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What Real Madrid Can Learn from the Arnold Clark Cup

How Spain’s Setup Enabled Athenea to Shine

Spain v Canada - Arnold Clark Cup - Molineux Stadium Photo by Nick Potts/PA Images via Getty Images

The decision from Spain’s head coach Jorge Vilda to leave Athenea del Castillo out of the initial squad for the Arnold Clark Cup was interesting to say the least. When she was able to join the squad and play, she proved her worth and won player of the tournament. Her success is due to the fact that she is a great player, but the way Spain was setup really enabled her to play her best. In this post I’ll go into more detail about Spain’s patterns in wide areas and how Real Madrid should learn from it.

It is no secret that Athenea likes to take defenders on with the dribble. She is very persistent with her attempts, and often times she comes out on the winning side of a take on. However, attempting 1v1s can be inconsistent and is not a sustainable form of attack from the team perspective. Despite this, Madrid has become more reliant on getting Athenea the ball and hoping that she can create something on the dribble. Because of this, Athenea often finds herself in isolated situations that are not conducive to generating offense. This was seen in their game against Real Betis before the Arnold Clark Cup.

Athenea isolated at the halfway line with no good support options.
Even though it is a 1v1 situation, every Madrid player in the frame is waiting for her to make something happen instead of creating numerical advantages in a dangerous area.

The biggest takeaways from Spain’s setup in wide areas are the numerical support they give to outside players and consistent and timely over or underlaps of the outside forward from the outside back. Athenea played with a few different outside backs in the 1.5 games she played, but the outcome was still the same.

Ona Battle underlaps Athenea and receives the ball in a dangerous area. Blue line indicates a pass.

The timing of the supporting runs are key, and Spain got it right almost every time. In the game against Canada, left back Leila Ouahabi made consistent overlapping runs for Athenea. Along with the timing of her runs, the effort and intent with which she made the runs also stood out.

Ouahabi overlaps Athenea.
Ouahabi overlaps Athenea in the box. Athenea was patient to let the play develop before passing. Ouahabi’s cross resulted in a Alexia Putellas goal.

Spain’s numerical support in wide areas allowed Athenea to take up positions and make runs that she usually wouldn’t make when she is with Madrid. She was able to shift more inside whenever her left back came to support which allowed her to receive in more central area closer to goal. She was also able to make runs that dragged defenders out of position or receive a pass that broke the defensive line.

After Athenea established her dribbling prowess against England, they became more aware of her presence. Here she makes a run inside towards the box which drags two England defenders with her. Jenni Hermoso is then able to play left back Ona Batlle.
Athenea received the ball in a more central position and was able to turn and continue progressing forward.
Athenea got on the blind side of the Canadian defender and makes a run where she received a pass that broke Canada’s defensive line.

After a great showing with the national side, Athenea was back with Madrid to face Athletic Club in the Primera Iberdrola. She played on the left side in front of Sofie Svava. The two have not played together very much, and it was evident throughout the match. Their timing was off and again Athenea found herself in isolated situations where she was expected to create something out of nothing.

Svava attempts to overlap Athenea, but she started her run too late. Athenea attempts to pass centrally to Esther, but it is intercepted.
Svava makes a good overlapping run into the box, but Athenea ignores it. She has a shot on goal, but the keeper easily saves.

The image above really stands out because that is the exact same situation in the buildup to Alexia Putellas’ goal against Canada. In that game, Athenea was patient and stood the defender up while she waited for Ouahabi to arrive in the box. Against Athletic, she completely ignored Svava’s run and took a shot that had a low percentage of going in. One could wonder if that is due to the difference in her mentality and her role between club and country. With Spain, she is not the main creator, and she is expected to participate in a heavy possession based side. With Madrid, she is one of the main, if not the main, creators. It was evident in the recent games against Athletic Club and Atletico de Madrid that they wanted to get her isolated with the opposition’s right back. There were many long passes played to her from deeper lying midfielder Claudia Zornoza to create this situation.

Spain’s set up not only enhanced Athenea’s dribbling qualities, they also brought out qualities in her that generates more sustainable attacking patterns. The key areas Madrid needs to target in regards to this are the timing and the relationship of Athenea and the outside backs, and providing numerical support to forward players out wide. Alberto Toril favors a 4-2-3-1 lineup, so I looked at what this would look like in that formation.

This is what Madrid currently look like when Athenea has the ball out wide. The lineup is based on that of the Athletic game. There’s not enough support, and it’s hard to break down defensive blocks in this manner.
This is what it would look like if Athenea had more support. Svava, Zornoza and Asllani/Esther would be closer. Zornoza’s positioning here would also be ideal because she has the passing range to switch the field if an overload is created.

Athenea looks to be a star in the making, but it would be crazy to ask her to do it on her own. Madrid should look to get the best out of her while improving their overall attack, and Spain has given them the blueprint on how to do it.

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