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Tactical Notes: Asensio’s Positioning, Valverde’s Arrival, Mendy in the Half-Space, and Absorbing Pressure

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Matt Wiltse examines some of the tactical wrinkles from Real Madrid’s El Clasico victory

FC Barcelona v Real Madrid - La Liga Santander Photo by Antonio Villalba/Real Madrid via Getty Images

The first round of La Liga’s Clasico’s being held at the Camp Nou have found victories hard to come by in recent years. In fact, it’s been thirteen years, since Real Madrid last beat the Blaugrana at the Camp Nou when visiting their rivals first. Coming off the back of two successive losses, Zidane had to make some tactical tweaks in order to secure the three points. Some of the larger tactical plotlines are outlined below:

Asensio’s Defensive Positioning

Marco Asensio was given the start on the right wing - a position that in the last few years has failed to see any Real Madrid player hold on to the spot consistently. Needless to say it was a huge opportunity for Asensio and a huge vote confidence from Zidane. The role Zidane desired for Asensio was a near replica to the one Gareth Bale played in the same fixture in December of 2019. The man from Mallorca was played as a two-way winger with heavy defensive responsibilities. Asensio in essence played as an auxiliary right back when Real Madrid transitioned to the defensive phase of the game. His job? To nullify Jordi Alba and track his off ball runs. Asensio put in the effort, but oftentimes struggled to execute:

Barcelona’s goal was a prime example of Asensio “switching off”. Defensive instincts do not come naturally to the Spanish playmaker, but they can be taught. Against a player like Alba, at the highest level of the game, you will be punished. Asensio is caught ball-watching rather than tracking the run of Alba who times his run to perfection and stays onside. That one lapse in concentration saw Madrid concede.

Alba’s movement and his connection with Messi has always preoccupied Zidane in preparation for his Clasico tactics. Asensio began to improve as the match wore on, but there were still moments where Alba slipped through:

In the above clip, Asensio gets caught in two minds and find himself out of position. He is unsure of whether to tuck in and mark Coutinho or drop deeper to track the run of Alba. Given his instructions for the majority of the match, the safer option would have been to drop and track Alba’s run. His body shape was all wrong and again he was caught ball watching completely unaware of Alba’s run.

This piece is not meant to be overly critical of Asensio, who improved as the match wore on both offensively and defensively. Though, his body shape, defensive tactical awareness, and overall ability to track runners still has room to improve if Real Madrid are not to be exploited in future matches.

Fede Valverde’s “Llegada” - Arrival from the Second Line

Fede Valverde was once again trusted by Zidane over Luka Modric in a big game. The Uruguayan still has much to perfect to his game, but he is elite in arriving late from the midfield line, winning his 50/50 duels, and relentlessly pressing high in the rival’s half. Valverde had 6 recuperations of the ball in the opposition’s half in the first 45 minutes alone. His defining moment of the match came in the fifth minute where he busted through the right half space to dispatch the first goal:

None of Frenkie De Jong, Busquets, or even Pique recognized or tracked the run that came deep from midfield. Fede’s physical attributes gives him the edge in the first 5 yards and if his run is not picked up and tracked right away, then his ability to burst through the right half space will only reap more goals in the future. The key to his run is Benzema’s movement. The Frenchman drops deep off of the Barcelona backline to link up play, allowing Valverde to break through in the space that the Frenchman vacated.

Ferland Mendy Improving in the Left Half Space

As noted many times on the podcast this season, Ferland Mendy has been instructed to push higher into the left half space when Real Madrid are in possession of the ball. Arguably, Real Madrid’s best spell of possession and control came late in the first half. During that time, Mendy would push high in the left half space, forming a triangle, with Kroos and Vinicius on the left flank.

Track Mendy’s movement while Madrid circulate possession. As soon as the ball makes it’s way to the left side, he positions himself even higher than Vinicius Junior. That positioning helps give Real Madrid numerical superiority and the ability to combine through Barcelona’s shape.

Again, as soon as Ramos gets on the ball, Mendy quickly moves up the pitch centrally rather than wide. This tactical evolution has helped with Madrid’s build up play, but as Kroos’s misplaced pass shows, can leave them somewhat vulnerable on the counter-attack if the don’t recover quickly.

Madrid’s Low Block in 2nd Half Absorbs Pressure

After scoring the go-ahead goal from the penalty spot, Madrid purposely began to sit deeper and absorb Barcelona’s pressure, looking to counter-attack knowing Barcelona were going to commit numbers to the attack. Madrid often played with a flat back five, a midfield of 3 and oftentimes four, and Benzema the lone striker up top — occasionally accompanied by Vinicius Junior. Most importantly, the shape was compact, fairly narrow (willing to give Barcelona the wings), and deep. This meant, that no matter how many offensive weapons Barcelona tried to throw on, Real Madrid had the numbers to keep that Barcelona line in front of them. Once Koeman threw on all those attacking substitutions, Barcelona lost control and Madrid, despite playing in a low block, was able to absorb the pressure and create more chances on the counter.

Summary

There were multiple phases to the game, and Zidane managed those phases better than Koeman. Barcelona’s best spell came early in the second half. Real Madrid scored their penalty against the run of play. Zidane then tweaked his tactics to absorb Barcelona’s pressure and catch them out in the final stages of the match. It was that in-game recognition that gave Madrid greater control and saw their xG explode:

Understat.com

With the personnel selection - particularly the choice to use Valverde and Asensio - Zidane outlined clear tactical instructions and styles of play which helped Madrid reap the benefits on the score line. Although Asensio struggled with some of his defensive responsibilities, the application and attitude were exemplary. And in a noteworthy bid to help Madrid’s buildup play, Zidane has continued using Mendy in an attacking left-half space role when Madrid is in possession and that tactical function continues to improve. Real Madrid were not perfect against Barcelona, but they managed the many phases of the game better and were deserved winners.