This piece originally featured on our dedicated football analysis site, Total Football Analysis.
As Real Madrid sought to earn qualification from Group G in the Champions League, three points were crucial against Roma. Coming after a shock defeat to Eibar at the weekend, the pressure was on for Santiago Solari and his team to make an immediate comeback in Rome as they faced the Italians with top spot in the group up for grabs. Thanks to a lively second half with goals from Gareth Bale and Lucas Vazquez, Los Blancos achieved the victory they were after. Here, our tactical analysis will use statistics to identify what key points Real Madrid can take from the game as they got back to their best.
Marcos Llorente is the answer
At Ipurua on Saturday, one thing was clear. Real Madrid are lacking an alternative to Casemiro. Dani Ceballos was selected as a makeshift option with Toni Kroos increasingly reluctant to take up the role, but it was a disaster. On Tuesday, Marcos Llorente was given his first ever Champions League start and only his second of the season. In doing so he made a clear impression as he dominated his area of the field, providing the Real Madrid defence with firm protection.
In total, the 23-year-old made 12 ball recoveries, including three crucial interceptions. Dropping in between the gaps as Raphael Varane and Sergio Ramos were dragged apart, he broke up play expertly with the ball at his feet and in the air, where he won two of his three aerial duels.
On the ball, Llorente was effective too. He completed 49 of his 50 attempted passes, including all of his attempted passes into the final third. Such precision is expected of regulars like Kroos and Luka Modric, but is rarely achieved by Casemiro in the holding role. Based on his showing in Rome, the Brazilian may have a challenge from a young Spaniard for his starting spot upon his return from injury.
There’s hope for Gareth Bale yet
Gareth Bale has come in for his fair share of criticism as Real Madrid’s struggles have continued. The Welshman has been anonymous in games against the likes of Levante, Alaves and Eibar, but on Tuesday he appeared to have found his shooting boots and added a real threat in attack. It took some luck to fall his way after half-time, but when it did go his way with Robin Olsen’s woeful clearance deflecting into his path, he did not panic. Rather than just smashing a shot away, he took his time. Then, with Roma defenders having caught him, he sidestepped Kostas Manolas and fired the ball into the bottom corner of the net beyond a helpless Olsen.
He was involved again in the second goal, converted by Lucas Vazquez, as he teased a delightful cross from one corner of the penalty area to the other for Karim Benzema to head into the winger’s path to score. Finally, Bale has returned to being decisive for Real Madrid and that is exactly what Santiago Solari will need if he is to make a success of his stint in charge at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu.
The next challenge will be for Bale to find consistency. Having scored in three consecutive games in August, he has scored just three times since. On Tuesday, he set up more shots than in any game since that run and there are signs that he could be on his way back to his prolific best. If Real Madrid can get Bale and Benzema firing regularly, it will only be a matter of time before they are shooting up the league table and competing for trophies.
Isco was left out… But where would he fit?
Before the game even begun, one of the talking points was already clear. Solari opted to leave out Isco from the squad entirely, preferring youngsters like Fede Valverde on the bench to the Spanish international who was left to watch from the stands. MARCA claim that the decision was down to a row between the two following defeat to Eibar, though tactically it is also easy to understand why the Argentinian coach felt that he could get away with such a gamble to prove a point.
The playmaker simply does not fit into the 4-3-3 that Solari has opted for in recent weeks. With Toni Kroos playing in a more advanced role since his appointment, those chances look even slimmer. Instead, he has opted to provide width in attack with two natural wingers, without wishing to sacrifice a holding midfielder even in spite of injury to Casemiro.
Every area is covered and not one of them suits Isco’s creativity. In Dani Ceballos, Solari has an option which, whilst not as strong in quality and experience, can do the same role that the former Malaga man can and more. His added versatility allows greater flexibility for the coach when he looks to the bench and also allows the likes of Toni Kroos and Luka Modric to move forward.
Thibaut Courtois is justifying his transfer fee
There have been doubts over Thibaut Courtois since he joined from Chelsea in the summer. He has not done much wrong, but Los Blancos have been leaking goals for fun. In Rome, he was the difference between a victory and a mauling from the Serie A side as he made a series of stops which tallied up to an expected 1.66 goals conceded, though he kept a clean sheet. It was, in fact, the first time that he has conceded fewer goals than xG would suggest that he should have whilst wearing a Real Madrid shirt.
With five saves in total, the best of which coming just after the half-hour mark as he deflected an effort away from short range, he proved that even when Real Madrid’s defence are not at their best, he can do the work. Raphael Varane again struggled to regain the kind of form that many would expect of him, but Courtois was there to prevent the Italians from finding a breakthrough.
The Belgian was not helped by his team’s defending. Particularly at set pieces, where defending was shoddy to say the least, Courtois had to be at his commanding best. On Tuesday evening, he did just that and more. Finally, he is beginning to look like one of the world’s best goalkeepers who can win Real Madrid points just like Keylor Navas has in the past.
It was a positive evening, overall, for Real Madrid. After a slow start, it looked for much of the game that it could go either way and the sense that the first goal would be decisive was clear. Luck went Madrid’s way and with Gareth Bale’s strike, the team seemed to build confidence and showed more attacking flair and defensive solidity as they grew and developed into the game. The challenge now will be for the team to maintain this form up against Valencia on Saturday.
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