Last night’s defeat felt different. Sure, Inter Milan have given Madrid a lifeline, but last night, frustration hit a boiling point for all those connected with the club. Losing has become all too common. In fact, this was the second time in just over a month that Real Madrid have lost back-to-back games. The frustration is more than mertited, as the mistakes being made, are the same mistakes being repeated over and over again. Professionals of the highest grade are making simple school-boy errors. In both of Shaktar’s goals last night, there are a comedy of individual and collective errors leading up to the ultimate blow.
Breaking Down Shaktar’s Opening Goal
Let’s start with the first goal. As noted on the weekend podcast, Zidane somehow feels secure with Luka Modric and Marcelo, or in this match Luka Modric and Lucas Vazquez, as the gatekeepers to prevent any counter attacks on dead-ball situations. And just like over the weekend against Alaves, a corner gets whipped in and Shaktar are able to clear the delivery and break on the counter. The Ukrainian team were likely licking their lips at the challenge of taking on veteran Luka Modric and make-shift defender, Lucas Vazquez.
The above clip, identifies at least four major break-downs leading up to the opening goal.
We can start with the first action, a back three of Modric, Lucas Vazquez, and Mendy forms. Luka Modric makes the fatal decision to step out and try to win the ball from Marlos. When facing a counter attack head on, especially in a 4 v 3 scenario, the number one rule is to simply drop back. By dropping, the team defending can not only recover more numbers from teammates sprinting back, but can consolidate a better shape just outside the box. There is really only one time to step, and that’s once the counter has reached the final third, just a few yards outside the eighteen. There is no reason for Modric to step being just outside the center circle.
Modric’s step was the first phase, but Shaktar’s counter evolved in multiple phases. The second phase came when Shaktar was able to feed the ball wide to Taison. Fortunately, Varane recovers to re-cement a back three. But, that back three was disjointed. Lucas Vazquez, who despite playing well on the ball, still has many deficiencies as an out-and-out defender. The natural defensive instincts — knowing where to be and what to do within every in-game scenario, learned over years of playing the position — are instincts that Lucas is yet to acquire. With the ball wide Lucas should have converged, the same could be said of Lucas’ counterpart on the opposite flank, Ferland Mendy. That action from both fullbacks would then produce a solid central backline of three. Instead, Lucas found himself in what many like to call, “no-man’s land”. He is caught between two minds — unsure of whether to step out and press or drop in to the backline. By doing neither, he gives Taison all the time in the world to find the holes in Madrid’s defense.
Then comes the third phase, when Taison prepares to pass the ball towards Tete and Morares. In this sequence, Varane gets caught ball watching and his hips are turned towards the ball rather than open (facing towards the opposition’s goal), which would allow him to see both the ball and his man. The same can be said for Mendy, who needs to drop in line with Varane, turn and open his hips, and tuck in a bit more centrally to close the gap between the two.
And the fourth and final phase brings a return to Luka Modric. This whole sequence will be a moment Luka wants to forget. Look where Modric is in the fourt and final phase of this play. Which player is that flying by him? Oh, that’s soon to be goal-scorer, Detinho.
When watching the film back with the team, Zidane should be ruthless. Tracking runners is one of the fundamental defensive principles of the game. If a mark moves out of a player’s given zone then he gets passed on to a teammate. In this scenario, there is no teammate to pass him onto — Luka Modric has to track Detinho’s run.
The whole play was a mess, but blaming Varane for dodging Mendy’s bizarre toe-poke would be last on a list of problems for the first goal. And guess what? That was just goal number one.
Goal #2 - Lack of Application and Exploiting Lucas Vazquez
The second goal conceded may have been more egregious from a an attitude perspective. Where do we start? There are no less than five players standing and watching the play, Mendy loses track of a runner (re-occurring theme among Madrid players all season), Nacho is in no-man’s land, and Lucas gives Solomon all of the time and space in the world to cut onto his stronger right foot and rip a shot, which Courtois arguably should have stopped at his near post:
The attitude of the five players standing and waiting in the box is simply appalling. Even when Shaktar free themselves of Kroos’ attempted press, an “oh-shit” switch never went off. There was no urgency from those behind the ball to kick into another gear and begin sprinting back.
And Lucas, poor Lucas Vazquez, once again showing why he is not a naturalized right back.
A defender cannot give that much space to the on-coming attacker. As a defender, it’s important to force that attacker onto their weaker foot and force them out wide where they can cause less danger. Lucas does just the opposite.
As the title of this article suggests, there were a comedy of individual and collective mistakes leading up to each goal. It’s not right to point the finger at one player. There are players playing out of position, players unaware of where they should be, no cohesion between when to press and when to drop off, and the wrong personnel selected to prevent counter-attacks on dead ball situations. Part of this blame is on the players and part of this blame is on Zidane. Is the Frenchman putting his team in the best positions within his tactical set-up to be successful? That’s a rhetorical question. Many of these mistakes are repetitive over every game - like tracking runners - and if Zidane and the team cannot rid themselves of these poor habits, results like the Shaktar match will become the norm rather than the exception.