After two mixed displays in their first two La Liga fixtures, this was an occasion that Real Madrid felt that they had to take up having seen Barcelona drop points earlier on Sunday afternoon. Villarreal had other ideas, having built a side that is far from easy to beat and securing a valuable point in a 2-2 draw.
Javi Calleja’s side got off to a dream start with Gerard Moreno’s early strike, though Gareth Bale would level the scoreline again before the break. Moi Gómez gave the home side the lead again late on in the game but Bale appeared again in the final few minutes before going on to see yellow twice in three minutes to be sent off.
This tactical analysis considers how Real Madrid secured a point against Villarreal, identifying where Zinedine Zidane went wrong with his tactics. This analysis will consider the key points of the game, from team selection through to the decisive battle in the middle of the pitch would decide the tie.
Calleja looked to stick to the basics in his selection, going with his much relied upon 4-4-2 shape and selecting three central midfielders, with Gómez given more freedom to roam forwards down the flank and drift centrally, with the more disciplined Santi Cazorla and Vicente Iborra behind.
For the first time this season, Zidane started the game with a 4-4-2 shape lining up Luka Jović and Karim Benzema in attack alongside one another, with Luka Modrić left on the bench after serving suspension as the man sacrificed from the midfield three. Notably, Ferland Mendy was also given the nod over Marcelo.
This game was decided in the midfield, where Villarreal’s set-up outsmarted that of Real Madrid. Despite packing four midfielders into the field, the two wide men provided little defensive cover and Casemiro struggled to provide his usual discipline. On the other hand, Iborra and Cazorla were content to sit deep, sparking attacks with pinpoint passes or by winning possession and quickly spreading the ball wide to their faster and younger counterparts.
Where this was most evident was on the counter. From Villarreal’s five counter-attacks, on four occasions Toni Kroos is the only midfielder in sight. With the ball turned over, Samuel Chukwueze and Karl Toko Ekambi would drift wide and look to attack the flanks, dragging the central defenders apart whilst also exploiting the huge amounts of space in the middle where Kroos cut a lone figure.
That allowed for the runs of Gómez through the middle, as was the case for Villarreal’s second goal, where the Yellow Submarine once again cut through Real Madrid’s midfield like butter. By simply overpowering the central area with a three against two formula, Real Madrid were unable to adapt and struggled to find their feet again until Modrić was introduced as a substitute in the second half.
One of the new names on the team-sheet was that of left-back Mendy in place of Marcelo. The former Olympique Lyonnais defender provided discipline and composure, whilst providing a more measured attacking threat. He provided exactly the kind of performance that Real Madrid have been looking for. The most essential step to that was his patience and discipline in his positioning. Rather than bombing forward as a winger, Mendy provided an option level with the midfield.
Once he received the ball, Mendy would take his time, knowing that Villarreal were unlikely to press him until he engaged one of their players. With several options, bomb down the flank, cut inside or to play the pass back, he could be more relaxed in his decision-making. In this way, he could be more selective in when to make dribbles or provide crosses from deep, allowing him to be more clinical when doing so.
Defensively he was also solid, winning 75% of his duels and making 13 recoveries. Occasionally caught out on the counter, though not often, Mendy looked a far more reliable option than Marcelo thanks in large part to his discipline. By refusing to get carried away in his positioning, sticking to a more reserved and conservative position and avoiding going too deep in the Villarreal half unless through a dribble when taking on his man.
A lack of attacking connection
One of the most intriguing tactical features of this game, and consequently for this analysis, was Zidane’s decision to select both Jović and Benzema in attack. It is a feature which he has avoided other than as substitutes when looking to add more attacking options late on against Real Valladolid and injury to the Serbian robbed him of the chance to experiment in pre-season. On this occasion though, that little game time together showed when on the pitch as they very much looked like two strikers used to playing on their own, rather than a pairing.
Throughout the game, they linked up just once with a single pass registered between them. As can be seen on the average position map below, both players were almost treading on each others’ toes at times, with it being easy for Villarreal to defend against without having to stretch their defence. This was fundamental for Calleja to be able to execute the rigid defensive structure that he likes his team to play.
Whereas typically Benzema would drop deep or wide, Jović would often be the one to drop off into a deeper role. Benzema, far from used to being on the last shoulder, would often come just as deep. It comes as no surprise, as a result, to see that the likes of Lucas Vázquez and Bale were just as far forward as the front two, who continually came too deep to get involved in play. This resulted in the wingers breaking forwards and having few options in the middle.
Looking to work around this and use it to his advantage, Bale did so at a critical time in the game. Just before the half-time break, Bale noticed that the two central defenders were expected to mark the front two forwards. However, this provided an opportunity to him and when faced with the choice of a run to the far post or through the middle, he gambled on the central option as he identified the space which Dani Carvajal could run into.
When the right-back did so, it allowed Bale to have made his run early enough to get goalside and find himself perfectly positioned to tap the ball into an empty net once the cross came across. All meanwhile the two forwards occupied central defenders in deeper positions having failed to notice the opportunity as quickly as the Welshman.
This kind of movement, drifting in from wide, was key to Bale’s game. Particularly in the second half, after changing to a 4-3-3 formation, Bale would cut inside and look to exploit any gaps in the Villarreal defence. There were few such spaces available, but with a deadly shot, the former Tottenham man made sure that they counted and his fine movement was essential to creating such opportunities.
Whilst the results are still not quite coming for Zidane, it is evident that he is still far from settled on a single tactical system. Changing from 4-4-2 to 4-3-3 just after the hour mark showed as much as he clearly remains unconvinced by the several strategies that he has tried to use this season. Calleja on the other hand, stuck to his guns with his formation, packing the midfield with players who would not be afraid to put in the hard work but could provide creativity and attacking threat. That ability to counter clinically would prove to be crucial to take a point from the clash.
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