Home Head Coach Analysis La Liga 2018/19: The Similarities Between Julen Lopetegui’s Spain and Real Madrid...

La Liga 2018/19: The Similarities Between Julen Lopetegui’s Spain and Real Madrid Sides

Julen Lopetegui La Liga Real Madrid Tactical Analysis
Artwork by @chapulana

The summer of 2018 has been an eventful one for Real Madrid. Cristiano Ronaldo finally departed the Spanish capital for a new challenge at Juventus, and Florentino Perez surprisingly decided against dipping into his chequebook to replace the five-time Ballon d’Or winner, while earlier in the year, Zinedine Zidane also decided to leave Real after leading them to three Champions League wins in a row. Few would have predicted the chain of events as they occurred, as Perez picked Julen Lopetegui, the manager of the Spanish national team as Zidane’s replacement. If that alone was a surprising choice, the manner in which his appointment was announced threw Spain’s World Cup into disarray, with the president of the Spanish football federation, Luis Rubiales only informed of this decision five minutes before Madrid made it public, just two days before Spain’s opening World Cup game. Rubiales was forced to sack Lopetegui for his perceived unprofessionalism, leading to Fernando Hierro taking temporary charge of the team for the World Cup, while Lopetegui said that his sacking was the ‘saddest day’ of his life.

Memories in football are notoriously short, however, and much of this has already been forgotten as the new season has commenced. Lopetegui has had to rejig the team to account for Ronaldo’s departure, and while there has not been a radical shift in tactics from the Zidane era, it is useful to compare Lopetegui’s Madrid side with his time in charge of Spain. Lopetegui, like most modern managers, tweaks his approach based on the players at his disposal, and while there are several familiar faces at Madrid, the difference in approach between the two sides is notable enough to warrant discussion. Madrid began the season with a 4-2 defeat at the hands of city rivals Atletico Madrid in the European Super Cup, but have since picked up three wins out of their first three league fixtures, against Getafe, Girona and Leganes. We shall now look at Los Blancos‘ approach in these games, and how it differed from the tactics employed by Lopetegui while in charge of Spain.

Attacking build-up

Lopetegui has been lucky to be able to call on some of the best players in the world during his time in charge of both sides, especially in midfield, and this is evident from the sides’ approach under him. His first few games in charge of Madrid have seen him use a couple of systems; either a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3, but with similar characteristics across the two formations. One player, usually Casemiro, is the holding player, tasked with protecting the space in front of the defence and recycling possession, while his partner in midfield is the deep-lying playmaker, controlling the tempo of the game. This role has been reserved for Toni Kroos, and the German has been excellent, playing the full 90 minutes in all three league fixtures and averaging 111 passes per game, with a stunning 96.6% success rate. Kroos’ touch map from the 4-1 win over Leganes illustrates his influence on Madrid’s approach, while Casemiro’s touch map shows the defensive role he is expected to play –

Julen Lopetegui La Liga Real Madrid Tactical Analysis
Toni Kroos dictated play from a left-of-centre position
Julen Lopetegui La Liga Real Madrid Tactical Analysis
Casemiro was the deepest midfielder, with a number of touches in his own penalty box

This is similar to the way Spain were sent out under Lopetegui, with Sergio Busquets/Koke and Thiago Alcantara forming the midfield pivot. The key difference here is that Casemiro is far more defensive-minded than either Koke or Busquets, while Thiago could do the job that Kroos does for Madrid, although the German is probably the best in the world at it. A look at Spain’s system against Tunisia and Koke’s touch map against Germany confirms this –

Julen Lopetegui La Liga Real Madrid Tactical Analysis
Thiago and Busquets form the double pivot here, with Silva drifting inside from the right, Isco wide on the left and Iniesta left-of-centre
Julen Lopetegui La Liga Real Madrid Tactical Analysis
Koke played as the deepest midfielder against Germany, but as can be seen, was far more adventurous than Casemiro is for Madrid

The role of Isco

In Lopetegui’s systems, the third midfielder is the one tasked with getting forward to support attacking moves, whether from a deeper position in the 4-3-3 or as the advanced playmaker in the 4-2-3-1. Luka Modric’s World Cup exertions have meant that he has been eased into the Madrid side, making his first start of the season in their most recent league game. In his absence, this role has been taken up by Lopetegui favourite Isco. The Spaniard was a key part of Lopetegui’s Spain side, and looks like being a cornerstone of his tenure at Madrid as well. Regardless of whether Isco or Modric start, their role is clear; drift across the pitch to link up with the wide players and full-backs, while looking to supply the killer pass into the box. Their touch maps from the games against Girona and Leganes demonstrate this perfectly –

Julen Lopetegui La Liga Real Madrid Tactical Analysis
Modric drifted towards the right flank and took up positions far in advance of his midfield colleagues against Leganes
Julen Lopetegui La Liga Real Madrid Tactical Analysis
Isco, on the other hand, flitted between both flanks against Girona

Lopetegui’s Spain side played in a similar fashion, looking to advance quickly up the field with rapid passing moves. Isco was an important part of this approach, drifting to either flank before utilising his superb dribbling skills to get away from opposition defenders. His touch map from a friendly against Germany in March is extremely similar to the one shown above –

Julen Lopetegui La Liga Real Madrid Tactical Analysis
Isco’s touch map here almost avoids central positions entirely; he was usually in the half-spaces off either flank

Use of width

Teams which tend to dominate possession usually utilise the full width of the pitch in order to make their opponents defend a larger area, and consequently open up spaces in their defensive lines. For example, under Pep Guardiola, Manchester City used Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling as wingers tasked with literally hugging the touchline in order to draw defenders out, before accelerating into the vacant space between centre-back and full-back. Lopetegui’s history as manager of Spain’s age-group and senior sides means that he espouses a similar approach. Madrid’s first three games have seen Gareth Bale and Marco Asensio deployed as the wingers, and they generally stay very wide, looking to stretch the opposition before driving inside to create goalscoring opportunities. This can be seen from the touch maps and images below –

Julen Lopetegui La Liga Real Madrid Tactical Analysis
Asensio’s touch map against Leganes, where he was given license to roam and interchange flanks with Bale
Julen Lopetegui La Liga Real Madrid Tactical Analysis
Bale stayed far wider than Asensio, but went across to the left sometimes as well
Julen Lopetegui La Liga Real Madrid Tactical Analysis
A perfect example of Madrid’s approach on the ball, looking to stretch opponents by staying wide

Madrid also have two extremely attacking full-backs in Marcelo and Dani Carvajal, which allows Lopetegui to instruct his wide players to tuck inside if needed as well, safe in the knowledge that the full-backs will provide the width. Their touch map from the Leganes game looks like that of wing-backs, and that is essentially the role they play in this Madrid side –

Julen Lopetegui La Liga Real Madrid Tactical Analysis
Marcelo and Carvajal against Leganes, attacking towards the right

However, it was a different story with the Spanish national side. Spain’s recent success has been built on playmakers, with the likes of Xavi, Iniesta, David Silva, Juan Mata, Santi Cazorla and Isco all having had important roles in the evolution of the side. There has also been a lack of natural wide players, with Jesus Navas and Pedro the only examples of wingers to have played a decent number of games for Spain in recent years. This was reflected in Lopetegui’s approach as manager; one would often see Iniesta, Silva and Isco all start together, meaning that width would have to be provided by the full-backs. Once again, this can be seen from their touch map against Germany –

Julen Lopetegui La Liga Real Madrid Tactical Analysis
Alba and Carvajal against Germany, attacking towards the left

Isco’s intelligence was a vital factor in making this system work. He would often drift out to the left flank, holding a wide position in order to create space for the likes of Iniesta and Silva to work their magic. An example of this can be seen below –

Julen Lopetegui La Liga Real Madrid Tactical Analysis
Isco stays slightly wide on the left, allowing Silva to come inside centrally and Rodrigo to make the run in behind. Carvajal is providing width on the right

The striker

Karim Benzema has faced vociferous criticism throughout his Madrid career for a perceived lack of goalscoring contribution. The Frenchman has been linked with an exit almost every summer for the past five years, but has become an essential part of the Los Blancos side. Those who decry his continued presence in Madrid fail to see the role he plays in knitting attacks together. Benzema is not a typical number 9; he is unselfish and looks to create opportunities for teammates by dropping deep and wide and allowing the likes of Ronaldo and Bale to get into goalscoring positions. This has been recognized by Lopetegui, who has used Benzema almost as a false 9 this season. The Frenchman has started the season in brilliant form, scoring five goals from just four appearances, but it his work off the ball that is notable. The following images will make this clear; Benzema is vital to Madrid’s approach in attack –

Julen Lopetegui La Liga Real Madrid Tactical Analysis
Benzema’s touch map versus Leganes; note how his touch map looks more like that of number 10 than a striker
Julen Lopetegui La Liga Real Madrid Tactical Analysis
It was a similar story versus Girona
Julen Lopetegui La Liga Real Madrid Tactical Analysis
A good example of how Benzema’s movement helps Madrid – he drops off here, creating space in behind for someone to run into, and subsequently…
Julen Lopetegui La Liga Real Madrid Tactical Analysis
…Asensio makes the run, almost managing to get onto the end of Marcelo’s pass. Note where Benzema is positioned when the pass is made

Lopetegui had a very different type of striker available to him while in charge of Spain. Diego Costa is the complete opposite to Benzema, looking to run the channels and play on the defender’s shoulder. However, Lopetegui often used Iago Aspas and Rodrigo Moreno in that role; both players are accustomed to dropping deep and linking play in a similar fashion to Benzema. An illustrative example is from the friendly against Germany in March, where Rodrigo started the game and actually scored Spain’s goal; his touch map shows his willingness to drop and link with the midfielders –

Julen Lopetegui La Liga Real Madrid Tactical Analysis
Fewer touches than Benzema, but a similar approach

Lopetegui has had two very different profiles of strikers available to him at Spain and Real Madrid, but his preference for one over the other is clear.

Defending

One of the most basic tenets of playing a possession-based system is that the side must also press in some form, while also playing with a high defensive line. Lopetegui’s style of play is inclusive of this as well, and while he is not a priest of high-pressing a la Jurgen Klopp, his sides do employ a targeted press in the opposition half. Once again, the different type of players available to him meant that there are subtle differences in approach between his Spain and Madrid sides, but the basic philosophy remains the same – to deny the opposition the opportunity to play out from the back.

Julen Lopetegui La Liga Real Madrid Tactical Analysis
Madrid press intelligently, using the touchline as a natural barrier; Carvajal, Modric and Kroos shutting down passing options, while Benzema pressures the man in possession and Bale covers the left-back
Julen Lopetegui La Liga Real Madrid Tactical Analysis
Another similar example; the touchline forces the Leganes right-back to look inside, under pressure from Asensio, while Benzema covers the pass back to the centre-back, and Kroos and Bale press the other defenders
Julen Lopetegui La Liga Real Madrid Tactical Analysis
With Iniesta and Silva in the team, it is considerably harder to press vigorously from the front. Instead, Spain opt to force Germany to go long, shutting down Boateng’s options in the centre of the pitch

Conclusion

Julen Lopetegui was a surprise appointment at the Bernabeu; in fact, most bookmakers did not even have his name on lists of potential replacements for Zidane. Nevertheless, the erstwhile Spain manager has started well in Madrid and has also brought a defined approach from his time with La Roja, with the tweaks and changes that are to be expected from any good tactician. It will be extremely interesting to see how Los Blancos progress tactically this season, and if there are further similarities between the approaches for the two sides.