Real Madrid headed to Estadio Mestalla knowing that a win over Valencia would put them top of La Liga heading into the midweek Clasico against Barcelona but they were held to a draw by a plucky Valencia side who almost held on for all three points.
The visitors started well but Los Che grew into the game as it went on, with Carlos Soler breaking the deadlock late on with his effort from inside the box. It wasn’t until almost the very last kick of the game that Real Madrid got their point as Thibaut Courtois won a header at an injury-time corner with Karim Benzema pouncing in the ensuing chaos to convert an equaliser.
This tactical analysis will consider the tactics of both Albert Celades’ Valencia and Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid. The tactics of both sides led to an intriguing tie for analysis which swayed in balance, with a point apiece seeming a fair result for both sides, come the final whistle, even if it leaves them both unsatisfied in La Liga.
Valencia stuck with their strongest possible line-up given injuries in the attack, with Jaume Costa filling in at left-back allowing Daniel Wass to play in midfield, with Jaume Doménech also maintaining his position in goal due to injury to Jasper Cillessen.
Real Madrid sprung a surprise with Isco coming in to replace Casemiro, who was rested, whilst it was Nacho Fernández who was chosen to fill in for the suspended Ferland Mendy with Marcelo Díaz also ruled out by injury.
Casemiro’s hard-felt absence
Zidane was left with almost no choice but to rest Casemiro for the first time this season in order to avoid him collecting a yellow card which would have seen him suspended for the Clásico. That led to a change in midfield, with Fede Valverde being the man to drop into the deeper role in the midfield three, but it was one that he struggled to fulfill as Zidane may have hoped and it was an area that Valencia continually looked to exploit.
This was never more clear than in Soler’s goal. On the counter, Valencia would look to overload central areas so as to overwhelm Valverde into making poor decisions as he tracked his runners. Arriving late as he would not sit as deep as Casemiro usually would, he would often find himself accompanied by two or three Valencia midfielders willing to gamble in order to provide him with a decision to make. In the build-up to the goal, he opted to close down the option closer to the ball, usually a wise choice as it would also narrow the passing channel, but instead left Soler wide open at the far post.
Casemiro’s influence cannot be underestimated by anyone at Real Madrid, particularly in the defensive phases of a game. Without his ability to break up play, Valencia, who were still limited to 40% possession, could gain momentum and look to attack on the counter by exploiting this weakness in Valverde’s game whilst his midfield partners would not provide the support that he was needing.
Without Casemiro, Zidane also made a change in the attack by bringing Isco in on the left-hand side, with the likes of Gareth Bale and Vinícius Junior left on the bench. However, it was a poorly executed plan as the Spaniard failed to have any influence, in part due to his poor positioning. As can be shown in the below, average position map, he was simply treading on the toes of Benzema for much of the game.
Whilst there was nothing wrong with drifting into central areas, he did so far too frequently and effectively reduced any kind of wide threat down the left. With Marcelo or Mendy available, this could have been an approach that worked well. Nacho was selected as a makeshift option without possessing the offensive abilities or pace to provide an overlapping run and contribute an attacking threat, leaving the left flank vacant in attack and vulnerable to Wass on the counter as he had no tracking threat from the Real Madrid midfield.
Perhaps most concerningly for Isco was his passing. He made just four forward passes and five in the final third, compared to an average total of 25 between the two. Even worse, his accuracy with passes in the box dropped to 33% from an average of 59% in yet another sign of how sloppy he was in possession. As can be seen above, he would often drift into already congested areas, finding himself trapped in penned in areas without the ability to find a way out. All in all, it was a hugely ineffective display from the midfielder and it was no surprise see him hauled off as Zidane went for the win.
Zidane returns to default
It is no secret that when Real Madrid have struggled to create chances, Zidane has stuck to the plain and simple instructions of getting the ball wide down the flanks and putting crosses into the box. That was again the case at Mestalla as Real Madrid recorded an impressive 29 crosses, their highest figure in over six weeks and fifth highest of the season. This largely relied upon the full-backs, Dani Carvajal and Nacho, who accounted for over 40% of crosses. However, Carvajal, in particular, was poor and only completed 17% of his attempts, reflecting how the team continually wasted possession with hopeful crosses.
Nacho was also guilty of this, often looking to make offensive runs down the flank and provide a cross without any real need. The below example shows an ideal scenario where he has two passing options in simple positions, but instead turns and plays a hurried cross into the side-netting. Such wastage may only be temporary with Mendy and Marcelo sidelined, but Zidane must come up with an alternative plan B if he is to compete for titles with this team in 2019/20.
His decision to leave Bale on the bench will again be questioned as his team lacked width yet seemed to focus on creating their threat out wide with 73.4% of Real Madrid’s attacks coming from wide positions. With such squad options at his disposal, the selection of Isco seems baffling whilst Rodrygo Goes faded against the big occasion. The full-backs did their best to bombard the Valencia box, but an alternative plan B is almost certainly required for the French coach.
Valencia’s effective game planning and clinicality made the difference in this tie and will give them every right to feel that they could have left with all three points. Real Madrid looked desperate without the presence of key men and resorted to ineffective attacking tactics. Zidane has long struggled to replace these key players or find an effective plan B and many of the signs of his first spell in charge are beginning to seep in. Whilst that is unlikely to make an immediate impact or put his at risk instantly, he should be aware as the business end of the season comes around and he faces more challenges as posed by the likes of Valencia.
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