A lot of Santiago Solari’s Real Madrid tenure has been defined by his squad’s offensive production. To start, it was abysmal. Real Madrid couldn’t progress the ball against a press, they couldn’t fashion shots, and the ones they did were of poor quality. For awhile, Solari waffled between a rigid and a more fluid offensive system. He found that the former allowed for better transition defense but worse offense and vice versa for the latter.
Solari was able to dodge this issue against Real Betis, as he was able to tinker in more comfortable territory by building a competent reactive scheme. He didn’t have this luxury the next game against Sevilla, forcing him to once again confront his prior problems.
The former Castilla coach decided to make a commitment and go all in with the fluid scheme, taking off all positional and decision-making shackles. He wanted his players to dribble as much as possible, roam frequently, and play combinations with each other when whenever feasible.
Since this new plan has obviously worked well, Solari stuck with it when Real Madrid traveled to Girona to play the second leg of the Copa del Rey quarterfinals.
Solari stuck with a strong eleven after beating Espanyol 4-2. He brought in Marcelo for Sergio Reguilón and started his preferred front three. Toni Kroos and Marcos Llorente were also introduced into the lineup, allowing Luka Modrić and Casemiro to get some rest.
Girona, being two goals down on aggregate and no longer having to get ready for Barcelona, also started a strong team. Christian Stuani started up top after sitting out the first encounter with Real Madrid, while Paik replaced Borja García in midfield. Manager Eusebio Sacristán also made two changes in defense from the first leg, bringing off Pedro Alcala and Juanpe for Bernardo Espinosa and Pedro Porro.
Real Madrid’s High Press
Of all the chaos and flaws of the Solari era, there was always one constant — the high press. Solari, who feels comfortable with rigidity and structure, had no trouble getting Real Madrid to successfully defend from the front, a tool that helped sparked the turnaround in form vs. Betis.
Good runs exist to be ended, though, and applying Solari’s 4-3-3 high press was slightly awkward against Girona’s 3-5-2 formation. As can be seen below, Girona’s midfield didn’t match up neatly against Real Madrid’s midfield.
Dani Ceballos had to move onto Douglas Luiz, the deepest Girona midfielder, causing Llorente to adjust and mark Seung-Ho Paik. This was not set in stone, however, and Madrid switched through many different midfield match-ups throughout the game.
For the start of the first half, Girona couldn’t really figure it out. Vinícius Júnior and Lucas Vázquez expertly hounded the wide center backs while Karim Benzema cut off the passing lane back to Espinosa. If Girona tried to go down the line, Marcelo and Dani Carvajal were waiting to pick the wing-backs’ pockets.
After conceding, Girona finally started to take advantage of Madrid’s midfield by asking Granell and Paik to make runs behind the pinned fullback. They were fed with direct balls straight from the back, coercing Madrid’s central midfielders to spring into action. Llorente could often be seen sprinting over to put out fires on the left-wing, but the positional flux in midfield meant that he wasn’t always in position to do so.
As Madrid’s central midfielders were stretched, space in the midfield opened up and Granell and Paik were able to drop into pockets like conventional CM’s and receive in the halfspace.
Given the scoreline and the aforementioned pathways that Girona carved, it wasn’t a surprise to see the press fade into spurts in the second half.
Girona’s Direct Offensive Strategy
As a result, Girona were able to progress up the pitch and maintain possession for sizable portions of the second half, possessing the ball 9% more than in the first forty-five minutes.
Nevertheless, considering context, their most significant on-ball spells came in the middle of the first half, where Girona showed off their very direct style of attacking.
Granell and Paik would generally play looping balls into the channel for Anthony Lozano and Stuani if the former duo had run into the channel. Unforunately, for Girona, Sergio Ramos and Raphaël Varane — two of the premier one-versus-one defenders in the world — won almost all of these duels.
Against a set defense, Granell and Paik would feed the ball into wing-backs Pedro Porro and Raúl García, who would then try to find Stuani and Lozano through lofted passes. In these instances, Granell and Paik would aid their forwards in fifty-fifty challenges, creating significant trouble for Real’s defense and resulting in a couple of shots on goal.
Finally, Porro and García would also dribble at Carvajal and Marcelo and fire crosses into the box when the opportunity provided itself.
Real Madrid’s Offensive Strategy — A Double-Edged Sword
As mentioned earlier, Solari initially struggled to choose between a rigid and fluid offense, since the latter, though better offensively, saw Madrid torn apart on the counter. This is because a team’s offensive strategy bleeds directly into transition defense; players must recover from their attacking positions and start working to win the ball back. A more structured system makes achieving this easier, while a more fluid system does the opposite (unless teammates swap positions in a way that keeps the structure intact a la Manchester City).
Since Solari failed completely at designing organized offensive mechanisms within a structured system, he had no choice but to commit to a plan that prioritized individual inspiration and positional freedom.
So why haven’t Real Madrid fallen apart like before?
Part of the answer is down to the improved individual performances across the board, allowing Madrid to simply outscore opponents. Solari deserves at least a portion of the credit for this, as it’s clear that he’s worked hard on firing his players up: “The players have to put their put their heart and soul into every game.”
More importantly, that motivation has allowed for abnormally intense counterpressing, which has created passable transition defense and has allowed for a monopoly on possession. It’s a case of sheer work-rate overcoming structural deficiencies.
There are questions over such a tactic’s sustainability and Real Madrid’s counterpressing didn’t show up today in the way it has over the past three games. Many of Girona’s most dangerous opportunities came on the counter-attack, where Madrid’s players weren’t able to cover all the spaces their free-form offense left open.
On the other hand, Madrid’s attacking play looked radiant once again — especially in transition. All three of Real Madrid’s goals came from some kind of individual inspiration, with fluid movement and combination play a factor in at least two of the three goals.
This is Solari’s offense:
The more flair and dribbling, the better.
Real Madrid’s Press Resistance Shows Some Improvements
The last major concept to touch on is Real Madrid’s press resistance, which was frankly dire at the start of the Solari era. It all goes back to the rigidity vs. fluidity debate, with Solari sticking with his structured, wing-oriented Castilla method. This made it easy for opposing teams to read Madrid’s build-up patterns and apply pressure, causing Real to collapse spectacularly vs. Eibar.
Today, Madrid showed a lot of improvements, even if it wasn’t perfect. There was some interchanging with Llorente and Kroos and all of the central midfielders were unafraid to drop deep. Actions like these aided safer ball circulation and made it that much tougher for Girona to keep track of their assignments.
Lucas and Vinícius also dropped constantly, while Madrid’s central midfielders roamed into spaces ahead of them. Sometimes Madrid’s fullbacks even offered one-twos towards the center of the field, which Lucas and Vinícius took advantage of.
There’s still a certain lack of confidence that seems to hover in the air in regards to Madrid’s press resistance, though.
The aforementioned movement wasn’t always that smooth and there was occasionally a lack of appropriate support for the main in possession. Perhaps that’s why Madrid made the conscious decision to go direct with most of their goal kicks.
That being said, Madrid’s performance against the press was a big improvement on previous games and prevented Girona from controlling the match in the away side’s half.
Bits & Pieces
- Karim Benzema became the sixth highest goal scorer in Real Madrid history vs. Girona, surpassing goal-machine Hugo Sánchez.
- Vinícius has been a great launching point and foil for Benzema’s recent form. The latter benefits having someone to play off of, someone who is aggressive and attracts the attention of defenders, and someone who roams inwards.
- Keylor Navas had a couple of shaky moments in today’s game, something that will do nothing to convince Solari that Courtois shouldn’t be the first-choice goalkeeper, fairly or unfairly.
- With all the buzz about Modrić and Benzema’s return to form and Vinícius’ rising star, many have overlooked Ceballos’ performances in recent matches. He had his errors when trying to play out from the back today, but his engine, ball control, and final third decision-making was ultimately too much for Girona to handle.
- Marcos Llorente has been largely excellent whenever he’s played this season. He provides much of what Casemiro does on the defensive end while possessing better press resistance. As has been said time after time, the next step for Llorente is to step up and control games and be more incisive with his passing.
- Having beaten Girona 7-3 on aggregate, Real Madrid will now look ahead to the Copa del Rey semifinals. Their potential opponents are: Real Betis, Valencia, and FC Barcelona.