And yet again for the third consecutive game, Real Madrid not only failed to score a goal, but could not register a win either. The holders have failed to score a goal in three consecutive games across all competitions for the first time since January 2007, during the spell of coach Fabio Capello.
While the media trash-talked Real’s third captain Karim Benzema, who led the attack against CSKA Moskova, Julen Lopetegui came out in full support of the Frenchman remarking that the goalscoring responsibilities are not just on Benzema’s shoulders.
Is this the beginning of yet another downfall or is it just a drought? Or is it a transition that will prosper in the long run? Let’s find out.
The Story So Far:
Real Madrid faced Sevilla and neighbours Athletico Madrid in the domestic league, while they travelled to Russia for their midweek game to face a young CSKA Moskova side in the Champions League in a span of 10 days and failed to either score or win any of the matches.
Sevilla humbled Real in the Sánchez Pizjuán Stadium scoring three past The Whites, whereas at the Bernabeu, Athletico Madrid held together tightly disallowing any good chances for the home team resulting in a goalless draw. It took just two minutes for the Russian-based CSKA Moskova to score past Keylor Navas after a horrendous back pass by Toni Kroos.
Under Zidane, Real Madrid used a mixed style of traditional football and possession-based football. But, under Julen Lopetegui, it is purely a form of possession-based and high pressure which the fans like to call – ‘The Lope-Taka’. This was clearly evident during the game against Leganes where Real broke the club record for most number of passes in a game (904).
The off-ball movement of Lopetegui’s style includes sacrificing more players up the field to maintain the high pressure, thus giving the opponents less space and time to work their passes from behind.
While retaining possession, the team spreads throughout the field using fullbacks as wingers near the lines. This helps the midfield-trio of Kroos, Casemiro, and Modric to switch sides whenever they face a sudden increase in pressure. The change allows the wing-backs to pass between the space left by the opponent while they were busy on the other side of the pitch. This back and forth running fatigues the opponents thus slowing them down.
His style also includes playing from the back, putting use the skillsets of Marcelo, Modric, Kroos and Isco to use. This forces the opponents to press higher than they wish to, leaving the centre of the field free for a counter attack.
Game 1: Los RojiBlancos vs Los Blancos
Sevilla vs Real Madrid was Julen Lopetegui’s ninth game in charge and clearly, Pablo Machin had done his homework. What better way to beat Real Madrid than to use their own attacks against themselves. Attack-wise, Sevilla broke into a counter whenever they got a chance, whether they had two men or four and attack from the right side when Marcelo is out of his position.
Since Marcelo is caught out of position, Casemiro paces towards the right side of the field almost covering that side of the pitch and providing additional support for Ramos. This isolates Kroos in the centre of the field giving more space for the Sevilla players to charge ahead diagonally and successfully tire out the three-man midfield while they too changed the sides of play time and time again.
Sevilla took every opportunity to attack. However, the off-ball movement of the players were the ones that successfully failed the Real Madrid midfield and attack. While Real started from the back, Sevilla applied high pressure forcing them to pass long into the midfield.
Defensively, Sevilla formed a 3-5-2 formation thus not allowing the fullbacks to move ahead. The change in flank is generally done by the support player standing on the inside of the fullback. It is either Casemiro or Modric on the right and Kroos or Ramos on the left. Sevilla made sure that whenever they are in a defensive position, one of the strikers marks the support player, forcing the fullback to pass all the way behind to the centre-back and not allowing them to directly change sides and thus giving their own players enough time to cover the gaps.
When Lucas Vazquez and Mariano were introduced, Real switched to a 4-4-2 flat. This opened up gaps between the defensive lines of Sevilla. Unfortunately for Real, instead of pressing for the ball, Sevilla just sat back after taking a 3-0 lead thus crowding the area more than usual.
Game 2: El Derbi Madrileño
The Madrid derby ended in a goalless draw. However, in this match, as compared to the previous one, Real Madrid did not give up more players in the final third of the pitch.
As seen in the above picture, this was a proper built-up game by Real. But to receive the cross from Carvajal, only Benzema and Asensio were present against more than half of Atletico’s players. The rest of the team were not really contributing to the attack through fear of losing the ball and then getting caught on a counter-attack. In the absence of Isco and Marcelo, there was hardly any creativity on the field. And the first half turned out to be rather rusty.
But at halftime, Bale felt a bit of discomfort and was substituted for Ceballo. This change saw the side revert back to a 4-4-2 formation. Madrid players started seeing more of the ball and started to threaten Jan Oblak. A tired Atletico defence forced all players to fall back while under attack and thus again by restricting Real Madrid to move forward.
Game 3: Spain in Russia
Toni Kroos’ unimaginable error gave an early lead to the hosts. But with time, Real Madrid looked more confident to send their players ahead to support the attack.
Julen Lopetegui chose a comparatively lesser experienced team as Ramos, Marcelo, Isco and Bale remained absent through injury.
As seen here, Kroos has multiple options ahead of him.
Against Moskova, Casemiro took charge of the midfield rather than staying back as seen against Sevilla and Athletico. Since Modric was on the bench, Kroos was left behind to hold the defensive line just ahead of Varane and Ramos. Casemiro, rather unorthodoxly, moved ahead with the ball and dictated the terms at the midfield. Traditionally, Kroos is a holding midfielder and Casemiro is a defensive one. But this little experiment almost proved successful when Casemiro’s low-driven shot found struck the post, which was his only good shot on target in these three games.
Let’s look at some statistics. The number of passes completed, game-wise:
Sevilla vs Real Madrid – 565
Real Madrid vs Athletico Madrid – 730
CSKA Moskova vs Real Madrid – 819
These stats clearly showcase how Real Madrid was outclassed by Sevilla based on technique. Another fact that cannot go unnoticed is that the number of aerial duels won by Real Madrid players in the attacking half of the pitch has drastically fallen as well as so the number of shots on target. Casemiro, Kroos, Asensio, Modric, and Bale are players who are most capable of scoring goals from range, but hardly any of their shots have been on target.
Against CSKA Moskova, Mariano won as many as three headers in just 30 minutes. For scoring against teams who lay back and wait for Madrid to attack, scoring an aerial goal and beating the keeper would be the only chance if the defence has been set up very tightly.
Julen Lopetegui has done a brilliant job so far to get the team up and running. What they lack is that spark of a team which motivates them to help, move, create, and score.