La Liga 2019/20: Levante vs Real Madrid – tactical analysis
Real Madrid lost top spot in La Liga after a shock defeat against Levante at Estadi Ciutat de València on Saturday, having seen their faltering form reach new depths with their second league defeat of the season and their second in four games in all competitions.
Levante captain José Luis Morales scored the decisive goal late on in the second half with a volley which left Thibaut Courtois stranded as Real Madrid saw their dominance go to waste with the hosts taking the surprise lead. They would go on to hold on to what would be a memorable three points which takes them into the top half of the La Liga table whilst Real Madrid drop into second.
This tactical analysis will consider the tactics used by both Paco López and Zinedine Zidane and will provide analysis of the tie. This La Liga fixture could have major complications for both Levante and Real Madrid come the end of the season as this tactical analysis will demonstrate.
Toño and Bruno González replaced Carlos Clerc and Ruben Vezo in defence whilst Morales returned to the side to bring penetration on the counter, taking Ruben Rochina’s place. Borja Mayoral started the tie against his parent club as part of Real Madrid’s policy of allowing loan players to play against them.
Gareth Bale and Fede Valverde were dropped by Zidane, with Isco and Luka Modrić coming into the line-up in a side with less width. The coach opted against recalling Ferland Mendy at left-back with a potential suspension looming overhead should he be booked and the Clásico next up on the cards.
Real Madrid’s high line at risk
Levante’s goal came from Real Madrid’s continual weakness throughout the game. It was a recurrent issue which already caused them problems against Celta Vigo last time out and against Real Sociedad in the Copa del Rey. It lies in their woeful defensive organisation which sees their backline resemble a car crash at times. On a few different occasions, Levante would look to spring a long ball over the top and exploit Real Madrid’s high line, though it did not truly pay off until their opening goal.
In the build-up to Morales’ strike, Roger Martí’s run deep had pulled Sergio Ramos forwards whilst Dani Carvajal was already hopelessly out of position. Modrić dropped in to fill for Carvajal but his poor body shape, with his back to Morales and completely oblivious to his movement. Nikola Vukčević identified the opportunity and played a perfectly weighted pass over the top, with Morales’ impeccable timing and positioning as well as his pace allowing him to be away with 35 yards to exploit before Modrić or Varane had even identified the threat.
These moments of ill-discipline from individuals continue to cost Real Madrid. As a unit, the defensive performance was impressive and you’d even have to look back to September 2018 to find the last time they won a higher percentage of their defensive duels at 75.44%, but the poor positioning from Ramos and Carvajal allowed Levante in and it took just one chance for Morales to add the clinical finish required to settle the tie. In a league as hard-fought as La Liga this season, the finest margins count and Zidane will be frustrated to see his defenders caught out by the same mistakes time and time again.
Levante congested the final third
Zidane’s team selection played into López’s game plan of frustrating Real Madrid. The home side would frequently commit men into defensive roles, sitting deep with a low block and two banks of four. This had the potential to be disrupted should Real Madrid have looked to include key transition players such as Valverde, a frequent carrier of the ball, or Bale with his trademark pace, but instead Zidane looked to the likes of Isco. Whilst the playmaker did perform well, he would occupy central channels which Levante easily clogged up by overcrowding these areas of the field.
By denying the likes of Isco, Modrić and Toni Kroos space to play in and by forcing Karim Benzema deep in order to find space, the central channels became so heavily populated that there was no space to play with. Instead the ball would move wide, but often Benzema, full-backs and wingers would combine in these areas too. In this example below, it goes to show how Real Madrid continually dropped deep in an attempt to find a way to break down the lines, only resulting in allowing Levante to have nine men between the most advanced Real Madrid man and the Levante goal.
Just one counter-attack, compared to an average of four per game over the past calendar year, goes to show how Levante prevented Real Madrid from playing their typical game. Instead, they were forced to spread the ball wide as the central area was overly congested. This led to a series of wasted crosses which Levante were comfortable defending. This is an approach which has been used against Real Madrid repeatedly of late and continues to be successful in preventing them from finding a way through.
Benzema’s drop in form
As has been the case in several recent fixtures, Benzema was again disappointing and failed to lead by example as he has for much of the past 18 months. Much of Real Madrid’s attacking play relies upon his influence, but against Levante, he managed just two shots, worth 0.19 xG, both of which came in the space of four minutes early in the first half. The first was little more than a half-chance but the second was a golden opportunity, making a fine run off the defenders into space which Isco picked up upon, putting himself into an impressive shooting position but then firing straight at Aitor Fernández in the Levante goal.
It means that Benzema has now had 1.26 xG since his last goal, with his last 12 games producing 4 xG and only two goals. For context, the 12 fixtures before that produced 10 goals from 10.83 xG. This is symptomatic of Real Madrid’s wider issues, struggling to create chances and convert them. The early signs from Benzema’s chances showed promising signs of him making the kind of movement that would be required to get him back to being on form, yet his low confidence was evident in his finishing. The vicious cycle of his poor form continues.
This issue is only emphasized by the lack of goals from elsewhere. Eden Hazard’s injury struggles continued and he now looks set to miss the rest of the season, whilst the goals from midfield have clearly dried up. Leaving Benzema as almost the only source of goals is a risky move which is beginning to cost Real Madrid as it becomes more and more evident that he is in a poor patch of form. Benzema will come good again but Zidane must find an alternative source of goals as he continues to disappoint, not only not finding opportunities but then failing to take advantage of them.
This was perhaps a strange fixture in that Real Madrid did more than enough to win the tie, as shown by the xG score of 1.18 vs 0.6, and on many other days they would have done. Instead, the combination of their failure to convert chances and individual errors in defence allowed a clinical Levante team to run out the victors in La Liga. Manchester City will have watched on with glee ahead of their Champions League clash, identifying areas where Real Madrid continue to make the same costly defensive errors. If Levante can take advantage, just like relegation candidates Celta Vigo did last time out, then Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City and Barcelona will be hoping to run riot in the next two fixtures that Zidane faces.