European champions Real Madrid have been struggling to get positive results lately. Many factors contribute to the situation, including occasional horrible defending, rivals overloading their mid-blocks and defensive thirds, and many important players either out with an injury or in poor form. After all, it seems Zidane’s men can, in fact, be defeated. Madrid have been mostly struggling to create scoring opportunities against compact low-blocks, given their lateral crossing is significantly less lethal than last season. Oddly enough, Modric and Kroos have also had a dip in form, so Madrid’s possessions have lacked efficiency and correct play orientation. Zidane definitely did not count on both players, arguably the 2 best midfielders in the world, having a bad streak of footballing matches at the same time. Having said that, both will probably up their game, and Madrid’s fluidity in possession and chance creation in the final third will be back to normal, not relying solely on Isco’s creativity and associative qualities.
Girona, recently promoted Catalan side, has been impressing the footballing world with their transitional system involving excellent wing play. Manager Pablo Machin has been with the club since 2014, establishing himself as an essential piece of the project. GIR like to defend with 5 players, leaving space for their attackers and fullbacks to perform direct transitions.
On October 29th, Real Madrid visited the Estadi Montolivi to face Girona for the first time ever. Let’s take a look at how Girona was able to overcome Real Madrid both in play and result, by analyzing their strategy, defensive system, and Real Madrid’s defensive problems.
Girona aligned a 5-2-3, or as the picture above says, a 3-4-2-1. Two wide full backs, 2 central midfielders and 3 compact forwards playing in a triangle (2-1). Maffeo and Aday provided width, causing constant personal duels with Hakimi and Marcelo. Real Madrid played with their usual 4-3-1-2 with Isco on the top of a diamond midfield. Kiko Casilla started for injured Keylor Navas.
Given that the subject being analyzed is ‘how Girona overcame Real Madrid’, this article will have more emphasis on analyzing what Girona did right, and what Real Madrid did not.
Girona’s Aggressive Defending All Around the Pitch
Girona’s High Press
The initial phase of the match had Girona aggressively high-pressing ‘Los Blancos’ during deep buildups. Their strategy was as follows:
They did so by ranging between a 5-2-3 and a 5-1-4 with 3 forwards and 1 central defensive midfielder conducting man oriented marking, while the other CDM escorted zonally.
As the image illustrates, Girona started pressing with a 5-2-3 like formation. Both fullbacks (blue) always marked their respective rival full back, causing them to defend extremely high up the pitch. The line of 2 in the image is the 2 CDM’s. They possess perhaps the most interesting roles in the defensive system, since they are constantly switching between man oriented and zonal marking. Their role depended on numerous factors, primarily including the ball’s location in relationship to Madrid’s midfielders. Let’s look at a video-example of how Girona high-pressed Real Madrid during the initial phase of the match.
As the play shows, Girona start with a 5-2-3 high-press formation.
Girona man-mark Ramos, Varane, and Modric. Real Madrid’s full-backs were ALWAYS given a decent amount of space, for the team to think their fullbacks had time and space to participate in possession. Of course, this was a trap, since Maffeo and Aday always remained close enough to be able to pressure at any time.
When Kroos drops deep to help with his team’s buildup, Pere Pons (1 of 2 CDM’s) follows the German midfielder to prevent him from feeling comfortable on the ball. This triggers Girona to switch to a 5-1-4 high-press formation with 4 man-oriented markers and one zonal escort. Madrid is then tempted towards the wing, where Girona look to make their high-pressing strategy effective by overloading the zone.
The video illustrates a successful high-press, since they prevented Real Madrid from entering their half by tempting them towards an overloaded wing.
Their mid-block strategy and formation were the same as their high press, ranging between a 5-2-3 and 5-1-4. This pictures below help illustrate how Girona’s 2 CDM’s acted upon the situation of the play.
In this image, Isco is preparing to move into the space to receive Varane’s pass. The nearest CDM, (outside of the picture) prepares to follow both Isco and Modric as the ball potentially might reach them. As Varane notices Girona’s man oriented marking, he chooses to go towards the other side.
Machin’s men are greatly synchronized. Both CDM’s switch their respective roles as the ball will be played towards Madrid’s left side.
Now, let’s look at these pictures in a video breaking down Girona’s mid-block.
Notice all the same defensive principles used during high-pressing and mid-block pressing. This means Machin’s tactics, implementations, strategies and principles are all perfectly understood by his players.
Both plays had the same outcome: a foul near the wing after Real Madrid could potentially overcome Girona’s pressing overloads. Fouling was a great way of slowing down Madrid’s transitions and possessions.
Girona’s Strategy In Possession
Girona’s strategy with the ball during the first half caused Real Madrid some trouble. Their strategy was as followed:
They intended to overcome Real Madrid’s compact side presses by first attracting players and then exploiting free space outside of the overloaded area.
They baited RM towards the wing before looking for available players (yellow) outside of the visitors’ overload (white area) to get the ball to Girona’s isolated right full-back Maffeo (red).
Have a look at how Girona overcame Real Madrid’s 6v3 overload on the wing before creating a scoring opportunity following their possession strategy.
As shown and explained, Girona’s use of the ball was extremely effective, causing Real Madrid many defensive problems that would later be exposed during the initial stage of the second half. Their versatile full-backs were a constant headache for Marcelo and Hakimi, providing both crossing options and inward runs to provide scoring opportunities.
Although not analyzed, it should be pointed out that Real Madrid went on to open the score off a counter-attack following the play above. This shows that Girona’s direct approach, if not positioned correctly, could leave defensive exposure against transitional counter attacks.
First Half Recap
The first half ended with a dangerous Girona, however it was ‘Los Blancos’ who took the lead off Isco’s tap-in following Cristiano Ronaldo’s blocked shot. The second half, however, was a whole different story for both teams. Girona gained precision in the final execution while Madrid’s defensive problems increased.
Using Girona’s Equalizer to Illustrate Madrid’s Defensive Problems
Machin must have inspired his team during his halftime speech. The Catalans started the game with unbelievable confidence and energy. This caused ‘Los Blancos’ to restructure themselves closer to their goal.
As mentioned previously in this article, the European champions have been struggling in defence this season. French defender Varane was subbed off during the first minute of the second half. May it be said that Madrid’s problems significantly increased once Varane was subbed off. The image below gives an idea of what Real Madrid are doing wrong in defence:
As the image shows, Madrid’s problems can be resumed in low defensive work rates, no willingness to make a tackle, being overcome during numerical superiority, and strangely enough, constant mistimed tackles and anticipations. Zidane’s men were almost always in a compact structure, yet such does not mean that the teams’ defending was effective and proper.
Let’s look at Girona’s early equalizer in the second half, to further illustrate Madrid’s struggles during the match:
The video is pretty self-explanatory. Madrid’s problems were not structural, but rather because of everything else described.
When reviewing the play, it was shocking to see Real Madrid’s whole midfield be overcome with merely 2 touches. Casemiro usually gets to that man to either take the ball away or foul him. Also, 2 players should never overcome a 5v2 situation in such a crucial area, especially with players like Casemiro and Sergio Ramos behind the ball.
Using Girona’s Second Goal to Analyze their Possession Strategy Early in the Second Half
Girona’s men seemed to spread out more during the first 15 minutes of the second half. This caused Real Madrid to do the same if they wanted to put pressure on the locals. Girona easily overcame players in white by both playing long passes and switching the play to other areas with any type of superiority. Their strategy with the ball can be perfectly illustrated by their go-ahead goal:
As shown, Machin’s side performed long-distance passes to overcome Madrid overloads. The final purpose was to create scoring opportunities either by crossing the ball, or looking for a penetrative pass behind Madrid’s defence from the central axis.
Second Half Recap
The remaining 30 minutes of the second half had a more conservative Girona protecting the score. Having said that, both sides enjoyed numerous chances to score more goals for their teams. The game, however, ended 2-1 in Girona’s favour. The recently promoted team defeated the Spanish champions in their first meeting ever.
Girona’s pass map further illustrates their spread out shape. Both full-backs playing advanced roles with the general shape ranging between a 5-2-3 and a 5-1-1-3, which is similar to their 5-1-4 high press and midblock structure. The long and light connections between players show how they didn’t want to build up slowly with the ball. Another factor that symbolizes Girona’s commitment to long passes rather than deep build up is the fact that none of the 3 CB’s completed 5 passes to one another. That’s an incredibly low passing rate between centre-backs, especially with a 5 at-the-back formation.
Madrid’s loss against Girona at the Estadi Montolivi was largely due to their defensive struggles as a unit. Their possessions also lacked meaning and strategy. Kroos and Modric’s level will rise again, and Madrid will start producing goal-scoring opportunities as before. The chance creating won’t solely rely on Franciso Alarcon (Isco).
Girona’s transitional approach complicated ‘Los Blancos’, as Machin got his tactics and strategies on point.
Girona continue to impress Spain and the whole footballing world with their performances, especially against Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Atleti. They managed to complicate all 3 at home, something to be proud of for a recently promoted side.