Taking a welcome break from La Liga duty, Real Madrid travelled to Girona looking to see out a comfortable 4-2 lead in the quarter-final second leg of the Copa del Rey. They did the job and returned to the Spanish capital with a 3-1 win.
Karim Benzema’s first-half brace gave his team a vital lead, though Girona pegged one back thanks to Pedro Porro before the break. Finally, Marcos Llorente notched his second Real Madrid goal, and his second in the last two games he has started, with an effort from long range to put the game to bed.
Here, our tactical analysis will use statistics to identify what key points Real Madrid can take from the game as they secured safe passage to the semi-finals of the Copa del Rey with a two-legged win over Girona.
It’s all about confidence
The results are finally coming for Santiago Solari and Real Madrid and it’s beginning to show. Confidence is bringing free-flowing football to the fore and it is for the benefit of all. After struggling to dominate possession against the likes of Villarreal and Real Betis, things have changed. This match against Girona was the fourth consecutive game in which Los Blancos had over 50% possession and completed more passes than their rivals, again making over 25% more passes than Girona over the 90 minutes.
Perhaps the most obvious case of all is in Benzema. The Frenchman notched his second brace in as many games with two fine finishes, with the first showing how his game has transformed this season. Starting deep and wide, he interlinked neatly with Dani Carvajal to burst into the box and add the finishing touch. Whereas in the past he would often play the first pass and then sit deep waiting for a rebound, he now has the belief to attack defences and exploit the spaces they are leaving for him.
We may only be halfway through the season, now entering the business end of the campaign with fixtures coming thick and fast, but already Benzema has managed 72 shots this season, beating his tally for the whole of last season of 71. Yet again his touches in the box and his progressive runs were more than double his season averages, and it is becoming more and more clear that he is adapting to become the main man in attack.
A way back for Marcelo?
Having been dropped for youngster Sergio Reguilon, Marcelo made a comeback to the starting XI and looked to stake his claim for a first La Liga start since the first game of 2019. However, Solari may have been left feeling shortchanged. On a positive note, the Brazilian was more defensively disciplined, often seeming to hold back rather than bomb forward and leave his defence exposed, but that was about all in terms of a value-adding contribution.
On the ball, he completed just 66% of his passes, his worst completion rate in any game since such data collection began back in 2015/16, showing just how careless he was. Too often he carried the ball to the final third, doing the simple things effectively, only to look for a spectacular final ball to make an impact. The problem was it never came off. Of his eight attempted long passes and crosses, not a single one reached its target.
Defensively, he lost the ball 17 times, his highest in one game since April 2018, and won only three of 14 defensive duels. Such figures are concerning, not only for Marcelo’s form but also his long-term future. By hitting such lows, some will begin to wonder whether this is a short-term blip, particularly as he seems to by trying desperately hard to avoid it.
Marco Asensio’s new role
Having been sidelined since the Club World Cup, Marco Asensio replaced man of the match Benzema to play a full 35 minutes in a new role as a centre forward. Rather than sticking to his usual right-hand side attacking role, he played in a more central role, often interchanging with Gareth Bale after he replaced Vinicius Junior.
His impact was limited, with just one touch in the box and one attempt on goal in over half an hour, but it may take some time for the Spaniard to get used to it. There were moments when his movement and pace off the ball looked to have dazzled the Girona backline. As has been the case all season though, they were far too fleeting.
Solari clearly believes in Asensio and is keen to make it work for him, but he seems not to know where he fits into his system. Given Vinicius’ explosive breakthrough, Asensio doesn’t have time and opportunities to waste.
Playing Girona at their own game
Against the likes of Alaves, Levante and Eibar, Real Madrid have come unstuck against teams playing direct, counter-attacking football. Perhaps expecting that Eusebio and Girona would look to take the same approach, Solari appeared to have instructed his team to do so themselves.
Real Madrid made six counter-attacks in total, almost double their season average, and impressively ended four of them with shots, compared to just three counter attacks across both of their past two games.
That may well be linked to the side’s use of long passes, looking to get the ball over the top and allow the likes of Vinicius to spread play more quickly with his pace. In fact, both of the club’s last two fixtures registered higher numbers of long passes than in any game since November. There can be few complaints given the way it is setting up the likes of Benzema, allowing him to drift wide rather than forcing him to battle with tough-nut, physical and experienced central defenders.
Girona huffed and puffed but were facing an uphill battle from the off and it showed. Real Madrid grew into the game, thanks to a significant extent to Benzema’s display, and dominated. This was a chance for a number of men to stake their claim and some certainly did a lot more than others to show why they could be worth a shot in La Liga.
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