With their La Liga campaign having gone off the rails, the Copa del Rey has rapidly gained importance for Real Madrid. With Santiago Solari’s team selection it was clear that the coach was not prepared to take any risks in what could become his side’s best shot at silverware this season.
It got off to a nightmare start though as Anthony Lozano opened the scoring early on, only for Lucas Vazquez to equalise before a Sergio Ramos Panenka penalty to give Los Blancos the lead before half-time. Alex Granell scored a penalty of his own in the second half but Ramos was again on the scoresheet with a powerful header and Karim Benzema put the icing on the cake late on.
Here, our tactical analysis will use statistics to identify what key points Real Madrid can take from the game as they secured a first leg win in the quarter-finals of the Copa del Rey against Girona.
Having really made a statement in the previous round against Leganes, Vinicius Junior was back to lead the way against Girona. It only takes a look at his statistics to show how he ran riot: 15 touches in the box, 10 successful dribbles, 10 progressive runs, and four completed crosses. They were by far his best statistics from a single game since becoming a first team regular under Solari, even better than his return against third division UD Melilla.
With every passing game, he becomes more dominant and pivotal in attack. Whilst he has struggled when deployed centrally, his cuts inside allow Karim Benzema and Lucas Vazquez to drop deeper and give him the chance to lead the line. He is thriving in this role, though he is still missing the final ingredient of adding a cutting edge to his game to become the goalscorer that Solari is crying out for.
Not since Cristiano Ronaldo’s peak has one player been so central in every transition to attack for Real Madrid. Maintaining this form and consistency could have a huge sway on the club’s transfer activity in the summer. If he can win penalties and provide assists like this regularly, it will go a long way to sealing his role as a star at the club for years to come.
Desire and pressing not seen this season
Whether it comes from tactical instruction or growing confidence and morale, Real Madrid looked a different side in the closing stages. Even at 4-2, the front three pressed high and closed down all over the park. It was some contrast to the disinterested performances of only a few weeks ago, when such pressing was missing even early on in games having fallen behind.
Vazquez led the away with eight recoveries, three in the opposition half, and never gave up in his pushing to wear out the Girona defence. That is why and how players like himself have capitalised on injuries to the usual regulars and established a place in the side, and what will be crucial to them retaining their spots.
Even Vinicius, so often accused of slacking defensively, made five recoveries, four of which came in the rival half. That is his best return since making his first team debut and something which Solari is clearly demanding from all of his players, not just the forwards.
Llorente’s nightmare return
Having been sidelined since the Club World Cup with his first ever muscle injury, Marcos Llorente returned to action as he replaced Casemiro. Only a minute later, he had conceded a penalty to allow Girona to equalise. A blatant handball allowed the visitors to bring the scores level again. It was the kind of needless error that saw Llorente struggle to break through into the first team for so long.
It didn’t get much better either. He completed just 62% of his passes, his lowest rate all season, and won only one defensive duel. Whether it was because of the scoreline or self-preservation after so long on the sidelines, he was far more conservative in his movement on the ball. He often dropped into defence to form a back three, as Casemiro does, rather than look to carry the ball forward from the back.
Llorente knows that he has his work cut out to return to the team ahead of a staple of three consecutive Champions League wins. He may have his opportunities limited to cameo substitute appearances like this one, and will have to do better to get back into the side. As his fitness returns, Llorente will need to get back to his more adventurous self. First of all though, he needs to get the basics right.
For the first time this season, there appears to be a flow and connection between the front three that had been non-existent. To some extent, that is natural given that Solari has had little choice but to go with Vazquez, Benzema and Vinicius. But it creates a dilemma: how does the coach reincorporate the imminent returns of Gareth Bale and Marco Asensio?
As mentioned previously, Vinicius has taken up the leadership role in their absence. Incorporating either will surely involve limiting the freedom of at least one. Given that the Brazilian performs much better out wide, as proven against Girona, it would mean a change for one of Real Madrid’s key men or a place on the bench.
Whilst Vazquez offers the press and work rate, Benzema provides creativity from deep and Vinicius adds the spark. It has already cost Isco his place in the side and could now be bad news for one of the other two. Maintaining consistency and continuing to gain momentum will be easier if Solari sticks with his settled trident, but the man management aspect of that will be much more complicated to manage.
Securing a strong result was vital to keep the momentum going for Real Madrid. Although it was laboured early on, in the closing stages Real Madrid really stamped their authority on the fixture with their quality and pressing having worn out Girona’s weakened side.
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