Match Date: 4/3/17
Just when it looked like Real Madrid were going to run away with the league, in came Valencia at the end of February with a 2-1 win over Los Blancos to bust the league wide open. Zinedine Zidane’s men were outplayed at the Mestalla stadium, their grip over the Spanish top-flight weakened; couple that with their 3-3 comeback draw against Las Palmas at midweek, another subpar performance, and Eibar’s chances of causing an upset grew.
Coming into Saturday’s match, Jose Luis Mendilibar’s men had plenty to be hopeful about. The Basque side had kept three clean sheets in their last four matches and they were coming off a 2-2 draw against Real Sociedad, a game that saw them perform quite well. A win over Zidane’s side would see them closer to European qualification – something they’ve never accomplished before.
The game plan for Mendilibar’s squad was to make things uncomfortable for Real Madird at Ipurua. At home, they enjoy high-pressing, using with wings to generate chances and, when defending, trying to win the ball on the flanks by causing overloads. The defending Champions League title holders, on the other hand, were going to be without a number of key forwards, but they were going to try and use their world class technique and pace to hit Eibar on the break when possible. In addition, Eibar can defend poorly in transitional phases, and Real Madrid was also going to try to play as directly as possible.
With Alvaro Morata and Gareth Bale out of the lineup due to suspension, and Cristiano Ronaldo out through injury, Zidane opted to use a 4-3-3 with Karim Benzema up top, flanked by Marco Asensio and Lucas Vazquez. In the middle of the park, the usual suspects of Modric and Casemiro were there with surprise start James Rodriguez – the Colombian offering some creativity around the final third. In defense, Sergio Ramos was to be partnered with Pepe while Nacho was at left-back (Marcelo being rested) and Danilo at right-back.
The hosts, using a 4-2-3-1, were going to be without some key players as well. Center-back Florian Lejeune, having received a second yellow against Real Sociedad at midweek, was out. Furthermore, the most notable absentees are players were dealt injuries earlier in the season such as left-back David Junca, attackers Kike and Nano, and goalkeeper Asier Riesgo.
Eibar’s defensive strategy: win the ball back quickly and man-mark on the flanks
In the opening stages of the game, it became evident that Eibar were not going to sit back and organize the defense with a calculated and space-conscious low-black. With winning the ball back through patient play out of the question, Eibar set about winning the ball back as quickly as possible. Below, we see that when Ramos (blue circle) is bringing in the ball from the left, Eibar (red) start a mix of man-marking, pass screening (orange grid), and one player (orange circle) offering an extra man for numerical advantage.
A couple of seconds later, Eibar have taken away loads of space for Real Madrid to work down the left side by the same means as before – man marking and making screens to make as many forward passes as high-risk as possible. However, in the next screenshot, we see that Real Madrid have the quality and confidence to beat such active defending. Casemiro (man-marked green circle) has noticed that the screen on Nacho (furthest away green) isn’t exactly high-risk. As a result, the Brazilian chips the ball (blue circle) around the screen (orange grid) and Real Madrid proceeds to enter the final third as the play continued.
James Rodriguez’s goal and Eibar’s poor transitional defending
With Mendilibar’s men already down 2-0, Real Madrid were about to take advantage of their poor transitional play from attack to defense and of the fact that Eibar, who enjoyed some good position, couldn’t threaten them in the final third. Below were going to break down James’ goal.
1. Here we see that Modric (green circle) has won a 50/50 ball in midfield with Benzema looking to hit the right flank to expand the width of the attack:
2. At this stage, we see that Modric has played a long-pass (blue line and circle) to Benzema while Escalante (red circle) is caught ball watching as James (yellow) is drifting away from him:
3. With Escalante off his mark, James then sprawls and makes a sublime chip (blue circle) over Yoel:
Eibar had illustrated their poor defending on all the goals they conceded and the game was very much over by the 30th minute with James’ goal making it 3-0. As a result, Eibar, who were losing their grip on the match fast, made some tactical tweaks. But Real Madrid made some tactical changes as well.
Eibar change the focus in attack and Real Madrid switch to a back five
Let’s face it, Mendilibar’s side were in trouble. Something needed to change. With Real Madrid now focusing on defending their lead, Eibar chose to commit more bodies forward. Below, we see that Eibar have the ball (blue circle) on the left with two players (red) operating wide, one player in the central axis (yellow) and they have four forwards up top (three in the penalty area).
As a result, Zidane’s men switch to a back five (green circles) with Casemiro dropping in next to Ramos and Modric (purple) covering the gap between Danilo and Casemiro. The switch comes from Real Madrid wanting to have numerical superiority to Eibar’s forward line of four.
Eibar’s high number of bodies in advanced positons comes back to hurt them
Eibar’s change of tactics was always going to be a gamble and in the end it hurt them. Below, in what is a 2-4-4 formation (with Eibar’s center-backs out of frame), Casemiro, instead of just clearing the ball, passes it directly (blue line) to Benzema (green) who is in the space between Eibar’s extremely wide midfield line and center-backs (out of frame).
Given that Eibar’s midfield four is stretched along the width of the pitch in a very rigid manner, they will have a hard time to stopping counter-attacks if they are quickly generated in central areas. Obviously, Benzema knows this and took advantage of a risky Eibar formation that was set up for attacking only and left them exposed in transition from attack to defense.
As it happened, Benzema would eventually cut out wide to the left, drawing three players, and then chipped an overhead ball that would contribute and eventually lead to Asensio’s goal which made the score 4-0. In the end, Eibar’s Ruben Pena would score in the 72nd minute. But a comeback wasn’t in the cards as the game ended with a final score of 4-1.
As a frequent watcher of LaLiga, I wasn’t expecting Eibar to get dismantled by Real Madrid that quickly – the game was over before the second half even started. But Mendilibar’s outfit was extremely poor in defense on Saturday and Real Madrid took advantage of that. In the second half, Real Madrid showed their willingness to play off of Eibar’s change of focus in attack and they had an answer for that as well. In closing, Real Madrid played a complete match with many key players out for various reasons and showed their tactical prowess as well.