Eric Devin provides a comprehensive tactical analysis about the Copa del Rey match that ended Real Madrid 3-0 Sevilla.
Real Madrid (4-3-3): Kiko Casilla; Dani Carvajal, Raphael Varane, Nacho, Marcelo; Luka Modric, Casemiro, Toni Kroos; James Rodriguez (Danilo 79′), Alvaro Morata (Mariano), Marco Asensio (Isco 67′)
Sevilla FC (4-2-3-1): Sergio Rico; Mariano, Adil Rami, Gabriel Mercado, Sergio Escudero; Vicente Iborra (Matias Kranevitter 59′), Stephen N’Zonzi; Vitolo, Ganso (Pablo Sarabia 46′), Samir Nasri; Joaquin Correa (Wissam Ben Yedder 82′)
Billed as one of a number of potentially tantalizing Round of 16 fixtures in the Copa del Rey, Sevilla’s trip to the Bernabeu was instead something of a damp squib. The hosts were missing Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, while Karim Benzema was only named on the bench. Sevilla were missing Franco Vazquez and Luciano Vietto, but manager Jorge Sampaoli was determined to not let off the intensity, seeking to take the game to Los Blancos from the off. However, despite Sampaoli’s charges playing with their usual verve, Real were more than a match, turning in a a comprehensive team performance that not only nullified Sevilla’s kamikaze attack but also exhibited a textbook pressing game.
The above image gives an overview of how the formations, a 4-3-3 for Real Madrid and a 4-2-3-1 for Sevilla worked in practice. For Real, the front three (red line) and the back four (white line) provide the width and spacing, both laterally and vertically. This allows the midfield (blue box) to remain compact and versatile. Casemiro generally sits deepest, but how close they play to each other allows for a greater flexibility in their roles, either applying pressure to Sevilla’s back four, or tracking back to break up possession.
Sevilla, in contrast employ a narrow back four in defense, with width from the back only coming when directly applying pressure to Real’s buildup play, as we see here with Escudero anticipating Carvajal’s pass to James. The five midfielders form more or less the same unit, with Nasri and Vitolo occasionally dropping deep to allow Iborra in midfield. However, Ganso and Correa function more as outlets than to apply pressure, which gives Real numerical superiority. This not only allowed Real Madrid an easier time in build-up play, but also gave Sevilla a tougher time at retaining possession, even if they did employ their customary positional fluidity.
Here, we show Sevilla’s customary gambit, an elastic 4-2-3-1. Their preference is to allow Charles N’Zonzi, one of the holding two to operate as a screen for the defence. The lanky Frenchman excels at covering ground and making himself a nuisance through intelligent positioning rather than dramatic tackles, and his energy allows Sevilla’s fullbacks to get forward, with the likes of nominal “wingers” Samir Nasri and Vitolo playing free roles. Vicente Iborra, his regular midfield partner, also benefits, getting forward as well.
In this example, nominal right winger Vitolo links play with Nasri on the left, while the imposing Iborra becomes almost a second striker, complementing the smaller Correa. As most of Sevilla’s strikers (Wissam Ben Yedder, Luciano Vietto) are similarly small, this allows the team to essentially play a 3-5-2, with N’Zonzi dropping between the central defenders and the fullbacks providing the width without sacrificing possession. Real, however, were wise to Sampaoli’s scheme, as the next image shows.
As both Nasri and Vitolo turn to cut inside, Real react by quickly closing down. Casemiro (red circle) drops between the two center backs, allowing Marcelo (far side of yellow line) and Carvajal (tackling Nasri) to move wide to close down Sevilla’s wingers. Escudero has made himself an outlet on the overlap, but James is there to apply pressure, while Kroos tracks Vitolo’s run. As Mariano hasn’t come forward in this instance, Asensio and Morata guard against a return ball to N’Zonzi or one of the center backs.
Thus, Real apply pressure by being compact; without having to cover as much ground, the midfield can aid the fullbacks in pinching Sevilla on the wings, denying the opportunity to cut inside. Even if there is a level of unpredictability in the positions that Vitolo, Nasri and Ganso take, Morata and Asensio can cope with a switch of play or an overload on the opposite flank. Short of bringing forward Mercado or Rami, (a unwise idea given their lack of pace) Real have thoroughly outnumbered Sevilla at every turn in attack. Kiko Casilla did have some work to do, as Sevilla did have some success with through balls, but were generally toothless.
In defense, Sevilla weren’t much better. As previously shown, they generally played with a very narrow back four. Vitolo is a fairly willing runner, but Nasri and Ganso less so, which had the knock-on effect of creating far too much space on the flanks for Real. This series of images shows how, as Vitolo, even being more industrious than his fellow wingers, started to tire, more and more gaps opened up. In the above image, Modric is set to release Carvajal on the wing (yellow arrow), but Vitolo is ready to challenge the right back, anticipating the Croatian’s pass. The defense (orange box), meanwhile, stays narrow, not wanting to leave the slow-footed Mercado and Rami with too much space to make up against Morata or Asensio.
The above pair of images shows what happened, however, when the wingers failed to track back. In the first, Carvajal receives the ball from Modric in acres of space as the defense (orange line) stays narrow. Iborra vainly asks for offside, but Carvajal is away, and the result was Luka Modric having an ambitious overhead kick. Granted, if Modric had found the back of the net, the focus would have been on the midfielder’s athletic ability, not a breakdown of Sevilla’s defense, but this was far from an isolated incident, as the next image shows James in a similar amount of space. Even with N’Zonzi (white circle) tucked between the two center backs, Sevilla suffer another breakdown, as Escudero has failed to close down Modric quickly enough, leaving him to make a simple pass to James on the overlap, with Asensio and Morata waiting at the back post.
Having previously mentioned how Real’s compact and versatile midfield allowed them to effectively press Sevilla as they sought to build play from the back, here is that in action. In the first image, Modric harries Sergio Rico on the ball (red arrow), forcing Mercado and Rami deep and wide to give their ‘keeper an outlet. Because the two center backs have to move so far outside of their area to provide an option, the quality of pass which they can make is even more limited, with Mariano and Escudero already seeking to get forward. N’Zonzi tries to offer an option centrally, but Morata has dropped deeper than Modric to cut off that option.
Morata wasn’t shy about getting high up the pitch, either, though, as the next image shows he and Kroos taking their turn at limiting Rico, who is forced to punt the ball long as opposed to Sampaoli’s preferred patient build-up. It was more of the same that led to Real’s opener, as the third image shows. Here, Escudero has stayed a bit deeper to be an outlet for Rico, who finds Mercado. Under pressure from James, the Argentine then moves the ball ahead to N’Zonzi, who loses it to Casemiro. James, already in position after harrying Mercado, pounces and opens the scoring with a superb finish.
Real’s high press from midfield also allowed the two center backs to get forward as well. Varane and Nacho are both good passers of the ball, and Varane is fairly gifted with the ball at his feet, making the pair able to dictate play from midfield. With Nasri and Correa applying only token pressure to the pair, they were given far too many options. Here, Varane has the ball and can either play a short pass to Nacho (orange line), link with Modric (white line), whose move to drop for the ball is anticipated by the red arrow, or spread play wide to Marcelo (yellow arc). The Brazilian was in fine form on the evening, as he, like Carvajal, was afforded acres of space by Sevilla’s narrow back four (orange box). With more passing options, Real could better retain the ball in the face of a lack of pressure from Sevilla.
Even when Sevilla did manage to beat Real’s press, Zidane’s charges were quick to adapt, dropping into a compact 4-4-1-1. The back four tucks in, with Asensio and James moving wide to cover Escudero and Mariano, while Kroos takes up a more advanced role behind Morata. Here, the striker moves to put pressure on N’Zonzi, whose options are Mercado (below) or Nasri (just outside center circle). Ganso has dropped to offer another option, but Kroos’ position makes a pass to the Brazilian a risky proposition. The German’s positional intelligence allows him to thus have a positional fluidity while Modric and Casemiro act as more orthodox central midfielders, protecting the back four if Nasri or Ganso does manage to beat Kroos.
Effective and composed in attack, in transition, and in defence, Real delivered a consummate performance. Not only did Zidane’s 4-3-3/4-4-1-1 hybrid effectively limit Sevilla’s aggressive style, it also exploited its weaknesses. With too much space in wide areas as a result of an overly compact back four, it was a simple proposition for the efforts of James and Asensio to stretch play. In midfield, the positional versatility and pressing of Kroos and Modric forced Sevilla’s center backs into poor passing, gifting Real possession unnecessarily. In his current unbeaten streak, it may be true that Zidane has ridden his luck at times, but on the face of this performance, luck is becoming less and less of a factor.
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Eric Devin is an Oregon-based football writer. He writes about Ligue 1 for Get French Football News and Outside of the Boot.
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