Real travelled to Mallorca as the only unbeaten team remaining in La Liga. Following Barcelona’s professional win earlier on Saturday, it was imperative that Los Blancos win in order to maintain their lead in the standings. Zidane opted for a fairly rotated side due to injuries and the looming potentially do-or-die game against Galatasaray in the Champions League.
The manager fielded a rare 4-4-2 spearheaded by Benzema and Jovic. The midfield was comprised of Casemiro and Isco as the holding pair flanked by Vinicius and James. Defense was Ramos, Militao, Odriozola, and Marcelo.
Isco struggles in holding midfield role
Isco’s selection affected the tactical architecture of the team’s possession framework, particularly in midfield. The Spaniard’s control and tempo is not at the same level as Kroos and/or Modric or even Valverde who provides a unique box-to-box capacity that is sorely lacking in the roster. Isco, partially as a result of coming back to fitness, and as a consequence of his playing (dribbling) tendencies isn’t a premier distributor and doesn’t effectively act as a flow-through (in the same way Kroos and Modric do) – this could be evidenced by the number of occasions he was dispossessed trying to play out of tight situations.
In addition to issues on the ball, Isco’s backfill role in midfield destabilized the defensive structure. In the lead-up to Mallorca’s opener, Isco was dragged significantly out of position and ended up in the advanced left space – completely exposing Real Madrid’s right side. Casemiro was already covering the area Isco moved into and as such the team’s defensive solidity was fully compromised and vulnerable to a switch of play.
Another side effect of Isco’s floating and the resultant asymmetric shape was the strikers not being actively involved during possession. Benzema remedied this individually by dropping deep and favoring the left side where Marcelo and Vinicius (heavily supported by Isco and Casemiro) would be. But Jovic, being a more traditional 9, suffered and was severely disconnected from the game seeing very limited touches.
James moves in centrally to compensate, leaving right side vacant
Although James was positioned on the right side of the midfield on paper, the Colombian spent large swaths of the match in the middle. He was much more effective moving in centrally but this unbalanced the team’s shape leading to Odriozola being isolated on the wing when he drove forward.
However, this sacrifice would have been worth it if the team capitalized on his venomous deliveries (such as the great ball to Vinicius in the 21st minute or to Benzema in the 27th).
The Colombian’s field of vision was enhanced through his inverted positioning which was only accentuated when he could operate from central spaces. His vertical supply of passes was a vital source of chance generation in the first half where possession was extremely stale and limited in terms of creativity.
Vinicius’ cutting runs, poor final touches and Real Madrid’s improved interplay
After Mallorca scored the goal that would eventually be the winner, the team progressively formed a bunker that proved very strenuous for Real Madrid to break down. The home side packed the midfield with five players who retreated into their defensive third without fail when Real advanced into the opposition half. Real actually responded well to this dynamic particularly due to two features of their offense.
The first was Vinicius who was by far (along with Benzema) Real’s most active forward. The winger was the most productive engine in the final third constantly testing his man by leveraging his superior 1v1 skills and speed. The Brazilian made strategic cutting runs with and without the ball that pulled defenders away from the low block and opened up space for his teammates. Unfortunately, due to Mallorca’s robust fortified shape and Vinicius’ rushed/sloppy final plays, the latter couldn’t turn his good work into something meaningful goals wise.
The second aspect of Real’s approach to Mallorca’s defense was combinations and interplay facilitated by increased pressing in the second half. Los Blancos implemented a high line fully liberating Isco to essentially play as a no10 while James continued to gravitate to the middle. This along with Marcelo’s advanced positioning and Benzema’s linkup created a good base of coverage in dangerous positions.
Zidane made tactical changes to support this change by bringing Valverde and Rodrygo on. The former would help mitigate the worsened defensive coverage within the hyper offensive structure. However, Odriozola’s careless tackle in the 74th minute and subsequent red card effectively put an end to Real’s mounting threat.
Real Madrid drop very valuable points on the road
The match would end 1-0 as the red card made it very difficult for Real Madrid to legitimately threaten a comeback. It became an open game and the hosts actually had opportunities to add to their lead.
All that being said, Real Madrid played relatively well but were severely compromised by the composition of the midfield which had match wide ramifications. Isco could not provide the necessary organization from deep which compounded with score effects, poor individual performances, and Odriozola’s red card to lead to the loss despite facing a Mallorca that sat in 18th place and barely created anything of real note apart from the goal.