Just when Santiago Solari’s Madrid began to win fans over with positive results, against the likes of Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, and Ajax, fans have quickly reverted back to labelling the manager as a “transition coach” after the 2-1 loss to Girona at home on Sunday afternoon. A “transition coach”— meaning the Argentine will be welcome in Madrid until the summer comes, when potentially bigger names are available. Whether the Madrid hierarchy follow this belief or not is up for debate, but recent matches had seen the Argentine free the reigns from his initial tactical rigidity and allow the offense to flow without leaking goals in transition. He implemented a system based on meritocracy rather than hierarchy, a philosophy that has no regards for age or status. Improved form from the likes of Luka Modric, Sergio Ramos, Karim Benzema, and Casemiro have been crucial in supplementing Solari’s system and allowing some of his tactics to flourish. Above all else, the tandem of Benzema and young Vinicius JR have been paramount to the team success in the final third. Vincius has the pace to stretch defenses and his direct nature forces them to back-off, freeing space for Benzema to do what he does best, facilitate the attack with quick one-twos. But in this match, there would be no Vincius...and no Modric...nor was the in-form Reguilon present. All were either rested or suspended, but their absences were noted as the match wore on. A solid first half from Solari’s men saw them go 1-0 up through Casemiro, but at half, Eusebio made some critical change to his team which saw Girona bring an onslaught of pressure and a failure to react from Madrid or Solari.
Madrid and Solari Strike the First Blow
There were no major tactical tweaks from Santiago Solari heading into the match. The Argentine rolled out Madrid’s traditional 4-3-3, with Asensio slotting in for Vinicius, Ceballos for the suspended Modric, and Marcelo and Odriozola occupying the fullback positions. Marco Asensio had a key role to play—his speed and technique needed to replicate the direct and vertical play provided by Vincius in order to stretch the Girona backline and open space for his teammates. In the first half, Asensio fulfilled this role fairly well. As has often been the case between the two, Marcelo and Asensio linked up well and the Spaniard was able to get in behind the Girona defense and whip in low driven crosses which nearly found their target. The Marcelo + Marco tandem combined for 6 shots and 2 key passes (both from Asensio) during the first half. Madrid’s best opportunities came down the flanks. This forced Girona to just hoof the ball out of play. The result, Madrid had 7 corners, while Girona had none. It would be a recycled corner that found Toni Kroos on the right flank, he whipped in an inch perfect cross for Casemiro to snap the header home into the back of the net. Madrid were 1-0 up and all was going to plan. Continuing their onslaught down the wings, in typical Odriozola fashion, the wingback came flying down the right flank and bursted past the Girona backline to drive a pass just across goal. Benzema was a toe length away from a tap - in which would have pushed Madrid two in front and likely would have been the final dagger to end Girona’s hopes. Instead of capitalizing on a dominate 20 minutes — from minute 25 to 45 — where Madrid’s xG hovered from 0.5 to 1.0, compared to Girona’s 0, the boys from Barcelona were given a lifeline.
Eusebio Sacristán Tweaks the Girona System Heading into the Second Half
Eusebio did not rest on his laurels, he knew Madrid had given him a golden opportunity heading into the half. Los Blancos would be tired after their mid-week exploits in Amsterdam and then draining games against Barcelona and Ajax. Where Madrid had dominated in the first half, the flanks, Girona would take control in the second half. Eusebio continued with a 4-1-4-1 system, but placed an emphasis on attacking the space behind Odriozola and Marcelo. By introducing the pacey and direct Lozano along with Alex Garcia, both of whom occupied the left and right winger position respectively, Eusebio had revealed his plan. The former Barcelona player and B team coach, was looking to create numerical superiority on the wings by having the fullback, winger, and corresponding central midfielder hedge towards one side of the pitch.
The same was replicated on the right side. Marcelo, who has been subject to a grueling amount of criticism, was again the target. The Brazilian failed to cover his defensive shortcomings with offensive production, and Portu, Ramalho, and Alex Garcia capitalized:
Girona’s game winning goal came from the wings, and from substitute Lozano. Odriozola lost possession and in turn left the right side of Madrid’s defense wide open. Lozano attacked the space and cut in on Varane curling a shot that Courtios could only parry to the side. Marcelo, instead of being goal side, allowed Portu to get in front of him to reach the free ball first and punish Madrid. Eusebio’s changes had worked and Solari failed to respond.
Failure to Adjust Tactically Costs Madrid
Maybe the team thought they were in cruise control after the first 45 minutes, but relegation threatened Girona had plans to claw their way out of flirting with the bottom three. Madrid failed to match their intensity and Solari’s substitutions failed to react to Girona changes. Eusebio pushed for numerical superiority in the midfield and specifically on the wings. Solari opted to bring out Ceballos for Mariano. Although it was a poor game for Ceballos, brining in a striker and further depleting the midfield was not the answer. Instead, the midfield needed to be reinforced and a switch to a 4-5-1 with the athleticism and relentless effort of Mariano up top to provide pressure could have been a more suitable solution. Eusebio played his hand at halftime and Madrid never fully adjusted their game to combat Girona’s tactics. Despite all the positive Solari has brought to the table, his in-game management is still subject to questions and doubts.
A strong first half where Madrid utilized the flanks well and created dangerous opportunities through low driven crosses was nullified by the tactical tweaks made by Eusebio at the start of the second half. Girona created numerical superiority on the wings and targeted the space behind both fullbacks, Odriozola and Marcelo, to pile pressure on the hosts. There was no reaction from Los Blancos and Solari failed to counter Eusebio’s tactics with questionable substitutions. Madrid’s intensity dropped as their energy levels were likely sparse after the difficult run of games and Girona’s only grew as the match wore on. Ultimately, Madrid were punished for not finishing their chances in the first stanza and have once again exited the title race.