Real Madrid travelled to Saudi Arabia to participate in the 2019-20 Spanish Super Cup facing off against Valencia in the semi-final. The roster that made the trip did not include Bale or Benzema as the two were ruled out due to health/injury concerns. Los Blancos rolled out a slightly unconventional and unexpected line-up fielding five midfielders.
Courtois manned the posts while Ramos and Varane helmed the defense. Mendy and Carvajal occupied each flank at the back. The midfield was structured in a 4-2-3-1 formation with Kroos and Casemiro assuming holding duties at the pivot. Though there was significant interchangeability in positions, Isco was generally on the left, Modric in the centre and Valverde on the right with Jovic as the lone forward.
Battle of defensive coverage and Real Madrid’s possession
The significant takeaway from the opening stages of the match was the overwhelming focus on defensive coverage from both sides. Real Madrid were organized in a compact 4-2-3-1 that collapsed into a fortress in the middle third when they didn’t have the ball with Valverde’s engine and Modric and Isco’s relentless energy supporting a Casemiro-Kroos stronghold. Valencia posed very little threat to Zidane’s men as they struggled to navigate Los Blancos’ sturdy shape.
Another key aspect of Real Madrid’s defensive performance was their strategic counter-pressing scheme. It wasn’t employed consistently but based on situations where opportunities for high probability recoveries existed. They implemented this tactic well by suffocating ball carriers and reducing passing options -- forcing the opposition into a number of dangerous giveaways that could have led to more fatal outcomes.
In terms of the story with the ball, Real Madrid dominated possession fully capitalizing on their personnel (five midfielders on the field at the same time) to establish clear and functional patterns of circulation/flow. Kroos and Casemiro operated at the base while Modric and Isco would take turns moving into deeper zones to help with initiating sequences.
Offensive doldrum and lopsided structure
Continuing a worrying pattern from previous matches, Real Madrid couldn’t manage to generate any quality chances from open play. Even their primary mode of attacking, crossing, wasn’t overly prominent short of a few moments such as Casemiro’s cross to Varane in the 5th minute and fullback overlaps. While there were certain issues with Real Madrid’s play that compromised their offensive productivity, Valencia’s disciplined and reinforced deep block naturally left little space for the Merengues to carve out more intricate plays. Real Madrid were consequently limited to long shots and set pieces.
Real Madrid tended to lose balance due to the floating nature of their midfield band of three. In particular, Isco would vacate the left attacking space for extended periods and it wouldn’t be compensated with positional reassignments leading to a lopsided structure. This caused the team to become slightly more predictable as their efforts were concentrated on the right/centre leaving Mendy isolated on the wing making the already arduous task of breaking down the Valencian wall that much harder. It should be noted this wasn’t a constant throughout the match but did occur for certain stretches of the game where it was clearly impacting the overall setup.
Valencia loosen up opening up spaces for Real Madrid
Kroos’ opener in the 15th minute when he brilliantly caught out Doménech – who was far off his line – from a corner kick had given Real Madrid an important edge that would pay dividends towards the end of the first half. Valencia had held on to their initial defensive-focused gameplan for much of the opening 45 minutes but began to play more adventurously as half time drew near. Los Blancos were able to exploit the decreased coverage and use more elaborate playmaking in the final third such as Carvajal and Modric’s one-two that led to Isco’s second goal.
This dynamic deepened in the second half as Valencia withdrew Kondogbia for a more attacking presence in Gomez. The change in Valencia’s style and compactness was almost evident as their block slowly disintegrated (albeit possibly intentionally) and their opposition was afforded far more room – especially in transition following recoveries achieved through counter-pressing. Valencia’s underbelly was more exposed and Real Madrid’s quality (individually and collectively) was allowed to shine. Modric would add a third goal before Parejo scored a consolation goal at the death courtesy of a penalty. By this point, Marcelo, James, and Diaz had been brought on for Mendy, Modric and Jovic.