Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid settled for a draw in the first derbi madrileño of the season which took center stage at the Wanda Metropolitano. Los Blancos continued their rich vein of defensive form with Zidane further consolidating his team’s solidity with the introduction of Valverde into the line-up. Other than that, the only other deviation from the primary XI was Nacho who was again selected to deputize for Marcelo and Mendy.
Atletico Madrid lined up in a 4-4-2 with Diego Costa and the prodigious Joao Felix spearheading the team. Their midfield consisted of Koke, Saul, Partey and Vitolo while their defense included the center back pairing of Savic and Jiminez flanked by the new summer acquisitions – Lodi and Trippier.
Real Madrid’s reinforced shape and Casemiro’s Role
Following Real Madrid’s recent defensive sturdiness and focus, their approach to the derby furthered the theme with Valverde’s selection. The Uruguayan’s physicality and defensive acumen helped shore up the midfield and provide an overall match for Atletico’s intensity in that area. Casemiro’s noted more disciplined and deeper positioning in the last two matches was also evident as he sat in front of the defense within the 4-1-4-1 formation. One of Real Madrid’s three most important players, according to Diego Simeone, was tasked with dynamically shifting to danger zones to stop developing plays or provide compactness.
This was a very effective tactic as it helped weaken Atletico’s ball progression and led to several important recoveries of possession which kick-started attacks. Casemiro made two interceptions and completed a match high four tackles (of six attempted). Leveraging the Brazilian’s industry and acute skills/instincts off the ball in a defined role that still gave him the freedom to move laterally/vertically as required was a good tactical decision. This provided an excellent cover for Valverde and Kroos to take certain risks and occasionally move up to disrupt Atletico’s buildup.
Deep positioning and defensive intent leads to counter-attacks
Atletico, in their banks of four, and Real Madrid’s five-man strong midfield structure made it very difficult for any fluid penetrative football to occur. Neither side made serious attempts at implementing any kind of high pressing scheme – this allowed the each team time and space on the ball until possession entered the central and attacking zones.
Once it did, the defensive integrity of both sides shone as the midfielders would frequently be suffocated and forced into coughing up the ball which would then launch counter-attacks. These offensive sequences (such as Joao Felix in the 8th minute or the instances Bale was fed into space) based on quickly transitioning into offense after winning back possession was a particularly notable feature of the game.
Another byproduct of the congested and tightly guarded midfield was play being funneled to the wings when in more steady modes of possession. This would then result in crosses or low drives into the box which for the most part were dealt with well but provided a threat (albeit minimal) nonetheless. This was also supplemented by liberal shooting from distance from Kroos, Bale and others for Real Madrid.
Real Madrid’s control/composure and other closing thoughts
Despite the battlefield that was the midfield (especially for ball carriers), Real Madrid actually maintained an impressive scheme in possession. It wasn’t anything especially new but merits being discussed. The coordination of play and level of specificity in terms of the steps the team follows in buildup is fascinating. This kind of programming (which sees repeated actions) is sometimes called automatisms.
Clear examples of these automatisms include: Courtois always looking for a short pass as a first option, Varane resetting to Ramos when possible, Ramos routing possession to Kroos, Kroos acting as the midfield general through switches of play (can engage in close interplay but typically based on the players available i.e. more likely to do so with Benzema, Hazard etc). These automatisms strongly influenced Real Madrid’s smoothness of passing and gave them the edge statiscally (56% to 44%). This possession translated to more dominant and sharper spells with the ball.
While the xG numbers favoured Atletico, the match was extremely even and could’ve gone either way depending on close margins. Real Madrid were tactically coherent and accomplished their intended objective well. Atletico struggled to break down Zidane’s staunch set up as Los Blancos finished the match day at the top of the table and on the back of a third consecutive clean sheet.