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Is Zidane’s counter-pressing finally taking shape?

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Zinedine Zidane’s version of positional play might finally be complemented with a counter-pressing scheme of its own.

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

Excluding Saturday night’s draw against Osasuna, the recent mini-streak of now nine unbeaten games including an underwhelming team-performance against Elche has adjusted Real Madrid’s gyroscopes in the right direction. If I were to take one tactical note (or upgrade) from this run where Real Madrid defeated the likes of Borussia Mönchengladbach, Sevilla, Atletico Madrid, Athletic Bilbao, Granada, and Celta Vigo with a relative amount of ease, I would praise Real Madrid’s pressing scheme. It’s still a work in progress but its visible improvement cannot be understated.

Since Football Reference data became available, it’s easy to see that Real Madrid had a rise in their pressing success barring the 2018-19 season. Historically, Zidane’s press has never seemed extremely effective (at least to the eye-test). But recent developments have reasons for optimism.

Real Madrid’s dire need for an efficient counter-pressing scheme is directly intertwined with their offensive blueprint. Zidane’s version of Positional Play or Juego de Posicion has been in effect for quite some time (but not with significant signs of dominance). However, the missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle was a counter-pressing scheme that would achieve two things: 1) it would reduce Real Madrid's vulnerability in transition defense; and 2) it would help to preserve their offensive shape.

The idea of counter-pressing or Gagen-pressing is simple on a high-level definition of the concept. You try to win the ball as soon as you lose it. Counter-pressing can vary based on what it's oriented upon. Men, space, passing-lanes, or the ball itself can be pressed in these variants but Zinedine Zidane has been trying to implement the man and space-oriented counter-pressing with good effect.

The frames above illustrate Real Madrid’s basic structure in possession against a typical low-block side. With his attempt of installing the concept of positional play at Real Madrid, Zinedine Zidane has seen the team struggling to move the ball faster in the horizontal channels, earlier in the season. But in the aforementioned mini-streak, the passing has become swifter with a corresponding risk of being more susceptible to counter-attacks. Without improving their counter-pressing, Zidane’s team would have suffered (as mentioned by Zidane in every single pre and post-match presser) way more than what they have done during this streak. However, they did not let that happen.

In a scenario where Ferland Mendy or Vincius Jr would lose the ball just around the left half-space, Real Madrid have been seen to deploy the man and space-oriented counter-press in tandems. The man-oriented press allows the opponent to provide the first pass and every option to receive that pass remains as focal parts of the press. A similar concept is applied when in space-oriented pressing, but the difference is the space of the ball’s potential path is pressed instead of a potential receiver. A viable reference for this is the game against Eibar. This frame in the 64th minute is an example of man-oriented pressing while in the 58th minute, space was pressed by Real Madrid:

A good counter pressing scheme also demands a good structure in possession as well. Real Madrid have done relatively well in this regard. Their pass-maps against Atletico, Eibar, Athletic Bilbao and Celta, etc. clearly suggest that Real Madrid have tried to maintain their passing diamonds on the flanks. Having such structural discipline is allowing the team to press better without compromising much space behind their defensive lines.

Data from betweentheposts.net

The structural integrity has a two-way advantage. Apart from providing a better stage for the team’s press it’s also good building-from-the-back exercises like the one below:

A final wrinkle from Real Madrid’s counter-pressing idea is Casemiro’s positioning. His on-the-ball deficiencies have forced Zidane to play him in an advanced role in the midfield (often close to the opponent's defensive lines). At this point, the team has accepted this deficiencies with the ball. To improvise, Toni Kroos or Luka Modric often slot between the two center-halves to build play from the back -- a job that would otherwise be designated for a defensive midfielder (who must be superior to Casemiro on the ball). This gives Real Madrid a distinction (that is probably not so desirable in terms of style of play).

Nonetheless, if Real Madrid are to demonstrate a significant style of play in Zidane’s second stint, this mini-streak must continue into becoming a much longer one.