A third consecutive away trip within the city of Madrid would usually sound comfortable for Real Madrid, but two points from three games later, it’s clear that it was anything but. The easiest on paper was the latest, a visit to Rayo Vallecano as they fought for survival to maintain their La Liga status, yet it was the most humiliating as the hosts ran out 1-0 winners.
Despite a tactical experiment from Zinedine Zidane, Adrián Embarba scored the winner from 12 yards, converting after Jesús Vallejo tugged at Javi Guerra’s shirt to bring the striker down. This having been given a rare start after Real Madrid refused to allow loanee Raúl de Tomás to play against his parent club. There was no way back for the giants and the tie went on to finish with a single goal difference.
Our tactical analysis will use statistics to identify what key points Zidane can take from the game as his team continued to stutter on the road.
Rayo Vallecano were forced to experiment with De Tomás unavailable and following the thrashing from Sevilla in midweek. Guerra’s start in attack was perhaps the biggest surprise given that many expected former Chelsea man Franco di Santo to start.
Real Madrid did so voluntarily, with injury to the in-form Karim Benzema meaning that Zidane gave a start to Mariano Díaz. Alongside Gareth Bale, they formed a front two in front of a midfield four, which was classed as 4-1-3-2 but was actually more akin to a diamond in most phases of play.
A new shape
This diamond shape is not brand new to Zidane, but it is one that he has used rarely. Whether injuries forced him to do so at Estadio de Vallecas is unknown, but it gave him a chance to put his trust in the likes of Dani Ceballos and Marcos Llorente who have found game time hard to come by. However, the results were not as expected and it may be some time before Zidane voluntarily deploys the system again.
In the defensive phase, Toni Kroos or Luka Modrić would drop deep to form a double pivot in midfield, protecting the defence. This would offer protection and also cover for the full-backs as they bombed forwards. Once the ball was won and possession turned over, one of the pivots, usually one of the two names mentioned rather than Llorente, would be given free rein to roam forwards and drive into attack with the ball at their feet.
When going forwards, the full-backs would push up very high. Both Dani Carvajal and Marcelo would become almost wingers in support of the midfield, with Dani Ceballos pushing on to be the most offensive-minded midfielder, almost acting as a false nine at times. The result was not as spectacular as hoped though, with Mariano and Bale’s questionable movement meaning that the final third often became congested and there was little to no penetration of Rayo’s backline.
Mariano on a different wavelength
Benzema has been in excellent form of late, but that is almost entirely down to his understanding and integration of the system. Mariano lacked that and it was clear for all to see. When the ball comes down the flanks, Benzema has made a habit of getting in between the two central defenders, waiting for the cross to be lofted in and for him to catch both out. Mariano instead went for the back post time and time again, leading to the widemen holding off playing the ball until it was late, having to play low crosses cut back in the hope that Mariano could track back and get there.
On the counter, it slowed down the pace and allowed Rayo to get back in greater numbers, with the forward not learning from the frustration of early on. With just four touches in the box, he lost possession with every single one of them and his only effort on target came in the opening stages with a speculative effort sent wide by some distance.
He was not alone in struggling in attack. Bale was more involved, at least in terms of possession, but was just as ineffective with none of his four shots troubling Alberto García. The difference came in that whilst Mariano stayed on the last man, remaining central, Bale would drift wide and drop deeper. The more freedom granted to him allowed him to be more influential, even if he still struggled to create any major threat. In yet another experimental role to see how Bale fares and what role he will play under Zidane, he once again failed to convince.
A lack of fluidity
What was perhaps more systematically concerning was the breakdown between midfield and attack, where Real Madrid reduced far below their average number of passes in the final third and just 42 progressive passes (less than half of their average and their lowest of the season by some distance). Despite having lined up with a midfield with plenty of offensive playmakers, this game more than any other showed the decline of players like Modrić and Kroos.
Rayo’s high press and enthusiasm put Real Madrid’s midfield under pressure, often resorting to them passing backwards or sideways rather than trying to break through. Of those progressive passes, the most frequent link-ups came directly from the full-backs to the front two. Whilst they were often positioned very high, as mentioned previously, Carvajal and Marcelo were key in the transition in a game which almost bypassed the midfield diamond for much of the tie.
Transfer talk at Real Madrid continues to surround the front line more than anywhere else, but the lack of creativity in midfield is becoming a growing concern. Mario Suárez produced a magnificent display for Rayo and was not afraid to pressure and get stuck in. This is something that clearly restricted the Madrid midfield, but they were unable to avoid being held back. The option to spread the ball wide instead often works, as it has in recent weeks, to mask the ineffectiveness in the middle, but without Benzema to anticipate the final ball it was much more obvious at Vallecas.
Rayo’s winner may have come from the penalty spot, and a decision which some believed to be dubious, but the truth is that their xG still surpassed that of Real Madrid, with 0.71 xG excluding the penalty against Real Madrid’s 0.7. Whilst some criticised the penalty decision, Rayo could justifiably be left feeling that they should have won by more than a single goal given their chances produced against a disorganised defence.
Vallejo and Varane may not have played together all too frequently, but it was the use of Carvajal and Marcelo which did the damage. With both bombing forwards particularly late on when Rayo produced over half of their xG from open play, Llorente was left as the third defender. Perhaps Zidane expected Paco Jémez to sit back and defend a 1-0 lead given the team’s precarious position in the league, but that is not how Jémez approaches any game.
Instead, he sent men forward in numbers throughout, often finding the Real Madrid defence outnumbered. As full-backs reluctantly and slowly tracked back, almost every counter-attack led to Vallejo or Varane having to decide whether to gamble on closing down the man on the ball or following their runner. The end result was chaos in a defence that was being run ragged.
Zidane continues to experiment to find a way to get the best out of this squad of players and continues to be disappointed. Another display in which his defence, midfield and attack all let him down will raise big questions over some players and what action will be taken in the summer. In particular, the diamond midfield was designed to suit Ceballos and Llorente who produced two of their worst displays of the season.
With such little link between midfield and attack, Rayo’s energy found it easy to snuff out moves forward and they revelled in the chaos at the back. As well as Rayo played, this was also an atrocious display from the visitors who are cruising through to the end of the campaign even in the face of the wrath of their coach.
If you love tactical analysis, then you’ll love the digital magazines from totalfootballanalysis.com – a guaranteed 100+ pages of pure tactical analysis covering topics from the Premier League, Serie A, La Liga, Bundesliga and many, many more. Buy your copy of the April issue for just ₤4.99 here, or even better sign up for a ₤50 annual membership (12 monthly issues plus the annual review) right here.