Real Madrid wanted to secure top spot heading into the international break up against an in-form Granada side who came to the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu with nothing to lose, but it was Zinedine Zidane’s men who overcame injury doubts and midweek Champions League frustration to once again show their domestic confidence.
Karim Benzema, Eden Hazard, Luka Modrić and James Rodríguez were all on the scoresheet for the hosts, with the Belgian forward scoring his first goal for the club whilst the latter two made a strong impact as substitutes. Darwin Marchis’ penalty and Domingos Duarte cut back the deficit to 3-2 before James’ late decider, but it was not enough.
This tactical analysis will consider what Zidane and Diego Martínez can learn from the tie as Real Madrid once again strut their stuff in La Liga action with their tactics spot on up against Granada, as this analysis will explain.
Both Thibaut Courtois and Marcelo were ruled out in the run-up to this tie, forcing Zidane into changes to his line-up, deploying Dani Carvajal as a makeshift left-back. Elsewhere, Modrić’s starting return was held off longer while the Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Eden Hazard frontline was selected again.
Martínez did not make any changes to his line-up, though Yangel Herrera did play in a deeper, holding midfield role with Ramon Azeez also sitting back to a deeper position than the role he usually plays just behind Roberto Soldado in attack.
Valverde’s box-to-box role
While the decision to leave Modrić on the bench may have been encouraged by his slow return to fitness, it was also likely to have been linked to the fine form of Federico Valverde. The Uruguayan has continued to shine and once again took up the most advanced midfield role, showing signs of becoming a real box-to-box midfielder who dominates play in the way that Modrić once did but has struggled to do in the past 12 months. In almost every element of his play, Valverde provided the essential link between midfield and attack.
One of these approaches, as led to the second goal, was through his movement and progressive ball carrying. As Real Madrid looked to bring the ball out, he would typically drop deep and then pull off his marker to provide space and a passing channel. Once this was achieved, he would carry the ball forwards, immediately targeting Granada’s weakness of the space between the full-back and central defender. Time and time again, they fell into the trap of both closing Valverde down, leaving space for Benzema and Hazard to exploit in behind. On this occasion, it would not come off, but it did just five minutes later as Hazard got on the end of a pass behind those two players to score.
However, Valverde’s all-round performance was even more impressive. Winning 80% of his defensive duels, he completed more interceptions and more recoveries than in any other fixture this season as he continues to find himself at home in the Real Madrid midfield both in an offensive and defensive sense. His rapid acclimatisation into the starting line-up has been essential for Zidane when he has looked for an alternative to Modrić, keeping the impressive James on the sidelines. Now the Croatian is back, he has had to prove a point to get into the side and that will likely be eased by the injury to Toni Kroos, which opens the door to Valverde to maintain his place.
More incisive vision
Despite making 8.58% fewer passes than their season average and the second-lowest figure for passes made in a home match all season, Real Madrid were far more clinical in possession. Whilst passes, in general, were down, the most significant change came in lateral passes, which were down 26.26%, whilst forward passes were down just 0.02%. That resulted in a far more ambitious Real Madrid set-up as players looked to find a way through the Granada backline with their vision and passing, not being content to play across the lines as they waited for the opportunity to strike.
This was again particularly clear in the case of Valverde. As he broke forwards in midfield, he would often look to thread a pass through to one of the forwards. He led the progressive passing statistics with three, narrowly ahead of Hazard, as the new entrants into the line-up repeatedly linked up down the left as they looked to exploit the space between full-back and central defender in the Granada structure.
That vision was essential for a side who have been too long struggling to find a way to break teams down. Here, the lateral pass map reflects the way that Zidane has managed to remove lateral passes from the playbook when moving into attack. The lateral pass combinations exist almost entirely between defenders, showing how once the ball moved into the middle third, the immediate focus was on transitioning into attack and providing service to the front three.
The left-back solution
Antonio Puertas has been one of La Liga’s standout players this season, despite being unheard of in the top flight before the campaign kicked off. As such, it was not an ideal time for Marcelo to pick up an injury which would sideline him for even longer, coming at a time when stand-in Nacho Fernández and reserve Ferland Mendy had both been injured. It left Zidane with a conundrum as to how to overcome the absence of a first-choice left-back. Even with the team released, it was unclear if it would be Carvajal or Álvaro Odriozola on the left. For Carvajal, it was a role that he had played only four times before, only once for a full 90 minutes against Huesca last season.
It was evident that he was not entirely comfortable in the position. While Odriozola burst down the flank on the right, Carvajal was more reserved. Whilst he had more shots on target in one game than he had in his previous 21 combined, they were his only two ventures forward, both into central areas. For only the third time in the past calendar year, Carvajal failed to register a single cross and he continually held back his runs down the wing, rarely offering the overlapping option that he would usually bring.
This was in part due to the Granada press. As soon as Carvajal got onto the ball, they would crowd towards him. Soldado would look to deny the passing channel to Sergio Ramos, whilst Puertas and Víctor Díaz would push up down the flank to close him down, occasionally with help from midfield. By forcing him on to his more uncomfortable left foot, Granada were successful in their attempts to force Carvajal to turn the ball back to his goalkeeper.
It was evident that Carvajal was being deployed on the left in order to add defensive security to the Real Madrid defence. Whereas they have continually shown an inability to defend against wingers looking to exploit space in behind, Carvajal refused to allow Puertas any space to work in and instead shut off that area by refusing to gamble by breaking forwards.
Watching this game, you would never have guessed that this Real Madrid side full of swagger and confidence had been a nervous wreck against Club Brugge only a few days before. Yet, Real Madrid once again produced the goods in domestic competition. This ambitious passing and desire to move the ball forwards were key to breaking down a Granada set-up which was reluctant to sit back and defend. With Carvajal deployed at left-back, Zidane also found a surefire way to ensure that whilst it would not be as threatening as an alternative could have been, it would be a way to shore up the defence without creating any cause for concern which Puertas could have exploited.
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