Unlike Vanderlei Luxemburgo 15 years earlier, Zidane did not have a get out of jail card on his bench against Cadiz over the weekend. Robinho, the then 21-year-old Brazilian, came on late in the second half at the Estadio Ramon Carranza in southern Spain for one of the most electrifying Real Madrid debut’s in recent memory. Flashforward 15 years and a Robinho-like impact was needed to jolt life into the decrepit Real Madrid forward line.
In retaliation to the lethargic display, Zidane played his hand and threw on four changes at halftime in hopes that his message would become clear. Yet, it was more of the same from Real Madrid. The lack of movement in the final third was one of the most glaring tactical flaws from Madrid’s game. It was as if cinderblocks were tied to the player’s ankles, allowing Cadiz to keep everything within their line of vision. One way to breakdown a low block of eight, is for the on-ball team to provide constant off ball movement — varied runs off the shoulder of the backline, recycled runs if the ball is not received, and late arriving runs from midfield to occupy free space resulting from a stretched backline.
Time and time again, Madrid would enter into the final third without a clear idea of where they wanted to go or who was supposed to receive it. Zidane, like many of the premier managers across Europe, has begun to implement a system where the fullbacks fly up the pitch to occupy what was traditionally a winger’s role and the wingers move into a narrow position within the right and left half space. This tactical tweak places five attacking options across the opposition’s defense. Sometimes the wingers and the fullbacks interchange spots, but the general idea is to get five offensive options vs the oppositions defensive line. Zidane’s men would get into these positions, but then just stand there.
In the above clip, Vinicius makes his first run and does not receive the ball. He should then be immediately looking to recycle his run. The best option would be to free up space by looping around, back to the left flank. Isco, looking to be a short option, is actually impeding Benzema’s vision and occupying space that provides no real support. Instead, the playmaker should start to drift between the hole between the two center-backs. That would free Lucas Vazquez to receive a pass from Benzema, attract a defender closer to him, and allow Isco to be slipped in first time.
And then there is Nacho. Or should we say and then where is Nacho? The right back should be bursting a lung to get up the flank and take advantage of all the space on the weak side. That run would either attract the attention of the weakside fullback, stretching the Cadiz backline or it would leave Nacho wide open on the back post with acres of space.
To be blunt, Nacho was a blackhole offensively. He was tentative on the ball, played the safe option, and never really looked like he truly wanted the ball. His counterpart on the left flank, Marcelo, was not much better. The Brazilian is not on the field for his defensive prowess. Marcelo is on the field to bring overloads, to provide pinpoint crossing, to break a low block down with his unique dribbling skills, and to provide a wide outlet. How long has it been since we have seen that Marcelo? The Brazilian lost possession 18 times, the most of anyone on the field on Sunday, and only produced two crosses from the team’s 30 crosses. Given how vital dynamic, width-providing, attacking fullbacks are to Zidane’s system, it is bewildering that more was not done to keep Achraf and Reguilon this summer. Those young relentless engines would have exploited the weakside space.
In all honesty, Real Madrid could not have made it easier for Cadiz on Sunday. In the below sequence, the team posses the ball through the midfield and backline for over 10 seconds. At that time, all vertical options - Vazquez, Isco, Vinicius, and Marcelo - are static. They are quite simply walking through the game:
Cadiz did not have to make any tough decisions. There were no threats. No darting run looking to stretch the backline, no run from Isco faking like he is going in behind and then shifting to drop deep. This was a perfect opportunity for Lucas Vazquez to pull a Callejon-like run and peel inside the shoulder of his fullback for the ball over top of the defense. Instead, all four options stood and walked.
Then there is the holy grail of static movement in the 57th minute. Kroos receives the ball outside of the box. Cadiz are sat deep with no less than nine players behind the ball. Kroos has seven Real Madrid players around the box, but no single player makes a run that threatens the Cadiz backline.
Kroos fakes like he is going to chip it multiple times, but no Real Madrid player makes a run. While faking the chip, it looks like he is putting his hands up saying - “What am I supposed to do?”. If there was one moment that could encapsulate the entire match, it was exactly that. It’s nauseating how many countless examples were available from this match of players simply standing.
This was not the first time Real Madrid have encountered a deep defensive block and it will most certainty not be the last time. It’s been reiterated in countless columns, podcasts, and roundtables that Real Madrid’s offensive game needs to evolve if they are going to compete for all titles this season. Most La Liga teams have become much more pragmatic in their approach to the game in recent years. Season’s past with 8-2 victories by Real Madrid and Barcelona will be few and far between. Patterns of play, give-and-go’s, understanding time and space mechanics, and utilizing off ball movement not just to create space for an individual player, but for multiple teammates will be vital to unlocking those deep blocks. The effort put in on Sunday night was criminal and the players on the field are of the elite standard; they should have recognized the glaring issues in the final third. Wednesday provides another opportunity for Madrid to reset course and get things right for the rest of the season.