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Real Madrid were on the up and desperate to seal victory after a midweek 4-2 win over Girona in the Copa del Rey, following a crucial win over Sevilla last weekend in La Liga. Against Espanyol, they got off to the perfect start with Karim Benzema’s opener, with Sergio Ramos’ powerful header making it 2-0 before Leo Baptistao pulled one back.
Benzema scored again before the break, with returning substitute Gareth Bale adding one of his own in the second half. Roberto Rosales capitalised when Raphael Varane was dismissed and gave Espanyol hope against 10 man Real Madrid, though they would go down in Santiago Solari’s team’s second 4-2 win in a week. Here, our tactical analysis will use statistics to identify what key points Real Madrid can take from the game.
Karim Benzema: Leader
If there was one thing to remember from the trip to Catalonia, it was the performance of Benzema. Stepping up to become the leader, he not only donned the captain’s armband in the second half but also led the way with his quality on the ball. The Frenchman scored two crucial goals, the first a natural poacher’s finish and the second after bringing the ball from deep before adding a clinical finish at the far post.
It was one of the greatest individual displays that Los Blancos have seen all season. Benzema registered his second highest xG of the campaign and completing more passes than in any other fixture in 2019. Majestic in attack, he dragged the Espanyol defence from pillar to post and was key to disrupting their very early attempts to sit deep.
As he grew in confidence he became more effective, playing backheels to set up teammates, shooting from distance and more. Solari has been crying out for somebody, anybody, to step up in attack and lead the line. This performance may have been Karim Benzema doing just that.
Game plan in attack
One key tactical element was how Benzema was deployed. The Frenchman dropped deep, often bringing a defender with him, allowing wingers and full-backs, particularly Vinicius Junior, to race forward and exploit the spaces in behind. Benzema himself or the likes of Luka Modric or Toni Kroos sprayed the ball around from a deeper role.
Benzema created a number of chances through this approach, registering six shot assists, and made the wide men more threatening than ever before. Finally, Solari appears to have found a way to get the most out of the players in his squad, exploiting the strength out wide and the creativity from his central midfielders. Without a central poaching striker, Benzema has adapted and Solari is getting the most out of him.
This all-new style from Benzema, taking control of the attacking game, was evidenced more than ever by his progressive run stats. Whilst he has averaged 1.32 progressive runs per match, deemed to be taking the ball forward substantially, he managed eight in the game against Espanyol. That was another crucial way in which he led the transition from defence to attack.
Still unconvincing in defence
Real Madrid will always be disappointed to concede two goals, regardless of how many they put away themselves. The manner in which they conceded both goals, adding to the dismissal of Varane and the injury to Sergio Ramos, made it a fairly nightmarish scenario at times for Solari. Perhaps most concerning of all was the impact of Marcelo when introduced at left-back, moving Sergio Reguilon inside in a five-man defence.
The Brazilian has spent some time on the sidelines of late and did not make the return he was hoping for. He played everyone onside as Espanyol scored their second goal after some lax marking had already allowed them to equalise in the first half. For the second, he was slow to push up and catch up with play, allowing Roberto Rosales and Borja Iglesias to break the line and rush through.
It was a similar move to the one which saw Varane sent off, potentially leaving Solari with a selection headache ahead of next Saturday’s fixture against Alaves, should Ramos also be unavailable. With the attack now seemingly coming together, Solari must return to his initial focus when appointed: installing discipline and adding a more rigid approach to defending.
Time to experiment
Whether it was an opportunity or an obligation is up for debate, but Solari certainly experimented in the closing stages. Casemiro dropped in to play as a central defender following Varane’s red card, with Reguilon also forming part of a back three. It was a return to the back five exhibited against Real Betis only a few weeks ago, and one which looked to sit deep to see out the result for the closing stages of the tie.
From that red card onwards, Real Madrid did not surpass 50% possession. It could easily be claimed that it was intentional. The visitors were happy to give up possession and sit deep, allowing Espanyol to pass the ball around harmlessly. The one time they did break the lines they scored, but that was the only occasion that they could do so successfully.
The Argentinian may also have had one eye on the game against Alaves, knowing that he will not have his full strength backline available to him. By trialling both Casemiro and Reguilon alongside Nacho at the back, it was effectively an audition for both men and an opportunity to prove their point. With plenty of regulars returning to action, including Gareth Bale and Toni Kroos, the coach will finally feel that he has plenty of options available to him.
This was a positive evening for Real Madrid, led by the magnificent display from Benzema. Equally, it was woeful from Espanyol, who looked like a team devoid of ideas. Benzema took advantage inspiring fluidity and organisation to Real Madrid’s attacking play. Maintaining that in the weeks to come against much stronger defensive sides, such as Atletico Madrid and Barcelona, will be pivotal.
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