Real Madrid Tactics: Zidane’s Unbalanced Squad

Real Madrid won three Champions Leagues in
a row between 2015-16 and 2017-18 but were put out in the Round of 16 last season by
eventual semi-finalists Ajax. Coach Santiago Solari departed and Zinedine Zidane returned
to try to guide Los Blancos back to another European title, aided by significant summer
spending that saw the arrivals of Eden Hazard, Luka Jovic, Ferland Mendy, and Brazilian prospects
Eder Militao and Rodrygo. The average age of all Real Madrid’s summer arrivals is
just 22.4 years old, including the Japanese 18 year old Takefusa Kubo, showing an awareness
perhaps that now is the time for a rebuild. As these stats from OneFootball show, though,
it’s some Real old hands who have so far been important for Zidane’s side in La Liga,
with Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema weighing in with goals for the Madrid side. Zidane’s often been criticised for a lack
of tactical nous, relying on his man management skills and some in-game adjustments to get
the best from his expensively assembled squad. So far this season, Zidane has used a 4-4-2
and forms of a 4-3-3 or 4-1-4-1, whereby one midfielder sits and two wide players push
up; the degree of attacking intent determines how one might view the formation. While Bale and Benzema have performed reasonably
well this season, Zidane has yet to work out his best team and his best set-up; the injury
to Eden Hazard has not helped, but Zidane’s selections and approach do suggest someone
still getting to grips with how his squad should play. Madrid’s squad is large but
unbalanced – in midfield, for example, there’s James Rodriguez, Modric, Kroos, Isco, Asensio,
and Valverde, but only Casemiro is a genuine defensive midfielder – too many attacking
players, not enough defensive cover. Real, for all their individual quality, have significant
issues. The first is their defensive positioning,
and the attacking intent of the full backs. Zidane likes his teams to push high and look
for crossing opportunities from overlaps. While Ferland Mendy looked good against Villareal,
the aggressive nature of Real’s full backs leaves significant gaps in behind, requiring
Casemiro or one of the centre-backs to cover over in the event of a loss of possession
– this in turn leaves gaps elsewhere. In addition, while Real sought to solve this
by, at times, leaving one full back deeper to make a sort of three man defence, this
meant that either the wide player of the 4-4-2 was left very isolated, or Real’s midfield
was stretched and insufficiently compact. A lot of teams play with high full backs who
attack or engage in pressing, but Real seem to find it strangely difficult to get right
in the defensive phase and this means they can be exposed by direct balls in to the wide
channels. In addition to this, Real are encouraged to
play a high line generally, and to press quick assertively especially in the opponent’s
half. However, this can look disjointed and it’s noticeable that, against Villareal
for example, large gaps appeared in central midfield as Real players pressed high but
without support; Casemiro, as the lone defensive midfielder in a two man midfield struggled
as his teammates failed to defend sensibly, and Real left easy passing lanes open to the
opposition. This was partly because Real’s two wide
midfielders in the 4-4-2 offered little defensive cover, and the 4-3-3 should deliver more solidity
as Real can fall back into a 4-5-1 or 4-1-4-1; however, the natural instinct of the full
backs to press high either means that Real bunch players up out wide, or the wide midfielders
also push high – both still leave gaps in behind. Zidane needs to find his team’s
balance between defence and attack in the wide areas – so far he’s struggled. Attacking, on the other hand, shouldn’t
be an problem for Real – they have a surfeit of talent going forwards and creative passers
like Kroos and Modric to service them. However, there are some issues here too. Benzema, whose natural instinct is to drop
off, link play, and facilitate the inside forwards pushing ahead of him in a 4-3-3,
should work well with Jovic as a pair of strikers in a 4-4-2. But against Villareal, Jovic often
dropped off too, partly because the wide players pushed high and, with Casemiro dropping deeper,
that isolated Kroos and left him with few options. Because Real also like to cross, even with
Benzema as a sole striker, too often there are insufficient numbers getting forwards
to meet the crosses. The wide players tend to stay wide – partly because Real also
like to overload a flank and keep the other man wide for a switch into space – and partly
because, especially with a two man midfield of Kroos and Casemiro, neither player is likely
to surge forwards. Real look best when players like Bale and Vinicius are running in behind
onto through balls, but too often, this is not what’s happening. Real Madrid have issues. There’s a huge
amount of individual quality in the squad which is often enough to get them out of a
hole in La Liga, but against top European opposition, the lack of a plan that plays
to their strengths and defensive weaknesses in positioning and pressing will be problematic.
Zidane has a tactical struggle on his hands to get things right.

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