How Real Madrid survived Huesca’s threat to humiliate Zinedine Zidane
The attendance at the Estádio Santiago Bernabéu showed that Real Madrid fans were not enthused by the visit of minnows Huesca, but their first ever La Liga visit proved to be a thriller which threatened at times to take points off Zinedine Zidane on his 50th league game as coach of the club on home turf.
Cucho Hernández stunned the crowd as he opened the scoring after just three minutes with a deft finish, though Isco would cancel it out before half-time. Dani Ceballos gave the hosts the lead in the second half, but Xabier Etxeita levelled the tie from a set piece. It looked as though Huesca may hold on for a historic draw, right up until the 89th minute when Karim Benzema broke the hearts of the visiting fans with a fine effort to make it 3-2.
Our tactical analysis will use statistics to identify what key points Zidane can take from the game as his team nears the end of the season.
Rotations were expected with nothing left to play for and with players having travelled across the globe during the international break. It opened the door to the likes of Brahim Díaz to make his first La Liga start for the club, whilst Marcos Llorente returned and Luca Zidane got his first appearance for the first team of the season, with Keylor Navas having played 90 minutes in Costa Rica on Tuesday and Thibaut Courtois out injured.
Huesca lined up with a 3-5-2 formation which rapidly become 5-3-2 or 5-4-1 when transitioning to defence. Both wing-backs became essential in the transition, getting numbers forward the pace.
Benzema the star
It seems that every time a run of a few quiet games awakens the doubters of Benzema, he produces a majestic performance to silence them all. Against Huesca he did just that and was at the very heart of everything that Los Merengues created. He only recorded more shots in a single game in December 2016 than the four he achieved on Sunday evening. One of those was to be a crucial 89th minute winner, whilst he also claimed the assist for Ceballos’ goal which gave his team the lead.
As his teammates grew frustrated around him and clogged up the penalty area, on the shoulder of the last man, he remained patient and waited before picking his moment to run beyond his man and into the box. It allowed Marcelo to pick him out right in the middle of four Huesca defenders but with a free route to goal, giving him the time to cut back and take one defender out of the game before curling into the top corner with a magnificently composed shot.
Nine touches in the box showed his influence throughout the game, which reminded fans of his impressive form in February, as he was once again the central attacking figure. Whilst Bale alongside him failed to shine and Brahim found his feet, Benzema stepped up to the plate and produced the performance of a leader. It’s clear that Zidane is keen to keep faith in the number nine, but producing such displays on a regular basis is essential to convincing those in charge that a summer signing is not required.
As if Llorente was never away
Making his first La Liga start of 2019 and his first appearance in almost two months since a Clasico in the Copa del Rey in early February, Llorente looked as if he had been ever-present. He provided the back four with immense protection throughout, making 11 recoveries in total, and dropping in as a third central defender when the full-backs roamed forwards. Most pivotal of all was just after the half-hour mark, when a sloppy free-kick allowed Huesca in and Llorente showed incredible pace to close down Hernández and see play out for a goal kick when it could have been so much worse.
That defensive discipline allowed Isco and Ceballos freedom to roam forwards in attack without fear of being caught out. With both of his midfield teammates getting on the scoresheet after chasing loose balls and crosses into the box, it is fair to say that they may have hesitated to find themselves in such advanced positions had they not been able to rely on Llorente finding himself in behind.
With a 97% pass completion rate, he was also fundamental in how his team transitioned from defence to attack, playing four long balls to spread the ball wide as Brahim and Bale burst down the flanks. His vision and accuracy in his distribution is remarkable, particularly given the fact that he has barely played alongside either of the men who he was passing to time and time again, and shows the extra dimension that he offers when compared to Casemiro. Zidane clearly has his doubts, as he barely featured the midfielder in his previous spell in charge, but Llorente is doing all he can to show what he can offer.
Slack defensive organisation remains a concern
Tactically, Huesca’s offer wasn’t anything particularly groundbreaking. However, what they did was to not hold back as many minnows do at the Bernabéu. They looked to get forward on the counter, matching Real Madrid for the number of such attacks, primarily down the wings, then offering central runners for from deep. It was a plan which Madrid quickly cottoned onto, but not until it was too late for a third-minute opener from Hernández.
As has become a common occurrence, Marcelo broke forwards down the left and the move ended with a loss of possession, allowing Huesca to attack Nacho as he shifted across, being turned inside out by Ezequiel Ávila. Marcelo was tracking back but lazily lost track of Hernández, allowing him a huge amount of space 11 yards in front of goal. Such mistakes are typical of the Brazilian this season, who could not be rescued by the backtracking Llorente who had filled in for Nacho as he drifted wide.
Huesca’s second goal was just as concerning as sloppy set-piece marking allowed Etxeita to head beyond Zidane in goal. Defensive organisation is not Zidane’s speciality, but he must put structure to this defence which is too easily pulled apart by over-adventurous full-backs. Marcelo’s form is still yet to convince despite being recalled by the new coach, and surely even as one of his greatest admirers, Zidane will be doubting whether he is the solution long-term.
Brahim deserved his chance
Signed in January from Manchester City, Brahim had largely been ignored by Santiago Solari. Zidane gave him his first La Liga start on Sunday evening and it was a chance that he made the most of. With a 93% pass completion rate, he won nine of his 12 offensive duels and provided two shot assists, including one for Isco’s equaliser. This demonstrated his desire to get involved in the attacking play as he kept pace and offered width down the left with Bale pinned to the right and looking to cut inside.
It was the first time that Brahim has featured on the left for Madrid, a role that he played regularly in England. He looked comfortable, though he was at his strongest with the ball already in the final third. On three separate occasions, he picked up the ball and carried it into the box, his two failed dribbles being attempts to take the ball into the final 18 yards.
His technical ability baffled Huesca defenders and though he must improve his transitional play, he showed his quality with his dinked assist for Isco from a difficult angle. He chipped the ball into the midfielder’s path in the face of two defenders, having reacted quickest to reach the loose ball.
There were moments which showed his youth and naivety, such as the misplaced short free-kick deep in his own half which required some fine defending from Llorente, but there were plenty of reasons to be optimistic. Early signs suggest that he will be sent out on loan this summer and given a real chance to shine at a club where he will be playing regularly. This was a preview of what could be to come for the Spaniard, but it was a promising one.
Whilst it’s clear that Zidane is looking to experiment, he insisted that this was no rehearsal. Real Madrid would have been expected to beat Huesca but this was a display reminiscent of 2016/17: clinical in attack, but all over the place in defence. The goals are flowing again under Zidane, though he is yet to plug the gap in defence. Despite all the talk of the likes of Kylian Mbappé and Neymar, despite the form of Benzema, Real Madrid would perhaps be best served investing in defence.
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