La Liga 2019/20: Real Madrid vs Valencia – tactical analysis
Rodrigo Moreno controversially had a first-half strike ruled out but Valencia continued to start the stronger of the two teams, but they faded later on with Real Madrid breaking the deadlock on the hour mark and looking comfortable from that point on. Karim Benzema scored the first with a composed finish, followed by Marco Asensio scoring with his first touch back in action after 11 months out and then setting up Benzema for a magnificent volley to score his second and Real Madrid’s third late on.
Zidane made changes to his team, including a return for Ferland Mendy at left-back and a four-man midfield for Real Madrid. Rather than the 4-1-4-1 shape shown, the side operated as a more offensive 4-3-3 with Fede Valverde and Eden Hazard pushing up to support Karim Benzema in a three-man attack.
Celades’ Valencia stuck to a 4-4-2 shape and opted for Eliaquim Mangala alongside Hugo Guillamón in defence as the youngster kept his place. Intriguingly, Ferran Torres returned to the side on the right, with Carlos Soler shifting to the left to offer a more disciplined and narrow wide option.
Real Madrid’s attacking connections
The most impressive element of Real Madrid’s performance on this occasion was undoubtedly their link-up play in attack, particularly between Hazard and Benzema. With 15 passes between them, they were key to the transition as Hazard would bring the ball forward, feed the ball into Benzema as he dropped into a deeper position and allowed the Belgian to exploit the space which he had opened up in behind. With Valencia’s defence a patchwork rug due to injuries, Guillamón had the task of sticking to Benzema, meaning that when he stepped up as the striker dropped, gaps would open up for Hazard in behind to exploit with his movement.
Equally, and perhaps even more encouraging, was the performance of Asensio when he returned to action, even beyond his goal. Having been out with a knee injury since pre-season, he immediately made an impact and looked to capitalise on the fine movement with Benzema just as Hazard had. As can be seen in the build-up to the second goal, Asensio would offer an offensive option and look to attack the last man, particularly on the counter.
With a more open game, this suited Asensio but also allowed Benzema to drop off and Asensio repeatedly picked him up in this space between defence and midfield. This was key to ensuring that Asensio would register a goal and an assist in the same game for the first time for Real Madrid and for the first time in over four years.
Throughout this season, and last season too, a lack of fluidity and connection in the Real Madrid attack has been one of their greatest sources of frustration. Built up of individual talents rather than a unit with the likes of Vinícius Junior, Rodrygo Goes or Gareth Bale, this kind of interaction and movement between the front three will give Zidane great reason to be optimistic about the final weeks of this title push.
Unfortunately for Valencia, who may argue that the turning point in this fixture was the ruling out of Rodrigo’s goal, the real key decision belonged to Celades. After conceding, Valencia opted to open up their game substantially in the search of an equaliser, perhaps to an unnecessary extent given that before the opening goal, they had fared well with an xG of 0.52 compared to Real Madrid’s marginally better 0.8.
It was a complete failure as the visitors failed to register a single shot on target, lacked any kind of organisation and instead became highly vulnerable. Up to that point, the rigid structure and low block had frustrated Real Madrid, denying them the space to run at their vulnerable defence and instead forcing them into a more patient passing game in front of the lines.
One of the essential decisions within this change was to substitute captain Dani Parejo and replace him with Francis Coquelin. With this change, all of the team’s discipline and structure was lost alongside the leadership they previously had in midfield. Whereas Parejo would discipline the midfield and ensure that Geoffrey Kondogbia would sit deep alongside him and look to prevent the counter-attack, that was non-existent after his substitution as Coquelin was left alone in the holding midfield role with Kondogbia pushing up and Soler’s discipline on the left replaced by the more offensive Denis Cheryshev.
Removing the second pivot was a gamble from Celades which backfired, much like it did in the first match after lockdown against Levante. The former Spain under 21s coach repeatedly takes off more disciplined midfielders for more offensive players, Soler being removed for more attacking wingers in both games, and the team subsequently losing its structure. Against Real Madrid, without Parejo to organise the midfield and keep some structure, this was more evident than ever before.
Valverde’s new role
One of the most intriguing tactical decisions made by Zidane was the choice to play with four midfielders again. Unlike earlier this season when he did so with something of a midfield diamond with Isco in behind the forwards, this time he did so to deploy Valverde on the right of a front three in an asymmetrical shape. It is not the first time that Valverde has played in this role, but Zidane has tended to stick to using him in such a role in high profile games against very strong opposition where Valverde operates more as a midfielder than a forward.
On this occasion, he was more offensive than previously. With Valencia sitting deep, Valverde would rarely attack and run at players, failing to register a single dribble. Instead, he would drop more centrally and deep, allowing Dani Carvajal to overlap on the flank. While this was efficient, it did not help to break the block down. With Mendy more defensive-minded than Marcelo on the left, it allowed Carvajal greater offensive freedom, but still meant that Real Madrid were operating too deep on the right.
Instead of being as offensive as Zidane may have hoped, Valverde stuck to the same kind of operating mantra as he has deployed in this role before, sitting deeper and tracking Gaya as he bombs forward. In a tie like this one, it was clear that a more effective method would have been to push further forward and pin Gaya into his own third, offering a more offensive option higher up the field. Adapting to this may be the key to getting the best out of the Uruguayan, particularly in this role.
This game proved to many that Real Madrid are major contenders for the La Liga title and it is right for Barcelona to be concerned as they look over their shoulder. Los Blancos are beginning to regain fluidity, particularly in attack, and for the first time, we have seen what is likely to be Zidane’s first-choice front three in operation with Hazard, Benzema and Asensio, even if it was only for a few minutes as the right-winger made his return.
The greatest concern for the home team form this encounter may well be regarding Zidane’s squad management, rather than his tactics. Making only two of the five substitutes with games coming thick and fast, it was surprising to see the likes of Toni Kroos, Luka Modrić and others complete the full 90 minutes. Real Sociedad are next up and will provide even more of a challenge than Valencia.
For Valencia, the race for Europe is looking increasingly challenging. The defensive discipline on show for the first 60 minutes showed that Celades is capable of finding a remedy to this injury crisis which has hit his squad, with Guillamón among those to step up. However, the coach continues to make the same tactical mistakes with his substitutions and gambles offensive changes which waste all of the strong defensive work which has been put in. Without this structure, teams can cut through Valencia like a knife through butter and it is evidently clear that Celades lacks the squad options or the tactical nous to adapt his players into the kind of shape that he needs his team to play in if they are to pick up points, particularly against strong opposition.