After a narrow and hardfought first half, Karim Benzema sprung into action to break the deadlock early in the second half for Real Madrid. He went on to score a hat-trick, sealing it off with a delicate chip over the onrushing Athletic Club goalkeeper Iago Herrerín, having converted two headers before that.
Our tactical analysis will use statistics to identify what key points Zidane can take from the game as his team returned to winning ways on home turf.
Zidane stuck with his favoured 4-3-3 shape as usual, but did make some rotations. With Sergio Ramos still unavailable, he opted for Jesús Vallejo in central defence for the first time since the coach returned to the club, in favour of Nacho. Marco Asensio and Lucas Vázquez were also given the nod in attack, ahead of Gareth Bale.
Gaizka Garitano also selected his strongest line-up, sticking with his 4-5-1 formation which can transition into either a 4-3-3 in possession or even a 4-4-2 with Raúl García joining Iñaki Williams in attack. Later on in the match, Iker Muniain would swap with García to take up the central role before Aritz Aduriz was introduced to go with two in attack.
Benzema the record breaker
Never before in the history of Real Madrid has a single player accounted for eight consecutive goals for the club. Benzema set that record on Sunday, scoring a stunning hat-trick despite only having four shots. Much of that has come from his increased importance in front of goal this season, filling the gap of Cristiano Ronaldo as the lead goalscorer, but perhaps not as much as some may expect.
Last season, he averaged 2.39 shots per match, compared to 3.07 this season. Despite that increase being only 28%, his number of goals has shot up to three times the figure, going from 11 in 2017/18 to 30 already in 2018/19, average 0.64 goals per game, rather than 0.31 goals per game.
It’s clear to see that Benzema is far more clinical in front of goal this season. Only four times has his xG exceeded his goal return in a match and he continues to score when the odds may be against him. His third strike against Athletic, which may have seemed simple with a chip over Herrerín from distance, was far from as easy as he made it seem. In fact, it was worth only 0.05 xG and showed great composure under pressure with a deft finish to seal his hat-trick.
Whilst it is fair to recognise that Benzema is more of a finisher than a creator this season, particularly when compared to recent years and the BBC era, it is essential that we note his clinical performance in front of goal too. Benzema is not just taking more shots, but he is making more of the chances that do fall his way. In a team which is struggling to create as many chances this year with a tired midfield, it is crucial that he provides such an impact.
Vallejo makes the most of his chance
Another of the stand-out performers was a name who is far less frequent on Real Madrid teamsheets in the form of Vallejo. In only his fifth appearance of the season and his first La Liga start, the injury-hit youngster stood out again with his excellent reading of the game. In fact, his role in starting the move for the first goal was crucial.
As Iñigo Cordoba attacked down the left flank on the counter right at the start of the second half, it was evident that Athletic had a real opportunity to take the lead against the run of play. Williams, clearly targeting Marcelo for his poor positioning and lack of pace, drifted to the right and looked to attack the box.
Vallejo immediately looked to his right to check the run of the forward. This allowed him to anticipate Williams’ diagonal dash, and get across in front of him to clear the ball from the penalty area. Not only did he avert the danger, but his clearance also started the move which would end with Benzema heading in at the other end.
Such vision and anticipation is why Vallejo has been so highly rated by so many coaches, despite his injury struggles. He provides the kind of cover for Marcelo that others have struggled to do in recent months, anticipating when Athletic would look to exploit his runs forward.
With more defensive duels and more recoveries than anyone else on the pitch, he did not shy away from the occasion and took up the reins even with Raphael Varane alongside him. Vallejo’s future may lie away from the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu due to his physical struggles, but his intelligence and work rate show that he would be a smart capture for most clubs.
Kroos dominates in midfield
For a few weeks it has seemed that fatigue has got to Toni Kroos, cutting an inefficient and sloppy figure far too often. Only once since January has he surpassed his season average for number of passes, seeing his influence fade as he became less and less effective. Defensively lacklustre too, questions were asked over whether he has a role to play.
Against Athletic, he made his case with the kind of dominant display which has seen him become such a popular figure in Spain. No-one completed more passes into the final third than the 11 that Kroos achieved, often by taking his time to patiently play long balls into the danger zone. Not since October has Kroos played so many long balls, but this time he played many of them diagonally rather than vertically.
As players bombed forward to find gaps in the Athletic defensive structure, he would hold back, waiting to see if the move broke down or ran into a dead end. Then he would receive the pass and look to immediately spread it to the opposite flank, often where Athletic had left acres of space.
What’s more, he won 62% of his 13 duels, his highest success rate of the season by some distance in La Liga. Finally, the work rate of the German midfielder returned and he showed what role he has to play. With Casemiro protecting in behind he could perform his playmaking role, but was not afraid to get stuck in either. In a combative battle with the likes of Raúl García, Beñat and Mikel San José, that was required. The result was his most complete display in months.
Athletic Club’s poor preparations
Coming into this tie with just one clean sheet in their last eight fixtures, it was perhaps optimistic at best to hope that Garitano’s men would achieve a shut-out at the Bernabéu. Still, what was surprising was the way in which Athletic conceded their goals. The first, for example, was a routine move by Real Madrid which the visitors should have been expecting.
Marco Asensio hugged the touchline as Real Madrid brought the ball forwards, but Iñigo Lekue allowed himself to be caught ball-watching and dragged in centrally to close down Kroos. That allowed swathes of space for the Spaniard, who had all the time in the world to deliver his cross.
A key aspect of Real Madrid’s play – crossing – led to both of Benzema’s headed goals against Eibar in their last home fixture as the Frenchman found space between the two central defenders. Against Athletic, it was almost a carbon copy. The second saw Benzema score again from a set piece, again just like against Eibar, having made a very similar run.
Without the tight marking of the Frenchman in such situations, it was no surprise to see him run riot. Athletic lacked the rigid defensive structure to frustrate the Real Madrid attack and allowed them far too much space out on the flanks. With 18 crosses, the hosts did not make more crosses than they usually do given their average this season is 19.8, but they were far more impactful, with one in three reaching their target.
Had Athletic shut out this approach more effectively, they could have frustrated the Real Madrid attack more. In midweek, for example, Leganés’ deep line forced Madrid to deliver crosses from deep, with only one in five reaching a Real Madrid player.
Athletic Club will have disappointed the neutrals with a rather limp performance at the Bernabéu having promised to provide much more of a challenge. Real Madrid are slowly but surely improving when on home turf and appear to be getting their mojo back under Zidane. The reliance upon Benzema in attack will be a slight concern, but the performances of the likes of Vallejo and Kroos will please the coach.
Real Madrid have continued to benefit through their simple approach of getting the ball wide and delivering crosses into the box. Whilst Athletic did not do much to halt that style, the hosts made light work of the second half. The real challenge for Zidane will be how his team adapts, as they have struggled to do when others have defended well against their power down the flanks.
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