La Liga 2019/20: Real Madrid vs Espanyol – tactical analysis
Donning green in an effort to support environmental protests in the city of Madrid, Real Madrid took to the pitch of the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu not in white for the first time since 1967, and whilst the occasion may live long in the history books, the performance was a rather routine one.
Espanyol began the game well and held out but Real Madrid found a breakthrough via French defender Raphaël Varane who produced a poacher’s finish inside the box to give his side the lead. In the second half, Karim Benzema would double the advantage with a composed finish of his own to seal a 2-0 victory.
This tactical analysis will consider the tactics of Real Madrid and Espanyol in this La Liga fixture, providing analysis of what Zinedine Zidane got right and Pablo Machin got wrong as Espanyol continued to struggle while Real Madrid took another step closer to challenging Barcelona in the La Liga title race.
Real Madrid lined up recalling several of the men they opted to rest against Alavés, with Vinícius Junior and Rodrygo Goes lining up together in attack for the first time. Ferland Mendy also came into the side, though he would not last the full 90 minutes as he would collect two second-half yellow cards.
Espanyol lined up as expected with Wu Lei becoming the first Chinese player to play at the Bernabéu alongside Jonathan Calleri in attack. Machin persisted with his preferred back five, with Marc Roca playing the deep midfield role to often drop in as a third central defender when required.
Vinícius runs riot
In his first start since early October, all eyes were on Vinícius on the left flank, particularly with his highly rated and in form compatriot Rodrygo on the right. Of the two, it was Vinícius who stood out as he produced a dazzling display which was reminiscent of his form last season which caught the eye. Half of Real Madrid’s positional attacks, worth 67% of xG, came down his left flank and he was instrumental in all that they did. As can be seen in the average positioning map below, his more advanced role allowed him more freedom to get forward and forget about defensive responsibilities, particularly when compared to Rodrygo on the other flank.
In total, he was responsible for 18.5% of xG and provided assists for a further 29.8% of xG, showing how he was involved in almost half – 48.3%, of Real Madrid’s goalscoring chances. With this freedom, he found himself looking to take on youngster Víctor Gómez time and time again, getting in behind with his pace and with the midfield instantly looking to thread him in with long balls over the top, rather than short passes into feet as has become the norm in recent appearances from the young Brazilian.
Receiving 28 passes, more than in any other game this season and in all but four of his appearances last season, he was a focal point in attack. Whilst this limited Benzema’s freedom of movement, his average positioning being notably more central than usual, it did give free reign to Vinícius who showed improved decision-making to ensure that he did not disappoint in his new role, one that Rodrygo will still have to work for as he proves himself capable of the defensive work required.
Espanyol’s woeful press
For all that Real Madrid did well, it is also worth noting where Espanyol went wrong. The Péricos have picked up just four points since Machin arrived at the club replacing David Gallego and it was clear to see why as their struggles continued. At times, they showed flashes of potential – particularly with how they used their high press. Only once this season, in the home defeat to Sevilla, have Espanyol allowed their opposition to record more passes per defensive action on average, a measure widely used to determine pressing intensity. However, what was illogical about the use of the press from Espanyol was the inconsistency. In the 15 minute period between the 16-30 minutes, it was just 11.8 passes per defensive action, but between the 31 and 45 minutes, it was 26.
The above example shows one case where Espanyol deployed a high press effectively. As the ball was played into Casemiro, five players pressed him with four of them effectively cutting off all of the options which his poor body positioning had left him with. The result was a recovery which played Espanyol in to produce their highest xG chance as Esteban Granero missed a chance worth 0.24 xG. However, it was the only time that this high press was deployed effectively and achieved such a turnover.
On the whole in many periods of the game, particularly in the second half, Espanyol barely deployed any press at all. Instead, they reverted back into a very deep positioning as was reflected by the fact that their average positioning showed a 10m smaller gap between defence and attack as when compared to Real Madrid. As can be seen above, as many as six defenders formed part of a backline with two midfielders and very little active pressing from the front two. Such inconsistencies meant that Espanyol failed to make a breakthrough and break down Real Madrid’s domination of possession.
A double pivot in midfield?
Much has been made of how Zidane will cope with his midfield options once Luka Modrić returned to a midfield already featuring Casemiro, Toni Kroos, and Fede Valverde. On this occasion, Modrić started on the bench and was later brought on as a replacement for Kroos to rest. What was intriguing was the way in which the midfield operated, particularly after that change, largely relying on the three-man midfield but in a very different set-up to what is typically seen, with Valverde dropping into what looked like a double pivot.
The move was largely seen as a protection method. Casemiro was one yellow card away from suspension and with visits to Valencia’s Mestalla and Barcelona’s Camp Nou, he will not want to miss either of those. By dropping to sit in deeper, Valverde could take up the role of a self-sacrificial challenger to take a yellow card if required, as he did in the 74th minute. It also added greater stability and strength to the Real Madrid line-up and helped to halt potential counter-attacks at their root.
It was also an interesting move as it is one that has been suggested in the Spanish press as the approach that Zidane may look to use to prevent Lionel Messi from making an impact in the upcoming Clásico. The two alongside each other reduced the space afforded to Espanyol’s more creative midfielders, though they were nowhere near as damaging as Messi could be for Barcelona. By first trialling this combination in a fixture where the result was already effectively settled, and also when defensive stability was required following Mendy’s dismissal, it gave Zidane into an insight into its viability ahead of the all-important fixture.
This was an efficient rather than dazzling display from Real Madrid. The side never really got out of first gear, not being forced to or pressured by Espanyol’s mismatched approach. Vinícius provided sufficient spark so as to keep Real Madrid alive in the final third and also gave them free rein to experiment with their tactical approach ahead of some important La Liga fixtures which could come to decide their season. This run-out against Espanyol was a mere warm-up for Real Madrid ahead of trips to Valencia and Barcelona, but it was a chance for some fringe players, such as the Brazilian, to prove their credentials.
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