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The Evolution of Real Madrid’s Crossing Offense

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An in-depth look at how Los Blancos’ offensive scheme has evolved in the past few seasons

Real Madrid v Chelsea - UEFA Champions League Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images

For a great portion of the last decade, Real Madrid’s offensive scheme was largely crossing-based. This was mainly due to the three members of the BBC attacking trident that led Real Madrid from the front between 2013 and 2018 (Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema, and Cristiano Ronaldo), who were all excellent in both their movement in the penalty area and in their aerial prowess. The goal was for the wingers, Bale and Ronaldo, to be finishers more so than creators (as most wingers typically are), and that they would find themselves in the penalty box as much as they were on their respective flanks.

As there were always (at least) three lethal finishers in the penalty area during Real Madrid’s attacks, crossing became a very easy route to goal for Los Blancos. It was very tough for opposition defenses to guard all three of Bale, Benzema, and Ronaldo, along with whichever other Real Madrid players joined the attacks. The attackers always varied their runs to goal, with some running to the front post, others to the back, and some making late runs to gather any scraps, doing their very best to stump the defense.

A look at some of Real Madrid’s crossing assists from the past six seasons. These players were chosen due to the frequency of their crossing assists, as well as the significance value of their crossing maps.

As can be seen in the graphic above, most of Real Madrid’s crossing goals didn’t all come from the same locations, but there is a large emphasis on back post runs and finding players right around the penalty spot. These locations are typically best, as they allow the finisher to face the goal when they attempt to put the ball in the back of the net, whereas they’d have to try to flick the ball on a tight angle if they’d made the run towards the front post.

Another factor that needs to be accounted for is the sheer physicality of Real Madrid’s forwards. Both Bale and Ronaldo were physically insane, being able to outrun, out-leap, and manhandle almost any defenders that they came up against. Benzema, while not being the fastest or the strongest, used his incredibly high football IQ and positional awareness to put himself into quality scoring positions (something that he continues to do for Real Madrid to this day). Even Alvaro Morata, who was largely a rotation player during his 2016/17 stint with Los Blancos, was good at handling crosses. He used his 6’3’’ frame well in fielding crosses, and used his off-ball movement to put himself in good scoring positions.

The goals flowed freely during Real Madrid’s crossing peak. Overall, the team scored 140, 162, and 141 goals in the 2015/16, 2016/17, and 2018/19 seasons respectively in all competitions (for reference, Real Madrid scored 99 and 98 goals in the following seasons, and they’ve scored 75 so far in the 2020/21 campaign).

However, the most important factor in a crossing-based offense is still yet to be mentioned: the deliveries. And Real Madrid at the peak of their crossing scheme (from the 2015/16 season to 2017/18), had some of the best crossers that world football has ever seen. Marcelo is obviously the most notable, as the Brazilian has consistently been one of most cross-heavy fullbacks in the world in the past five or so years. Real Madrid has multiple other players worth mentioning: Dani Carvajal, Lucas Vazquez, Gareth Bale, James Rodriguez, Alvaro Odriozola, and Jese Rodriguez, who’ve all ranked highly in La Liga for crosses attempted per match in the past few seasons.

La Liga’s top ten crossers from each flank for the last six seasons. Data via Wyscout.com

However, it’s not just the volume of crosses that matters, it’s the quality as well. During the 15/16-17/18 period (the peak of Real Madrid’s crossing-based offense), Real Madrid were ranking quite highly amongst La Liga teams for percent of crosses completed, a testament to the quality of delivery that was being put into the box. As can be seen in the visual below, Real Madrid’s position in each graph from 2015/16 to 2017/18 was near the top right corner, indicating that they both completed a lot of crosses each match, and that they completed them at a high rate.

La Liga team’s volume of crosses per match vs. crossing efficiency. It’s evident how effective Real Madrid were from crosses during the 2015/16-2017/18 period.

However, with the selling of Cristiano Ronaldo in the summer of 2018, we saw the beginning of the end of Real Madrid’s cross-heavy offense. As mentioned earlier, the sheer physicality and finishing ability of Real Madrid’s all-time leading scorer was unmatched, and has been missed by the team (especially during the 2018/19 season).

Gareth Bale’s combination of injuries and attitude issues also didn’t help ease the transition to a Ronaldo-less offense. He was unable to replicate his form from his first few seasons in Madrid, and this forced Karim Benzema to shoulder almost all of the squad’s offensive duties in the past two seasons.

Very few of Real Madrid’s recent signings have fit the mold for a crossing-based offense either. Eden Hazard, Vinicius Jr., and Rodrygo are all creative wingers who thrive when taking on opponents 1v1, though the latter two are young enough that they’ve been molded to be able to attempt the occasional cross (Vinicius actually has three assists from crosses this season, while Rodrygo has one).

Both Mariano Diaz and Luka Jovic could certainly be seen as players who fit the crossing scheme. Both are poachers who are at their best making something from nothing in the penalty area, and both have shown that they have what it takes to score goals from crosses (Mariano’s one La Liga goal this season came from a cross against Villarreal, and Luka Jovic scored a couple goals from crosses last season). Sadly, neither of them have caught fire in Madrid, and because of that neither have gotten much playing time this season (Jovic is obviously on loan back in Frankfurt trying to rediscover his form).

With Bale, Hazard, and Asensio’s injuries and inconsistencies over the past few seasons, Rodrygo and Vinicius Jr.’s inexperience, and Jovic and Mariano’s lack of playing time and impact, Karim Benzema has been responsible for almost all of Real Madrid’s attacking efforts since Cristiano Ronaldo left.

Because of this, Real Madrid’s offensive scheme has been forced to shift. They’ve developed a reliance on (and made great use of) set pieces, with corner kicks and free kicks having contributed to a large portion of Real Madrid’s goals this season (check out an article I wrote covering Real Madrid’s use of set pieces this season here). The team has also built its open-play attacking scheme around Karim Benzema, trying to get the Frenchman into good areas so he can create his magic. Whether this comes from crossing, or giving Benzema the ball outside the penalty area and allowing him to try curling shots from distance, the team relies heavily on him.

Lately though, we’ve seen another shift in Zidane’s offensive tactics. With Vinicius Jr.’s emergence this season, we’ve seen Real Madrid add a counter attacking element to their attacking scheme. The young Brazilian has great pace and ball-carrying abilities, and it’s allowed Real Madrid an outlet to get the ball upfield quickly to try and catch opponent defenses out of position. Eden Hazard, if he can even find a good run of form and stability with Los Blancos, could certainly be an asset to this offensive scheme, as the Belgian is one of the best in the business at creating chances from quick counter attacks.

However, it’s not as simple as it used to be for Los Blancos; not every attack ends with an excellent delivery into the penalty area with multiple hungry forwards poised to put it into the back of the net. Now, all goals come the hard way; with meticulous passing and the occasional Karim Benzema brilliance, as Real Madrid has to use all of its talent to break down opposition defenses. While it may not be as fun, not seeing the team score five, six, and even seven goals in multiple matches in a season, there is certainly a satisfaction knowing that every victory was won solely due to a massive effort from the entire squad.

By the Numbers:

*Note: the numbers in this section will not match the goal tallies stated earlier, as these numbers only factor in the UEFA Champions League and La Liga. It’s also worth noting that while the percentage of goals that have come from crosses has risen this season, the total number of goals coming from crosses has drastically fallen in the past few seasons.

  • 2015/16 Season: 137 goals, 37 from crosses (27%)
  • 2016/17 Season: 140 goals, 40 from crosses (28.6%)
  • 2017/18 Season: 127 goals, 21 from crosses (16.5%)
  • 2018/19 Season: 78 goals, 16 from crosses (20.5%)
  • 2019/20 Season: 86 goals, 13 from crosses (15.1%)
  • 2020/21 Season (so far): 76 goals, 20 from crosses (26.3%)