Om Arvind writes a detailed tactical analysis of the La Liga match that ended Real Madrid 2-1 Real Betis.
Real Madrid reasserted their lead at the top of La Liga with a less than convincing win against mid-table side Real Betis. Zidane made some much needed rotations, bringing in Morata for the largely disliked Benzema, James in for the suspended Bale, Isco in for Casemiro, and Nacho in for Varane/Pepe.
With Victor Sánchez deciding to continue his back-five defensive experiment at the Bernabeu, Real Madrid predictably dominated possession of the ball. However, the home side found it difficult to break past a well-organized opposition defense and were forced to cross their way towards goal.
Real Betis surprisingly took the lead after Keylor Navas failed to hold onto a simple shot fired from the edge of the box. But the flattering scoreline was not to last, as Cristiano Ronaldo and Sergio Ramos used their unparalleled aerial ability to force a comeback win for the umpteenth time this season.
Real Madrid (4-4-2): Navas // Carvajal – Nacho – Ramos – Marcelo // James (Lucas V., 69’) – Modric – Kroos – Isco (Asensio, 79’) // Ronaldo – Morata (Benzema, 71’)
Real Betis (5-3-2): Adán // Piccini – Mandi (Navarro, 84’) – Pezzella – Tosca – Durmisi // Brasanac (Alegría, 86’) – Pardos – Ceballos // Castro (Petros, 64’) – Sanabria
Real Madrid’s Structure in Possession
On paper, Zinedine Zidane lined his side up in a 4-4-2, with Ronaldo and Morata leading the line. But in practice, Real Madrid often took up an asymmetric 4-4-1-1-2 structure.
As can be seen above, this was due to the near total freedom offered to Isco, who spent equal time on both flanks. The objective was to allow Isco to roam in from the left and provide central occupation. This would theoretically allow Los Blancos to advance into the final third by accessing zone 14 instead of relying solely on the flanks.
Isco soon expanded upon this narrow playmaker role by moving over to the right flank to provide overloads against Riza Durmisi and Dani Ceballos.
These types of movements were not replicated at the same numerical level by James Rodríguez, who mostly chose to stick to the right flank. Unlike Isco, he played a more conventional inverted winger role, as he looked to cut inside to cross and shoot or feed his fullback partner on the overlap.
This created the asymmetry noted previously, with Madrid often seeing an overload of players on the right flank, leaving Marcelo isolated on the opposite wing.
Real Betis’ Low Block
The aforementioned possessional structure was enacted to maximize Real’s central penetration and create higher quality chances through the middle. However, Real Betis’ well-organized 5-3-2 formation largely negated the attainment of that objective.
Part of this was down to the natural make-up of the formation, which provided an extra man in defense and thus created greater horizontal compactness across the back-line. Real Betis’ fullbacks could afford to aggressively challenge Madrid’s wide attacking options without overly worrying about the space they left behind. Additionally, any switch of play would be unlikely to catch Betis out in transition, as their width provided natural cover against the dangers of a long dagger from Toni Kroos or Luka Modric.
In order to enhance the natural effectiveness of his formation, Sánchez asked one of Sanabria and Castro (depending on the flank) to drop into midfield when defending, creating a rough 5-4-1 formation. The striker dropping into midfield was tasked with shutting off central passing lanes with his body positioning. To make matters more difficult, Sanabria and Castro were sometimes aided by another central midfielder, making it impossible to progress play vertically.
Once the ball was inevitably shifted wide, the central midfielder closest to the ball would position himself to block a vertical pass down the wing before aggressively pressing the man on the ball. This often turned the Madrid attacker towards the center of the pitch as he looked for a square pass, only to find his potential passing lane blocked off by Sanabria or Castro.
This left the man on the ball only backwards passing options, which would be pressed from behind by the lone striker in order to force Madrid into a rash pass.
Real Madrid’s Issues in Build-up & Potential Solutions
Faced with such a formidable defensive structure, Madrid had little choice but to punt the ball wide and launch crosses into the box.
While they did pursue this avenue of attack quite frequently, it was not the only thing Los Meregues attempted. As touched upon before, Real tried to use Isco’s (and to a lesser extent James’) positioning to create central penetration. But aside from the fact that this was made difficult by the superb body positioning from Betis’ central midfielders, the tight marking by the away side’s defenders made it tough to play quick passing combinations in and around zone 14.
Thus, while the deep movements of Isco, James, and occasionally Morata and Ronaldo, were found by their teammates, they were rarely ever able to make their momentary positional superiority pay-off thanks to the lack of time and space afforded by Betis’ back line.
It never once occurred to the All Whites to exploit the space left behind by the aggressive marking movements of Betis’ center backs, with players not immediately involved in the play.
Instead of trying to play one-two’s into the space left behind in the box, a third Madrid attacker needed to rush into the gap. While this happens, the ball receiver needs to hold position to maximize the window of vertical incompactness. In this way, Madrid could’ve used Betis’ tight marking scheme against them, while simultaneously allowing the central movements of Isco and James to amount something.
But this strategy was understandably not attempted, as such complicated off-the-ball movements would’ve required extensive preparation prior to this match.
Thus, once Madrid’s probing vertical passes failed, Modric and Kroos looked to change the point of the attack with quick switches of play or rapid short passes that circulated the ball to the far-side fullback. The goal was to force Betis’ defensive structure to shift, thus putting Betis in defensive transition. While the away side’s midfield did move over as a unit from flank to flank, the presence of a back-five enabled Sánchez’s men to comfortably deal with Madrid’s switches of play.
This attempt at creating horizontal compactness problems against a side with a back-five demonstrates Madrid’s miscalculation of the problem at hand. Instead of shifting the ball from side to side from positions around 20 yards in front of Betis’ box, Madrid’s midfielders should’ve considered circulating the ball backwards in an effort to coax Betis out of their deep defensive shape. This would’ve created space either in-behind the back-five or in-between the lines (depending on whether Betis chose to raise their defensive line or simply stretch out their defensive banks).
However, this would’ve only worked if Madrid circulated the ball backwards from positions well entrenched in the final third. Betis would be well positioned to press Ramos and Nacho if the ball was passed back from positions near the halfway line. This is because their team shape would be positioned higher up the pitch and in a state prepared to defend attacks originating from the middle third. If Betis was asked to continually re-organize themselves from an extremely deep structure to a shape positioned to stop attacks starting from the halfway line, then the potential to exploit vertical compactness issues arises.
While play originated from a goal kick, the attacking space generated by Betis’ advanced defensive structure demonstrates the potential chances that could’ve been created by moving the ball backwards before going forward.
Thus, in essence, Madrid needed to show greater patience when in possession. Instead of pressing the issue when the attack had failed to create any meaningful positional superiority, Modric and Kroos should’ve accepted defeat and reset play. This would’ve created more situations for Madrid to attempt central play and could’ve possibly given them greater opportunities at creating higher quality chances.
Kroos and Modric’s Different Attitudes in Possession
Another Issue that affected Madrid’s ability in possession was the opposite ways in which Modric and Kroos went about their business. While the Croatian took an active role in trying to find advanced attackers, the German was content to merely be a passenger in the game.
As can be seen above, an overwhelming number of Kroos’ passes were played sideways. There was little attempt to progress play in the vertical manner that he is famed for.
The passing combination chart tells us that Kroos’ pass attempts were dominated by an urge to find Marcelo and Modric, meaning the German was ceding control of the game to players in close proximity to him.
It is hard to understand why Kroos decided to play such a passive game, but it is clear that it affected Madrid. Having only one central midfielder in a 4-4-2 looking to play progressive and thoughtful passes greatly limits Madrid’s nexus of effectiveness. In this match’s case, this nexus was limited to the right-hand side of the pitch (where Modric was located), causing players not located near that sector to suffer from insufficient service.
Contrary to previous matches, Los Merengues’ issues in build-up had less to do with offensive positioning and more to do with the direction of passing, the management of Real’s spacial dominance, and the lack of patience in possession.
To be fair to Zidane, the above problem only truly arises against sides who display immense defensive potency, something that Victor Sánchez’s Real Betis showed in spades. For most managers not named Pep Guardiola, the destruction of such a finely formed defensive block is tasked to pure individual quality. Zidane is no different, as he watched on as Ronaldo slammed home a brilliant Marcelo cross, before Sergio Ramos executed his set-piece magic to win the game.
Real Betis will probably feel unfortunate to lose, but their defensive solidity came at the expense of their offensive potency. If it wasn’t for a horrific Keylor Navas mistake, Ronaldo’s goal might’ve been enough to win the match.
Thus, while Real failed to sparkle, it is clear that they were the superior team and deserved to win.
Read all our tactical analyses here
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