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Tactical Analysis

Tactical Analysis: Villarreal 2-3 Real Madrid | Isco Inspires a Thrilling Real Madrid Comeback

Om Arvind produces a detailed tactical analysis piece on the La Liga match between Villarreal and Real Madrid which saw the visitors star in an exciting comeback after being two goals down.

Real Madrid came back from a two goal deficit to move ahead of Barcelona and place first at the top of La Liga. Isco was the catalyst for Madrid’s change in fortunes, as he came on for Casemiro in the 58th minute to solve Los Blancos’ structural issues in midfield.

On the other side of the pitch, Villarreal proved to be the superior team until the change, as they demonstrated greater organization on offense and defense and successfully converted two chances in the early part of the second half.


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 Real Madrid (4-3-3): Navas // Carvajal – Pepe – Ramos – Marcelo // Modric – Casemiro (Isco, 58’) – Kroos // Bale (Lucas Vázquez, 89’) – Benzema (Morata, 77’) – Ronaldo

Espanyol (4-3-3): Asenjo (Fernández, 35) // Mario – Musacchio – Ruiz – Costa // Trigueros (Rodri, 75’) – Soriano – Dos Santos // Castillejo – Bakambu – López (Cheryshev, 57)

 Real Madrid’s Pressing System

As expected, the Villarreal-Real Madrid match was characterized by a testy midfield battle, with both teams selectively pressing and forming high defensive blocks.

Zidane’s pressing system was highly fluid due to the free-roaming roles of Benzema and Ronaldo (which affects the positional structure prior to a press), but Real generally looked to apply pressure in a 4-4-2/4-2-4 structure, with either Kroos or Modric (mostly Kroos) pushing out of midfield (whilst providing a cover shadow) to create a two-pronged forward press in conjunction with either Ronaldo or Benzema (it was mostly Benzema, but sometimes the Frenchman moved to the left when Ronaldo transitioned into defense from a central position).

Real Madrid’s Pressing vs. Villarreal from Om Arvind on Vimeo.

As can be seen in the video above, this structure overwhelmingly pressed at the edge of Villarreal’s defensive third, as Villarreal often took long goal kicks in place of working the ball up the pitch Guardiola-style.

In order to conserve energy and maintain vertical compactness (which is especially important considering that there were often four forward pressers and only two players providing vertical support), Real often avoided pressing intensely all the way to the keeper as Villarreal recycled the ball backwards, unless Modric or Kroos decided to trigger the press selectively. Los Blancos would then follow the ball to the keeper using cover shadows, with Casemiro and Modric/Kroos plugging any gaps and marking the opposition’s interiors.

This was largely effective, as Real were mostly organized, focused, and conscientious enough to cover shadow when they pressed the ball. But due to their free roaming positional structure, it sometimes took a while for Real to re-organize themselves defensively, allowing Villarreal to break into Madrid’s half.

Villarreal’s Pressing System

The Yellow Submarine chose to press a little higher than Zidane’s men, often looking to challenge Madrid’s entry into the middle third by guarding Real’s short passing options in a triple-pronged structure.

This formed up in the way you would imagine, with Villarreal’s front three – Adrián, Bakambu, and Castillejo – sitting narrow to mark Los Merengues’ center backs and single-pivot defensive midfielder.

Villarreal’s interiors made more dynamic movements, as they had to shift to the flank where the ball was played to, but their defensive runs still had a repetitive pattern. One of Trigueros and Jonathan Dos Santos would spread wide and sit in-between the space between Madrid’s interior and fullback in order to press whomever received the ball. Villarreal’s other interior would shift over to mark Madrid’s interior farther from play (who often shifted over to the wing in question), while Soriano would provide generic vertical compactness in case an opposition player chose to occupy central space.

Villarreal’s fullbacks would often start off deep in order to dissuade Madrid from playing long balls to the flanks, before making a blind-side run when one of Real’s central midfielders or fullbacks received the ball with their back to play.

The intensity and organization that Villarreal pressed with often rattled Madrid and created good transition opportunities for the men in yellow.

But this system also had its weaknesses, as it naturally left spaces open in at least the initial phase of the press.

This was most notable when the fullbacks failed to make their lengthy blind-side runs in a timely manner, allowing Madrid’s players to turn and switch play to expose Villarreal’s momentary lack of horizontal compactness (since Escribá’s interior followed Madrid’s interior to the center of the pitch), or play quick one-two passing combinations to expose the space in behind Villarreal’s 2nd pressing line.

It’s a testament to how well Fran Escribá drilled his side that Madrid managed to dismantle the Yellow Submarine’s press on only a couple of occasions.

Real Madrid’s Same Old Issues in Build-Up

Los Blancos encountered the same problems in build-up play that we have seen all season. One could read a previous tactical review expounding on the negatives of Madrid’s midfield set-up and understand this game perfectly, as Casemiro, Modric, Kroos, and Zidane all made the same mistakes.

The only difference this time, was that Villarreal’s well drilled press exacerbated Madrid’s lack of central penetration, forcing even more of Los Blancos’ passes out wide.

Casemiro’s weakness in distribution played a big part in this, as he nearly always chose the safe sideways pass instead of looking for a vertical dagger into the half spaces to break down lines of defense. His teammates recognized this and almost totally avoided him in build-up (the passmap proves that Casemiro was involved in no relevant passing connections), meaning that play had to be redirected to the feet of Toni Kroos and Luka Modric.

As has been observed many times before, this brought the aforementioned duo far too deep and handcuffed their ability to move in-between the lines and provide central occupation.

Thus, unless Madrid’s forwards made deep runs, Modric and Kroos had no option but to create connections out wide, forcing them away from the center of the pitch and further from the positions most suited to providing penetrating through balls and chips.

This was particularly notable with Modric, who was for all intents and purposes a right midfielder, leaving Madrid with a highly asymmetrical and poorly spaced midfield.

Due to all of the reasons above, Villarreal found it fairly easy to bat away Madrid’s crosses and keep a clean sheet until Isco came on.

How Isco Changed the Game

Two goals down and in desperate need of an attacking impetus, Zinedine Zidane made the bold decision to sub off defensive midfielder Casemiro for attacking midfielder Isco Alarcón, changing Los Blancos’ formation from a 4-3-3 to a 4-2-3-1.

Isco’s impact from Om Arvind on Vimeo.

This instantly improved Real’s build-up, as the presence of a natural No. 10 provided Modric and Kroos with a central target through whom they could advance play. When receiving the ball, Isco used his excellent control and footwork to turn and run at the heart of Villarreal’s defense, which attracted defenders and in turn created space for Real’s fullbacks to cross in space and at a team in transition.

Isco also dropped deep to create short passing options through the opposition’s defensive block, while displaying his vision with an excellent pass to find Carvajal on Madrid’s first goal.

Critics of this change might claim there was a risk of conceding a third goal due to the lack of defensive grit on the pitch without Casemiro, but they should remember that it was Isco who won the ball back in a fifty-fifty challenge to spark the counter that created Madrid’s winning goal.

The diminutive Spaniard turned in a complete performance in just over 30 minutes and was thus the clear man of the match.

Villarreal’s Patterns of Attack

In contrast to Madrid’s chaotic and fluid structure, Fran Escribá created a well-spaced system that looked to penetrate via his interiors’ positioning in the half spaces, before playing the ball wide and using passing triangles between his CM, FB, and W to break Madrid down.

Though this resulted in neat ball circulation and an impressive distribution of passes, Villarreal created little through teamwork in open play, as Trigueros and Dos Santos lacked the necessary creativity to carve open their opponents.

Thus, the burden of creation fell out wide to Adrián López and Samu Castillejo, who used their trickery and balance to create crossing opportunities.

However, as long as Madrid’s defense held firm, Villarreal only saw good chances arrive on the counter and through forced transitions via pressing. Thus it was no surprise to see their first goal arrive after the recovery of a botched clearance just outside Madrid’s box and the second come about from route one football.

Villarreal’s Goals vs. Real Madrid from Om Arvind on Vimeo.


There is little doubt that Villarreal were the better team in the first hour of the game, but Isco’s substitution decisively turned the tide in Madrid’s favor and allowed them to pull off a remarkable comeback. Fran Escribá’s men will feel hard done by, especially by the questionable penalty decision that allowed Ronaldo to convert from the spot, but according to xG, it was a fair result at the end of the day.

Nevertheless, it is entirely possible that Madrid could’ve lost this game, leading them to give up their lead at the top of La Liga and compromise their chances at the title. The risk of that was largely down to Zidane’s poor midfield structure, which hampered Real’s chance creation and nullified their superior individual quality.

After seeing how James changed his side’s fortunes vs. Osasuna and how Isco did the same vs. Villarreal, it would be prudent for Zidane to consider changing to a 4-2-3-1 formation to provide a natural link from midfield to attack, as he clearly struggles when trying to create central penetration systemically.

However, this would require dropping one of Modric, Kroos, and Casemiro, which seems incredibly unlikely given how Zidane favors the trio.

(All stats & charts taken from & 11tegen11)

Read all our tactical analyses here.

Om Arvind

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