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Behind Enemy Lines: Real Valladolid

Perhaps Real Valladolid have played it too safe with their tactical and squad planning choices, and now they find themselves in the relegation zone. How do they match up against Real Madrid?

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

Valladolid and a Risk-Averse Liga

When I was doing the research for this piece, I struggled to find a Valladolid story I could latch on to. They are a bottom table team with a bottom table budget (2nd lowest in the league), as well as a bottom table expected goal difference that agrees with their bottom table “real” goal difference. Their squad also doesn’t have any particularly interesting players who are performing so well that they could move to a top-half team soon.

It’s also hard to find an interesting story in how Valladolid is managed, since their coaching and personnel recruitment are competent in a safe, boring way. If Elche and Valencia get relegated, for example, you know that there was mismanagement involved in firing certain coaches and players. If Huesca go down, it’s because they took a risk and opted for a coach with a possession-and-pressing philosophy that’s harder to implement in bottom table teams. In the case of Valladolid, poor or risky management decisions are not really the problem.

Their transfer game was not stellar but good enough given their scarce funds. They lost young talents like Mohammed Salisu in defense and Enes Ünal last summer, but replaced them with decent veterans who came in on free transfers—Bruno González from Levante, Fabián Orellana from Eibar, and Roqué Mesa from Sevilla—as well as the signing of 25-year-old Shon Weissman, last season’s top scorer in the Austrian Bundesliga.

Real Valladolid CF v Elche CF - La Liga Santander Photo by Octavio Passos/Getty Images

Meanwhile, coach Sergio Gonzalez has excelled at getting performance and results out of one of the most limited squads in the league, but he does so in a rather unimaginative fashion: yet another 4-4-2 deep block in La Liga. And to be honest, I don’t blame González and other La Liga coaches for using these kinds of tactics. Personnel dictates tactics, and it’s hard to be creative with your tactics if you lack the right player profiles and talent. Spain struggles to produce fast, aggressive, and tricky forwards, and these kinds of players are some of the most expensive ones in the transfer market. La Liga teams often find themselves not having enough money to “import” these fast and tricky forwards, who prefer to go to Premier League teams who can pay higher transfer fees and wages.

So all in all, Valladolid hasn’t done anything particularly wrong to put themselves in the relegation zone. However, they also haven’t done anything particularly right to compensate for their financial and squad issues. Perhaps they could have taken more risks with their coaching appointments and transfers, but that’s the entire issue with La Liga lately: the league is currently set up in such a way that no one wants to take tactical or financial risks.

The Numbers of Valladolid’s Deep Block

Defensively, not much has changed at Valladolid from the last time Real Madrid faced them. Los Blancos should expect a similarly tough, compact, deep 4-2-3-1 block to the one they defeated last time.

Valladolid continues to be one of the deepest defensive structures in the division, conceding the fifth-most passes per defensive action. This means that they allow opponents to build up from the back and only until the opponent crosses the halfway line do Valladolid defenders start acting more aggressively.

Their passive tactical setup and their lack of elite counterattacking talent means that opponents usually get to control the game. So even if Valladolid’s defensive block is superbly organized, it’s usually just a matter of time until opponents get at least some shots, and eventually, goals. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Valladolid’s defense’s, as per FBREF:

  • Concedes the 3rd most shots: 12.74 per game 
  • Concedes the 5th most goals: 1.48 per game, 34 in total
  • Concedes the 3rd highest expected goals: 1.45 per game, 33.2 in total

Mesa Revitalizes Valladolid’s Midfield, But the Attack Remains Stale

Deportivo Alavés v Real Valladolid CF - La Liga Santander Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images

Soon after the Real Madrid game in September, Valladolid secured the signing of Roque Mesa from Sevilla, and he has become the team’s most impactful midfielder in possession. Valladolid already had some hard-working central midfielders in Rubén Alcáraz, Míchel, and Kike Pérez, but they needed a more creative player in this area to support Alcáraz, who was the only one moving the ball forward frequently. Mesa has now become the Valladolid player who most frequently moves the ball into the final third (7 times per game).

On the forward line, things haven’t changed much, and Real will almost certainly face the same trio they did last time: Fabián Orellana on the right wing, Óscar Plano on the left wing, and Shon Weissman as the striker. Orellana is still a highly creative attacker, but he has lost the speed and energy of his younger days: he can be the one starting the counterattacks with a great pass but doesn’t have the speed anymore to follow and finish the counters. That job will fall on Óscar Plano and Shon Weissman. Neither of them is particularly fast and dangerous on the counter, but Plano remains a rather mobile attacker who’s hard to track while Weissman has a good finish, shot-making, and good movement inside the box. It’s hard for Valladolid to provide service to their attackers, though, so Weissman has only scored 3 times this season and remains the top scorer in the team.

Coach González alternates frequently between Weissman and Sergi Guardiola for the striker role. Guardiola is the best Valladolid player at getting into shooting positions (he has the highest xG among the squad) but his finishing has been inefficient this season. Due to these finishing problems, whenever González chooses to play with just one striker he usually chooses to start Weissman over Guardiola. Guardiola, however, is the better defensive player and extremely active at pressing the opponent.

Matchup against Real Madrid

For this game, Valladolid must deal with the injuries of winger Pablo Hervías, left-back Raul Carnero, and center-back Kiko Olivas (long-term ACL injury). In such circumstances, the likely starting XI for Valladolid will likely be the following.

  • Goalkeeper: Jordi Masip. An Above-average shot-stopper, not on a hot streak right now but him having a great game would not be surprising.
  • Center backs: Joaquín Fernández and Bruno González. Both of them below average at winning aerial duels, and stats suggest that Joaquín struggles a lot with ground duels and tackling success rate.
  • Full backs: The more creative Nacho Martínez on the left (he’s important when Valladolid need to move the ball forward) and the hard-working Luis Pérez on the right
  • Double pivot: Roque Mesa and Rubén Alcaraz, whom we described earlier.
  • Behind the striker: Óscar Plano on the left, midfielder Kike Pérez in the center to press and defend more intensely, Fabián Orellana on the right
  • Striker: Shon Weissman, whom we described earlier.

Real Madrid, on the other hand, continues to struggle with a major injury crisis (Carvajal, Ramos, Marcelo, Militão, Valverde, Rodrygo, Hazard) that has now claimed Karim Benzema as its latest victim.

If Zidane sticks to the usual 4-3-3 shape, we will likely see Lucas Vázquez at right back once again, while Nacho continues to replace Ramos as the left center back. The midfield trio picks itself and in the forward line, the most straightforward choice would be Asensio on the right, Vinicius on the left, and Mariano as the striker.

If Zidane wants to shake up things a bit and get a player who can better cope with the tight spaces of Valladolid’s defensive block, perhaps Isco could start instead of one of the forwards.

Meanwhile, for the key duels in this game, watch out for:

  • Vinicius dribbling into Luis Pérez and making runs into the Valladolid left back – center back channel.
  • Kroos and Modrić in the opposition half. Real’s ability to open up the Valladolid defensive block will depend heavily on how quickly they can move the ball around, and the legendary playmaker duo will be vital in making this happen.
  • Valladolid’s transition play: In the September game against Valladolid, Real had several moments in which the defense completely lost composure and Valladolid enjoyed a few dangerous counters. They didn’t have the speed to finish most of these opportunities, but the few times these counters did reach Weissman, Courtois heroics were needed. Real will have to avoid a similar situation from happening again.