As we are heading towards the mid-stage of the first half of the La Liga season, the race to a spot in the European competitions is getting more intensive than ever. Besides the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid, the chance is spread equally among the rest. Real Sociedad was one of the teams that are currently running for a place in the top six and they aimed to solidify their expectation by securing a positive result on their trip to the Santiago Bernabéu.
Real Madrid were hoping to continue their impressive form since their 1-0 loss against Mallorca at the end of October. It would also help them caught up with Barcelona and maintained their status of 25 points. On the opposite side, Real Sociedad enjoyed a great start to the season after a decent summer which saw Alexander Isak, Martin Ødegaard and Portu arrived at the Anoeta. After starting off with four wins and a draw in their first six matches, they showed signs of slowing down but also hoped to turn their fortune around.
Unfortunately, Real Madrid proved to be quite a tough opponent for Imanol Alguacil’s side as Karim Benzema, Federico Valverde and Luka Modrić’s goals kept three points at the Santiago Bernabéu. This tactical analysis will provide an analysis of Real Madrid’s 3-1 win over Real Sociedad. Meanwhile, using statistics, we will point out what went wrong for Alguacil’s tactics against Zinedine Zidane’s tactics.
With the advantage of playing at home, Zidane lined his side up in a 4-3-3 formation along with several key absences. Lucas Vázquez was confirmed to be on the team’s injury list after he suffered a toe injury, while another winger in Marco Asensio was also absented from the squad list as the Spaniard continued his recovery from a knee injury.
On the bench, Marcelo and Toni Kroos joined the side as their place was occupied by Ferland Mendy and Federico Valverde respectively. The Uruguayan midfielder enjoyed quite a successful spell stepping into the starting lineup after scoring his first goal for Real Madrid against Eibar and there was no doubt that he would want to continue his impressive form.
Meanwhile, Real Sociedad set up in a 4-2-3-1 formation with former Athletic Bilbao goalkeeper Álex Remiro stood in goal. Martin Ødegaard managed to shake off his recent problems of an ankle injury to occupy the attacking midfielder position, playing just behind striker Willian José.
Joseba Zaldúa and Portu all went through the late fitness test to involve in the game, specifically filling in the two positions on the right-hand side. Mikel Merino also came back into the starting lineup as he paired up alongside Igor Zubeldía as central midfielders. A player who would have involved in their trip to the Bernabéu was Asier Illarramendi as he was absent on his return through an ankle injury.
Real Sociedad’s style of play
Travelling to Bernabéu wasn’t an easy task and Sociedad knew that. But instead of sitting back and deployed a negative attitude both on and off the ball, the visitor opted to do what they have done best and made the most out of their strengths. In possession, Sociedad players tended to build their attacks starting from the back-line using the passing ability of Diego Llorente and Aritz Elustondo.
Since the former tended to feel comfortable with the ball at his feet, it made Sociedad’s build-up process more efficient as he had the ability to make penetrative passes to the front. At the same time, the latter also brought the ball out of defence through his dribbling, allowing the midfielders to stay in their positions while still be able to receive the ball.
Along with goalkeeper Remiro, one central midfielder and one full-back, they created a passing block inside their own half. Their aim was to circulate the ball around themselves and kept the advantage of number when they dealt with Real Madrid’s press. If possible, they would look for pockets of space being left behind and laid a pass into it to link up with the attackers. But since the home side usually pushed their shape higher and attempted to recover possession high up the pitch, it made the task of maintaining possession and positioned the block near the halfway line more difficult.
Dealing with the problem, Sociedad players had implemented a strategy which allowed them to circulate the ball away from Real Madrid’s press while still be able to progress it up the pitch. Using the third-man concept, the visitor would create passing triangles inside the overloaded area through their positioning. With one-touch passes, it was possible for Sociedad to move the ball in between gaps and created a counter-attack towards Thibaut Courtois’ goal.
The situation below was one of the examples that occurred in the match. Surrounding the ball carrier, Oyarzabal, were four Real Madrid players who were ready to recover possession and launched an immediate attack. Rather than stopping the play and scanned around the pitch to look for potential receivers, the Spanish winger chose to take on the situation himself by dribbling into the space between the four players. There, it was viable for him to find one of his teammates who were free and also opened up space out wide for Nacho Monreal to overlap into, therefore, created a passing triangle which allowed Oyarzabal to find the former Arsenal defender through his teammate.
In scenarios where the team progressed the ball into the opposition’s half, Sociedad were a threat in terms of capitalising unoccupied space. Although they tended to move the ball in a quick fashion, there were times the players also stopped for a few seconds to look for potential receivers. Another option that they also chose was scanning the field on their way into the half before making the decisive pass.
One player who was tasked to do so when he was on the field was Ødegaard as he occupied the role of a playmaker in Alguacil’s 4-2-3-1 formation. He would drop quite deep to receive the ball and then drove forward on his own as he waited for support from his teammates around him. Since the home side usually pushed their defensive line higher, it made the transitioning process tough for them as there were only four players were ready to take on Sociedad’s attackers.
This would create pockets of space inside their half as the defenders had to close the ball carrier, which, in this case, was Ødegaard, down. Using his vision and passing ability, the Norwegian youngster was able to pick out the unoccupied areas while encouraging his teammates to join the attack. In the shot below, with most of the Real Madrid defenders swarmed the left side, they opened up a gap on the opposite flank to allow Willian José to enter and received the pass from Ødegaard. This type of situation happened quite often during the match since there were many attacks got stopped and Sociedad capitalised the chance to launch a counter-attack.
It’s hard to argue that Ødegaard’s influence on the field was the key in Alguacil’s tactics. As a playmaker who tended to roam across the pitch to provide support for his teammates, he managed to link up the team’s play while also brought the players surrounded him into play. As shown on his heatmap, he spent most of his time playing on the right-hand side along with several other positions. This showed how flexible he was in terms of picking a position that allowed him to receive passes and progressed the ball up the pitch.
Furthermore, dribbled the ball on his own was another of his trait that can be seen in the match. As he tended to drive forward with pace, this encouraged the other attacking midfielders to do the same and moved forward to join him. By doing so, it allowed the team to have more players to create passing triangles for their ball circulation process.
Unfortunately, though, as good as they were in terms of ball progressing and creating chances, luck just didn’t stand by them on a day that they were only able to get almost half of their created chances on target. Furthermore, with only 46% of ball possession, there wasn’t much that Sociedad could do, especially inside the second half where Real Madrid saw their fortune turned towards the positive side.
On the other hand, the visitor enjoyed a decent first half in terms of defending and limiting Real Madrid’s attacking threat. They set up in a 4-4-2 when out of possession and positioned themselves high up the pitch. As part of the formation, the two banks of players took on different responsibilities with the midfielders provided support for the strikers during the press and the defenders attempted to intercept passes that came towards them.
By playing quite high up the pitch, it was possible for them to commit players forward for their man-oriented press and the intention of recovering possession inside Real Madrid’s half. Furthermore, this strategy also required the good understanding between the players as they had to keep the space between the lines as narrow as possible and picking out the perfect time to retreat into their defensive third without breaking the offside trap.
Still, as they deployed a more conservative press and only waited for the opposition’s players to move into the middle third, it decreased the effectiveness of their press. Real Madrid were able to have more time controlling the ball inside their defensive third and finding space between the lines to make passes into it.
Real Madrid’s style of play
The home side had a struggling first half as they attempted to adapt to the match and found ways to counter against Sociedad’s tactics. With the clock only closed to reach the second-minute mark, the first goal came following an individual error from Sergio Ramos. In a scenario where Sociedad pressed high, the home side fell into the trap being set by Alguacil’s players.
As mentioned, the attacking midfielders would move forward and join Willian José in the press, and with four players involved in the press, it was possible for them to stretch their pressing shape and marked all four of Real Madrid’s defenders. When they attempted to do so, the home side’s defensive line would be pushed back towards the 16-yard box. At the same time, the links between them and the central midfielders were eliminated through the positioning of Merino and Zubeldía.
This meant there were times both centre-backs were suffocated since they didn’t have any possible passing options available to them. As a consequence, they were forced to make back passes more often to Courtois and restart the build-up process. But in this situation, Ramos’ intention was immediately caught by Willian José and the Brazilian striker quickly jumped into the direction of the pass. Since there were no player managed to catch him, he was free to approach the goal and opened the score for Sociedad.
Since that situation, Zidane started to pay more attention to the team’s build-up process by making sure it wouldn’t happen again through encouraging Casemiro to drop back and formed a passing block centrally. This allowed the players to create two passing triangles among themselves and maintained a high passing accuracy. Furthermore, this was also one of the reasons that helped Real Madrid to secure 54% of ball possession during the match, which helped them execute their intention on a constant basis.
In addition, having more time on the ball also allowed them to create more chances towards Remiro’s goal. After managed to recover from Willian José’s early opener, the home side started to take control of the match as they increased the tempo of the game in order to chase that equaliser. With some tactical changes that Zidane implemented during the break, the second half basically belonged to them.
Starting off with Valverde’s goal to give the home side the lead, that was the signal for bigger things to come as they have found the momentum for their attacks. Although a number of created chances weren’t highly-rated in xG due to the fact that Sociedad focused on defending narrowly and blocked the possible gaps that Real Madrid players could take advantage, they still registered on-target shots on many occasions.
Another thing that worth noticing from their shots map below is most of their chances took place inside the 16-yard box and more specifically, from the left-hand side. With Eden Hazard worked inside the left half-space more often, Real Madrid had an inside forward who was able to turn up at the end of passes and converted them into chances.
But when mentioning about who left a significant influence on Real Madrid’s style of play, some fans might turn their heads towards Valverde and Rodrygo. These two had had a good match, with the former even managed to get his name on the scoresheet. Surprisingly, Valverde wasn’t a first-choice in the team’s midfield-three but he was given the chance to showcase his ability this season and the Uruguayan midfielder didn’t let Zidane down.
From his passes map below, notice the direction of most of his passes as they all have the tendency of moving forward rather than turning towards the opposite way. In the role of a playmaker, it wasn’t surprising to see this as his main responsibility was progressing the ball forward to help to maintain the flow of the team’s attack. Also, managing to complete a total of 36 out of 39 passes is an impressive record for the youngster as he continued to demonstrate good performance on the pitch.
For Rodrygo, though, with the fact that he was deployed as a right-winger, he had the tendency of drifting wide and used his pace to beat his markers. One of his traits that were constantly shown during the match was that he didn’t hesitate to drop a deep to receive the ball and found pockets of space to open up chances for his teammates.
As the below example showed, although he was surrounded by three Sociedad players, it was still viable for him to notice there was a gap behind their backs and one of his teammates was ready to enter that area. With a delicate flick through the legs of two defenders, he managed to find the attacking player and even opened up an attack for the team.
Defensively, Real Madrid set up in a 4-1-4-1 formation with two distinctive defensive lines and Casemiro playing in between them. The first one, which was formed by the central midfielders and the wingers, took on the responsibility of pressing Sociedad’s build-up using the man-oriented marking instruction. Along with Benzema, they formed a five-man pressing block which aimed to suffocate the build-up by eliminating possible passing lanes among Sociedad’s defenders and even central midfielders.
At the same time, the defensive line also pushed high up the pitch, as mentioned earlier. By positioning themselves near the halfway line, this allowed the defenders to provide support for the players upfront during the press and would be able to intercept long passes that headed towards them.
With Real Sociedad being considered as one of the dark horses this season, many expected this would be a tough match for Real Madrid. Indeed, as the visitor took control of the game during the first few minutes after Willian José’s opening goal and put the home side on the back foot. Still, Benzema’s equalising goal before the first half ended proved to be crucial as this became the turning point for Real Madrid.
Zidane’s side started to play with more creativity and confident during the second period and fought back into the match. As Sociedad dropping deep to limit the home side’s attacking threat, they were allowed to have more time on the ball and executed what they intended. Two goals from Valverde and Modrić came as a result of the efforts to keep three points at Bernabéu, and they finally did it to continue maintaining the same amount of points with leader Barcelona.
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