Real Madrid won the Clasico in Barcelona to allay some critical offensive issues. However, their dismal performances against Cadiz and Shakhtar Donetsk last week exposed the glaring flaws in their system that have been around for too long now. Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid obviously does not play the way it used to in his first stint and some of the tactical tweaks made by the manager since his return in 2019 were actually commendable. The defensive solidity during the league triumph last season masked the offensive issues but the masking has well and truly run its course this time around. Before the Clasico, we were only six games into the new season and Real Madrid are reeling on the ground.
What Zidane is trying at the moment is not uncommon or unproven. His go-to formation has always been the 4-3-3 due to the reliance on wingers and full-backs to produce crosses and creating space on alternate flanks by exchanging the ball horizontally, across the pitch.
Many managers have taken a leaf out Pep Guardiola’s positional playbook but to contrasting effects. The 4-3-3 formation morphs into a 2-3-5 formation when the team is in possession but different teams use this method differently based on personnel. Pep Guardiola and Mikel Arteta rely on their inverted wing backs to flank the sole defensive midfielder while the ball-carrying playmakers often join the front-three. But this requires articulated off-the-ball movement, swift passing and vertical precision. Unfortunately, Zidane’s Real Madrid has been lacking all of them.
Dani Carvajal and even Ferland Mendy have worked well in this scheme last season. Carvajal proved he could be an efficient inverted full-back and even Mendy obliged to that role occasionally. This allowed the likes of Toni Kroos, Luka Modric and Fede Valverde to push higher up the pitch and support the front-men. Although the vertical play was absent last season as well. Since both of Real Madrid’s right-backs are injured at the moment, Zidane did not rely on Nacho as an inverted full-back on the right. His version of the 2-3-5 morph looks something like this:
When the opponent is defending with two low blocks of five men, Zidane’s version of this morph does not offer much. Benzema is the only viable option to receive a header but even he has to drop deep at times to generate any kind of fluidity in Real Madrid’s approach. The block of three midfielders basically pass the ball horizontally until there is a shred of space available for a cross. Even if an opportunity for a cross arrives, the quality of the crosses and the quality of movement inside the box are neither good nor enough in quantitative measures. Before the Clasico, Real Madrid provided only 10 successful crosses into the penalty area (without set-pieces) in the five La Liga games so far. No player in the squad has completed more than one successful cross from open play! For a team that primarily relies on crosses, these were shambolic numbers.
Even when there is an overload of three Real Madrid players in each half-space, there is no fruition to that possessional superiority. Karim Benzema or Luka Jovic is often the isolated attacker — completely overcrowded by an array of opponent defenders.
Even when the midfielders occupied space more centrally, the vertical-play was absent and everything reverted back to plugging the ball back to the flanks and trying to deliver crosses that were worryingly unsuccessful to produce goals.
Offensive movement in the final-third was also one of the most concerning things about this Real Madrid side. For instance, in these couple of moments, Luka Modric — who is not the tallest man on the team sheet — was trying to get to the end of a cross while Jovic was way far behind him. In the subsequent frames in this video, you can see Rodrygo drives a low cross while there are multiple white shirts in the box. But none of them try to create any disruption in the penalty area by moving fast to drag a defender out of position. Shakhtar dealt with it comfortably.
On this one instance, Jovic actually got the attention of the defender and that left Benzema out in the open. But this chance was squandered due to a poor cross. In the following attempt, Asensio went behind the defender to make some room but the cross never arrived.
Zinedine Zidane couldn’t get a reaction out of his players after the Cadiz game and the Shakhtar debacle just went on to rub salt on the wounds. Their approach against Barcelona was different and of course more refreshing to watch. But Real Madrid are more likely to face some seriously rigid and stern defensives low-blocks on a more frequent basis during the remainder of the season. Zidane must be wary of it and act promptly to solve the problem of underwhelming performances against defensive low-blocks.