It was the end of an era, albeit a short one at just 133 days, as Real Madrid ran out victors over Real Valladolid on Sunday evening in what would prove to be Santiago Solari‘s final game in charge, up against the same opposition that he had made his La Liga debut against.
His side suffered some early scares, with two Valladolid strikes ruled out by VAR whilst Ruben Alcaraz also sent a penalty into row Z early on. Anuar deservedly opened the scoring for the hosts just before the break, but it lasted just five minutes before Raphael Varane found an equaliser.
A second half brace from Karim Benzema, including one from the penalty spot, and a late finish from Luka Modric sealed the three points. There was an added twist late on, as Casemiro saw red for the first time as a Real Madrid player, picking up a foolish second booking for time wasting.
Now in charge, Zinedine Zidane will have been watching to see what needs to be changed. Our tactical analysis will use statistics to identify what key points Real Madrid’s new boss can take from the game.
With Isco excluded amid disciplinary proceedings, and with Gareth Bale, Lucas Vazquez and Vinicius Junior out injured, Solari was forced to improvise, fielding Marco Asensio and Dani Ceballos on either flank. Nacho replaced the suspended Sergio Ramos in defence whilst Alvaro Odriozola also made a rare start at right-back.
An atrocious start
Right from the off, Real Madrid looked off the pace. It may not be a surprise given the devastation of elimination from the Champions League to Ajax in midweek, but the shaky defensive nature of Los Blancos not only allowed a disallowed goal, but also a conceded penalty and 1.5 xG against them within the opening half an hour. Real Valladolid continually went back to basics, averaging a long ball every two minutes as they targeted Real Madrid’s defence by getting in behind with long balls over the top.
The game plan worked well as they earned a penalty through that very approach. Varane and Odriozola were caught slacking as Sergi Guardiola anticipated the pass and broke through, finding himself the right side of the full-back who brought him down just after ten minutes to concede a penalty. Alcaraz’s effort was almost comically bad, but it spared Real Madrid their blushes.
When Anuar found the opening goal at last, it again came through poor defensive organisation. Another lofted ball, this time a cross, saw Varane ball-watching and allowed Anuar the space to move into the space between him and Nacho. Twice in a week, teams exploited the lack of organisation across the Real Madrid back line in the absence of Sergio Ramos. It is a clear area for improvement that Zidane must focus on if he is to rebuild this side.
One man living up to expectations
Karim Benzema has found it hard to maintain his consistency of late, having gone three games without a goal heading to Valladolid, but once again he proved to be the only man who was ready to live up to expectations this season. He notched his sixth brace of the season, coolly converting from the penalty spot to give his team the lead and then showing good organisation with Varane to score a second.
The club’s set pieces have not been one of their biggest assets this season, but this time they made them count. Benzema and Varane were clearly in conversation before the corner came in, with Benzema drifting off, allowing Varane to run in as the cross was delivered, blocking his marker and giving his compatriot yards of free space to head into the back of the net and make it 3-1.
What was particularly impressive from Benzema’s display was not his goals though, but rather his movement on and off the ball. Not since his form really reached a peak in January has he made so many progressive runs or been so involved in build-up play. Drifting wide, he was critically involved in build-up play and led the attack almost single handedly without Vinicius or Vazquez occupying space on the flanks. His movement allowed others like Luka Modric to run through the middle to apply the finishing touch.
Time to mix things up?
One of the outstanding performers on Sunday was one of the few men to come into the side in the form of Odriozola. Some of the most average displays came in midfield, where tired and fatigued players failed to provide the energetic spark that was required. It may not come as a surprise given that all three of the midfield trio were involved at the World Cup and have played over 8,500 minutes between them already this season.
Toni Kroos in particular was below par. You would have to go back to February 2018 to find the last time that he made fewer passes to the final third in a game in which he played over an hour. It was clear that he lacked energy, marauding around the midfield and in fact blocking his team at times. As Odriozola broke forwards down the right, he would often find himself blocked off by the midfield and devoid of options as they failed to show the movement to provide him with a passing channel.
Another concern came down the left, where Sergio Reguilon had perhaps his least convincing display to date before picking up a knock late on. Marcelo was introduced, albeit briefly, but may well feel that he should have been given a start.
With a mere 77% pass completion rate and four possession losses in his own half, the Brazilian will have been watching on thinking that his time will surely come. It is no criticism of the youngster, who has missed just one league game since the beginning of 2019, but Zidane may well be tempted to trust a player he knows well at left-back.
Clinical on the counter
Real Madrid rarely get the opportunity to attack directly on the counter, but when they have under Solari it has been one of their biggest strengths. Against Real Valladolid, they took full advantage in the closing stages. With four counter-attacks, two ended with shots, keeping up the high statistics in such regards with Solari in charge. The Argentinian has ensured it is key to his team’s play, surpassing 50% of counters ending with a shot in 17 of his 32 games in charge.
Modric’s goal came through such an approach as Thibaut Courtois collected the ball and rolled it out immediately. This led to some neat link-up play in midfield before Modric and Benzema combined to play in the Croatian, who added a rasping finish to put the icing on the cake of victory. Making it look so simple may be easy in the final minutes against relegation battlers Valladolid, but it was what they needed so desperately against Ajax and Barcelona in recent weeks.
Given that in both recent Barcelona fixtures the Catalans restricted that approach, failing to allow Real a single counter-attack in La Liga’s Clasico, it’s clear to see how vital it is to Solari’s style. Zidane may bring with him a new approach, as he had at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu before, but harnessing the power of this counter-attacking style that Julen Lopetegui didn’t take advantage of during his stint at the club may be the key to success.
There is plenty of work ahead for Real Madrid. This tie may have ended in a flattering win for Solari to end his time at the club, but it was far from convincing. Real Valladolid can feel hugely hard done by, though struggles in front of goal are nothing new for them this season.
With such opportunities afforded to a team of such little quality, the defensive warning signs are clear. Zidane has now arrived and will be pushing to bring that defence together, but it extends beyond the back line. Solari’s stubborn approach and resistance to rotate has cost his team. Now, the Frenchman will have to pay the price and rotate in the final, meaningless, 11 games of the season.
There are still signs of life, such as the form of Benzema and an impressive run-out from Odriozola, but there’s progress to be made. Zidane faces a great challenge, one which he is clearly relishing.
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