At long last, some eight months after Zinedine Zidane returned to the Real Madrid bench, his team are beginning (*knock on wood*) to find some rhythm. There is a cautious optimism among supporters, almost a hush whisper, could this be the start of a green patch? Others will rightly point to the quality of opposition on hand: Leganes (20th in La Liga), Real Betis (17th in La Liga), Galatasaray (6th in Turkish Super league), and Eibar (15th in La Liga) are, with all due respect, not amongst the elite. Though, in fairness to Zidane and Real Madrid, the standards were set so absurdly low around the same time last season after losses to Levante, Eibar, CSKA, and Alaves — all teams Real Madrid should be beating — that being able to enjoy comfortable wins with some aesthetically pleasing football does actually merit as a sign of improvement. With a combined xG of 14.6 and an xGA of 2.06 vs the actual results of 15 goal scored vs 0 conceded means the team are playing well on both sides of the pitch.
Few can deny that the real tests are still to come, with matches against Real Sociedad, PSG, and Barcelona looming. In preparation for those matches their have been various improvements seen in Zidane’s side, but two tactical patterns have consistently stood out over the rest:
- The improvement in Zidane’s press and the teams desire to execute said press early in matches
- Casemiro’s deeper position and integration into a pseudo back five
No team, not even one of Klopp’s geigenpressing teams, can sustain a high press for 90 minutes straight. Managers often pick moments, say the first 15 minutes of a half and the last 15 minutes of a half, to press their opposition. Zidane, in each of the last four matches, has asked the team to perform a man-to-man press in the opening 15 minutes. Unlike the chaotic and disjointed press at the start of the new campaign, the team have visibly been more organized and player habits are starting to form:
Look how high Sergio Ramos is in the sequence above. He and Varane are instrumental to the success of the team’s collective press as it’s the defensive line that can lock the opposition in and suffocate them by limiting the amount of space they have to play. Five to ten meters too short, and your dead. The result would be too much space between the lines for the opposition to turn and counter. Even just a mere few seconds late to an identified mark can be lethal. Counters ensue with numbers usually in favor to the attacking side vs a vulnerable three or even two-man backline. Let’s take a look at an example of the press gone wrong:
Kroos opts to press the ball carrier, who Luka Modric should attend to, while leaving X Betis player vacant with acres of space to turn and run at Madrid’s backline. Where are Ramos and Varane? Too far back, being pinned by Loren and Fekir, and far too slow to react to the transition in play. Instead, they should be 20 yards further forward so that Casemiro can act as another body to rectify Kroos’ misjudgment.
Overall, the misjudgments have been fewer and far between, Madrid and Zidane have greatly improved their pressing game in the opening 15 minutes. The result? Nine of the team’s 15 goals (60%) have been scored in the opening 15-20 minutes of the last four games. The team has been a whirlwind and their opponents have not been able to breathe.
Look how high Varane is up the pitch. Players have to be comfortable in being relentlessly committed, as a group, to execute a press effectively. If Varane doesn’t feel comfortable venturing out that far, Carvajals efforts are wasted and the backline ends up backtracking trying to temper an oncoming stampede of attackers with acres of space to run. To press means to take risks, to venture out of one’s comfort zone, but if done correctly, the rewards can be a gluttony of goals, just ask Leganes and Galatasaray.
The relative success, or rather improvement, of Madrid’s press is the result of a “collective think” and collective habits. But, there is one man — who has been written about not once, but twice for Managing Madrid in the last few weeks — that has a new adapted role in Zidane’s system. Instead of Casemiro floating between the lines as a number 10 when Madrid are trying to build out from the back, he is now playing deeper than we have ever seen. This deeper position does not only occur during the buildup play, but in Madrid’s defensive set up on the counter press as well; Casemiro features almost as a third auxiliary center back or in a “stopper” role. His position usually is just a few yards ahead of Varane and Ramos centrally.
Ramos and Varane are pushing their line so high that Casemiro naturally integrates into a back five. His role differs from the former two, in that he has the freedom to read the game, anticipate danger, and step aggressively to stop any counter attack. He is the one man in Zidane’s pressing scheme, who usually is free of a mark and has complete authority to dictate his own defensive actions. His numbers, and overall return to form this season, have been a testament to the positive change in positioning.
Time and time again vs Eibar, Casemiro showed great tactical discipline by holding his position, integrating into a back five, or pushing just a few yards forward to thwart a passing lane or win an aerial duel. In the many sequences above, Casemiro wisely covers behind Varane and/or Ramos as they fully commit to the press, giving Real Madrid more security should a team be able to break through their initial lines.
If Zidane continues to role out a high press in the opening stages of a match, the misjudgements, like the example of Kroos vs Betis, will be exploited. “The chain is only as strong as it’s weakest link”— if just one player switches off for a few seconds, the results could be catastrophic. Training and understanding the cues of when to press and when to drop and reacting in the right manner, i.e. -- a teams habits — take months if not a year or more to internalize and master.
Growing pains will continue as this team continues to adapt to Zidane’s demands. But, it would be unfair to say the team hasn’t improved. Zidane has tightened the space between the teams lines ever since the disaster in Paris. He’s improved the work ethic of the team, provided fresh legs and high energy with the introduction of Fede Valverde to the midfield, and has drilled his team with a better understanding of his desired man to man high-pressing system. The uptick in form of players like Casemiro, Carvajal, and Kroos have all come under his leadership. The game plan Madrid have pushed out in recent matches has done a better job to mitigate Casemiro’s weaknesses and highlight his strengths, pushing him deeper in Madrid’s defensive shape rather than floating in zone 14. A cautious optimism is welcomed to the Bernabeu, but Zidane and the team must now prove themselves against the elite.