After Barcelona fell 2-0 to Valencia on Saturday, Real Madrid knew that a win or draw would take it to the top of the La Liga table. Standing in its way was Real Valladolid, owned by the Real Madrid legend Ronaldo Nazário.
Despite the world-class attacking talent on the one side and ownership of one of the sport’s great strikers on the other, this was a tight match with little attacking joy. A disciplined Valladolid squad held Madrid to a .62 xG while collecting two of the game’s three shots with an xG of 0.1 or higher.
In this tactical analysis, we’ll examine the defensive structure of Real Valladolid, showing how they held Los Blancos to just three shots on target. An analysis of the Real attack will show why its attacks on the wings were so ineffective in this match, as well as why it struggled to stretch the field against this compact Real Valladolid side.
For the home side, Sergio González lined up his team in a 1-4-3-1-2. Jordi Masip started in goal with Antoñito, Kiko Olivas, Mohammed Salisu and Raúl García forming the backline. The first line of midfielders consisted of Joaquín Fernández, Fede San Emeterio and Rubén Alcaraz with Míchel just in front of them. Up top were Enes Ünal and Sergi Guardiola. When Toni Suárez was introduced in the 57th minute, the Blanquivioletas switched to a 1-4-4-2, finishing the match in that formation.
Zinedine Zidane rolled out a 1-4-3-3, featuring Thibaut Courtois in goal and Nacho, Rafael Varane, Sergio Ramos and Ferland Mendy along the backline. Casemiro played the pivot flanked by Toni Kroos and Luka Modrić. Rodrygo started on the right, Karim Benzema in the centre and Isco playing a nominal left-forward role while generally operating as a free attacker.
Real Valladolid’s defensive tactics
Everyone knew Valladolid would come into the match with a defensive mentality, but it’s surprising that González’s pressing tactics were dominant in the first half. Its 17.8 PPDA, with just a 0.2 difference separating the first and second halves, gives an idea of the home side’s defensive tactics. Of Valladolid’s 85 recoveries, 45 came in the defensive third, 27 in the middle and the remaining 13 in the final third.
While Valladolid tended to get numbers behind the ball before pressuring, the nature of its press varied depending on the location of the ball, opposition’s numbers and its own available numbers. As Madrid attempted to build out of the back, Valladolid would cautiously funnel play into the wings. Wide passes gave the Pucelanos time to move numbers high up the field and eliminate immediate passing options. Once the ball arrived on the wings, Valladolid pressured with great intensity, determined to win the ball in the attacking half of the field.
If Madrid was able to break that press, Real Valladolid reset in a middle block. Typically featuring two lines of three with the back four making up the final line, the home side tried to pressure Kroos, Ramos and Varane into forcing rushed passes into the mass of bodies.
Finally, when play progressed into Valladolid’s defensive third, they would settle into a low block. Two lines of four formed the foundation. Of the two remaining players, one would drop to Casemiro, keeping him from receiving the ball while the other operated as a high target.
Here we see Valladolid defending high up the pitch. As the ball was moved to Courtois, then Varane, Valladolid took its opportunity to push numbers higher up the pitch. With Varane stuck in the corner, his options included a pass to Nacho, a dangerous ball to Ramos or skipping lines via the long ball. The Frenchman chose the first option. Still running to the ball and not set to play, Nacho was in a tough spot, cueing the Valladolid defence to up the intensity of the press.
A little combination offloaded the ball to Varane, but he had no space. Valladolid outnumbered Madrid six to five in that white box, forcing a hurried strike of the ball to the middle of the field. Only a poor decision to head the ball kept Valladolid from attacking the goal.
When defending in the middle block, Valladolid tended to have two lines of three in front of the back four. This approach allowed the home side to immediately pressure Kroos, Varane and Ramos, preventing them from passing to deep targets. With roughly 24 metres from front to back, the Pucelanos were difficult to break down.
Finally, in the low block, the lines were extraordinarily compact with roughly 12 metres separating the backline from the second striker. Even when Madrid tried to play between the lines, the compact structure of Valladolid limited the capital side’s success.
Real Madrid’s wing attacks
Valladolid’s defensive discipline and tactics heavily influenced the way Madrid attacked. 31 attacks went through the right, 16 on the left and nine right down the middle. Granted, Real Madrid switches paly rather frequently when it attacks, especially if it needs to disrupt the opposition’s compact lines with diagonal movements. Though Madrid tried to create gaps in the Valladolid defence through long, diagonal distributions, the lack of creativity and incisive dribbling on the wings led to a stagnant attack. When the breakthroughs finally arrived, wide overloads typically meant the Madridistas had no one attacking the box, allowing Valladolid to clear or launch an attack.
One of the products of Madrid’s poor wing play and central presence was its crossing success. For the game, Madrid attempted 24 crosses, successfully completing just 6 (25%). Rodrygo and Isco finished the game with one shot apiece while Benzema had just two. Casemiro led the team in that category, taking three shots, all of which were off target. That doesn’t include his goal that was called back due to half of his left shoulder being in an offside position. Rodrygo tended to stay wide, completing four of 10 dribbles and successfully completing three of five crosses. Isco’s free role saw him roam the pitch in pursuit of space, but he was unable to complete a key pass and only hit one deep completion, which you’ll see momentarily. On the whole, the emphasis on attacking the wings and inability to anticipate shooting opportunities limited Madrid’s attacking success.
In this scenario, if you look at the top-left corner of the image, you will Madrid hand a right-sided overload and had just completed the switch of play. Varane played Kroos who then played Benzema. While the move did set up a 2v1 in the left-wing, Madrid’s current positioning does not offer an immediate threat to goal. Isco, Rodrygo and Modrić have a chance to run into the box, though they fail to read the sense of urgency communicated through Benzema’s first touch.
When Benzema played Mendy into space, the outside-back turned the corner only to find himself surrounded by the opposition. After a brief scramble, Mendy was able to poke the ball centrally, but Isco, Rodrygo and Modrić were behind the play, failing to arrive in a dangerous area. As you can see, Valladolid’s defenders are perfectly positioned for the cross, totally uncontested by Madrid’s attackers.
With Valladolid aggressively funneling to and pressuring in the wings, Madrid found some success with early crosses. In this instance, we see Modri, Benzema and Rodrygo 1v1 with their defenders. Between their poor body orientation and lack of coverage, the Valladolid defence was beaten with Isco’s picture-perfect early cross to the far post.
Credit to Benzema for making the run Madrid was mostly lacking in this match, but the shot simply wasn’t good enough. His strike flew softly into the hands of Masip, keeping the game at zeros.
Real Madrid’s struggle to stretch the field
In addition to settling for wing attacks and hopeful crosses, Real Madrid was also lacking that player who was willing to run in behind the defence. With Benzema’s frequent drops into the midfield, players like Ronaldo and Bale have the ability to notice the space he’s opened and challenge the defence with vertical or diagonal runs to goal. With players like Kroos, Modrić, Isco and Ramos in the side, that cooperative movement allows the deeper players to send killer passes, bypassing the opposition’s compact lines. In this game, Rodrygo showed very little desire to make those runs and Isco prefers the ball at his feet rather than into space. The lack of verticality in the Madrid attack allowed Valladolid to sit comfortably in its compact defensive shell.
Madrid’s relatively low tally of five key passes, as well as three successful through balls in six attempts, give an indication of the lack of movement up top. Given the frequency of Benzema’s movement into the midfield and half spaces, the wide players have an incredible number of opportunities to test the defence. Even if the pass isn’t sent or results in a turnover, gaining information on the movements of the individual defender would have shed some light on who to attack. Without the movement up top, Madrid was able to produce eight shots in the second half, but only three were on target and only one had a higher xG than 0.1. Los Blancos had a great number of opportunities, just not the desired quality.
In this scenario, Kroos and Rodrygo exchange passes before the German played Mendy into space. Even though Kroos, Rodrygo and Mendy have a potential numerical superiority in place, Benzema checked to Kroos, bringing a defender with him. The move put Kiko closer to Antoñito and Emeterio, strengthening the Valladolid hold on the area. Additionally, note the run of Isco. Although he took the space vacated by Benzema, his decision to remain in front of the defence failed to test the movement of Valladolid’s backline. If Kroos completes a pass over the top of the defence, Isco’s run would take him into the box. Though that’s a difficult, if not unlikely, scenario, the run would at least draw the attention of Antoñito, leaving more space for Rodrygo and Mendy.
With little movement ahead of him, Kroos dribbled forward in an attempt to pin the Valladolid defence. Rodrygo’s central run opened a passing lane to Mendy, who spurned the 1v1 opportunity against Antoñito, cut to the inside. Still no movement from the Madrid attack meant Mendy was running into a compact, set defence.
A pass to Isco led to a little combination with Benzema. With the three Madrid attackers surrounded by six Valladolid players, this run of play became sloppy. As Isco set the ball to Benzema, Kroos and Rodrygo had a chance to run in behind, stretching the field vertically and creating more space for their teammates, but they turned their backs to the goal, leaving Valladolid to comfortably keep its shape. Note the body orientation of the Valladolid defenders. They’re not ready to protect the space behind them. Instead, they’re all-in on preventing that killer pass.
When Madrid finally attacked space, it was Benzema, again, making the run in behind. Unfortunately, Isco’s pass was a difficult one and Antoñito read the run early enough to respond, shielding the ball out of play. While Madrid needed someone to stretch the defence and create space, Benzema’s run was clearly seen by the backline. A run from a wider player who was playing off the shoulder of their defender would have been more difficult to track.
Three points for the guests saw them leap Barcelona to claim the top spot. Additionally, with another clean sheet in the books, Zidane’s men have conceded only 13 goals in 21 games, matching the La Liga record of the 1934-35, 1964-65 and 1987-88 Real Madrid sides. Nearly as impressive, this is the third match of the season that Madrid has not conceded a shot on target. While his side’s counterpressing is key, he’s also found a way to work around the injuries and help the team to a 19-match unbeaten streak. The attacking issues and Benzema’s five-game goal drought are cause for concern. Bale and Hazard can’t return soon enough for the Madridistas.
On the other bench, González will be pleased with the performance but rue the opportunity to steal a point. Still, Real Valladolid sits four points above the drop zone. February is the most important month for González’s men. With away fixtures against Mallorca and Granada, as well as a home date versus Espanyol, a strong month could see the club just about secure La Liga status for next season.