Om Arvind writes a detailed tactical analysis about the crucial La Liga game that finished Celta Vigo 1-4 Real Madrid
La Liga’s penultimate matchday saw Celta Vigo host Real Madrid, on a day where all other league teams were resting and recuperating in preparation for their final game on the weekend. The match, originally to be held in February, was postponed due to poor weather, causing Real Madrid to initially feel hard done by. They felt that their fixture list would become congested in their most crucial stretch of the season, causing them to desperately try to play the game on the same day. But considering Celta’s miserable form in the lead up to this game, Real will probably be quietly happy with how things turned out.
Zidane approached this game with his strongest possible eleven (with the exception of Danilo in for Nacho at right back) in anticipation of a tough contest, despite Celta’s form issues. Eduardo Berizzo responded in kind with his team selection, but chose the curious decision of fielding star player Iago Aspas on the right of a 4-2-3-1.
Right from the off, the game took on an end-to-end feel, with both teams trying to unsettle and unbalance the opposition with a high passing tempo. Berizzo and Zidane’s poorly constructed pressing schemes contributed to this game state, as the ball consistently bypassed walls of players and put attackers into good offensive situations against the oppositions’ back-lines. Thanks to Real Madrid’s on-the-ball quality, Zidane’s men took the greatest advantage of the situation, as Cristiano Ronaldo scored twice in fast transition within a timeframe of 47 minutes.
Things began to look impossible for Celta when Aspas was unfairly sent off after “diving” in the penalty box, but a lucky deflection from a Guidetti shot gave the home side some hope. But alas, the man-advantage coupled with Real’s quality soon began to tell, as Real put two additional goals past Álvarez in the 69th and 87th minute, courtesy of Karim Benzema and Toni Kroos.
Celta Vigo’s Ineffective High Press and Poor Preparation for the Counterpress
While both teams experienced issues in enacting their high pressure, Celta Vigo’s problems were more severe and ultimately fatal to their chances of getting a result from the game. This was largely down to simple vertical compactness issues, which stemmed from Celta’s inability to combat the overloads provided by Real’s diamond midfield.
As can be seen in the video above, Celta pressed in a very rough 4-1-4-1 structure, with Guidetti spearheading a pressing attack of Aspas, Jozabed, Hernández, and Sisto (from right to left). Hernández, being a central midfielder in a double-pivot, had to step up to create this structure, leaving Daniel Wass as the defensive midfielder tasked with providing vertical compactness. On paper, this appears to be a very sound pressing shape, since it theoretically provides adequate horizontal access while still making it possible to prevent vertical exploitation. But unfortunately for Berizzo, football is not played on paper, and the execution is often just as, if not more important, than the theory itself.
Part of Celta’s problem was their inability to deal with Real’s diamond midfield, which provided Zidane’s men numerical advantage in the center of the park. This ability to overload midfield gave Real the potential to develop a devastating press-resistance system, as they would nearly always have a man free. However, this advantage was hampered by the presence of Casemiro as Real’s defensive midfielder, as it forced Modric and Kroos (in particular) deeper to receive the ball, due to Zidane’s unwillingness to trust the Brazilian in distribution (or due to Casemiro’s weaknesses in distribution, whichever way you choose to look at it).
Toni Kroos (Real Madrid’s interior), was forced deeper than Casemiro (Real Madrid’s defensive midfielder) in possession.
But deep movements from Ronaldo and Benzema more than compensated for this, as they provided the passing outlets in-between the line that Kroos, and to a lesser extent Modric, were unable to provide.
The result was an overwhelmed Daniel Wass, as Celta’s four-man pressing line refused to adjust to Real Madrid’s shape. Instead of pulling men deeper to mark either Isco or the deep run of a forward, everyone stayed in their positions, allowing Kroos, Modric, Varane, and Ramos, to pick apart Celta with ease. To play devil’s advocate, trying to mark the roaming movement of Isco, Ronaldo, and Benzema could’ve been disastrous, since these three moved all over the park.
Isco’s movement was particularly devastating, as in addition to his line-breaking positioning, he constantly shifted to the flank in focus to provide overloads and create passing triangles.
A more rigid structure meant that Celta’s shape could not easily be manipulated.
If that was Berizzo’s intent, he needed to ensure that his forward pressers provided appropriate cover shadows to block off passing lanes in behind them, something that never happened. Instead, Celta’s rigidity proved to be their undoing, as Real broke through their press countless times, allowing Cristiano Ronaldo to bludgeon a goal from outside the box in the 9th minute.
Ronaldo would later score for his second, but this time as a result of Celta’s abysmal counterpress, which was even worse than their regular high pressure. As is shown in the same video above, Celta Vigo’s total inability to adequately guard dangerous spaces completely opened them up to the counter-attacking quality of the All Whites. However, the reason for this was different than with the high press. Unlike before, the problem wasn’t rigidity – it was the complete lack of structure, which arose out of poor/non-existent positional play.
As Celta approached Real’s penalty box, Berizzo neglected to form his attacking structure in a way that could quickly transition to a cogent counterpressing shape in case they lost the ball. In other words, once in the final third, Berizzo did not instruct his players to cover the spaces in front of Real’s penalty box. Instead, he was content to see his holding midfielders, Wass and Hernández, sit extremely deep, as they watched on as Celta looked to create something with a front six consisting of Aspas, Guidetti, Jozabed, Sisto, and the two fullbacks: Mallo and Jonny. With Jozabed running into the box every time Celta got the ball near the final third, no one was left to guard the edges of Real’s penalty box, meaning that if Real regained possession, they could charge right down Celta’s throat with no resistance. This left poor Wass and Hernández backpedaling desperately against the pace and power of Real’s counter-attack.
Real Madrid’s Diamond Proves to Be Detrimental to Effective Pressing
With Real cutting through Celta’s midfield as if it were a bar of rapidly melting butter, it’s a wonder that Zidane’s side never truly controlled the game. This was down to their own pressing issues, which were pretty much the exact opposite of Celta’s. Instead of having problems in protecting the belly of their formation, Los Blancos struggled to defend their flanks, which was always going to be the weakness of a diamond formation.
Real’s general pressing structure was a narrow 4-1-2-1-2, with Casemiro sitting in front of the back four and behind two wide central midfielders, which were usually Modric and Isco. Kroos was often the player charging forward ahead of his fellow midfielders in his usual role as the pressing trigger, meaning he either went to the left or right of Ronaldo and Benzema or split the strike-duo through the center.
The first problem with this was the immediate transition that needed to be made when Real set up to press. Because Zidane prefers Kroos to be the player initiating the press with a forward run, he had to constantly switch positions with Isco, potentially giving Celta the time to gather their surroundings and exploit a shape still in transition.
However, the more egregious problem was the complete lack of horizontal coverage provided by this structure. With Real sitting so narrow, Celta had easy access to the wings, making Real’s high pressing efforts a complete waste of energy. As Celta shifted the ball to one flank, Madrid would quickly look to press on the wing in question with Kroos, the wide CM (Modric or Isco), and Casemiro, while the fullback pushed up to mark the opposition winger. While this provided sufficient numbers to guard against the first flank attack, a simple lateral rotation of possession allowed Celta to access the opposite wing, which would be guarded only by Luka Modric or Isco, who would be positioned in the half space.
Thus, with this simple pattern of play, Vigo consistently bypassed Los Merengues’ pressure and entered the final third with little to no problem at all.
Real Madrid’s Deeper Defensive Shape
As Real receded from their press and into their own defensive third, they largely decided to keep their narrow shape. It is unclear if this was Zidane’s instructions or the incapability of his players to execute his intended vision, since Real did occasionally defend in a flat 4-4-2. Regardless, what is clear is that when they did defend in the narrower 4-1-3-2/4-4-2 diamond, they lacked defensive solidity.
This was again due to the way the flanks were left open for Celta to attack. With the center often inaccessible thanks to Madrid’s over-compact foursome, Celta found easy passing lanes out wide, allowing them to threaten Real dangerously. This was especially true in the 1st half, where Celta outshot the visitors 10 to 4. Modric and Isco (who remember, had swapped positions with Kroos with the initiation of the press), did their best to sprint to the flanks whenever it was under siege and actually managed to shut down several Celta attacks that were not executed with rapid speed. However, due to their lack of a big engine and a high top speed, they were often completely incapable of stopping crosses or penetrative passes originating from the wings.
However, as mentioned before, Real did sometimes transition into a 4-4-2, which sometimes left them in limbo on the occasions where Madrid’s midfield couldn’t figure out what shape they wanted to morph into. There were moments where the All Whites seemed caught between the two worlds of playing a flat midfield line and defending narrow, causing severe vertical compactness issues if Casemiro pushed up and Real’s central midfielders didn’t push wide. Thus, Celta Vigo found an unexpected amount of joy in zone 14, something that they couldn’t exploit properly thanks to poor final touches, awry passes, abhorrent decision-making, and a brilliant Keylor Navas.
The Iago Aspas Red Card Ensured Victory for Real Madrid
It is always unfortunate when referees make the headlines and that is what is sure to happen after this clash. Needless to say, the unfair red card on Iago Aspas was the final nail in the coffin for a side two goals down and with little to play for other than pride. Even worse, Aspas’ “dive” was likely the result of a legitimate foul by Sergio Ramos, meaning Celta could’ve gotten a penalty that could’ve allowed them back in the game.
To be clear, the referee was extremely poor for both sides, as he went on to deny Ronaldo and Real a clear penalty only minutes later, but it’s inarguable that his decisions hurt Vigo more given the circumstances.
Nevertheless, Celta responded admirably to going a man down, as they pressed forward with greater and intensity and incisiveness until they found a goal through John Guidetti.
However, Celta shot themselves in the foot with a poor giveaway in midfield, which allowed Ronaldo to single-handedly charge his way into the Celta box and lay the ball off to Karim Benzema, who eventually scored a tap-in after an exchange with Marcelo. That goal killed Celta’s spirit and the game, allowing Real to enjoy 20 minutes of utter dominance and a Toni Kroos goal before the final whistle blew.
The match ended 4-1 in Real Madrid’s favor, but it’s clear that the scoreline is flattering to the victors. At the very least, Celta were an even match for their opponents, in both their weaknesses and their strengths. Thus, one can say that Eduardo Berizzo has every right to feel hard done by, but it must be noted that he has only himself to blame for his poor pressing tactics.
Zinedine Zidane, for his part, wasn’t that superior tactically, but in a game where two teams employ deficient tactical systems on defense, the side with Cristiano Ronaldo usually prevails. Nevertheless, the Real manager shouldn’t let this victory mask the fact that the 4-4-2 diamond is a formation ill-suited for Real’s personnel. As we have seen on previous occasions this season, Modric, Kroos, and Isco, lack the legs to effectively protect the flanks when teams circulate the ball rapidly, leaving them open to dangerous 1v1 and 2v1 situations vs. the fullbacks. Madridistas can only hope that Zidane observes this and changes his approach for the title-deciding league match against Málaga.
Om is a massive Real Madrid fan with an affinity towards deep lying playmakers and Cristiano Ronaldo. He believes strongly in the future of total football and that one-dimensional positions like the “Makelele-role” are rapidly becoming a thing of the past.
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