La Liga 2020/21: Real Sociedad vs Real Madrid – tactical preview
After lifting the La Liga crown two months ago to the day, Real Madrid returns to the pitch defend their title. First on the docket is a match against one of La Liga’s most exciting teams during 2019/20, Real Sociedad.
After a disappointing road draw against Real Valladolid, La Real will look to get back on track against the defending champions. To boost the prospects of Imanol Alguacil’s side, David Silva is fit and likely to play.
In this tactical analysis, we’ll highlight the key tactics in this tilt, including Real Sociedad’s all too familiar issues in front of goal last time out and which adjustments they’ll make against Madrid. Much like the matchup in June, expect Real Madrid to focus their attack in the wings. We’ll dive into those tactics and show why that could cause issues for this Sociedad defence.
Real Sociedad predicted lineup (4-2-3-1): Álex Remiro; Andoni Gorosabel, Aritz Elustondo, Diego Llorente, Aihen Muñoz; Ander Guevara, Mikel Merino, Roberto López; Adnan Januzaj, Alexander Isak, Mikel Oyarzabal
Alguacil has a few injuries to cope with, but he’ll have most of his core group in the lineup. Look for Remiro in goal, Gorosabel and Muñoz on the wings and then Elustondo and Llorente making up the centre of the defence. In midfield, the double pivot will likely feature Guevara and Merino with Januzaj, López, and Oyarzabal in attacking roles. Isak will play as the lone striker, looking to replicate his Copa del Rey success against this Real Madrid backline.
Nacho Monreal is one of the injury concerns. If he’s fit, look for his to start at left-back for Muñoz, who had a poor showing against Real Valladolid. David Silva has recovered from COVID-19 and trained with the team this week, so he should play some role, likely off of the bench.
Real Madrid predicted lineup (4-3-3): Thibaut Courtois; Dani Carvajal, Raphaël Varane, Sergio Ramos, Marcelo; Toni Kroos, Casemiro, Luka Modrić; Rodrygo, Karim Benzema, Vinícius Júnior
Real Madrid is dealing with a number of injuries, but Zinedine Zidane’s side won’t be too far from his preferred selection. Courtois gets the start in goal with a backline of Carvajal, Varane, Ramos and Marcelo. Casemiro takes up the #6, Kroos will be the left-sided regista and Modrić will play a more advanced role in the right half space. At forward, look for a line of Rodrygo, Benzema and Vinícius Júnior.
Ferland Mendy could very easily start in this match, but Marcelo’s attacking production is better suited in this match. Since Sociedad are narrow and direct in attack, a deeper starting position from one of the two full-backs is preferred to the backtracking of Mendy. Since Carvajal is a balanced player anyway, giving Marcelo freedom in attack is the better option.
Real Sociedad will have a narrow and direct attack
High-tempo, possession-based clubs typically favour an expansive attacking shape, stretching the opposition both horizontally and vertically, then exploiting the gaps they concede. Real Sociedad go about their attacking tactics a bit differently.
Alguacil’s side will overload the central third of the pitch, sending just the outside-backs into the wings to provide width. In terms of width in attack translating to crossing, La Real finished 9th in LaLiga last campaign with 14.83 crosses per 90 and a 33.0% success rate, which ranked 4th. Though they’re a capable team from the wings, attacking from central areas of the pitch is highly preferred.
When the two sides met a few months ago, we saw Real Sociedad overload the central third of the pitch. Eight field players took to the centre of the pitch while the two outside-backs offered width. The image below shows how incredibly narrow they were in attack, as well as the Real Madrid response.
Given the tactics against Real Valladolid last week, expect more of the same. From a defensive standpoint, the approach makes sense. As Real Sociedad lose possession, they’re well-positioned to press. Last season, they were among the top-rated La Liga sides in PPDA (passes per defensive action), finishing 5th with an average of 9.2. Narrow starting points decrease the distance from opponents in transitional moments, allowing Alguacil’s side to quickly pressure the ball carrier and deny outlet passes.
In attack, a qualitative advantage and some slick passing in tight spaces can reap rewards. Further, with the central overload, the wingers are often afforded more space, allowing them to progress unopposed on the dribble.
Studying the team during the last campaign, it’s clear that most of the players manage space exceptionally well. However, narrowness in attack has some downsides too, the first of which is that opponents are now well-suited to defend the middle, decreasing the likelihood of progression through the middle or of successful crosses. Last season, Willian José was successful in 45.9% of his aerial duels, Isak won 32.8%, Oyarzabal claimed 33.1% and Portu had a 25.6% rate. The defensive structure of the opposition, ready to defend centrally, surely impacted the success rate of the Real Sociedad forwards.
A narrow attack will limit their attacking output, especially against Real Madrid. Keep in mind that Sociedad greatly struggled in their return from the COVID-19 suspension of play. That dip in form saw them drop three places in the league table, losing out on UEFA Champions League qualification.
The example below, taken from the Valladolid match, is a prime example of their attacking issues. Because they’re so narrow, quality chances are few and far between. In this instance, they managed to run at the backline, the preferred mode of attack, but the final pass from Isak was too far in front of Ander Barrenetxea, leading to a low-quality Isak volley from the proceeding cross.
Take a look at what’s happening behind the play. Nine of La Real’s ten field players are within a 25-metre range. The space available is vertical, not horizontal, and Valladolid was vertically stretched. Isak didn’t have much time or space to set up a shot, so the pass to Barrenetxea was the right decision, but the execution of the final ball was poor, a familiar theme in recent months.
Heading into a matchup against Europe’s top defensive side from the previous campaign, which allowed the 2nd fewest shots against (304 total, 7.46 per game) in La Liga, Real Sociedad is better off replicating their Copa del Rey tactics from last season. Opting for the counterattack, they caught Real Madrid out several times, leading to an Isak brace. With this approach, they’ll be able to run at the Madrid backline. Targeting the wide attacking midfielders offers the best course forward.
When Sociedad engages in an open possession, they should look to mirror the approach from the last encounter. In their final match of the 2019/20 campaign, Kroos was responsible for man-marking Martin Ødegaard. For the most part, the German held the Madrid loanee in check. However, the young Norwegian was able to receive behind him in a few instances.
Below you see Kroos and Casemiro defending entry into the central channel, protecting the backline. Casemiro is goal side while Kroos is ball side of Ødegaard. Starting on the outside shoulder of Kroos pushed the German wider, creating space for Ødegaard to receive a pass in the central channel.
After a brief combination, Ødegaard was behind the Real Madrid midfield, sprinting at the backline. Madrid generally manages their defensive verticality well, so this represents a rare occurrence in which Real Sociedad was well-positioned to utilise their preferred attacking tactics.
The example above shows the midfield finding pockets of space in the middle block, but the forwards will look for similar setups as Sociedad prepare to enter the final third. Below you’ll find Isak dropping in front of Kroos, Portu pinning Ramos and Varane deep and Januzaj on the ball. The Belgian dribbled in the direction of Kroos, pinning him and drawing Casemiro.
Portu’s run stretches the pitch vertically, creating a pocket of space for Isak to receive. Januzaj’s pass is perfectly placed as Isak ran beyond the ball-focused Kroos.
Possession statistics weren’t too far apart in the two La Liga matches last season. While La Real can find gaps in the Madrid defence, the chances created from those scenarios were not of the highest quality. Given Real Sociedad’s struggles to end the previous campaign, as well as the start of this one, they’re better off letting Real Madrid over-commit in attack, then taking the readily available space. If the hosts stick with a narrow, direct attack, don’t expect them to create many chances.
Real Madrid will attack through the wings
Last season, among La Liga’s top 11 players in the dribbles per 90 minutes category, five were Real Madrid players. After Barcelona’s Lionel Messi, Vinícius Júnior’s 8.86 dribbles and Hazard’s 8.21 were tops in the league. That left-wing is such an important piece of the Real Madrid attacking puzzle. When the left-sided players have a great game, the results tend to follow.
This match will follow the same trend. Look for Real Madrid to lean heavily on the wingers, especially on the left, to break down the Real Sociedad low block. If Vinícius Júnior and whichever of Marcelo or Mendy starts can turn the corner, they’ll leave La Real’s defence scrambling, a situation which led to a conceded goal last week.
Looking back at the previous match, we saw Vinícius Júnior terrorize the Sociedad defence. Ultimately, both Real Madrid goals originated in the wings. It was a Marcelo through pass that played his countryman behind La Real’s line. With Vinícius Júnior’s pace, the first defender was easily beaten, forcing the cover defender to slide right.
A centre-back defending in the wide areas without coverage is the football equivalent of a birthday present for wingers. Vinícius Júnior turned the corner on the Llorente, then earned a penalty kick for his side.
Real Valladolid’s goal wasn’t much different in the build-up to the final pass. Sergi Guardiola was isolated in the wing, won his 1v1 and drove to the endline.
With no coverage behind Muñoz, Guardiola nearly dribbled into the six before coverage arrived. At that point, you could see the confusion among the Sociedad defenders. As Llorente left the line to pressure Guardiola, Igor Zubeldia moved away from the middle to take away the pass to Oscar Plano, but Elustondo is clearly directing someone to pick up the run of Michel Herrero. Caught Moreno nearly arrived in time to pick up the runner, but, in the end, Herrero was gifted an open finish from eight metres out, giving the home side their only goal.
Real Madrid will likely ask Vinícius Júnior to do the majority of the playmaking on the left. Real Madrid was 1st in 1v1s and dribbles (1226 total, 30.09 per game) and left-wing contributions from Vinícius Júnior, Eden Hazard and Marcelo are a big reason for that mark. If Marcelo joins him in the starting XI, look for them to put on a clinic from the left-wing. If Vinícius Júnior is isolated against his mark, look for him to try and turn the corner, then set up a teammate with a pass on the ground. Should the final ball come from Marcelo, he’s equally capable of delivering a perfect cross or a simple finish on the ground.
Speaking of crossing, Real Madrid sent the third most crosses in La Liga last season, sending 17.89 per 90, minutes with a 32.9% success rate. Benzema’s goal against Real Sociedad showed that they can be beaten from the cross. Below, Carvajal is engaged in a 1v1 duel just outside of the box. Notice Llorente’s poor body orientation. He’s unaware of Benzema’s positioning and Gorosabel is wide of Benzema to account for Vinícius Júnior.
Carvajal beat his mark to the endline, then sent a cross onto the shoulder of Benzema. Llorente retreats well, then, for some reason, pushed higher as the cross arrived behind him. That allowed Benzema to outmuscle Gorosabel, take his touch and slot home the game-winner.
Either by ground or by air, Real Madrid is well-equipped to initiate an assault on goal from the wings. Vinícius Júnior offers excellent penetration on the dribble and with off the ball movements from the left, which would allow Benzema and Rodrygo to focus on finishing. The outside-backs will offer threatening deliveries into the box, as well as possessing a threat from overlapping and underlapping runs. Real Madrid prefers to attack through the wings anyway, so their tactics are a great fit for this matchup.
Real Sociedad’s defensive concerns
As mentioned earlier in this analysis, Real Sociedad’s narrow attack comes with the benefit of a quick counterpress. After a La Real turnover, the distances between the nearest Sociedad players and opponent on the ball are so small that the side can quickly activate its transition defence. As a team that emphasises counterpressing to regain possession and quickly attack the opposition while they try to recover their ground, this system works well against possession-heavy opponents. In theory, it should work against Real Madrid.
The issue is that Real Madrid’s players are very press-resistant. Casemiro is usually considered the weak spot in possession, but even he rates highly in ball retention statistics. If Zidane opts for Mendy instead of Marcelo, there’s an opportunity to take advantage of his 50% success rate in attacking duels, a middling statistic among left-backs in Europe’s top five leagues, but the Frenchman does well to simplify his role in the build-out when he sees that he’s being targeted.
If Real Madrid breaks that initial line of pressure, Real Sociedad will try to funnel play into the wings, then narrow the width of the playing area. The image below shows exactly those tactics. As Valladolid built into the middle third, Sociedad became very narrow, leaving just one player to cover the three far vertical channels.
The issue is that Real Sociedad was so narrow that Real Valladolid was able to play out of pressure with a long switch of play. Given the 2v1 advantage for Valladolid in those three far channels, any long distribution gave them excellent odds of winning the pass.
Ramos and Kroos will be especially important for Real Madrid as they try to break the Sociedad press. With the two right-footed players on the left half of the pitch, it’s natural for them to turn inward on their right-foot, getting their body between the opposition and the ball, and playing into the right half of the pitch.
If Madrid is able to switch field with ease, Sociedad will experience many of the issues they encountered last weekend. The Valladolid wingers were a constant threat in the match, producing the side’s only goal of the game.
This analysis has already shown the lack of cover for the full-backs, which is an area Real Madrid will look to exploit, but their structure and tactics in the defensive third also present opportunities. Below, we see their low block defending when the opponent has the ball in the wing. If Real Madrid settles for crosses, Real Sociedad will be prepared to defend them. They’re 7v2 in the final 25 metres, 3v1 in the centre of the box. Crosses, especially from deep in the wing, will always favour Sociedad in this situation.
If Real Madrid plays negative into the half space, the line will step, one player will pressure and cover will arrive.
Finally, if the ball is played into the central channel, look for an aggressive step onto the ball carrier. In this sequence of play, three defenders stepped to either press or offer short distance coverage.
Notice that Sociedad has a 6v2 in the immediate vicinity of the ball. Playing back out wide, either into the half space or wing, would lead to a crossing opportunity with a 3v2 in the box favouring Real Valladolid. The far post runner, Fabián Orellana, is totally unmarked.
While capable of orchestrating the attack on goal from either side of the pitch, Real Madrid is especially dangerous attacking from the left. Rodrygo looks like a better goal-scorer than a playmaker at this stage, whereas the opposite is true for Vinícius Júnior. If the trio of Vinícius Júnior, Marcelo, and Kroos engage the Real Sociedad low block in this manner, any of those three players are capable of finding the back post runner with a quality distribution.
Real Sociedad comes into this matchup with the advantage of a competitive game to their name, but their first match was uninspiring. Many of the issues that plagued them during last season’s stretch run remain. Their first match saw them produce a lowly 0.45 xG and with just two of eight shots hitting the frame, showing another poor attacking performance with few quality opportunities. Add in Real Madrid terminating Martin Ødegaard’s loan early and they’ve lost their most creative player. Silva is the direct replacement and will likely make his season debut, but that might be too great an issue for one player to solve.
Zidane’s side starts there title defence against a tough opposition, but the timing really couldn’t be better. Between no fans in attendance and Real Sociedad stumbling out of the gate, the chemistry of Zidane’s starting XI should see this one out.
Look for a 3-1 Real Madrid win.