For only the second time this season, Zidane took the opportunity to start his three “brainiacs” in midfield. Three players whose skillset, when mixed together, create a fluid form of ball retention. Each compliments the other, each with the technical quality to evade even the most organized of high presses. The match vs Villarreal gave glimpses into how a midfield three of Toni Kroos, Luka Modric, and Martin Ødegaard could function and how they could punish a defense.
Quick Switches of Play
Against Villarreal, all three of Kroos, Modric, and Ødegaard looked to take advantage of the weak side space by switching the field of play to an over-lapping Carvajal or Mendy who could exploit Villarreal’s narrow shape. It was a tactic used no less than four times in the first half, and said tactic resulted in the first goal:
Luka Modric and Ødegaard each switched the field of paly to progress into Villarreal’s final third, ultimately the build-up broke down, but the strategy was clear and effective.
Zidane has attempted to use switches of play to destabilize a defense in the past, but never had it been so frequently used in a 45 minute period. Toni Kroos nearly set-up a second goal eerily similar to the first with a quick switch of play to Carvajal ramping down the right flank:
Kroos the Hybrid Ramos Replacement, Modric & Ødegaard Advanced #8’s
With Sergio Ramos absent through injury, Zidane had Kroos drop deep, often as a third center back, to help facilitate the initial ball progression out of the backline. When Casemiro forms as part of the lone central defensive midfield pivot, he features sparingly in the team’s build-up play. The Brazilian often tries to occupy spaces that see him used as a decoy rather than actually being fed the ball. With Toni Kroos in that position, Madrid can take advantage of his talents deeper on the pitch and free up space for two advanced central midfielder’s, rather than just one.
Even when on the ball, most expected Madrid to play in a 4-2-3-1 formation with both Modric and Kroos restraining their desire to attack. Instead, Zidane played a 4-3-3, which had the ability to morph, when the fullbacks overlapped into the attacking phase and Kroos dropped deep into a pseudo-CB role, into a 3-4-3.
Take note of Kroos’ position. Even after he has moved the ball on, he holds in the center back position for any recycled ball circulation. His job is to build from the back. The German was able to play a quarter-back role and saw so much of the ball as there was very little turn over when played into more advanced positions.
Evading the Press
One of the biggest highlights from the match against Unai Emery’s men, was Madrid’s ability to play through the press. The supreme technical quality of the midfield meant they could play with their backs against a wall and still find an escape valve in Ødegaard or Modric.
As has been the case for many years, Madrid’s left side was especially adept at playing through pressure. It may be a different cast of characters from the previous era of Ronaldo, Marcelo, Isco, and Kroos but now with the re-gen versions of Mendy, Hazard, Ødegaard, and the ever present German, Kroos — the team can still complete those intricate passing sequences that free them of what seems like unbearable press. One of Ødegaard or Modric was always available to be that final pass out, the release valve, to transition the attack into the open space.
The sample size is small, but the initial 60 or so minutes of Madrid’s blonde trident were positive. Playing those three in midfield unlocks new potential for this Madrid side specifically in their ability to identify and capitalize on quick switches of play, to drop Kroos deeper into a quarter-back role with two advanced central options, and it drastically improves the team’s ball retention against a high press in the defensive third of the field. The team opted not to press high immediately upon losing the ball, which meant they could drop off and find their shape thus preventing counter attacks. The one negative to dropping deep to collect the shape, is the loss of the opportunity to win the ball high up the pitch and create a goal-scoring opportunity through counter-pressing. It remains to be seen if Zidane will persist with these tactical ideas once Ramos and Casemiro return, but the inclusion of Ødegaard with his two high IQ counter parts, Modric and Kroos, provides another tactical wrench which Zidane call pull from his toolbox.