Om Arvind tactically analyses how Real Madrid followed up their resounding win over Napoli in the Champions League with an extremely comfortable win over Espanyol. The game finished Real Madrid 2-0 Espanyol.
Tactically, Zidane was found wanting in the exact same areas that Madrid struggled in against Osasuna (interiors coming too deep and little to no penetration through the center), but this time, it hardly mattered, as Quique Sánchez Flores’ team offered hardly any resistance, as they retreated into a defensive shell and refused to attack for the entirety of the game.
Thus, a beautiful cross from Isco, which led to a headed goal from Morata, and a lethal counter-attack were all Los Blancos needed to dispose of their opponent.
Real Madrid (4-3-3): Casilla // Carvajal – Pepe – Varane – Nacho (Marcelo, 81’) // Isco – Kroos – Kovacic (Casemiro, 61’) // Lucas Vázquez – Morata (Bale, 71’) – Ronaldo
Espanyol (4-5-1/4-4-1-1): López // López – Duarte – Reyes – Martin // Moreno – Diop – Fuego – Jurado (Alvaro Vázquez, 82’) – Piatti // Reyes (Hernán Pérez, 46’)
Real Madrid’s Poor Spacing in Midfield
Zidane’s great archenemy – midfield structure – was troublesome once again, making it incredibly difficult for Real Madrid to play passes through the middle and penetrate zone 14. As has been the case for quite a while now, Madrid’s interiors kept dropping in front of the opponent’s midfield line to receive the ball, which is far too deep if the objective is to provide penetration via possessional structure.
This often left the space in-between Espanyol’s two banks of defense completely empty, meaning that deep-lying playmaker Kroos had few options to puncture passes through Espanyol.
The result was a lot of pointless ball circulation at the back, as Kroos and Madrid’s center backs shifted the ball sideways in order wait for their teammates to make a decent run to progress play.
Eventually, Ronaldo or Lucas would drop deep and make runs into the half spaces to provide Kroos with targets and passing angles to advance into the final third.
Morata however, was particularly absent with these types of movements, as he often chose to spread wide to receive the ball or make runs in behind Espanyol’s defense.
This is probably the reason Zidane has decided to stick with Benzema for so long despite the forward’s poor run of form, as the Frenchman regularly positions himself as a deep lying forward to act as a passing option in and around zone 14.
But instead, the presence of the more traditional Morata meant that once Real had advanced into the final third, the only existing passing options were available out wide, meaning that Real had to eventually cross to penetrate the opponent’s penalty box.
In the cases where Ronaldo and Lucas did not make deep runs in the middle third of the pitch, Kroos, Varane, and Pepe, would often look to simply launch long passes down the wings aimed at the barnstorming runs of Nacho and Carvajal.
The result of such tactics was a rather boring but well controlled match, in which Madrid dominated the ball but hardly created any quality chances. Only the aerial superiority of Ronaldo and Morata, transition plays following the rare Espanyol attack, and a gem of a delivery from Isco, provided Los Blancos with any offensive threat at all.
Real Madrid’s Pressing on the Wings
However, Zizou’s tactics weren’t all stale and lacking sharpness, as his decision to employ counterpressing on the wings was a superb decision that ensured Madrid’s dominance of possession (68.1%) and created offensive transition opportunities in Espanyol’s half.
As can be seen in the video above, the press was largely organic (except when pressing on throw-ins) and dependent on the attacking players in the vicinity of the play. This meant that Lucas, Carvajal, Isco and Kroos were usually involved on the right flank, while Kovacic, Nacho, Kroos, and sometimes Isco (the Spaniard was given a free roaming role and thus appeared in presses on both sides of the pitch) were involved on the left flank.
Morata would consistently be involved on both sides as he looked to press deeper passing options and pin play to one flank through his marking and body positioning.
Thus, the counterpress would usually start with the two players who were attacking on the flank just before losing the ball. Those two would aggressively press in a ball-oriented fashion in order to buy time for a supporting structure to arrive. Often times Espanyol failed to keep their composure, leading them to lose the ball under the pressure of only two players fairly frequently.
On the occasions when Flores’ men kept their cool, Madrid’s press would become more organized with the arrival of Morata, another central midfielder and Toni Kroos.
The pressing shape would often look like a diamond, as it was a man-marking structure that closed off Espanyol’s fullback, winger, central midfielder, and center back. If Kroos was not a part of that shape, he would often provide vertical compactness by marking any players who made sharp forward movements to receive longer passes.
However, the fluid nature of counterpressing itself meant that several different players took on a variety of roles, meaning that the success of Real Madrid’s high press relied heavily on individual agency and the positional intelligence and work-rate necessary to provide any cover shadows or defensive runs necessary to buy time for support to arrive.
Needless to say, Madrid’s players coupled their excellent decision-making with Zidane’s broad blueprint to successfully suffocate Espanyol and dominate the ball.
Quique Sánchez Flores came to the Bernabeu with one of the most uninspiring strategies known to man – sit deep and park the bus. Conspiracy theorists will be having a field day with this match, as it’s not hard to look at Espanyol’s performance and think that they played so conservatively in an effort to spite derby rivals Barcelona and ensure that Madrid retained their points advantage at the top of the league.
There were hardly any tactics to analyze, as Espanyol simply looked to sit back in a 4-5-1 – that morphed into a 4-4-2 or 4-1-4-1 depending on the positioning of Real Madrid’s players – and play route one football on the counter.
The result was a pitiful xG total of 0.08 and an unsurprising lack of passes in the final third.
It is hard to understand exactly what Flores’ plan was to get a result from the Bernabeu, but it is clear that his hyper-defensive strategy hamstrung playmaker Pablo Piatti and gave his team no chance of scoring a goal.
This was arguably Espanyol’s worst performance of the season.
All things considered, Real Madrid clearly deserved the win against a despondent and impotent Espanyol side. While Los Blancos continued to face issues with their midfield structure and effectiveness in penetration, Zidane’s successful application of counterpressing displayed the manager’s growing experience and familiarity with different types of tactics.
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