Om Arvind provides a comprehensive tactical analysis of the La Liga game that finished Osasuna 1-3 Real Madrid.
Real Madrid returned to La Liga action against 20th placed Osasuna and managed to snatch a 3-1 victory that will leave many Madrid fans dissatisfied. Famed for being critical, Madridistas perhaps have a right to be disgruntled with the night’s performance, as Zidane made the odd choice of lining his side up in a more defensive-minded 3-5-2 against one of the worst attacks in the league.
For his part, Osasuna’s manager, Petar Vasiljevic, lined his side up in a classic 4-4-2, in order to stay defensively compact and hit Madrid on the break.
What resulted was a closely contested encounter that saw Madrid struggle to create chances due to poor midfield structure, until Zidane switched to a back four and brought on James Rodríguez.
Real Madrid (3-5-2): Navas // Varane – Ramos – Nacho // Danilo (James, 57’) – Marcelo // Modric – Casemiro – Isco (Kovacic, 88’) // Benzema (Lucas Vázquez, 72’) – Ronaldo
Osasuna (4-4-2): Sirigu // Tano (García, 15’) – Oier – Vujadinovic – Fuentes (Clerc, 53) // Romero – Fausto (Loé, 61’) – Causic – Berenguer // Riviêre – León
Real Madrid’s Flatness in Midfield
As has been the case many times under Zidane’s reign, there was a big problem with the way Real Madrid’s midfield was set-up in possession.
The primary issue was flatness in midfield, as Modric and Isco failed to take up advanced positions centrally or in the half spaces to receive vertical passes and break through Osasuna’s defensive lines.
This was due to the fact that both Modric and Isco took on the responsibility of receiving the ball from their center backs and distributing from deep.
Normally, this is the responsibility of the team’s defensive midfielder – in this case Casemiro – when his team fields a three-man midfield. Instead of sticking to that convention, Zidane chose to push Casemiro out of the 1st possession phase and asked Isco and Modric to drop deep in place of him.
This tactical adjustment was not a novel experiment and is something that Zidane has done very often in the past. However, normally, Zidane only moves Casemiro ahead of his interiors to protect the Brazilian from opposition presses, as Casemiro is often rattled into giving possession away when tightly marked or aggressively tackled.
But today, Osasuna hardly pressed Real Madrid at all as they sat in a medium-high block and allowed Madrid’s deepest midfielders to receive the ball under only token pressure. Thus, it was mind-boggling to see Zidane often position Casemiro as Madrid’s most advanced midfielder, while Modric and Isco sat in front of Osasuna’s midfield block.
With Casemiro often the sole link in-between the lines, Madrid were forced to pointlessly circulate the ball at the back before either punting the ball forwards or passing into the wings, where Marcelo and Danilo were forced into individual actions to push the ball into the final third.
On the few occasions where Madrid did manage to enter Osasuna’s defensive third, Madrid were rarely optimally positioned to attack with speed and incisiveness. This was due to a lag-period that Madrid had to endure before Modric and Isco could recover from their deep positions and join the attack. By the time that happened, Osasuna had usually re-organized their defensive shape and were well prepared to withstand Madrid’s attacks.
The only option for Madrid to have kept their momentum in the final third was to use Casemiro as an attacking link, a player best known for his ability in Madrid’s own half.
Nevertheless, Casemiro did remarkably well in a situation where he clearly wasn’t comfortable, as he combined with Benzema to release Ronaldo, who scored the opening goal of the game.
However, it’s safe to say that these types of plays involving Casemiro are a rarity and are something that Zidane can’t rely on in the future to win football matches.
How Real Madrid’s Strikers Attempted to Solve Their Team’s Midfield Problems
The above problems were periodically recognized by Ronaldo and Benzema, who made a concerted effort to provide central occupation where Isco and Modric were supposed to.
Benzema played a particularly big role in this regard, as he consistently abandoned the temptation to run in-behind Osasuna’s defense, in favor of acting as a passing outlet for Isco and Modric in the left half space. In the final third, Benzema acted almost as a number 10, as he hovered around zone 14 and looked to feed passes into Ronaldo.
Cristiano did the same as Benzema, often pulling away from advanced positions to challenge for lofted chips from Ramos and provide penetration in the right half space.
But unlike Benzema, he also looked to make dangerous and unexpected runs past Osasuna’s relatively high defensive line in order to provide his side with a quick and direct path to goal.
This was an especially useful contribution from Ronaldo considering the mess that Madrid’s midfield was in.
Real Madrid’s Lack of Passing Triangles on the Wings
Despite Ronaldo and Benzema’s immensely helpful movements through the center, the forwards came up short when helping Madrid build up from out wide.
Instead of connecting with Marcelo and Danilo when Los Blancos passed through the flank, Madrid’s center forwards chose to stay central or make runs into the channels.
The only rational explanation for this is that Benzema and Ronaldo lacked the necessary familiarity with the 3-5-2 – a formation Madrid have only utilized 3-4 times this season – to make the correct off-the-ball movements, given their world class footballing IQ.
In Madrid’s 4-3-3 (something Benzema and Ronaldo are far more used to), the natural shape of the formation creates natural passing triangles on the flank between the fullback, central midfielder, and winger/wide forward. In a 3-5-2, there exists only two natural links on any given flank: the fullback and the central midfielder.
In order to create passing combinations down the flank and overload the natural 1v1 situation that a 3-5-2 creates (with the opposition fullback and central midfielder), one of the forwards has to come wide, something that never happened for Madrid.
Thus, Los Blancos’ ability to play down the flank was seriously stunted, largely eliminating Marcelo and Danilo’s influence in the first half.
Osasuna’s Malleable Defensive Shape
As poor as Madrid were for the first half of the game, Osasuna must be given a lot of credit for contesting the top-ranked team in the league. This was largely down to Vasiljevic’s pragmatic, yet not overly-defensive, 4-4-2, which forced Madrid to work for their chances.
Instead of sitting deep and parking the bus, as might’ve been expected from the bottom-placed side in La Liga, Osasuna made the braver decision to sit in a medium block and contest Madrid’s entry into the middle third of the pitch.
This turned out to be an excellent decision given Real Madrid’s midfield woes and it is highly likely that Vasiljevic studied his opposition’s games and identified how Los Merengues often struggle when trying to pass through compact lines of defense planted in the middle of the pitch.
Evidence of this can be seen in the way Osasuna moved out of their rigid 4-4-2 structure when creating a medium-high block as the match progressed.
It’s clear that Osasuna recognized the lack of central occupation from Madrid’s interiors (recognition that must have come from the manager), as the home side quickly began to commit one central midfielder forward to reinforce the forward line of their defensive block and make it harder for Madrid’s centre halves to pass the ball out from their own half.
There was no danger of being exposed by a vertical pass, because Casemiro, at the very most, was the only player moving in-between the lines.
Osasuna’s Counter-Attacking Strategy
The culmination of all this defensive work was Osasuna’s speedy counter-attacks, which often followed a specific pattern.
Osasuna specifically looked to exploit Madrid’s lack of defensive width in transition, due to Marcelo and Danilo always initially being caught up-field within the first couple seconds of Real losing the ball.
Sergio León and Jaime Romero were Osasuna’s main points of attack, as they continuously made runs into the channels chasing through balls and long-range passes.
While a 3-5-2 is technically set-up for this, since it allows two center backs to spread wider than usual, Varane and Nacho both fared extremely poorly in one-on-one situations, as the trickery of Osasuna’s attackers was sublime at times.
It also didn’t help that Varane and Nacho often chose to aggressively mark their wide attackers, meaning they were consistently burned on the turn, and that Marcelo and Danilo were often lackadaisical when tracking back, meaning the defensive overload that a 3-5-2 is supposed to provide was mostly non-existent.
This pattern of play led to Osasuna’s only goal on the night and could’ve resulted in more if it wasn’t for Keylor Navas’ superb shot-stopping.
Zinedine Zidane’s Tactical Change and the Impact of James Rodríguez
Clearly seeing the impotence of his 3-5-2, Zidane made the decision to revert to a 4-4-2 by bringing on James Rodríguez for Danilo in the 57th minute (James was deployed as a roaming playmaker on the left-wing, while Isco moved to the right).
The impact was nearly instant. The presence of another number 10 and the change in midfield structure to free Isco provided Madrid with more penetrative movement. This doesn’t mean that the midfield issues of the first half disappeared entirely.
Isco still dropped excruciatingly deep to receive the ball on occasion, but this became less frequent than before.
The advantage of this reduction in frequency was demonstrated by Isco’s run into the box that resulted in a goal in the 62nd minute, following Benzema’s failed dribble inside the box, something that wouldn’t have happened had Isco been receiving the ball 2 yards from Ramos 10 seconds earlier.
Such a decisive impact caused BeinSports to name Isco man of the match; an arguable decision, considering James was probably even more influential than the Spaniard due to the incredible offensive balance the Colombian brought to his side.
He created passing triangles when he stayed wide, popped up as a key passing outlet in zone 14, and provided excellent through balls and vertical passes to feed the hungry runs of Cristiano Ronaldo.
To put it simply, Madrid looked like a side transformed once James stepped on the pitch.
Real Madrid’s Improved Midfield Structure in a 4-2-3-1
But Zidane didn’t stop with only one change. Seeing the effect of a wide playmaker dancing in-between Osasuna’s defensive lines, the Frenchman looked to permanently position a No. 10 in zone 14 with the substitution of Lucas Vázquez for Karim Benzema in the 72nd minute.
Just like with his previous substitution, this change dramatically improved Madrid’s midfield structure.
Isco’s remaining unnecessary deep movements disappeared as he became his side’s number 10, while James cut in from his natural position on the right to provide central occupation and feed Ronaldo.
The result was easier access to the final third and a flood of attacking movements that pinned back and rattled Osasuna, leading them to give the ball away cheaply and concede a goal to Lucas Vázquez in the dying minutes of the game.
Despite a horrible first 57 minutes, Real Madrid fully deserved their victory based on the higher quality of chances they created once Zidane shifted to a back four and made his substitutions. Thus, while the Real Madrid manager deserves criticism for his poor approach to this game, he also deserves praise for recognizing what went wrong and fixing it.
Meanwhile, new manager Vasiljevic can hold his head high despite remaining winless in all of his seven matches so far. He cleverly exploited Real’s weaknesses and gave a side with vastly inferior individual quality an excellent chance at getting something from this game. One can’t ask for more than that.
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