Before tonight’s game between Real Madrid and Athletic Club, head coach Marcelino said that his team would opt not to press Real Madrid high up the pitch. Maybe that wasn’t revealing much, given that Athletic were probably always going to sit deeper and show just why they have the best defense in La Liga.
But it was also telling that, in a game of two halves, where they sat deep in the first half and pulled their line higher in the second — they found success with the latter, and were pinned with the former.
In the first half, Carlo Ancelotti’s men dealt with Athletic’s low block as they — and any team with this much talent — should. Real Madrid had fluid movement in both half spaces, and plenty of overloads from Ferland Mendy and Lucas Vazquez. When Marco Asensio and Vinicius Jr looked up with the ball at their feet, they had Benzema in the box, Modric or Kroos in the half-space, and their wing-backs out wide. The ball was switched quickly and with purpose. The options were there to pick out, and it was refreshing to see the dynamism with which they approached this game — and uptick from the way they approached Sevilla’s defensive scheme.
Perhaps the biggest positive from the first half was Real Madrid’s counter-press, where they kept sustained possession through quick ball-winning, which caused Athletic to retreat deeper and deeper.
On Real Madrid’s winning goal, you can see how well the fluidity and passing worked to cause Athletic problems:
Who else but Karim Benzema!— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) December 1, 2021
His 12th goal of the season pic.twitter.com/GJ8nHrih6s
Where Real Madrid struggled in that first half was holding their high line, where Iñaki put pressure on David Alaba and Eder Militao into two (it has to be said, uncharacteristic and strange) mistakes. Real Madrid also struggled defending set pieces throughout this game, letting free headers easily, which has been a theme for them the past few games.
conceding a set piece feels like conceding a penalty at this point— Managing Madrid (@managingmadrid) December 1, 2021
The second half was immensely more difficult for Real Madrid, in what felt like a 45-minute tsunami that Ancelotti’s men had to keep their head above. Athletic increased their entries into the final third and held a higher line. They prevented breaks, hammered away at structural issues, and were kept scoreless by two things: 1) Heroic last-second challenges and interventions from Vazquez, Militao, Casemiro, and Courtois (and probably others that I may have missed as I write this before the final whistle); and 2) Their own poor finishing, which has been a heavy theme for them this season.
Real Madrid pick up the three points in the end, and continue their flawless record during this very difficult stretch.
Tonight’s post-game podcast will be live on Zoom at 630 pm EST. Join Euan Mctear (who will be home just in time from the Bernabeu by then) and I on the call. Link here.