The second preseason match of the season and Zidane was already up to his usual tricks, throwing out a completely different team and system from the first match. Instead of a 4-2-3-1, Zidane set the team up in a 4-4-2. The Serbian, Jovic, was given the opportunity to partner Karim Benzema up top in two man forward line. The four midfield positions were filled by wingers in Eden Hazard on the left and Lucas Vazquez on the right, and then Toni Kroos and Luka Modric occupying the center of the field. Unfortunately, Nacho Fernandez, given the start at center back, was given a red card in the 18th minute forcing Zidane to pull Jovic and completely change his system.
Possible Tactical Nuances and Reasons for a 4-4-2
So why did Zidane test a 4-4-2? Is it really the best system with personnel like Eden Hazard on the pitch? First off, the 4-4-2 is a tried and trusted system of Zidane’s as a disciple of Carlo Ancelotti. Defensively, if you can get your “block of eight”-- two symmetrical lines of four--defending in front of goal, then that block is extremely difficult to break down for the opposing team. The key, is to have the space between the midfield line and the defensive line very compact. When the opponent is in possession on the right side of the pitch, then the “weak side” (left side) winger and full back have to tuck-in, closer to the middle of the pitch, in order to stay compact and close any open gaps between the back four or midfield line of four. If the opposition switches play to the opposite flank, the tucked in duo usually have enough time to shift over whilst the ball is in flight. So rather than the offensive dynamic or fluidity of the system, Zidane may have been looking to find a formation which better allowed Madrid to organize defensively.
In both preseason games, we have seen Madrid – for certain periods of time – look to execute a high press. This is where Benzema is key to a 4-4-2. Both defensively and offensively, Benz has the ability to act as a number 10. In the modern game, the number 10, if utilized, is not free of defensive responsibilities. Nine times out of ten, that role is required to hound the opposition’s holding midfielder and if a press is executed they can help their striker by pushing on to press the center backs and direct their play into one side of the pitch. Because of Benzema’s qualities, specifically his ability to link play, if the ball is won on a high press, he is the perfect player to transition the team forward and connect with the striker, in this case Jovic.
The player who does suffer in a 4-4-2 is Eden Hazard. He is shackled with a greater defensive responsibility and usually picks the ball up in a deeper position when the team isn’t executing a press. Midfield with just two central players, especially with the likes of Kroos and Modric, requires two-way wingers equally adept in defense as they are in offense. Needless to say, this system would likely not get the best out of Hazard unless he played in one of the two striker role’s and was afforded total freedom.
Nacho’s Red Card and the System There-after:
Most of the above was presumptions, as Nacho’s red card in the 18th minute totally turned this game on its head and forced Zidane into a tactical switch. Jovic was sacrificed and replaced by Nacho, and Zidane set the team up in a 4-4-1. Given the 2-0 scoreline, Madrid still tried to press forward on the attack with 10 men and thus left themselves susceptible on the counter. The ref eventually leveled the playing field when he gave Sokratis a red card early in the second half. Madrid gained better control of the match during that time, pushing the defensive line high up the pitch in order to lock Arsenal within their own half. Again, the team gave away a few dangerous counter attacks, but overall their high line and fresh legs off the bench allowed them to apply relentless attacking pressure and score two justified goals.
Unfortunately, there was little to get out of this game from a tactical standpoint. Though, expect Zidane to continue to experiment in preseason. The Frenchman has rarely ever been married to one system and Real Madrid may use multiple formations throughout the season and throughout a single game. The 4-4-2 will likely make another appearance in the near future and further patterns will be uncovered.