Zidane surprised Madridistas with the line-up he selected for the trip to Villarreal. The manager decided to start both Jovic and Benzema and also gave Ferland Mendy his first minutes in an official capacity. The team was structured in a flat 4-4-2 with Bale and Vazquez occupying the flanks. The rest of the defense were the standard players while Casemiro and Kroos formed the double pivot at the centre.
The formation was utilized in part to address the injuries to Isco and James who along with Hazard were all unavailable for this match. However, leaving players like Modric (just returning from his suspension), Marcelo, and Vinicius on the bench was unexpected especially given the significance of consolidating an early lead over Barcelona and maintaining pace with Atletico Madrid’s hot start.
Struggles in possession and defensive mistakes
As noted above, Real Madrid’s 4-4-2 represented a fairly substantial structural change from the 4-3-3 the team is accustomed to playing in.
One of the immediate consequences of the new formation was Real Madrid struggling to adapt to the lessened central midfield presence in possession. The team found it difficult to build momentum and rhythm with the ball due to the naturally limited capacity of the double pivot to support as many zones as the 4-3-3. Due to Bale and Vazquez’s tendency to stay wide, they couldn’t provide the offsetting effect that a midfielder with a different profile (e.g. James) would offer in that role.
Real Madrid improved greatly as the half wore on — Carvajal began supplying support with strong drives through the middle from deep and helped connect lines. The first of these drives resulted in a Benzema shot off the post and the second evolved into an intricate and immaculate combination sequence that led to Bale’s equalizer. Until this late adjustment into the half, Real’s offense had been stale and comprised primarily of crossing.
On the other end, the team started well defensively but seemed to be set back by Ramos’ critical mistake in the 12th minute. The captain stalled on the ball and lost it in a dangerous position, Moreno dispossessed Ramos and fed Ekambi whose effort was poorly handled by Courtois. Moreno followed up and blasted the loose ball into the net.
Villarreal’s reduced intensity as both teams trade goals
The home team’s intensity was visibly reduced in the second half which allowed Real Madrid to hold the ball more. The Yellow Submarine retreated into their half creating a sort of defensive bunker that Real Madrid couldn’t navigate. Los Blancos for all their possession still weren’t able to engineer great chances and continued to rely on wing playmaking which didn’t amount to much more than crossing.
This changed a little when Modric replaced Jovic in the 68th minute. The Serbian hadn’t fully integrated into the game and never found his footing. Unlike Benzema who began dropping a little deeper to support buildup and offer passing options, Jovic seemed isolated and uninvolved during the game. Modric’s entrance served to revitalize the strained midfield and worked effectively as he relieved the pressure on Kroos and Casemiro to organize play.
However, Villarreal would be the ones to score first doing so against the run of play. Real Madrid’s attacking pressure immediately went up a gear and Los Blancos aggressively pursued an equalizer via continued wing play and shots from the edge of the box. The equalizer finally came following Modric strongly stepping in to take the ball off Ontiveros before feeding Bale who cut in and rifled in the ball into the bottom right corner. The game played out somewhat uneventfully from a tactical perspective but Bale notably quickly picked up two yellow cards and a sending off before the final whistle.