Real Madrid travelled to a hostile Estadio Mestalla on Wednesday knowing that they faced a challenge against in-form Valencia. Fighting for one fourth spot in La Liga and having soared up the table since the turn of the year, Marcelino was never going to make life for Zinedine Zidane and co. Los Merengues have little left to play for but pride in the final weeks of the season, and maybe a shot at second place over city rivals Atlético, but remained unbeaten under the Frenchman.
From the first whistle, it was clear that the hosts were more up for the battle, with Gonçalo Guedes opening the scoring with the only goal of the night from open play, rifling in an effort from 18 yards out. Ezequiel Garay doubled the hosts’ lead in the second half from a corner late on, meaning that Karim Benzema’s header deep into injury time meant nothing in terms of the result.
Our tactical analysis will use statistics to identify what key points Zidane can take from the game as his team fell to their 15th defeat of the season.
Valencia made just one change from their crucial victory over Sevilla at the weekend, with Mouctar Diakhaby replacing the suspended Gabriel Paulista in the heart of defence.
It was a return to almost full strength for Zinedine Zidane, having made changes against Huesca at the weekend. Keylor Navas returned in goal, alongside Casemiro, Toni Kroos and Luka Modrić. Marco Asensio and Lucas Vázquez were also recalled to form Zidane’s preferred 4-3-3, at the expense of Gareth Bale most notably.
A performance like a poor man’s Barcelona
The one takeaway from this clash was that at no point in time did Real Madrid have control over the flow of the game. That’s despite never having less than 55% of possession. Whilst Valencia dominated play, they made their little possession count, attacking on the counter and exploiting the gaps and spaces that Real Madrid’s defence left behind.
Not since a win over Leganés in September have there been so many backwards passes made by Real Madrid, recording 125 compared to their season average of just 96. Each time they picked up the ball, the rigid structure and high press of Valencia forced players to look backwards and sideways to move the ball on, looking for another way through.
It was particularly prevalent on the wings. Lucas Vázquez in particular would receive possession out wide, find himself blocked and play the ball back into midfield. With such little pace and penetration, much of Madrid’s play came centrally.
What’s more, it was not until the final stages that Real Madrid decided to gamble. Making 19% of their long passes in the final 15 minutes, they took a more direct approach and looked to bypass the midfield lines. Rather than playing the ball backwards and sideways throughout midfield, they looked to go directly from the full-backs and even central defenders over the top. At that point it was evident that this game would not be won in midfield and that an alternative way through had to be found, but it came too late.
The midfield battle was decisive
Much of that weakness and failure to capitalise on possession came from the clear defeat in the midfield battle. In Dani Parejo, Carlos Soler, Geoffrey Kondogbia and Guedes, Marcelino had the energy and strength that was so absent from the Real Madrid line-up. Parejo alone won more duels than the Real Madrid midfield put together, with Modrić and Kroos winning just one between them. With those kinds of figures, it posed major issues for Real Madrid both in and out of possession, allowing Valencia to walk straight through them.
It was particularly concerning as Real Madrid looked to transition. Whilst Casemiro did record four won duels, low for his usual performances, there was no change of possession in midfield. The result was that the ball too often turned over with Real Madrid deep in their own half. As Valencia’s structure stood firm, they found no way out.
Perhaps the clearest example of the dismal lack of fight in the Real Madrid midfield came for the first goal. As Guedes and Soler were alert to a cleared corner, linking up to play the ball around Kroos, the German stood still and allowed the Portugal international to run in behind him and find space to get his shot away and beat Navas in the Real Madrid goal. Failure to track a runner in this kind of situation is a basic error that is hard to imagine happening from players focused on what’s at stake.
Valencia frustrated Real Madrid on the counter
For only the third time this season, Real Madrid failed to register a single counter-attack. A stalwart of Zidane’s style in his tactics during both his first spell and his return to the club, his two previous games had recorded nine counter-attacks. Yet Valencia joined a list of teams to have stopped them this season, including Getafe in August and Barcelona in the league Clasico in March. Valencia actually became the first team to halt this Madrid move when they were not playing at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu.
Through the structured midfield shape already mentioned, Kondogbia and Parejo sat deep and allowed the wide midfielders to push on with greater freedom. Guedes and Soler roamed forwards, supported by Kevin Gameiro and Rodrigo Moreno, but the central midfielders held firm. It meant that as soon as possession was lost, one could push forwards to close down and halt any potential counter attack in its tracks.
It was a key tactic as Valencia looked to prevent Real Madrid from using their possession effectively. When the ball was regained in their own half in particular, it would be played around without penetrating lines as the Valencia midfield stayed structured and protected their positioning. Whilst the ball was at the feet of Real Madrid players, Valencia dictated exactly what they could and couldn’t do with it. For a team lacking in confidence and desire like Real Madrid, they weren’t prepared to battle their way through either.
As Real Madrid attempted to get forward in other ways, they found themselves just as frustrated by Marcelino’s set-up. By keeping players back and crowding the central positions, it denied Asensio in particular the ability to cut inside, whilst also forcing Benzema wide and deep to pick up possession.
The result was that the forwards were effectively taken out of the equation. Between the five forwards who took to the field, they amassed just 0.57 xG throughout the game, with Asensio’s below effort straight at Neto accounting for more than half of it. It was not for want of trying. Whenever Real Madrid have struggled under Zidane, the solution has been to get the ball wide and cross it into the box.
That philosophy was followed, with a high 33 crosses, their highest number for a single game since their first defeat of 2019 against Real Sociedad. In the final 15 minutes of the game alone, Real Madrid recorded nine crosses but completed just two of them. Only one ended in an effort on goal, showing their desperation as the clock ticked down without reward.
Even with Bale and Mariano Díaz introduced to add diversity in attack, there was no change to Zidane’s style and they continued to struggle. Benzema added a consolation deep into injury time, but it was too little, too late from players who should be offering more. Valencia’s central block worked perfectly to deny Real Madrid’s attackers the freedom to have any real impact and. It will be a cause for concern for Zidane that, without Vinícius Júnior, they lack an out-and-out winger to attack the flanks and take men on.
If Zidane’s arrival was supposed to be the wake-up call for Real Madrid, his players have slept right through it. For the first time in years, this squad has nothing left to play for before Easter and, far from fighting for pride until the end of the campaign, they seem content to take their summer holidays early. Fatigue has set in for players who have made almost 50 appearances a year for almost five years before last summer’s World Cup really took it out of aging workhorses like Modrić.
Zidane’s arrival has shown reason for optimism and he hasn’t been afraid to mix things up tactically, but Valencia’s midfield walked all over them to decide this game. As the pressure mounts, Zidane will need to get his men replicating that fighting spirit and implement some cutting edge in attack if he is to take his team back to their former heights.
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