La Liga 2020/21: Valencia vs Real Madrid – tactical preview
With just one win and two draws in their past seven matches, Valencia opens the gate of the Estadio Mestalla to Real Madrid. Javi Garcia’s side sit in 13th, one place behind Barcelona and three points from the relegation zone.
It’s been a strange week for the host, selling Geoffrey Kondogbia to Atlético Madrid after Diego Simeone’s side received a special dispensation to replace Thomas Partey. The deal was not cordial, with Kondogbia blasting the club for their recruitment philosophy.
On the other bench, Real Madrid comes into this match hot off a consecutive wins against Huesca and Inter Milan. After a slow start, Zinedine Zidane’s side is finding their form, as well as the preferred starting XI. Depending on Real Sociedad’s result against Granada, Los Blancos can leapfrog La Real and claim the top spot on the table.
In this tactical analysis, we’ll examine the significance of the wings for each team’s attacking tactics. Real Madrid’s high press is another topic of consideration, then this analysis will finish with a look at what Valencia can do a little differently to find success against the reigning La Liga champions.
Valencia’s predicted starting XI (4-4-2): Jaume Doménech, Daniel Wass, Gabriel Paulista, Hugo Guillamón, José Gayà; Yunus Musah, Carlos Soler, Uroš Račić, Denis Cheryshev; Maxi Gómez, Gonçalo Guedes
Look for Garcia to set Valencia out in his preferred 4-4-2 with Doménech in goal. With Correia out, Wass is likely to move into the right-back role he played last season, accompanied on the backline by Paulista, Guillamón and Gayà. From right to left in the flat midfield, expect the young American, Musah, Soler, Račić and Cheryshev. Rounding out the formation are Guedes and Gómez up top.
Real Madrid’s predicted starting XI (4-3-3): Thibaut Courtois, Lucas Vázquez, Raphaël Varane, Sergio Ramos, Ferland Mendy; Casemiro, Toni Kroos, Federico Valverde; Marco Asensio, Karim Benzema, Eden Hazard
For Zidane, look for a backline of Vázquez, Varane, Ramos and Mendy. Marcelo could get the start at left-back, shifting Mendy to the right, but the current backline has played well over the past couple of games. Look for Zidane to keep the unit together ahead of the international window. In midfield, Casemiro will play his usual midfield-destroyer role with Kroos to his left as a regista. Valverde is likely to start at right-centre midfield, continuing to combine with Asensio on the right-hand side of the pitch. If Hazards fitness is okay, look for him to play left forward with Benzema at the #9.
The importance of the wings
The wings are incredibly important to each team’s attacking tactics. Let’s start with Real Madrid. As mentioned in the predicted lineups section, Valverde and Asensio are developing a nice partnership on the right side of the pitch. Given the chemistry we’ve seen between Benzema and Hazard on the left, Real Madrid have a nice set of pairs they can utilize high up the pitch. With Vázquez and Mendy likely to push higher up the pitch, look for Real Madrid to overload on the wings before turning their attention to the central channel.
In the sequence below, we see Real Madrid working around Huesca’s low block. With the Huesca defence horizontally compact, they often forced Real Madrid to initiate final third entries into the wings. Here we have Marcelo and Hazard working together in the left-wing to prepare for the cross into the box. The sequence comes directly after a corner kick, so you’ll notice the white shirts and the central channel preparing for Marcelo’s delivery.
Once Hazard sets back to Marcelo, we see the Brazilian use the space given to him to send his delivery.
He managed to find Ramos at the back post, but Fernández was able to make the save.
Valencia comes into this game tied for the third most goals conceded in the league (13), as well as the second-worst xGA (13.09). Conceding 13.38 shots per 90 minutes, they allowed the second-most attempts at their goal in La Liga. In contrast, Real Madrid takes the most shots per 90 minutes with 12.93, is tied for second in goals (13) and has the best xG total in Spain’s top-flight (13.19).
While Valencia and Real Madrid tend to have close matches at the Estadio Mestalla, the home side’s defensive woes will certainly cost Garcia several hours of sleep, especially since Real Madrid is still putting up excellent attacking numbers.
Let’s shift now to Valencia. In terms of its attacking construction, Valencia ranks 15th in La Liga with just 45.4% possession per game. When they attack, they move the ball quickly, looking to break lines and progress up the field before the opponent can structure their defence or get numbers behind the ball.
In open possessions, Valencia will look to draw in the opponents and create a defensive imbalance before quickly moving up the pitch. In terms of their final third entry, they ranked 18th in La Liga with 14.38 P90 minutes. As they progress, they will look to do so on the dribble more often than not. As they enter the final third, look for them to direct the attack to goal rather than settling for crosses. They enter this match 17th in La Liga with 11.88 crosses per 90 minutes.
When Los Murciélagos establish an open possession and their defensive third, look for them to swing the ball across the backline, using one of the pivots if needed, to imbalance Real Madrid. In the match against Getafe, we saw the outside-backs remain in the position to help with the buildout. In general, Soler would stay deeper than Wass to participate in the first attacking phase.
As Valencia moved the ball across the pitch, the idea was to create numerical superiority in one of the two wings and use the outside-backs as deep-lying playmakers. In the image below, Correia is unmarked near the touchline.
Once the ball is played back to Correia, Getafe aggressively pursue. That freed Kang-In Lee to receive the split pass and progress through the dribble.
In their 4-4-2, Valencia will look to pin back Ramos and Varane, creating opportunities for progression through the half spaces. Kroos must offer coverage for Mendy, while Casemiro must do the same for Vázquez on the right.
Real Madrid should man-mark in a high press
Transitioning out of the defensive side of the ball, Real Madrid should enter this match with a commitment to a man-marking high press. The approach was highly successful against Valencia last season and the home side hasn’t shown that they can play out of an aggressive high press this season. Again, with just 45.4% possession per game, Valencia’s more concerned with quick progression than an abundance of possession.
For the season, Valencia has played the fourth most long passes in the league, sending 396 in total. The tendency to play long is already there. If Zidane’s men engage in a man-marking high press rather than the 4-1-4-1 high press that we’ve seen off and on throughout the current season, Real Madrid can rattle the Valencia backline and disconnect them from their help higher up the pitch.
Since Valencia doesn’t expect to have much of the ball anyway, transitional moments will be key for Real Madrid. If they can deny immediate progression, preferably forcing Valencia to play negative, it will at least buy time to set their defensive shape. When the two sides last met, Real Madrid’s transition defence routinely forced Valencia to play backwards rather than immediately playing higher targets, just as we see in the image below.
If Real Madrid can take away the high targets, they’ll force Valencia to play backwards, allowing Los Merengues to commit numbers higher the pitch. Ultimately, the goal is to force Doménech and the centre-backs to make the distributions from deep. The closer to the Valencia goal, the better.
Below we can see Real Madrid in that man-marking high press. All short and intermediate targets are covered with the players responsible for marking Valencia’s wingers starting from a more central position. This not only protects the middle, but it also functions as a pressing trap. If the keeper wants to try and play a 30 or 40-yard diagonal pass to a winger, Los Blancos have plenty of time to recover.
However, in most cases, the goalkeeper will not take this risk. Instead, he opted to play a central long ball.
As you can see in the image below, the Real Madrid backline is essentially at even numbers with Valencia’s highest attackers. This leaves Ramos in a 1v1, a battle that he wins and is able to poke forward.
Upon winning possession, Real Madrid now have five players in the attacking third, three of which are goal side of their defender from a deep position. If Real Madrid comes out in an aggressive man-oriented high press, Valencia will unlikely have the ability to beat it. The result would be middle third turnovers, followed by quick and easy progressions by Los Blancos. If Real Madrid comes out with a 4-1-4-1 high press, Valencia’s double pivot can help them break the initial line of pressure, allowing them to play in the space between the pressing lines.
Valencia must target the space between the lines
Speaking of the space between the lines, if there’s any one area of their attacking philosophy that Valencia should adapt to this matchup, it’s an emphasis to play between Real Madrid’s lines. While Zidane’s side has shown improvements in recent matchups, their press is still working out some issues. Although they rate tied for third in goals-against, conceding only five so far this season, they are 8th in xGA with a mark of 8.13, a rather poor total given that they have played fewer games than much of the league.
As mentioned, the 4-1-4-1 high press has caused issues for Real Madrid. With the five highest players unable to adequately press the ball and deny progression, Casemiro has been caught drifting higher up the pitch. As he moves higher, the gap between the pressing lines widens considerably, offering an easy out to the opposition.
The additional issue is that the two centre-backs are left with no protection in front of them. Much like in Zidane’s gap year, the result is that Ramos is pushing too high into the midfield, leaving gaps behind him.
If Valencia can pull Casemiro away from the centre-backs and force Ramos into the midfield, they can open up that half space for progression through the dribble. Though I expect Guedes to start on the left-hand side, he and Gómez would do well to switch periodically. Given the pace of the Portuguese, he could combine with Musah to get behind Ramos and Mendy.
Borussia Mönchengladbach was able to target the space between the lines against Real Madrid. In the sequence below, we do find the Spanish side engaged in a man-marking high press. Asensio’s poor defensive work allows Mönchengladbach to play the ball up the pitch, effectively breaking the first two lines of pressure. Notice the open space in the central channel.
As Mönchengladbach play into the high target, a quick sequence of passes sees them get behind the Real Madrid backline.
Though the backline was able to recover, it’s the buildup going into the through pass that’s disconcerting. Ramos and Varane are left 2v3 against the Mönchengladbach attack. If the press is working well, you’ll find Casemiro just in front of Ramos and Varane, taking away the entry pass to the oppositions #10. When the high press is poorly constructed and Casemiro moves too high in support of the forwards and his fellow midfielders, massive gaps emerge between the Real Madrid lines. That’s the space Valencia needs to attack.
It will certainly be easier to attack that space between the lines when Real Madrid is engaged in the high press as opposed to a middle block. However, if Casemiro switches with one of his teammates, even the middle block will offer space between the lines.
In the image below, Asensio is covering for Vázquez on the right, but the latter shows no desire to take on Casemiro’s responsibilities. He’s shifted over to the right-hand side, looking to recover to his right-back position. The issue is that Real Madrid then have no one between the lines. With Casemiro stepping into the line of four midfielders, no one has fully stepped into his role.
If there is an area of the Real Madrid defence that has looked shaky this season, it’s in their inability to protect the space between the lines. If Casemiro isn’t doing it, then nobody is. That then forces Ramos to move higher of the pitch, leaving him out of position and forcing Varane to cover far more ground than he should. By inverting the wide midfielders, Valencia can take advantage of this space, pull Ramos out of position and stay within the more direct attacking tactics that they prefer.
If this analysis shows anything, it’s that both sides have struggled to find their form in the early stages of the season. Real Madrid has looked better in recent matches, but they still haven’t managed a clean sheet in the past six games. Opportunities abound, but, if the high press is working, I’m just not sure Valencia has the ability to break through. Given Valencia’s defensive woes, Real Madrid will look to pile on the pressure early in the game to grab an early goal and force Valencia out of the low block. Even within that low block, expect plenty of shots and goal-scoring opportunities for Los Blancos.
For Valencia, defensive solidarity is the key. They don’t have the firepower to match up with Real Madrid, so they’ll need a strong group effort to overcome the opponent. The combination of a low rate of possession plus the high number of shots conceded per game is certainly troublesome. Given that Real Madrid comes into this match averaging the most possession and shots in the league, this could be a recipe for disaster for the home side.
Though matches at La Mestalla are typically close, I’m predicting a 3-0 Real Madrid win, even despite the inconsistencies they’re working through.