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Om Arvind writes a detailed tactical analysis about the La Liga game that finished Athletic Bilbao 1-2 Real Madrid
Real Madrid managed to squeeze past the fiery Basques in a tight encounter that could have easily ended up as a draw. Los Blancos initially tried to start on the front foot by implementing a high press, but they were soon pinned back by Athletic Bilbao’s own press and some impressive ball retention.
The game soon saw Real Madrid go on the defensive, with the away side content to battle through Athletic’s press in order to score a goal via a counter-attack or a set-piece.
This gave Athletic Bilbao more of the ball in the attacking phases of the game, but they failed to make their dominance tell. Their affinity to continually spread the ball wide and cross, proved relatively easy to defend against, allowing Madrid to come away with a close 2-1 victory.
Athletic Bilbao (4-2-3-1): Kepa // Marcos – Laporte – Álvarez – Balenziaga // Etxebarria (Rico, 80’) – Iturraspe // Williams – García (Susaeta, 86’) – Lekue (Muniain, 59’) // Aduriz
Real Madrid (4-3-3): Navas // Carvajal – Nacho – Ramos – Marcelo // Modric (Vázquez, 62) – Casemiro – Kroos // Bale – Benzema (Morata, 85’) – Ronaldo (Isco, 79’)
With Real Madrid quickly settling into a deep block once play entered their own half, Athletic Bilbao were tasked with breaking down a well-set defensive structure. As is typical of Ernesto Valverde’s Basque side, Athletic chose to do so by attacking down the flanks. The main objective was to take advantage of Aritz Aduriz’s aerial dominance, as the veteran striker had scored the second highest amount of headed goals (only one behind Ronaldo) in La Liga of any current player at the time.
Much of this involved exploiting the trickery of wingers Lekue and Inaki Williams. Both wide-men often made long ball carrying movements to break through packed spaces and whip in crosses.
However, Valverde didn’t solely rely on individual brilliance to create chances. He also fashioned a system in possession that looked to exploit any compactness issues through clever movements into the half spaces.
This meant that Lekue and Williams often abandoned their positions near the touchline to drift inwards and receive a pass more centrally. Raul García also made an effort to execute these type of movements. This was especially true in the right halfspace, since Inaki was often less inclined to abandon his wide position when compared to Lekue.
Once these technically adept players received the ball in line-breaking positions, they would quickly look to shift the ball out wide, so as to whip a cross into space before Real Madrid could reorganize into a deeper defensive shape.
Yeray Álvarez and, especially, Aymeric Laporte were crucial to this strategy, as Kroos and Modric’s tight marking of Etxebarria and Iturraspe forced the center backs to forge forward and play accurate vertical passes in the stead of their midfield teammates.
As Real Madrid gradually withdrew into a deeper shell, the half spaces were blocked off in favor of allowing Athletic’s central midfielders space. While the double-pivot duo continued to try to probe on the wings, they occasionally looked to ping sharp vertical daggers into Aduriz, who would then flick play wide before running into the box.
In order to maintain their dominance in Madrid’s half and create fast transition opportunities, Ernesto Valverde decided to employ his classic high press. Just like with their build-up, the Basque’s press was focused primarily on the wings.
Both Aduriz and Raul García would shift over to block off passing lanes to the closest center back and central midfielder, while Inaki or Lekue would press the man on the ball. To prevent one of Madrid’s wide attackers from receiving a pass, fullbacks Marcos or Balenziaga would push high up the pitch to tightly man mark their opponent. To completely shut off any short passing options, Iturraspe and Etxebarria would mark Toni Kroos and Luka Modric. Due to the latter duo’s preference to gravitate towards the ball, Athletic often ended up with six players pressing on one wing.
The overwhelming number of players involved in this structure, ensured that Athletic always overloaded the wing in question, forcing Madrid into harried decisions that prevented them from entering the final third with regularity.
In order to maximize the effectiveness of this high press, Valverde asked his men to specifically target Casemiro – the weak-link in Madrid’s side when it comes to dealing with pressure. While the Brazilian did manage to shield the ball and draw fouls on 6 occasions, he was still dispossessed 5 times. Luckily for his team, those giveaways mostly occurred higher up the pitch, with men behind the ball to deal with the situation.
This intense pressure forced Madrid into situations where the most favorable match-ups available were tight 1v1’s. Athletic’s intense application of Valverde’s scheme and the raucous atmosphere of San Mamés initially rattled the All Whites and forced them into giving possession up cheaply at the beginning of the game.
But as Real settled down, their superior individual quality on the ball began to tell. Kroos, in particular, began to take control of the game with his ball control, calmness, and ability to play line-breaking passes. With Casemiro less comfortable in possession, Kroos often dropped extremely deep to receive passes from Ramos, before holding onto the ball to attract the attention of Athletic’s pressers. Once Kroos saw multiple men charging at him, he would make sharp movements to avoid the pressure, before bouncing passes off the free Casemiro or the deep movements of Benzema and Ronaldo.
If Kroos was unable to pass to players next to him, he would often attempt to switch play or wait for Modric to come to him for one-two exchanges.
Karim Benzema also played a massive role in helping Madrid progress play.
As can be seen above, the French striker came extremely deep to receive the ball. This was crucial due to Madrid’s flat midfield line, which was compressed by the need for Modric and Kroos to come deep for the ball. Without Benzema’s intelligent runs, there would’ve been no link for Madrid to enter Athletic’s half and relieve pressure.
Once Benzema received the ball, he looked to initiate quick passing combinations with Madrid’s advancing midfielders in order to allow his team to progress up the pitch as a whole.
This crucial link-up play, coupled with Kroos’ world class press-resistance, gradually allowed Madrid to dismantle Athletic Bilbao’s press. Thus, the Basques were prevented from creating any true chances in transition, eliminating a key tool from their arsenal.
A fleeting, but relevant, feature of this game was Real Madrid’s sporadic pressing – if only for the reason that it led to the first goal of the match. As mentioned before, Zizou tried to get his team to start on the front foot by asking BBC to press with support of Modric and Kroos. Benzema was given the role of “pressing trigger,” meaning his teammates moved to support him when he rushed the keeper while cover shadowing the center back he was nearest to.
Ronaldo and Bale would look to mark the fullbacks while Kroos and Modric would alternate between marking the defensive midfielder and the free center back.
Athletic looked to break this press by launching long balls into Madrid’s half, which proved fairly successful on most occasions, due to the height advantage of their central midfielders and Aduriz. But this strategy also happened to be their undoing, as keeper Kepa mindlessly gifted Madrid possession of the ball in the 24th minute, when he could have instead exploited a weakness in the opposition’s pressing structure.
Ramos won the ball in the air and the ball soon fell at the feet of Casemiro. With Ronaldo and Benzema still high up the pitch, the Brazilian launched an excellent long ball to Ronaldo, who controlled and laid off an immaculate assist for the French striker to finish. It was an odd moment where Real benefitted from a poorly executed plan, but it demonstrates just how lethal this team can be even when not functioning properly in certain situations.
A contentious part of this game was Zinedine Zidane’s curious substitutions. Avoiding like-for-like changes until he brought Benzema off for Morata in the 86th minute, Zidane subbed on Lucas Vázquez for Luka Modric (62 mins) and Isco on for Ronaldo (79 mins).
The first decision was especially puzzling on the face of things, as Modric’s ability in tight areas seemed crucial for Madrid’s battle in midfield. But with Real 1-0 up in the second half and struggling to get a hold of the ball, it was actually a reasonable decision to bring on a player with greater defensive qualities.
It was only a mere coincidence that Athletic scored minutes after the substitution. It had little to do with Lucas’ involvement with the game and more to do with Casemiro’s shoddy marking of Aduriz.
Not only did Lucas provide immense defensive coverage (4 tackles) with his work-rate and stamina, but his substitution allowed Madrid to move into a 4-4-2, with Bale on the left-wing.
These two banks of four allowed Madrid greater horizontal coverage than their 4-3-3 and allowed them to become ultra-compact by parking the bus. Lucas, Kroos, Casemiro, and Bale could be seen sitting only 7-8 yards away from their defensive line, with Benzema and Ronaldo sitting well inside their own half to block off backwards passing options.
This completely shut off Athletic’s attempts to penetrate through the halfspaces and forced them out wide into predictable wing attacks.
Casemiro absolutely thrived in this situation, as he single-handedly stopped countless attacks with his world class ball winning ability and his excellent defensive positioning.
But as the game wore on, the probability of Madrid maintaining an exhausting level of defensive focus became less and less likely, prompting Zidane to bring on Isco for Ronaldo with little over 10 minutes remaining. While Cristiano certainly wasn’t poor (as his team-high chance creation numbers of 3 key passes and 2 assists attest to), Isco’s technical skills put another body in midfield and allowed Madrid to reassert their dominance over the football. His quick feet and penchant for quick combinations allowed Madrid to push past Athletic’s press and retain possession in the final third, crucially giving Real’s defense a breather in the final minutes of the game.
If Madrid were a bit lucky to score their first goal, they certainly weren’t with their second.
Los Merengues struck from another well-constructed set-piece, that once again tricked the opposition with near post runs from Ronaldo and Bale.
Since both players are immense in the air, the Portuguese and the Welshman were tightly marked as they made their planned runs towards the man taking the corner – Toni Kroos. But instead of attempting to score from a difficult angle with a man on his tail, Ronaldo, the intended target, flicked the ball towards the back post. With Ramos arriving from his classic deep position to attack the six-yard box, the attention of Athletic Bilbao’s zonal markers were focused on him.
But unlike so many occasions before, Ramos proved to be a decoy, leaving Casemiro free to tap-in an easy goal at the back post.
While such plays are often rarely admired by tactical analysts and fans alike, it is difficult to scoff at a tool that has arguably been the biggest reason for Madrid’s success this season.
Zidane came to San Mamés with a pragmatic, defensive plan, that was well executed by his men. Casemiro was the standout player on the defensive end, while Kroos and Benzema were brilliant on offense. Ronaldo also deserves a mention for his cutting edge in the final third.
Ernesto Valverde will probably be disappointed with the result, seeing as he created chances of equal quality to Madrid’s, but things will always be difficult when you rely so heavily on the low percentage strategy of crossing.
Thus, while Madrid definitely didn’t play a pretty game, they ground out another tough away result that is sure to be crucial in this final stretch of the title race.
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