Back to back draws meant that Real Madrid could ill afford to slip up again at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu as Levante came to town for a lunchtime kick-off, just like last year when Levante ran out winners on the road.
Karim Benzema opened the scoring with a six-minute brace with his usual poacher’s instinct, whilst Casemiro also secured a rare goal in a free-flowing move. It was no so easy in the second half for the hosts though, as Borja Mayoral, playing for his loan club against his parent club, and Gonzalo Melero looked to mount a comeback.
A midfield injury crisis left Zidane with a hole to fill in defence and he opted for James Rodríguez to come into the side to do so. In attack, Eden Hazard was reserved for the bench for what would be his debut as a substitute for the La Liga side.
Levante switched from a 4-4-2 which saw them secure back-to-back wins to a more defensive 5-3-2 set-up. Óscar Duarte came into the side at the expense of Roger Martí, with José Luis Morales stepping into a more advanced role alongside Mayoral in attack.
James’ midfield creativity
Without Luka Modrić or Fede Valverde available due to injury, Zidane was forced to opt for a more offensive-minded option in midfield. In the end, he chose James, who would operate as a key element in the changing formation of his side. When defending, it would often resemble a 4-3-3, with the Colombian happy to track back and contribute to the defensive side of the game. However, once in possession, he would immediately look to move forward and position himself as a number 10 centrally, behind Karim Benzema but linking up impressively with the two wide men.
He had five shot assists in addition to his three efforts on goal, with nine passes into the box. This reflects just what an influence he had as his team looked to break forward, with Casemiro and Toni Kroos both immediately allowing him to roam forwards when the ball broke into the opposition half. Providing the connection with the two wingers and Benzema, James gave Real Madrid a vital link which has been missing almost ever since he departed the club for Bayern Munich on loan.
What’s more, he received the ball 52 times. In his last season in Spain, he only surpassed that number four times. Despite having only just returned to the team, this being his second start for the team since coming back from Germany, he has clearly demanded the respect of his team-mates and is already building up influence. The next challenge will be to get regular game time and maintain consistency, which Zidane will surely be happy to assist with after this display.
Dani Carvajal’s discipline
For some time now, Real Madrid’s greatest vulnerability has been at full-back. With Carvajal and Marcelo being overly adventurous and lacking discipline with their positioning, opposition teams have taken advantage to exploit the spaces that they have left in behind. Yet, at long last, it seems that Carvajal is changing his game to avoid leaving such weaknesses in defence.
What that brings with it is a restriction in his attacking contribution. Whereas he typically provides four crosses and attempts three dribbles per match on average, on this occasion he provided just two crosses, one of which was an assist, and no dribbles. In contrast, he recorded the most defensive duels in a single game since facing Barcelona in February with 12 duels, nine of which he won. Becoming more decisive and clinical, still getting forwards to create chances but only when it is worthwhile, could help Carvajal to get back to his best.
On the other flank, Marcelo showed no such adaptation. Coming after Ferland Mendy impressed at left-back in the draw against Villarreal on his debut, Carvajal’s adaptation will give Zidane real food for thought. If this approach from the Spaniard is how he wants his full-backs to fit into the system, then Marcelo may not be the man to fulfill that role. Mendy was on the bench on Saturday, but it may not stay that way for long.
Defensive weakness identified
With Carvajal produced his most defensively solid display for some time, Levante were forced to look elsewhere to find a way through. In the second goal, this came via a set-piece, but for the first, it was a clear focus on manipulating Real Madrid’s two central defenders. Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane remain first choice and have plenty of experience playing together, but boosted by the inside knowledge of loanee Mayoral, Levante found a way to make the most of their weaknesses.
Here, you can see the build-up to Levante’s first goal. As reflected previously, Carvajal has remained disciplined whilst Marcelo is racing back having been caught out in an advanced position. Varane and Ramos are following the two runners, Morales and Mayoral. Varane has tracked Mayoral, but the forward slows his pace down to allow Morales to run past him and engage Varane, dragging him wide with his run as Casemiro fails to keep up.
That leaves Mayoral with Ramos and the younger of the two was clearly confident that his pace could beat Ramos’ and that’s just what happened. Bursting forwards as Carlos Clerc stretched away, he gambled on the cross coming in and got their first, well before Ramos, to give him the chance to get his shot away. As Ramos ages, more and more rivals are targeting him in this way, identifying his lack of pace. When sides like Levante have two quick forwards and one can distract Varane, it leaves a vulnerability in the middle.
Having missed the start of the campaign due to injury, Hazard’s eventual debut was a long-awaited one. The Belgian came on in the second half and immediately made an impact, linking up impressively with his team-mates and clearly having benefitted from having taken his time to return to action.
One of the best examples of this was only moments after he came on. As the ball was spread wide to Marcelo, Hazard identified that the poor midfield positioning from Levante had left James free. By moving his run towards the ball, he dragged Ruben Vezo with him, forcing the defender to decide whether to continue to track Hazard or to close down James as the ball came his way. Should he stick with Hazard, James would have space to run into. Should he close down James, as he did, a quick pass would set Hazard free with almost a quarter of the pitch all to himself.
With four dribbles, three of them completed, and four progressive runs, it was clear that Hazard stuck to what he does best. Topping many of those figures despite only having played 35 minutes, Hazard’s debut was a promising one. The immediate suggestions of his strong link-up play with his new colleagues is key to his adaptation to life in La Liga and will undoubtedly have pleased Zidane.
Zidane’s Real Madrid side remain very much a work in progress. The first 45 minutes of this tie showed the kind of free-flowing movement that the coach has been hoping for. James was a constant threat and the team looked secure defensively and a threat in attack. In the second period, nerves and defensive weaknesses kicked in and play become more disjointed, allowing Levante back into the tie. It is a positive step for Zidane, who will have both Hazard and Bale available to him from the start against Paris Saint-Germain on Tuesday in what will be his first major challenge of the season.
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