and track his man after Madrid’s initial press is broken. Fortunately for Madrid, they had two speed demons in the back by the name of Varane and Odriozola who were preparing to mop up.
Madrid Lose Control as Espanyol Grow in Confidence
Madrid were able to control the majority of the first half due to their ball playing midfielders and the effective press that was implemented if the ball was lost. After about 35 minutes or so, the team started to tire and the press began to fall apart. Lopetegui mentioned that it was “two intensive matches” this week, and the players had started to feel their legs from the Roma match. It may have been better for Lopetegui to have the team drop and sit in a block of eight after losing possession rather than press. This likely would have been a good move after the initial 30 minutes just to give the team a breather until half. Zidane was a master at being able to switch from one system to another depending on what the game or the moment called for at any given time. Lopetegui seems to want to stick to his philosophy thus Madrid started to lose control as their press wavered. Though credit to Lopetegui as he was astute with his substitutions and recognized the teams needs as he switched to a 4-4-2 and then 4-5-1 introducing Lucas, Mariano, and Marcos Llorente—all players with good instincts and high energy to run and defend. Ultimately Madrid were able to grind out a solid 1-0 victory against a fantastic Espanyol side who pushed them to the edge. Madrid’s press will continue to improve as the season progresses, but fresh legs and the right personnel for each position will be vital to success.