La Liga 2019/20: Real Madrid vs Eibar – tactical preview
At long-last, La Liga is back in action. On Sunday, Real Madrid will host Eibar at their training ground, the Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano. When the two sides met in early November, the Madridistas ran away with a 4-0 victory.
In this tactical analysis, we’ll look at the expected lineups, Eibar’s pressing tactics and use of the second ball in attack. Analysis of Real Madrid’s attacking approach looms large in this report. I’ll show you where Eibar struggles in defence and how Madrid can take advantage of these miscues.
Real Madrid: Thibaut Courtois, Dani Carvajal, Raphael Varane, Sergio Ramos, Marcelo; Casemiro, Toni Kroos, Federico Valverde; Isco, Karim Benzema, Vinícius Júnior.
Eibar: Marko Dmitrovic; Anaitz Arbilla, Paulo Oliveira, Pedro Bigas, José Ángel (Cote); Pape Diop, Gonzalo Escalante; Fabián Orellana, Edu Expósito, Takashi Inui; Sergi Enrich.
Eibar will press high up the pitch
Regardless of the opponent, Eibar prefers to defend in the attacking half of the pitch. Immediate counter-pressing and a high press that restructures in middle and low blocks as lines are bypassed are at the core of this side’s identity. In a 4-4-2, one forward presses the centre-backs, the other drops to eliminate a deep-lying midfielder. From a 4-2-3-1, the forward and #10 work together to press the centre-backs and mark the opposition’s defensive midfielder. The far-sided outside-back starts in line with the centre-backs but stands ready to move higher up the pitch to pressure the opposition’s outside-back, often leaving the backline in a man-marking situation.
Los Armeros used these tactics against both Real Madrid and Barcelona this season, so expect more of the same. While the hope is for a high recovery, followed by a pass to a high target who has numbers in support, the reality is that the narrowness of their approach makes progression through the wings rather easy for the opponent.
One trend in the tape is that, if opponents were able to beat the high press, Eibar’s two highest lines were generally unable to recover in time for the team to establish the middle block. More often than not, opponents got into the final third.
For example, in the match against Barcelona, Eibar engaged in a high press, attempting to eliminate entry into short and intermediate options. At the back, the clear emphasis was denying a back-breaking, Route 1 pass. With the backline narrow, the outside-backs readied themselves to move wide to the opposition’s forward and outside-backs, but also stand their ground centrally to eliminate play through that area. With too many variables for the outside-backs, the two were often late to respond to Ter Stegen and the centre-backs’ long distributions. Plus, without adequate pressure on the ball carrier, the backline was unable to react to the pass until the moment before the pass was sent. With better pressure on the ball-carrier, the attacking players would have at least limited the passing options higher up the pitch, allowing the backline, especially the outside-backs, to start closer to the expected receiver.
With the deep completion, Barcelona burst into the attacking third. Their quick move up the pitch gave them numeric equality.
Eibar often overcommit defensively to account for qualitative deficiencies. Late arrivals from narrow starting points allow teams to play from the centre-backs and goalkeeper, then progress via the wings before cutting back inside. This plays into Real Madrid’s favour. Júnior and Eden Hazard trail only Lionel Messi with 9.67 and 9.22 dribbles per 90 minutes respectively. Isco, Gareth Bale and Rodrygo all rank in the top 20 in the category, so look for Los Blancos to attack through the wings with those players.
Real Madrid will disorganise Eibar
Another tactic Madrid will use is targeting the space between the Eibar midfield and backline. Eibar’s forwards and wide midfielders do not track back well, often forcing teammates to defend in numeric equality. Though Ferland Mendy is the better defensive option at left-back, this match is begging for Marcelo’s creativity and attacking intent on the left. As narrowly as Eibar sets up defensively, he and Carvajal will have lots of space to move into high and wide positions.
With Marcelo on the wings, the left-forward, be it Vinícius Júnior or Hazard, can move into the left half-space. Starting narrow will pull the outside-backs in, a tactic they’re inclined to apply anyways, which allows the outside-backs to operate with more time and space on the wings. Hazard is the ideal tactical fit for this match, but Zidane will surely ease him into the match after another lengthy injury spell. When Madrid played Eibar earlier in the season, the interchange of Hazard and Benzema overwhelmed the Armagiñak.
With the two players interacting in the left half-space and central channel, one can stretch the backline while the other checks in between the lines. Barcelona, admittedly a more central-oriented side, used this approach with great success against Eibar. Messi and Antione Griezmann routinely found space between the lines, as did Arthur in the example below. With the forwards stretching the field vertically, the Brazilian midfielder drifted behind the midfield, receiving a pass from Clément Lenglet and turning up the pitch.
Another item of note is the 4-2-4 defence from Eibar, all without impactful pressure on the ball carrier. The side does tend to give deeper playmakers move time and space on the ball. Ramos and Kroos will put on a show if Eibar don’t close those two down quickly.
If the centre-backs, Casemiro and Kroos are given time and space on the ball, look for them to draw out the Eibar defence, creating space between the lines, before playing into Benzema and Isco (plus Hazard when he’s in the game). Barcelona offered an example of how to manipulate the first few Eibar lines. With time on the ball, Lenglet passed to Ivan Rakitić, who led Sergio Busquets forward. His pass went to Messi, who played first time to Griezmann.
The back four and two defensive midfielders (two central mids when the team plays a 4-4-2) are reasonably successful in funnelling the opposition wide or at least delaying the attack. However, when they are beaten, it’s the gravitational pull of the ball that makes their lines to narrow, allowing entry into the box through the half-spaces.
In this instance, the side occupies just two vertical channels with the left centre-back, Anaitz Arbilla, pushing into the midfield. His movement allowed Griezmann to pass to Nélson Semedo, forcing Cote to leave the Frenchman for the more threatening Portuguese player. As Cote moves wide, the gap between he and Esteban Burgos lengthens, cueing Griezmann to sprint into the box. Burgos arrives at the last possible moment to block the shot, but this reactive style of defence allowed Barcelona to put five goals past the Azulgranas.
Los Blancos will look to build out of the back and trigger the distributions of Toni Kroos and Sergio Ramos from the left half-space. Inviting the high press, then releasing Carvajal into the right-wing will cause a similar reaction from Eibar. If Marcelo plays, expect him to play a key role in Madrid’s attacking tactics. Both Ramos and Kroos are equally comfortable sending intermediate-range passes into the wing from the left half-space. Marcelo could very well be the X factor in this match.
Eibar emphasis on the second ball in attack
When Eibar has the ball, expect a more hexagonal attacking shape from the front six. Orellana and Inui, operating as the two wide midfielders, will look for space behind the Madrid outside-backs when it’s on, but expect them to focus their attention in the half-spaces. As Eibar builds up, the analysis is clear that finding the high targets is a priority. No team in La Liga sends more long passes than Eibar. The club averages 56.9 long passes per match, well above the league average of 45.03.
As the long ball is played, the four midfielders ready themselves for the second ball. With both the defender and forward attempting to head the ball back in the direction of the Eibar goal, the four midfielders pinch in, staying tightly connected to increase the odds of recovering the second ball. This is especially important since Real Madrid leads the league in aerial duels success, winning 56.5%.
Just before play was suspended, Eibar hosted Real Sociedad in an empty Ipurua Futbol Zelaia. In the 67th minute, Bigas sent the ball up the field in the direction of Kike. The forward headed down to the support run of Inui.
With time to play forward, Inui splayed a long switch to Orellana. The Chilean dribbled into the box before sending a cross.
You’ll notice in the above image that four players are attacking the Sociedad goal. While the two wide midfielders push inside during the build-up phase, the two outside-backs join the line with two centre mids, giving the side a 2-4-4 in the attacking half of the pitch. Even with numbers high up the pitch, playing the second ball is a low percentage progression. Despite the numbers in support of the forwards, Eibar still only rate 10th in La Liga with a 56.6% success rate on long passes. In terms of final third entry passes, Eibar is 15th in the league with a 63.9% success rate. Since it’s a virtual flip of the coin to determine the success of their preferred build-up, the two outside-backs tend to position themselves more conservatively, much as they did in the previous match against Real Madrid. Should the opposition win the second ball, Eibar can quickly transition into a compact defensive shape.
When Eibar can claim possession and progress into the attacking third, the side relies heavily on crosses, especially those of the early variety. With 544 crosses on the season, they trail only Sevilla and Real Madrid in the category. They’re also last in La Liga in 1v1 dribble success rate and worst in through ball success percentage (25%), so sending the early cross avoids losing the ball with so many players committed higher up the pitch.
One pattern to look for is the near-sided overload leading to a switch of play and early cross. This pattern was executed in the early minutes against Barcelona. As Eibar possessed on the left third of the pitch, a switch of play put Álvaro Tejero in position for an early cross. The moment play was switched, the Eibar attackers vacated the left third of the pitch, dashing into the box to meet the delivery.
With runners at each post and two more centrally, Eibar was well-positioned to attack the cross. Madrid will have to show awareness of such patterns, getting enough defenders into the box to stop the Eibar crosses.
The many ways Real Madrid will attack Eibar
As mentioned earlier in this analysis, Real Madrid will attempt to disorganise the Eibar press in the build-up phase. Whether starting the possession from deep in its end or in the middle third, Madrid knows that Eibar will look to press high up the pitch. Los Blancos also know that Eibar struggles to apply adequate pressure on the ball carrier, looking to eliminate short and intermediate passing lanes rather than actively pressuring the player on the ball. Eibar does lead La Liga with 45.02 interceptions per match, so this approach does have its success.
Look for Real to utilise the interchanging of Ramos and Kroos in the left half-space and central channel. If the side can find their feet in the middle third, quick combinations with the surrounding players can disorganise Eibar, drawing them closer to the ball and narrowing their shape before playing over or through the lines. Expect Kroos to pull himself outside of the play while Casemiro occupies two or three players centrally.
When Madrid faces compact middle blocks, Kroos and Ramos typically play over the defence, targeting the wings. However, this Eibar side doesn’t travel well, so opportunities to split the defence will emerge. Isco and Hazard are perfectly suited to offer this option. One of them needs to be on the pitch at all time. In the example below, Hazard found his place between the lines, receiving the pass and turning upfield as the Eibar defence scrambled to recover.
Isco and Hazard are the two players Real Madrid want running at the Eibar backline in the central channel and half-spaces. Their dribbling and passing ability, as well as their decision making, demand the attention of the defence, freeing up teammates to make their runs away from the microscope. In this sequence, Hazard ran directly at the backline, pinning the defender before laying the ball off the Lucas Vázquez.
While the first portion of the sequence highlights entry into the final third, the play develops, showcasing attacking options as the side prepares to attack the goal. After the ball went out for a throw-in, Madrid took it quickly and drew in the Eibar defence. Despite the numbers near the ball, the outlet pass to Modrić allows Madrid to break the pressure. With no one near him, Modrić dribbled centrally in search of a teammate.
Though he couldn’t slip anyone into the box, he managed to draw four defenders before dropping to Casemiro. The Brazilian found Valverde, who dribbled inside before playing wide to Vázquez. Also, notice Benzema running behind the line, totally untracked by the defence.
Vázquez played a nice cross into the goalmouth, but the Eibar defence just managed to get a foot on it, denying Benzema an opportunity at an open goal.
If you come away with one thing from this sequence of play, it’s that the Eibar defence takes up confrontational starting points, but lacks the aggression to force action into areas of strength. Rather than dictating from the defence, they often find themselves chasing the opponent’s attack, reacting to play rather than proactively limiting the opposition’s options. Real Madrid will feast on this type of approach.
Though Eibar would do well to sit back in two banks of four and absorb pressure, I do see them sticking to their club identity and pressing high up the pitch. Real Madrid will take advantage of the massive gaps in the Eibar defence. If Hazard can start and play 60 minutes, this result could mirror the 4-0 drubbing of the first matchup. Since I expect Hazard to start on the bench, I’ll settle for a 3-0 Real Madrid victory.