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A Tactical Battle Between Real Madrid And Eibar Looms

An aggressive high-press awaits Real Madrid at Estadio Alfredo di Stefano on Sunday. Kiyan Sobhani’s latest column.

Eibar v Real Madrid - La Liga Santander Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images

These observations — where I look at Real Madrid’s history, its players on loan, Castilla, tactical tidbits, and other relevant thoughts — are now a regular thing. All previous editions can be found here.

We are ready to start talking about official football matches again, which means we can go from historical match coverages and hypothetical scenarios to actual current tactics, post-match analysis, and emotional Twittering.

Here’s a look at Sunday’s upcoming game, where we see how much we can take from Eibar’s 0 - 4 loss to Real Madrid back in November and apply it to this weekend:

The story of Eibar’s rise to fame will never not be charming. They carry their moniker of a ‘humble team’ proudly. On a financial level, they have one of the smallest budgets of any team in La Liga. On the field, they became a hipster favourite because of their obsession with the high press. In a StatsBomb data conference last fall, it was revealed that Eibar were the most aggressive pressing side in Europe, with numbers you’d expect to see from Liverpool or Manchester City — and not from a small team that might be expected to play more conservatively.

Since that data came out, Eibar’s press has been just as aggressive, but less efficient. José Luis Mendilibar’s men lead the league in defensive pressures in the final-third; but now allow almost nine passes per defensive action in the opposition’s half, making them just the 10th most efficient high-pressing team in Spain. (Caveat: Pressing more means you’ll fail more, but their PPDA is still down from last season.)

No game exemplified Eibar’s issues this season more than their matchup against Real Madrid back in November in Ipurua, where Real Madrid laughed at Eibar’s press as they picked their high line apart and blitzed them by four goals. Teams are not as unnerved as they used to be when they see Eibar’s rushing attackers swarm them as they get the ball. The scouting report is out. They know it’s coming. Real Madrid were positioned in a way that exploited Eibar’s press. Eden Hazard and Karim Benzema were near-perfect in that game when receiving the ball as the outlets. Eibar had no answer and no backup plan. It was an assault.

It will be interesting to see how Mendilibar adjusts his tactics against Real Madrid this Sunday. They are a team fighting for their lives — clustered in a group of basement-dwellers that have everything to play for in order to avoid relegation. On a recent Churros y Tácticas Podcast, Diego Lorijn pointed out that if Eibar go down, there is a case they may never be back (at least for a while). There is some validity to that hunch. There is a track record for La Liga teams who make it to Primera briefly only to disappear into oblivion once they lose their grip. One would hope Eibar are structured well enough that that won’t happen to them.

One major thing Mendilibar will have to adjust: How easily he allowed Ferland Mendy to exploit the space in behind his own full-backs. Mendy, lauded for his defensive durability while being in Marcelo’s offensive shadow, was one of Real Madrid’s most important players in attack (while having two bad defensive sequences where he got burned by Pablo De Blasis).

Mendy became an important ball-carrier that day in Ipurua. Most of Real Madrid’s build-up, as is tradition, was funnelled through the left side where Mendy, Hazard, Benzema, and Valverde bartered possession. Mendy’s runs both with and without the ball eased the load on everyone. Defensively, he was quick to recover. Offensively, he’d either bring the ball down the left himself, or provide himself as an outlet on the overload. It was impossible for Eibar — especially with their high line — to defend Mendy’s authoritative runs.

Mendy’s role almost mimicked Marcelo’s regular role — spending time high up the pitch, while his mirror, Dani Carvajal, hedged back in transition, or provided himself available for a switch. Carvajal was more involved in possession, but had less influence in the attacking build-up.

Can Eibar neutralize the threat down the flanks this time around? They will need better coverage from Fabian Orellana and Takashi Inui on the wings to help defend Hazard, Benzema, and whoever starts and provides overloads out of the Marcelo / Mendy dyad. Both Orellana and Inui were so consumed with pressing last time ‘round that they couldn’t help de Blasis or Jose Valdes. If Eibar press again the same way, they either have to be perfect, or accept suicide.

There is also the stark reality that even if they’re foot-perfect, Real Madrid can exploit them if they’re press-resistant enough. Good press-evading teams invite presses purposefully because they know they can exploit their opponents easier than if they were to face a deep block. Real Madrid struggled passing out of the back last season — one of the many reasons (and there were many) their season crumbled in just one week. In November of this season, Zidane’s men were foolproof with their passing and positioning in Ipurua.

A closer look at said press-evasion

The Casemiro - Kroos - Modric trio that steamrolled Europe for three years lost some of its zest last season. There was a time where Real Madrid’s left side of Marcelo, Isco, Kroos, Ronaldo, and Benzema just couldn’t be dispossessed. Isco vanished last season under Santiago Solari, Kroos and Marcelo had a down year, and Ronaldo left. That zapped the team’s buildup. In November of last season, under Solari’s leadership, Eibar blew away Real Madrid 3 - 0 back in 2018.

Hazard and Valverde have reinserted some balance. They, along with Mendy, were important dealing with one of the most aggressive pressing side in Europe:

Valverde has grown more comfortable acting as the team’s ball-carrier when needed — something Real Madrid lost when Mateo Kovacic left for Chelsea. Those sequences where he lugs the ball up the field have become more apparent as the months have wore on.

Those runs have unlocked better transition opportunities. They’re not always as effective as a quick vertical pass to progress the ball, but when used in the right moments, they toggle defenders in places you want to move them — freeing up open white shirts in turn.

Mendy has become an underrated weapon in transition too. Few can thwart him full-steam. That’s something Theo Hernandez could do in spurts, but never consistently or with the same defensive awareness.

Eibar can limit those opportunities by pinning Real Madrid. They did it in 2018, where Solari’s men just couldn’t escape their half, and the few times they did, Eibar’s offside trap caught them. For that to happen again, Eibar need to unearth their form from last season, and Real Madrid need to capitulate. (Caveat: Solari was a disaster that game, deploying Dani Ceballos as the team’s defensive anchor, and setting up the team in a way that outnumbered them defending in transition.)

Real Madrid’s fourth goal against Eibar in the first matchup between these two teams this season was a perfect example of the theme we’re discussing. Zoom out before Valvere’s goal, and you’ll see a long sequence of Zidane’s men getting through Eibar’s press with relative ease, and the subject of Mendy’s offensive runs surfaces:

Mendy will sprint into the final-third to create something that didn’t previously exist on the counter-attack:

It’s worth noting just how dominant Real Madrid’s left side can be. They’ve been leveraging possession on that side for years. We saw it against PSG, we saw it against Eibar. In Ipurua, Hazard had seven completed dribbles, and the key passes he slung were surgical. While Real Madrid’s midfield and defense locked down Eibar and zipped past their loose press, the Hazard-Benzema two-man waltz created most of Real Madrid’s attacking punch.

Hazard and Benzema understand each other. They also press as a single unit to effectively force giveaways. Hazard knows Benzema will instinctively dart into the box after he releases a pass.

If Real Madrid can get those two the ball in transition again, they’re going to carve out chances against Eibar on Sunday.

In the second half of that November game, with Eibar down three goals, they made one last attempt to salvage a scoreline by slowing the game down and circulating possession. Real Madrid’s defense sat pretty — riding out the little threat they faced by absorbing pressure and distributing the ball out of the back and getting the ball to Hazard and Benzema on the counter:

Real Madrid have a few variables in the starting XI, including a ‘right wing’ slot that could go to any of these players: Gareth Bale, Isco (as an extra central midfielder), Lucas Vazquez, Rodrygo Goes, James Rodriguez, Marco Asensio, Vinicius Jr. (Another variable: Zidane could throw in Modric, Kroos, Casemiro, and Valverde together. There are endless combinations at play.) Bar Isco, whoever gets the assignment of banding alongside Benzema and Hazard will have the same task: Be ready for the switch, help Carvajal with defensive duties (and cover for his crazy runs), take defenders on and find teammates in the box, and be ready at the far post to get on the end of something. Lucas Vazquez played that role to a tee as the third attacking option against Eibar in November.

(A random aside: It’s always fun seeing the inverted version of the right winger, in this case either Asensio or James who like to drift centrally in midfield or pop up at the top of the box after a few vertical pass-and-move sequences.)

It’s important to note that Real Madrid’s defensive shape against Eibar was just as good as their execution passing out of the back. They limited Eibar’s progression into their own half, and in the second half when they dialled back their own press, they were happy to pick Mendilibar’s men apart on the counter.

Starting from the front, Benzema’s leadership in marshalling the press was apparent (not only in this particular game, but all season). Bar a few blips (like the aforementioned Mendy slips against de Blasis, a couple Modric giveaways, a strange Valverde lapse just before half-time, and a couple missed pressing sequences), Real Madrid had everything locked down, from the press, to getting to all their defensive spots in a deeper block. They knew Eibar would try to cross in their usual 4-4-2 system. They were prepared.

But what does any of this mean? You could throw all of this out the window. Months have passed. Tactics of the past could mean nothing under the current circumstance: No fans, unknown mental focus and fitness levels, five substitutions, and two teams with plenty to play for — both hungry, both dangerous. The only way we can tangibly preview this match is to look at past encounters. If that game in November is anything to go by, this will be another battle between Eibar’s high press, and Real Madrid’s ability to cut it apart.

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