Coach David Aznar’s options were limited by injury when he selected his lineup vs. Real Betis on the weekend. He had no choice but to select a double pivot composed of Teresa Abeillera and Kaci. As we have seen repeatedly, the two-player midfield has struggled to dictate possession and involve the attackers, causing Real Madrid to resort to a choppy, direct style of play.
Consequently, Real Betis dominated possession and dictated the tempo of the match. Real Madrid created almost nothing apart from the last 15 minutes of the first half. Las Blancas scored three in that span, with Kaci, Marta Cardona, and Kosovare Asllani all getting on the scoresheet.
It was Cardona’s second consecutive game with a goal and her third of the season. The young Spanish winger was the difference maker again in this match and showed her great understanding of the game to help Real Madrid in attack against Betis.
In defense, Cardona was situated on the right side of the midfield to round out Las Blancas’ typical 4-4-2 defensive structure. For about 15 minutes, she was tight to the touchline. Cardona dribbled at her defenders and had some success, but winger/left back (she became the latter thanks to a substitution in the second half) Andrea Medina had a good match and she received help from Laura Gonzalez and Paula Perea. They stifled Cardona’s success on the right and Betis had similar success defending Jakobsson on the left.
After this period, Cardona positioned herself in the space typically occupied by an out-and-out number ten — about ten yards behind Asllani and Jessica Martínez whenever the ball went to the left wing. This started off as a sporadic pattern but Cardona began to pop up in these spaces more and more.
At times Cardona would even drop deep to serve as an outlet. When Betis pushed into Real Madrid’s defensive third, Cardona maneuvered in front of the double pivot and backline to evade pressure and push the team forward.
Las Blancas almost had a three player midfield when Real Madrid tried to attack through the center of the pitch. Kaci and Teresa sat at the base of the midfield triangle while Cardona would drift in from the right wing to serve as the point of the structure. She was operating in the territory we expect Asllani to drop into.
When Las Blancas won the ball deeper in their own half, the triangle flipped. Teresa or Kaci would be in the single pivot, the other would be in a left-sided central role, and Cardona could drop into a right-sided role. Cardona was one of the only players who tried to play quick one-two’s, but she also had the wherewithal to slow play and not force passes forward.
However, Cardona didn’t just join the midfield, but also took up positions higher up. Real Madrid attacked in a 4-4-2 with Asllani and Martínez leading the line. They both were very isolated in the match and were forced to drop deep to get touches. When one of them dropped, Cardona slid into their position and made clever runs.
One of these astute central movements unlocked Betis for Real Madrid’s second goal. Ivana Andrés intercepted a goal kick in midfield and quickly played the ball to Kaci, who returned the pass to Ivana Andrés.
As the interchange between Ivana and Kaci played out, Cardona quickly identified a central gap between the Betis center backs. She took off immediately and Ivana Andrés played the perfect through pass. Cardona slotted the ball in between the keeper’s legs and into the back of the net.
This was a demonstration of Cardona’s cleverness and potency in attack rather than a great tactical move. In the second half, Cardona almost never took up these positions. Las Blancas sat off with a 3-0 lead and opted to go direct on the counter. Cardona almost exclusively operated on the wing and didn’t pop up in the center of the park. If it was a tactical nuance, it would most likely have continued at least somewhat in the second half. Rather, it was Cardona’s positional awareness and effectiveness in tight spaces that allowed her to cut inside and exploit the Real Betis defense.
The 25-year-old has been a spark this year. She is already within two goals of her career high and seems to be hitting her stride with Real Madrid.