There’s no denying it, Real Madrid have been fantastic this season. They are currently at the top of the Spanish league with a chance to win a title that has evaded them for the past five years. With a 3-0 win against their city rivals, Atletico Madrid, they have all but sealed their place in the 2017 Champions League final; which, by the way, could be historic seeing as no team has ever been able to win back to back UCL titles.
All the while having achieved such incredible results in the past year, I still hear some football fans complaining that Zidane’s side are ‘lucky’ and all they do is ‘lump the ball’ into the box. In my opinion, Madrid’s manager has not been given enough credit for creating a perfect tactical plan to suit the characteristics of his players.
The best managers in the world are able to correctly recognize what their team’s strengths are and, using this information, provide their players with the correct and most beneficial conditions for them to succeed. When we analyze Madrid’s squad, we notice that they possess strong aerial qualities along with technically talented outside backs. Consequently, Zizou’s tactics rely heavily on this premise.
Football’s basic principles, which you can refresh yourself on using the link below, form the basis of this analysis, and all tactical analyses for that matter.
The three basic principles of football.
Simple as that pic.twitter.com/eSccc6kuNc
— It's Just a Sport (@IJaSport) May 3, 2017
I would welcome you to also check out my personal blog where I discuss coaching aspects, like these basic principles.
Area of Possession
In general, ‘Los Blancos’ maintain possession in the 20-30 meter area adjacent to the penalty area, as you can see in the following image.
In doing so, they are able to create the necessary space in front of the goal for the strikers to attack when a ball is crossed in. Many teams fail to score as many aerial goals from the wings because they do not bait out the defenders in order to make room for a finish around the penalty spot. The following video depicts this area of possession.
Modric and Kroos
Luka Modric and Toni Kroos are absolutely pivotal pieces to Zidane’s organized attack. Bearing in mind that their outside backs, Marcelo and Carvajal, play very high and basically play as wingers, there is an empty space which must be filled next to the central backs.
Kroos and Modric are needed in this space for two reasons. Firstly, they are the offensive brains and engines who dictate where the ball needs to move. When they fill this space they are able to play towards goal with the necessary space needed allowing them to be more efficient in the team’s attack. Secondly, in the case of a loss of possession, they are the first to step in to avoid an opponent’s counter attack. When the opposing team are able to break past Modric, Kroos, and in some cases Isco, Madrid become very vulnerable (This is what happened in Messi’s match winning goal in ‘El Clasico’). The following video shows what Modric and Kroos are able to do for Madrid.
As you have seen, Madrid will possess in that space passing the ball from side to side attempting to create openings in the other team’s defensive lines. However, what they continuously look to do is overload one side of the pitch using short, quick passes, isolating the outside backs, Marcelo and Carvajal.
Knowing these two will be able to beat most defenders in a 1v1 situation, they quickly get the ball to them. Once they are on the ball, they will look to progress towards goal, and if this is not a possibility, they will serve an early cross to the awaiting strikers. The following video portrays how the team will overload one side to seclude their talented outside backs on the opposite side.
Second Post Strikers
The final piece to Zidane’s tactical puzzle is creating the perfect conditions for his goal hunters, Cristiano and Benzema. The key to a perfect finish is timing, and one way to increase one’s window of time is by creating more space. These two goal hounds do this by starting their runs on the second post when the outside backs or wingers receive the ball.
28% of their 2016-2017 goals have come from headers. This statistic is astounding, but once you see how well they create the right conditions to succeed, it’s not so surprising. The following video clearly shows how Ronaldo and Benzema time their runs to effectively find the back of the net.
James Rodriguez’s goal against Barcelona was a perfect example of how Madrid are able to maintain possession using Kroos and Modric, exploit 1v1 situations on the wings by isolating Marcelo and Carvajal, and create space in front of the goal by starting their strikers’ run on the second post. In this instance, James made a perfect run into the first post and not a single Barcelona defender followed him because they were marking on the second post.
The next time that you read or hear anyone stating that all Madrid are able to do is serve the ball into the box, that they are lucky, or that Zidane isn’t a masterful tactician; you can explain to them exactly why Real Madrid are tactically brilliant.
In every goal that they score, there is so much happening before the ball is even played into the box. Regarding the finish as an isolated action decontextualizes the game, and ultimately, devalues the beauty of the sport. We must shine a light on all the variables and participants at play.