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Tactical Analysis

Tactical Analysis: Girona 2-1 Real Madrid | Girona’s Pressing Hassles Los Blancos

Om Arvind provides a detailed tactical analysis about the La Liga match that ended Girona 2-1 Real Madrid

In a shocking turn of events, newly promoted Girona FC thoroughly outplayed and beat Real Madrid 2-1 on the tenth match day of the league season. For Madrid fans, there was reason to be slightly worried from the very beginning of the match. Instead of receding into a defensive shell, Girona came out pressing with intensity. It took 10-15 minutes before Real Madrid could even string a coherent spell of possession together, but they soon threw that level of control away thanks to lethargic giveaways and general complacency. Girona took advantage of this by regaining the impetus and striking two shots off the post. However, one of those attempts off the woodwork sparked a Real Madrid counter that resulted in a goal against the run of play. The scoreline would hold till the break.

The second half started in much the same way, and this time, Girona capitalized on its chances. Incredibly poor collective and individual defending saw Girona score their first goal off two marvelous individual runs, and the second goal, off a tap-in that resulted from a free shot inside Madrid’s box.

Zidane responded by subbing off his two fullbacks for two wingers: Lucas Vázquez and Marco Asensio. To ensure this didn’t destabilize his side defensively, he asked Casemiro to step into central defense, but the results were less than spectacular. Despite Girona becoming far more defensive after going 2-1 up, they found it rather easy to counter into 2v3 and 3v3 situations and defend against Real’s uninspired crossing strategy.


Girona FC (5-4-1): Bono // Maffeo – Juanpe – Espinosa – Muniesa – Benítez // Portu (Kayode, 82’) – Pons – Granell – García (Timor, 75’) // Stuani (Mojica, 90+3’)

Real Madrid (4-4-2 Diamond): Casilla // Achraf (Lucas, 66’) – Varane (Nacho, 46’) – Ramos – Marcelo (Asensio, 66’) // Casemiro // Modric – Kroos // Isco // Benzema – Ronaldo

Real Madrid’s Build-Up vs. Girona’s High Press

As was hinted at above, Girona’s spritely performance was heavily dependent on their effective pressing, which they used to aggravate Real Madrid’s build-up and create final third opportunities for themselves.

Lining up in a 5-4-1 on paper, Pablo Machín’s side structured their high press in a rather curious way. Instead of maintaining the conventional width provided by Girona’s formation, Machín instructed his wingers – Portu and García – to push up in line with lone-striker, Stuani. This enabled the wide men to press Real’s center backs, while Stuani covered the midfield option that dropped deep to aid Madrid’s defense. To cover the wings, Machín had his fullbacks man mark Achraf and Marcelo. In order to cover the possible spaces Stuani left behind him, a central midfielder was positioned approximately 10 yards from Stuani, while the other central midfielder sat deeper to provide vertical compactness (this wasn’t always the case, as sometimes Stuani assumed the former position while a central midfielder pushed up to mark the deep-lying Madrid midfielder). In case the away side’s attackers attempted to push into the space behind Girona’s fullbacks, a ball-side central defender would rush out of his defensive line to cut out the problem. If none of the above worked, Girona would engage in tactical fouling to give themselves enough time to recover into a lower defensive block.

This effectively coordinated press and the narrow shape of the frontal pressing line often forced Real’s play out wide to a fullback, who would initially be left free to receive a pass. Some may see this as lapse in defensive structure from Girona, but in reality, it was a carefully designed pressing trap. As soon as Real’s fullbacks touched the ball, a positional counterpart from Girona’s team would rush forward to press. In the meantime, the near-side winger who had sat narrow to force play wide, would shift to the flank to cut off Achraf or Marcelo’s passing options and trap play on the wing. This was especially successful in rattling 18 year-old right back Achraf, who struggled to deal with the intensity and organization of Girona’s pressing, as evidenced by his poor pass completion rate of 77%.

But as impressively structured as Girona were, there were weaknesses in their scheme that Madrid failed to exploit on a consistent basis. The home side’s commitment to man marking with their frontal pressers and wing-backs always left an opposition central midfielder free, thanks to the 4-men overload provided by Madrid’s diamond (Stuani marked Real’s deep-lying midfielder, Girona’s two deeper CM’s marked two other opposition midfielders, and Girona’s wing-backs and wingers were occupied with man marking duties on Los Blancos’ defense, leaving one midfielder potentially unoccupied). In addition to the ability for this free central midfielder to overload parts of Girona’s press, one of Ronaldo and Benzema also had the opportunity to drop deep and overwhelm the opposition’s double-pivot midfield. While Madrid sporadically saw Isco shift to the wings and occasionally saw Benzema and Ronaldo drop behind Girona’s midfield line, there was no consistent effort to make use of the extra men. As a result, the Blanquivermell adequately suffocated Los Blancos’ build-up and prevented Madrid from entering the final third on a regular basis.

Girona’s Counterpress

In order to further maximize their chances of shutting down Madrid and attacking in transition, Girona also employed a generally competent counterpress. Thanks to their measured build-up and numbers in midfield, they usually set themselves up well to press immediately after the ball was lost.

This sometimes manifested into a clogged and narrow shape with all of Girona’s midfield on one wing due to the flank-sided nature of their attack, but the home team usually counterpressed with their midfield spread evenly across the width of the pitch. This usually involved Pons and Granell covering the center of the park, while the wingers covered the half spaces and the wings with the aid of the fullbacks. But due to the fluid nature of the game and Girona’s eagerness to attack Madrid, there were occasions where their preparation for the counterpress was poor and Los Blancos could counter.

In fact, Real even scored their goal from such a situation, thanks to Benzema’s ability to recognize and take advantage of the structural weaknesses in a particular Girona counterpress.

Girona’s Exploitation of Real Madrid’s Diamond Midfield

One of the most important components in Real Madrid’s success last season was their diamond midfield. Despite Modric and Kroos not being natural box-to-box midfielders, they managed their defensive duties adequately and kept the formation stable, while Isco thrived in a free role as an attacking midfielder. This allowed Real to overwhelm opponents with overloads across all areas of the pitch, which more than made up for the weakened press and defensive structure created by the diamond. Additionally, opponents failed to adequately exploit the disadvantages present in Madrid’s formation, helping Real romp to a La Liga and a Champions League double.

But a shaky defensive performance against Tottenham and a disastrous defensive showing vs. Girona should put doubts over the efficacy of Zidane’s diamond. Unlike many teams last season, Tottenham and Girona specifically looked to exploit the weaknesses that Modric and Kroos are not built to cover. Instead of looking to penetrate with vertical passes through the center, or attempting to progress through combinations down one flank, Girona attacked Madrid’s 4-1-3-2 defensive structure with lateral shifts of possession. This involved long balls from one flank to the other and short passes through the width of Girona’s midfield. While Real were usually able to shift adequately enough to stop serious progression after one switch of play, another quick lateral movement of possession would create acres of free space down the opposite flank. This led to good crossing opportunities for Girona and allowed the home team to regularly access Los Merengues’ defensive third. They even struck the post once thanks to this strategy, but as fate would have it, they scored two goals that had little to do with tactics at all.

Girona’s Build-Up vs. Real Madrid’s High Press

Despite Real Madrid never managing to press at an elite level in their diamond formation, Zidane instructed his team to apply high pressure against Girona’s back-line.

As detailed in the video above, Real pressed in a 4-3-3 formation, with one of Madrid’s midfielders pushing up to join Ronaldo and Benzema up top. This movement acted as a pressing trigger (which was usually carried out by either Isco or Kroos), prompting Benzema and Ronaldo to close down Girona’s wide center backs. While this happened, Madrid’s midfield trio would look to close off access to the center. The press was completed by the same man marking of the fullbacks that Girona employed.

While not as strong as Madrid’s 4-1-4-1 pressing scheme in a 4-3-3, this was a decent enough structure that could’ve held firm had the press been carried out in a cohesive manner. Instead, players roamed in and out of their required positions and pressed with different levels of energy. A particular problem was the disorganization of Real’s midfield. It often wasn’t clear who was supposed to step up as a pressing trigger if Madrid weren’t given proper time to recover from their fluid attacking shape, and Madrid’s deeper CM’s often went AWOL. There were times when Modric, Kroos, Isco and/or Casemiro would be completely disconnected from their midfield line because they were sitting too high or too deep, allowing Girona to waltz into the opposition’s half. Those four also experienced confusion in maintaining horizontal compactness, as they sometimes seemed unsure about whether to aid Marcelo and Achraf in guarding Girona’s fullbacks. This was because Real’s FB’s failed to tightly mark their counterparts, allowing the opposition to fire accurate passes out wide. Due to this, Madrid’s CM’s knew they were always going to have to shift wide, causing them to occasionally sit too close to the wing in anticipation of the switch. This allowed Girona to access players in the center of the park and progress play vertically.

When Madrid’s midfield was more disciplined in its horizontal positioning, the near-side winger often shifted to the flank being attacked in order to overload the RM fullback and contest for second balls that were created via flick-ons. In this way, Machín’s men created two ways of dealing with the opposition’s pressure and were rarely every trapped.

Real Madrid’s Penetration vs. Girona’s Defensive Block

Just as Girona’s high press dictated Madrid’s build-up from the back, Girona’s defensive block controlled the way in which Madrid tried to penetrate their opponents. Similar to their structure when pressing, the Blanquivermell positioned their wingers close to Stuani in a narrow three-man block. Behind them sat the two central midfielders, Pons and Granell, who guarded against any movements in-between the lines and looked to execute tactical fouls (they combined for 7). Out wide, the fullbacks tightly marked Achraf and Marcelo.

Due to the difficulty in attacking through the middle, Madrid looked to manipulate the space in behind the opposing fullbacks. This involved rotating the ball to Marcelo or Achraf and playing a pass to a midfielder or forward making a wide run behind Maffeo or Benítez.

This would drag a central midfielder out of position as he moved wide to defend, potentially allowing Real to rotate the ball to the abandoned space. However, Los Merengues often neglected to carry out the latter part of that plan and, instead, simply looked to play passes down the wing. This made it easy for Girona to stop Real in slower possession play, as they could trap attackers on the wing and force them into making runs down the byline. As a result, it wasn’t a surprise to see Madrid’s better chances come on the break.

Zidane’s Substitutions

Zidane’s substitutions after his side conceded two goals made it even more difficult for Real to break down Girona. The subs were: Lucas Vázquez for Achraf and Asensio for Marcelo, causing Casemiro to drop into defense and form a back three. The idea was simple – get the ball wide and cross.

Initially, it looked like that tactic might bear fruit, as Real looked to pass the ball to Ronaldo and Benzema in the half spaces to suck defenders inwards, before punting possession out wide for a free cross. But this quickly devolved into passes to wide areas without any preceding build-up to create good crossing situations. This was partly due to Real’s own lack of imagination as the match wore on and the permanent relocation of Ronaldo and Benzema to the penalty box. To make matters worse, both Lucas and Asensio did poorly in one-on-one situations and failed to manage a delivery that even came close to seriously troubling Girona. Consequently, it was no surprise to see the home side hang on to a well-deserved victory.


Girona deserved this victory by the reckoning of expected goals [source]

Real Madrid are currently eight points off the top of the table and sit in third place in the league. Never in their history have they gone on to win La Liga after such a deficit, meaning that it could be likely that their title ambitions are done and dusted in only October. While previous poor results were down to inadequate finishing rather than disastrous defending, it was the exact opposite in Cataluña. The home side certainly deserves credit for their excellent pressing and targeted build-up strategy, but things could have been very different had Real not continually made comical errors at the back.

Zidane must also take some of the blame. He failed to respect his opposition and neglected to set Madrid up in the well drilled tactical shape that we’ve seen against so many “big” sides. Additionally, his decision to move to a back three and rely only on crosses to get back in the game shot Madrid in the foot, as it made their attack one-dimensional and predictable. But what’s done is done, and Madrid fans will be hoping that Zizou learns from his mistakes and puts Real back on the track to success.

Om Arvind

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