Real Madrid faced Leganés in La Liga on Monday evening with the press full of speculation of what lies ahead for Los Blancos, but with it clear that Zinedine Zidane is still hoping to overtake city rivals Atlético Madrid and secure second place.
However, Jonathan Silva’s strike on the stroke of half-time sent Leganés on route to what would have been a historic win. Karim Benzema managed to pull one back to equalise in the second half, but it wasn’t enough to prevent the hosts from securing their first ever La Liga point against their near neighbours.
Our tactical analysis will use statistics to identify what key points Zidane can take from the game as his team dropped even more points in one of their most disappointing campaigns in years.
It was almost a full-strength selection for Zidane, with Federico Valverde in place of Toni Kroos and Nacho in place of Sergio Ramos, though it may otherwise be considered his strongest side. Gareth Bale was once again on the bench with Zidane sticking with his 4-3-3 system, only with Isco on the right, as Dani Carvajal also returned.
Leganés stuck with their 5-3-2 shape which has served them well, particularly on home turf, where they had already beaten Barcelona this season.
Leganés’ intensity was decisive
Right from the off, it was clear that only one side were up for the fight. Real Madrid looked to be coasting through much of the tie, and it was never clearer than when Leganés pursued their usual tactic of spreading the ball wide and putting balls into the box. With 10 crosses delivered, Leganés made sure that even if the first attempt wasn’t successful, they could capitalise.
Repeatedly, Leganés would have their two forwards and the far-side winger attack the six-yard box, whilst the full-backs would overlap to deliver the final cross. That gave the wide midfielder the chance to cut inside ready for the rebound. With a huge disconnect in midfield for Real Madrid, they took advantage of the gap between defence and midfield to win possession straight back.
It was key to Leganés regaining possession and they kept much of their attacking possession in such areas, wide and on the edge of the box. There was no rush to break through Real Madrid’s defensive lines, as they instead waited to spray the ball wide, deliver into the box and pick up the scraps again afterwards. With the visitors needing a goal in the second half too, the gaps became wider as more and more Real Madrid men were committed forwards.
When out of possession, Leganés knew exactly what their game plan was as they reverted back into a deep 5-3-2 shape, later reverting to 5-4-1. Even as so many men were sent forwards, Real Madrid could not find the space to break through between the lines as Leganés sat deep.
With the pace of Marco Asensio on one wing, Real Madrid became predictable in their attacking transitions. Waiting for the chance to counter and exploit that pace, Leganés refused to be tempted forwards and sat deep as often as possible.
Such focus when defending and pressure when moving forwards showed exactly what Zidane was missing from his team. Leganés showed organisation and desire whilst Real Madrid seemed to be going through the motions for much of the tie. With almost twice as many defensive duels and 28% more interceptions, Leganés were more alert and more committed to getting the result they were after.
The ‘casting’ is almost complete
Zidane’s team selections in his first few weeks back in charge have very much been about rotation and seeing what his squad can offer. On Monday, the biggest surprise was that Zidane chose Valverde over the likes of Marcos Llorente to start in midfield. It also gave the Uruguayan a rare chance in a more advanced midfield role, in place of Kroos rather than Casemiro as he did last time out. It was a role that he performed well in, being one of few to show the kind of desire that was evident from Leganés.
Where he really excelled was in these interceptions, picking up loose balls and carrying the ball forwards. It proved to be a crucial link between midfield and attack as Leganés focused their pressing on Luka Modrić. Everytime a ball went loose, Valverde would break into a sprint and look to push on. Time and time again, he would be the lone runner, carrying the ball forwards and then laying off to the likes of Asensio and Isco in attack.
Zidane is clearly an admirer of Valverde, preferring his flexibility to adapt to the more advanced role, as opposed to the more defensive minded Llorente. With a 92% pass completion rate, Valverde has taken advantage of the opportunity and shown the French coach what he can do. With the likes of Bale still on the bench, time appears to be running out to convince Zidane of what these players have to offer, but Valverde is one of those who may well have guaranteed himself another year at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu.
Keylor Navas isn’t at the level he once was
Thibaut Courtois continues to be sidelined by injury, meaning that Keylor Navas has continued in goal for Real Madrid of late. However, in his four games since Zidane’s return in which he has been selected, he has kept just one clean sheet, conceding more goals than would be expected according to xG in all three of the games in which he has conceded. What’s more, in those four games he has made just five saves, and the question marks were never more evident than against Leganés.
On the stroke of half-time, a throw into the box had led to chaos as Real Madrid’s defensive organisation went awry. As the ball broke to Silva on the edge of the box, having not been tracked by Asensio, Navas took a step to the left to try to see around the three Real Madrid players in front of him, but it was at the worst time as Silva struck the ball curling to the bottom right corner.
Navas has the trust of Zidane as he was the preferred first choice even before Courtois was hit down by injury, but he is struggling to make his case. His distribution has never been a strong point and he completed just one long pass on Monday. It would not be a surprise to see Zidane give Courtois a shot once he returns in order to increase the free flowing distribution from the goalkeeper. Who will be his number one next season is one of the coach’s biggest decisions this summer.
Messi-dependence is something that Real Madrid fans have joked about for years, but now it seems that it’s all about de-Benz-ence. Another goal from the French forward meant that he has scored all of Real Madrid’s last five goals and continues to lead the line. Whilst Asensio had his fair share of opportunities with 0.88 xG across six different shots, Benzema always looked the more likely to score and test Iván Cuéllar in the Leganés goal.
His goal was a smart one too. Leganés’ rigid defensive structure allowed few opportunities to gain even half a yard of space, but when it came, Benzema pounced. As Modrić stepped away from his marker as he received the ball, Dimitrios Siovas stepped up to close down. With Asensio keeping Silva held wide, Benzema dashed to get onside as Modrić turned his man and fed him in to apply the finishing touch and score.
Not since Zidane arrived has Benzema been restricted so much, given that Leganés’ structure denied him any more than two touches inside the box across the 90 minutes for the first time since February. Still though, he showed up at the crucial moment to continue his fine form and continue to carry the weight of the side. Whilst Asensio wastes chance after chance and Bale fails to even make the starting line-up, it’s clear that Zidane sees Benzema as the solution to the team’s goalscoring problems, for now at the very least.
Real Madrid fans are not expecting much from what is left of this season, but another away fixture leading to dropped points against minnows was disappointing. The lack of desire and game plan from some of the team’s most established stars allowed Leganés to put their stamp on the game and few would have begrudged them all three points, despite the improvements in Real Madrid’s second-half display.
Rotations and changes have robbed Zidane of having a settled side, but such slack connections between defence and midfield, and between midfield and attack, are a major concern, and show why he may need to rebuild his squad this summer.
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