Despite the host of new reinforcements and splashy signings Real Madrid made, not a single player brought in during the summer made it into the starting line-up. Injuries played a part as Hazard (who would have certainly been included) was sidelined due to a thigh injury.
Zidane opted for his standard 4-3-3. Carvajal’s suspension wasn’t lifted and Odriozola stepped in to deputize at right back. The rest of the team sheet almost filled itself out with the only surprising choices, arguably, being in attack. Benzema started up top flanked by Bale and Vinicius. Real Madrid’s bench was exciting and comprised of numerous heavy hitters. Jovic, James, Isco – to name a few — highlighted the quality of the substitutes available to the manager.
Offensive press, struggles in possession, and Bale’s impact
Real Madrid applied intense pressure in Celta’s half with Benzema and Modric often leading the press as was observed during pre-season matches. This helped disrupt Celta’s buildup play.
A notable feature of the visitors’ defensive scheme was Ramos aggressively covering for Marcelo. This appeared to be a more deliberate pre-emptive adjustment than the reactive way the centerback usually deals with the Brazilian’s adventurous play style. On several occasions, Ramos would proactively move into the left side to cover space behind Marcelo and cut off attacks in critical moments as a result.
In possession, Real Madrid struggled with ball circulation due to the lack of vertical compactness combined with Celta’s numeral superiority in this zone. Despite the home side fielding a 4-4-2 on paper, their wide midfielders tucked in regularly in the defensive phase making it difficult for Kroos and Modric to receive the ball via controlled passes from the defense. As a result, it wasn’t unusual to see Real Madrid focus on lateral progression or attempt to bypass the midfield altogether with long deliveries to forwards.
Real Madrid’s possession play improved as the half wore on. Courtois, Ramos, and Varane manoeuvred around Celta forwards as the center backs spread out wide to offer the keeper options (which also pulled the forwards away from the middle creating space for the second pass to a midfielder). Another adjustment was positional staggering as Casemiro sat a little deeper and acted as a relief option for switches of play.
One of these switches occurred in the leadup to the opening goal. But the highlight of the sequence was Bale’s brilliant individual play to create the goal after being fed a productive vertical pass from Marcelo. Bale’s cutting runs (limited as they were due to the left side bias – more on this below) were in fact Real Madrid’s most dangerous offensive actions in the first half. The other run was in the 44th minute and led to a great shot.
Defensive breakdowns and Modric’s red card
Real Madrid suffered from several serious defensive breakdowns in the second half under the threat of the Dennis Suarez and Aspas connection.
The first was Aspas’ chance in the 49th minute. Varane is on the wrong side of his man — perhaps as a consequence of the poor spacing in the defensive line as can be seen in the large gaps between the defenders. Aspas makes a clever blind side run to the near post and is found beautifully by Dennis Suarez (one of Celta’s better performers on the day).
The second opportunity was a counter following a Real corner. Los Blancos’ transition defense was tested and failed to adequately contain the visitors’ attempt to break through. Their defensive shape in recovery was actually quite good as Casemiro and Odriozola were the last men and Vincius, Kroos, and Marcelo (on the edge of the box when the corner was being taken) tracked back. The issue arose when Kroos failed to keep up with his man (Mendez) leaving Casemiro with two men to cover.
To make matters worse as the momentum swung in Celta Vigo’s favour was Modric’s red card. The Croatian has a habit of getting stuck in and occasionally making late tackles. In this instance, the referee assessed through VAR replay that his tackle on Suarez was worthy of a sending off. Real felt the effects of the red card and almost conceded soon after as the defense fell asleep on Araujo’s header meeting a cross from wide.
Left side dominance and influence continues
Real Madrid’s left side bias in possession is nothing new but continues to be a significant feature of the club’s game model. Los Merengues’ blueprint for over a decade now has relied on the definition the power of its left side gives it. In its current iteration, this influence is drawn from the quality and role of impactful players such as Marcelo and Kroos. In addition, Real Madrid’s left sided wingers are typically the more touch heavy players of the front unit and as such, play tends to gravitate to their flank.
This match was no different and in the first half led to Odriozola or Bale being isolated with minimal support. This was best illustrated in the 34th minute where Bale drove by himself into the box and sent in a cross. Mere moments later, the ball ended up on the left wing and Kroos, Vincius, Marcelo, and Modric used combinations and interplay to create an opening for the latter. The contrast was quite stark.
When Real Madrid went down to ten men, the left side completely took over and really shone. The team reorganized into a 4-4-1 with a Bale-Casemiro-Kroos-Vinicius midfield. The left side impressively diffused Celta’s man advantage with controlled exchanges and passing. This ball retention was vital at this stage of the game and proved pivotal in Real Madrid’s second and third goals.
While Kroos’ golazo could be primarily attributed to his long range shot (even though Real’s passing created the space/time for him to shoot), Vazquez’s goal was a pure exhibition of the strength of the left side as its technical players dismantled Celta’s defensive line with incisive and inventive passing/movement. Celta would score a consolation goal but the match was effectively over after Real’s third. And just like that, Real Madrid finish a match day ahead of Barcelona in the league table for the first time in over two years.