Until his struggles with tendinopathy became too much to bear, the long-criticized Martin Ødegaard was setting La Liga on fire as part of an inventive and incisive Real Sociedad unit.
Manager Imanol Alguacil ensured this was possible by designing an asymmetric midfield shape that could retain possession deep while consistently finding Ødegaard between the lines. Mikel Merino took up the less aggressive left interior role next to either Igor Zubeldia or substitute Ander Guevara in the pivot. With Asier Illarramendi missing almost all of the season due to injury, Zubeldia and Guevara performed impressively to replicate Illarra’s assurance in possession and pinpoint vertical passing to find Ødegaard in forward positions.
The result was an extremely impressive ball progression unit that centered around Ødegaard’s intelligent positioning, composure under pressure, ball control, and passing to put opposition defenses on the back foot and facilitate semi-transition situations.
For his part, Ødegaard racked up elite numbers in La Liga, ranking 4th in passes played into the penalty area (behind Jesus Navas, Marcelo, and Messi), 10th in progressive passes, 8th in key passes, 17th in expected assists, 7th in total shot creating actions, and 11th in live pass shot creating actions (all figures adjusted on a per 90 minute (p90) basis and filtered for at least ten 90’s played) [fbref]. And these averages don’t even exclude the games where Ødegaard’s injury caused a severe drop in form.
The aforementioned figures and his overall play have generated considerable excitement on how Ødegaard can improve Real Madrid next season.
But expecting the Norwegian starlet to seamlessly translate what he did under Alguacil to Zinedine Zidane’s system might be unrealistic without certain adjustments in the latter.
While Alguacil asked Ødegaard to stay high and between the lines so that Real Sociedad could probe for the vertical pass, Zidane asks his central midfielders to drop very deep.
There are two reasons for this. The first, is that it creates a very secure base for retaining the ball in deep positions, especially against pressing. The second, is that it’s a good way to adapt to Casemiro playing in the single-pivot. Though the Brazilian has shown marginal improvements on the ball over the years, his weak press resistance and limited ability to play incisive passes on a consistent basis has led to Zidane pushing Casemiro further up the pitch in order to move him out of the first possession phase.
Zidane has curtailed that trend to a larger degree this season in order to better prepare Real Madrid for defensive transition, but the need for the interiors to drop next to Casemiro has remained fairly consistent in Zidane’s time as manager.
This was very apparent vs. Manchester City in the Champions League, where the opposition’s intense pressing called for Casemiro to move out of the way while Kroos controlled things from the deep left halfspace and Modrić dropped to help.
The flat nature of the midfield meant that there were no outlets to break the press and Casemiro ended up committing a terrible turnover like he did in the 1st leg despite the attempts to hide him. Nevertheless, the results of Zidane’s midfield style aren’t always this bad.
As mentioned earlier, the over-overload of deep areas ensures that it is very difficult to rob Madrid of the ball (especially when Isco plays and adds to the deep overloads), allowing Los Blancos to methodically move their way up the pitch.
This was a near unstoppable formula in the Cristiano Ronaldo era. Madrid would relentlessly play the ball into the final third by moving down the flanks before pummelling the box with crosses. This patient approach not only ensured ball retention, but also gave time for Ronaldo to vacate the left-wing and attack the penalty area while a third option, such as a Gareth Bale, made a similar run.
As outlined in an earlier piece, though Ronaldo is no longer here, the system that benefited him still exists, notwithstanding the lack of a replacement (one who has played significant minutes anyhow).
Madrid’s offensive production has suffered mightily as a result; the All Whites scored 24 less league goals than the 94 in 2017/18 and 36 less than the 106 in 2016/17.
Zidane adapted by building a robust defensive system with Sergio Ramos, Casemiro, and Fede Valverde at its core and found a way to grind out results. Out of a total of 96 goals across all competitions (excluding non-league competition in the Copa del Rey), 12 came from set-pieces (1 direct free-kick and 1 throw-in), a remarkable 12 came from penalties (11 in the league and 3 were a consequence of counter-attacks), and a whopping 28 open play goals came from counter-attacks by my count (I don’t like how Whoscored records this, so I selected every goal that occurred after a turnover and against a defense in transition, with 1 of those 28 possibly falling outside my definition).
That total makes up approximately 54.2% of Real Madrid’s goals, meaning that the rest of the 45.6% (the split was 61.4% vs. 38.6%, respectively, in La Liga) was made up of “regular possession play” attacks.
A lot of the latter involved building up slowly before crossing against packed defenses:
With Florentino Pérez clear that there will be no new signings due to the financial impact of COVID-19, Zidane must find a way to replicate his success with the existing squad and any returning loanees.
Zidane could choose to keep the same formula, but the sustainability of the goal scoring approach is questionable — given the year to year variability of set-piece results and the occurrence of penalties — and a repeating act would seriously misuse Ødegaard’s best qualities.
Luckily, Ødegaard’s return to the Bernabéu provides a perfect chance for Zidane to design a more incisive offensive system that is better at producing goals from normal build-up situations. By my count, Ødegaard’s advanced, aggressive positioning & movement between the lines produced 13 goals for Real Sociedad across La Liga and the Copa del Rey before the restart. Real Sociedad scored 53 goals as a collective within that timeframe (not counting non-league competition in the Copa del Rey), meaning that Ødegaard’s off-ball movement was influential in nearly a fourth of Real Sociedad’s goal scoring sequences.
By comparison, I only noticed 4 — yes four — occasions where a Real Madrid interior moving between the lines resulted in a goal (one led to a penalty) across all competitions (barring Copa del Rey matches vs. non-La Liga sides). Fede and Modrić both made those decisive movements twice. That means that Ødegaard, by himself — remember, I haven’t even taken into account the goals that came from other Real Sociedad central midfielders moving between the lines — created more than three times the amount of goals from advanced positioning from mid-August to early March than the entire Real Madrid team.
The primary utility of this type of positioning is evident — it allows you to create transition situations against an organized defense. This is ideal because it creates space for attackers to receive in and run into and allows teams to attack a retreating last line.
But it’s also great for crossing, which Zidane should love. As the later examples in the above video show, Ødegaard’s positioning between the lines collapses opposition midfields’ horizontal compactness, creating space out wide for free deliveries. Thus, Zidane doesn’t even need to move away from his preferred method of attacking the box to accommodate Ødegaard.
In fact, Real Sociedad were a pretty cross heavy team, too. La Real had a crossing reliance of 20.4% (meaning that 20.4% of their shots came from crosses), while Madrid’s was actually lower at 18.9%. Having said that, Real Sociedad manufactured less total shots from crosses per game (2.3) than Madrid (2.8) and, yet, scored more goals from crosses in La Liga (13 to Real Madrid’s 9) [whoscored]. This implies that Real Sociedad’s crosses were of a higher quality, probably deriving from their ability to generate freer looks.
We’ve already seen what this type of system might look like for Los Merengues in the second group stage game against PSG:
Valverde’s positioning, in particular, pinned PSG’s midfield line back, giving Real Madrid the space to play the ball around and cut Thomas Tuchel’s defensive structure apart.
Zidane certainly deserves a large amount of credit for the performance but some of this is down to player tendencies. While Isco is mostly attracted to the ball like a moth is to a flame, he occasionally decides to play like a #10 and wait for the move to come to him. On the flip side, Valverde has a consistent streak of positioning himself in more advanced positions in comparison to his counterpart Luka Modrić. While this doesn’t mean that Valverde never comes deep to help Casemiro, his natural inclination is to pin midfield lines back and make an impact higher up the pitch.
This has less of an effect on Madrid’s ball retention than if Kroos were to do the same on the other side, as Real Madrid’s build-up is overwhelmingly biased to the left.
Though Valverde was a critical performer in the draw against PSG, he racked up less touches than Marcelo, Casemiro, Isco, Kroos, Hazard, and even Benzema before he was subbed off in the 75th minute. His role wasn’t exactly that of a decoy, as Madrid did intend to find him on switches, but a larger share of his impact was intended to come from his off-ball presence.
This was not an isolated trend:
No side but Osasuna attacked more down their left than Real Madrid in the league and no team produced more shots from the left-hand side of the pitch. This is in stark contrast to Real Sociedad, who prominently attacked and created their shots from the middle and the right, whereas Madrid ranks 14th in possessions and dead last in shot production from Ødegaard’s preferred flank.
Hence, simply substituting Ødegaard for Valverde in Zidane’s scheme will not do the trick. The Frenchman needs to find ways to better balance his side’s possessions across the width of the pitch, which will require some conversations with Ramos, Kroos, Hazard, and Benzema. Madrid don’t necessarily need to stop being biased to the left (it may be impractical given how many of their best players are on that side) but there does need to be a concerted effort to get Ødegaard involved.
That’s where we return to Casemiro and the necessity of dropping alongside him. It’s all well and good if Valverde positions himself more aggressively, but the attack doesn’t run through the right side. If Madrid were to distribute touches more evenly across the team, the question arises as to how to get Ødegaard the ball between the lines.
If Casemiro isn’t going to make those passes, then they need to come from elsewhere on the right side. An obvious choice is Varane, but the center-back line-breaking pass is a difficult one and will rarely be the right option unless some manipulation occurs. Unfortunately for Ødegaard, the classic way to open up that passing lane is for the central midfielder to drag his marker to the wing so that the center-back can hit the dropping center forward (an Antonio Conte classic).
The consistently more viable option would be for Carvajal to hit diagonals into Ødegaard from the flank or for the winger to play lay-offs to Ødegaard after receiving a pass down the line. The angles of these passes will likely make it a little harder for Ødegaard to face play on his first touch and these wing combinations are generally easier to press, but it’s one option for Zidane.
In order to make those mechanisms a little more effective, they could be primarily executed off of switches from the left. As the defense is shifting over, a scything long ball should give Ødegaard the space to receive and turn in an advanced position while enabling the passer to release the ball in a less cramped situation. Both Kroos and Casemiro are accomplished long passers.
Another alternative is to pull Ødegaard away from the right halfspace and towards the center, where Toni Kroos can find the Norwegian with his sublime vertical passing. Real Sociedad toyed with this idea when building from the left, as their midfield tended to maintain a very horizontally compact shape in order to keep Zubeldia/Guevara, Merino, and Ødegaard in nearby vertical lanes so that they could find each other with ease. This is the complete opposite of Madrid, which has the three central midfielders covering the width of the pitch so that side-to-side passing is more convenient. But the adjustment shouldn’t be too difficult since Ødegaard’s movement is what will largely force the shift.
A final possibility would be for Zidane to simply play Ødegaard as a right winger. The Norwegian acts like an inverted wide player, anyway, considering his advanced positioning in the halfspace and his willingness to drift wide to the touchline, and Carvajal should be able to keep the width himself. Furthermore, it would allow Zidane to maintain his defensive balance in midfield, with Valverde staying in the lineup, and would empower Ødegaard to do most of his work against the ball in the form of pressing actions, which is what he’s best at.
However, that gives rise to its own issues. For one, Ødegaard would be taking up the spaces Valverde likes to occupy. And, while Zidane could simply instruct Valverde to play deeper, the Uruguayan has not shown the greatest aptitude for moving the ball forward with his passing. He averages only 3.73 progressive passes p90, which is less than Casemiro and attacking players like Gareth Bale, Marco Asensio, Rodrygo, and Lucas Vázquez.
Even if one assumes that Valverde makes a leap in this department or his ability is merely hidden by his off-ball role, Ødegaard would be competing with and taking playing time from Rodrygo and Asensio at minimum. From a minutes distribution perspective, it makes more sense to play Ødegaard in midfield, where he only has to compete with Valverde and a Luka Modrić that has been extremely open to taking a back seat to mentor younger talent.
At the end of the day, a mix of approaches is probably the best way to get the best out of Ødegaard. Given the length of the season and the potential for injuries, there’s nothing stopping Zidane from playing Ødegaard on the wing and in central midfield as the former sees fit. Additionally, Zidane can mix the suggested tactical approaches so that Ødegaard can get a number of great touches as an aggregate of the different contexts constructed for him. Switching play to get Ødegaard between the lines is great, but he can also move over to the center to receive passes from Kroos in the same game.
Ultimately, Ødegaard will need to make some alterations — even in the most well-tailored environment — as well. Casemiro plays for a reason and Ødegaard will have to make an impact from deeper positions from time to time in order to help the Brazilian out (in turn, Ødegaard will benefit handily from Casemiro’s spectacular defensive interventions). Thankfully, the 21-year-old is fully capable of that despite the fact that he is more impactful when placed in the middle of defensive structures.
It may seem strange to enact so many changes just to benefit a single player who has much still to achieve, but Ødegaard has already proven that he can be an elite game changer in one of the best leagues in the world. More fundamentally, Ødegaard has demonstrated that he’s one of the best at breaking lines with his positioning, ball control, and passing, enabling him to unsettle organized defenses and put them on the run. With a slow, patient offensive formula that is more suited for a player that no longer resides at the Bernabéu, Real Madrid could desperately use an injection of attacking diversity.
Martin Ødegaard can provide that and transform the way Real Madrid attack for the better if Zidane (and his injury) allows him to.