Solari shooks things up at the Benito Villamarín Stadium as he rolled out a brand new formation with significant tactical changes to the team’s configuration and set-up. Facing the possibility of the worst La Liga record at midpoint in the 21st century as well as dealing with a storm of injuries, the manager decided to take a bold step and implement a new approach which gave the team a new look. Real Madrid were structured in a 3-5-2 shape led by Benzema and the mesmeric Vinicius. The midfield consisted of a Casemiro-Modric-Valverde trio flanked by Reguilon and Carvajal. Ramos, Varane, and Nacho completed the line-up.
Notable absences from the starting XI included Marcelo and Isco. The latter has been the subject of enormous media scrutiny and commentary as he continues to be secondary to Solari’s plans – despite injuries to his main competitors for minutes. Marcelo, on the other hand, has been the primary left back choice under the new manager and it was somewhat of a surprise to see him relegated to the bench for this match.
Real Madrid’s defensive solidity and pressing
If there was any uncertainty as to the intent and purpose of the change in formation, it didn’t last very long as the nature of Solari’s adjustment became clear early into the match. The defensive capacity of the team was significantly reinforced as a result of improved structural coverage – aided by personnel as well. Reguilon offers more defensive solidity than Marcelo while Valverde, Casemiro, and Modric are very industrious, combative, and defensively savvy players.
The formation transformed into a 5-3-2 in defense with Carvajal and Reguilon dropping into the defensive line. Los Blancos were organized in compact dynamic lines that limited vertical access into central attacking zones. The wingbacks/fullbacks in particular were required to exercise some level of judgement in knowing when to maintain horizontal compactness in the defensive band. They had to coordinate with the centerbacks in order to mitigate exposure when they moved further wide to deal with attacks through the wings.
Another key aspect of Real Madrid’s defensive tactics was the active high press which lasted the entire half. Within the first ten minutes, there were two key dispossessions high up the pitch that led to very dangerous opportunities for the visiting side.
This pressing (and supplementary counter-pressing scheme) was enabled by an advanced positional structure. Despite settling into a medium-low block for most of the game, the first half saw a much more proactive Real Madrid off-the-ball with midfielders (particularly Modric) and fullbacks repeatedly stepping up to help apply pressure.
Benzema and Vinicius two-man counter-attacking
On the offensive front, Solari relied on Vinicius and Benzema to lead the charge via counter-attacking and rapid transitions. Fundamentally, this strategy was sound in theory as Vinicius’ speed and dynamism would combine well with Benzema’s touch-centered linkup play. The tactic was more than theory as it was brought to life in the first half. The buildup for Modric’s goal showcased this well as Vinicius carried the ball down the wing before passing to Benzema who swiftly played it to Reguilon which set the stage for the attacking sequence.
There were other more explicit examples of the counter-attacking approach the team utilized. Their low-medium block invited Real Betis to commit numbers forward which subsequently allowed Los Merengues to quickly exploit space conceded at the back. Reguilon and Valverde were important outlets and supportive agents in transition.
Real Madrid further recede and suffer without Benzema
Benzema’s injury and substitution at half along with the deliberate shift to a more passive defensive setup contributed to a stale second half. The team did not press nearly as well and lacked the offensive potency that was observable in the first half. Cristo’s decision-making was inferior to Benzema and he seemed to lack chemistry with Vinicius as the two failed to combine effectively. Furthermore, there was reduced support from the fullbacks and midfielders in offense leading to isolated situations for forwards.
26.3% - Real Madrid won against Real Betis with a possession of 26.3% (2-1), their win with the lowest possession in La Liga since Opta analyzes the competition (2005/06). Sharp. pic.twitter.com/UV5EtlUSD1— OptaJean (@OptaJean) January 14, 2019
Gameplay management was called into question as Real Madrid’s lack of midfield presence with the ball began to show more sorely due to scarce chance creation. There was a question of whether it could have made more sense for Solari’s men to try and establish more sustained possession control as they had the players to do so within the tactical framework. Despite the fact that Betis were not creating any high quality chances, giving up possession without a counterbalance in the form of efficient transitions did not seem wise. This was proven true as Betis managed to get an equalizer — caused by an imbalanced midfield and poor communication in defense.
Modric, Casemiro, and Valverde gravitated to the right side of the field during a Betis throw-in. However, they did so too aggressively with Valverde specifically stepping out of position and vacating critical space in the midfield. Lo Celso moved into this ungarded zone to receive the ball from William Carvalho. Ramos advanced to pressure Lo Celso but couldn’t close him down in time and the Argentine slipped a pass beyond Varane-Nacho to Canales who scored.
Solari reacts to equalizer by bringing on Ceballos and Diaz
Solari brought on Ceballos and Diaz for Reguilon and Valverde respectively in response to Real Betis’ equalizer. Despite increasing defensive intensity and showing renewed energy in pressing actions, the team still struggled to impose themselves as Betis maintained their dominance on the ball. However, for all their possession, the home side still failed to meaningfully carve out any good openings.
Ceballos would repay Solari’s faith in him with a wonderfully taken freekick to give Real Madrid the lead. The young Spaniard stepped up and used the wall as a reference point to place the ball into the right hand corner. The goal dramatically brought to conclusion one of Solari’s first major experiments in charge of Real Madrid. Despite its shortcomings in terms of steadying tempo and diversifying attacking play, it led to a very strong first half (which is slightly undersold by the xG score) performance that should have put the game to bed.