After a slow start to the season, Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid are now flying on all cylinders, currently on a 14-match unbeaten streak that’s propelled them toward the top of La Liga and the UEFA Champions League semi-finals. Zidane doesn’t have the same squad that won him the Champions League in three back to back years between 2016 and 2018, but he is getting the best out of what he has at his disposal once again. After a massive 2-1 win over Barcelona in El Clasico this past weekend and the side securing a place in the UEFA Champions League semis, the side could be on a path toward victory in either competition. As a result, we now take a look at the tactics Zinedine Zidane has deployed throughout the 2020-21 season at Real Madrid.
system of play: 4-3-3
Zinedine Zidane has stuck relatively true to the exact same eleven that won him the 2019-20 La Liga title last season. A few injuries to the likes of Sergio Ramos and Dani Carvajal have forced them out of the side and allowed other players to come in, but Zidane has stuck by a very consistent set of fifteen or so players throughout the season. He has also stuck by his trusted 4-3-3 formation, which he has used throughout his career as Real Madrid manager.
The biggest surprise of all is probably that Zidane has continued with a midfield three with an average of 32. 29-year-old Casemiro remains the best and most consistent of the three as he was last season, but it’s remarkable how well Luka Modric and Toni Kroos have carried on into their thirties now. At 35-years-old, Modric has featured in all but one La Liga game this season, starting twenty-six of his twenty-nine appearances. Kroos and Casemiro have also continued on as mainstays in the eleven, but the side has a bit of a different look to their midfield three unit this season in terms of style and attacking position. With Kroos and Modric no longer having the legs to be box-to-box play-makers, Casemiro often adopts the highest position of the midfield three. Simultaneously, when Madrid are defending, he reverts back into the lowest of the three. This tactical innovation from Zidane is quite unorthodox. But it’s helped Casemiro contribute with seven goal-involvements in La Liga this season, including the second highest tally of goals in the side, with 5. With his higher position, Casemiro offers Los Blancos another threat in the air to get on the end of crosses, and another support system for Benzema to play with his back to goal. Uruguayan midfielder Federico Valverde also looks positive when he’s been given a role in the team, and should be the natural heir to edge out Luka Modric in the future. Zidane has remained flexible with Valverde, playing him at the top of a midfield diamond, on the right of a midfield four and even recently at right-back due to an injury to Lucas Vazquez. This kind of versatility is becoming more and more commonplace with young players, but shows much promise for Valverde’s future at the club.Embed from Getty Images
Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane also appear to be on the decline from where they were a few seasons before, and Zidane has been pleased to rely on the experienced Spanish international Nacho Fernandez, and the much-younger Brazilian Eder Militao, when his two first-choice defenders have been out. Lucas Vazquez and Ferland Mendy have been excellent as the two fullbacks this season, with Daniel Carvajal still recovering from a long-term injury. Vazquez in particular has been remarkably effective as a Jesus Navas styled right-back who’s not actually a right-back, contributing massively to Madrid’s attack. The 29-year-old has assisted 5 goals this season, and created nearly 2 chances per game for his team. Only Kroos has created more chances in the team. Thibaut Courtois meanwhile has had a decent season in goal, playing in every single La Liga and UEFA Champions League match so far this campaign.
In attack, Real Madrid don’t quite have the same firepower of Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, but they still have their long-term striker Karim Benzema – who remains one of La Liga’s best. Benzema’s netted 19 goals and assisted 6 in 26 La Liga matches this campaign, in addition to burying 5 goals in 8 UEFA Champions League matches. Vinicius Junior’s also showed moments of brilliance this season, and has come on particularly strong in the past few months. The 20-year-old Brazilian has scored 6 goals with 4 assists this season between his Champions League and La Liga games in 2020-21, showing much promise for the future. Marco Asensio’s also established himself as the club’s first-choice right-winger this season, also contributing 6 goals between the Champions League and La Liga games this term. So those are the players within the system, now let’s get into more on how Zinedine Zidane has achieved so much success in recent months.
build-up playEmbed from Getty Images
Real Madrid are a possession-oriented team that look to play out from the back and remain relatively patient with the ball. Only Sevilla and Barcelona have accumulated higher possession statistics in La Liga this season, and Los Blancos have a variety of methods to play out from the back. When Sergio Ramos is in the team he is the key man in possession, and often the first one that Thibaut Courtois looks to play the ball to. Toni Kroos and Luka Modric are also outstanding orchestrators of the team’s tempo, and occupy much of the opposition’s doubts when they attempt to stop Los Blancos playing out from the back. When Nacho and Militao are in the team, Real are far less likely to play out from the back through their centre-backs, and may instead look to the fullbacks and midfielders more regularly. Of the two fullbacks, Lucas Vazquez is the more likely to be used in the build-up, and will often play vertical passes into the central midfielders before galloping up the field. Of the three central midfielders, Toni Kroos is the regista. The German midfielder will often steal a left-back styled-position from Mendy to get on the ball and combine with Sergio Ramos, as they work the ball around to find the best option.
Relative to what is expected of a team so comfortable in possession, Real also complete a high number of longer passes. Ramos, Kroos, Casemiro and Modric are among those comfortable going long from deep, and they will often use this approach late-on in matches to thrust the ball forward early on. Remarkably, Kroos has completed 88% of his long-passes this season in the league, with Ramos and Modric not far behind at 80% each. This makes Los Blancos a remarkable outfit not only in combining in tight areas, but in breaking free of pressure or adding some variety to their build-up. They can easily play short passes under pressure, but they can also completely open up the game with an incisive long-pass into one of the front-three.Embed from Getty Images
Real Madrid also utilize the wide areas in their build-up to a significant degree, and higher up the pitch they look to deliver crosses from the likes of Vazquez, Kroos and Asensio in particular. Mendy is far less likely to join the attack and deliver crosses than Vazquez, but does enjoy the occasional 1v1 battle when in possession. Kroos instead is the one most frequently delivering crosses from the left, or switching play to the right where Vazquez and Asensio look to deliver. Los Blancos also frequently use switches from right to left through Vazquez, Casemiro and Modric. They switches allow Mendy a role higher up the pitch and engage in a 2v1 situation up against the opposition’s fullback. This occurred several times over the course of the two legs against Liverpool, with Los Blancos particularly effective in this approach in the 3-1 home win.
Mendy is also far more likely to invert in central areas and take up a position that you might normally associate Casemiro to operate in, as Lucas Vazquez is more likely to hold the width on the right side and stretch the field. As you can imagine, this inspires stark differences in the way that Asensio and Vinicius Junior play further forward. Asensio will often drift inside to pick up possession, while Vinicius is more likely to maintain a high and wide position, frustrating his opposition fullback into oblivion.
benzema as a false nineEmbed from Getty Images
As an extension to the discussion surrounding Zidane’s build-up, Karim Benzema will often feature as a false nine. He sometimes drops deep to pick up the ball, particularly on the left where Kroos vacates space to adopt a lower position on the field. Although the Frenchman can be a target man, fox in the box, and is an overall heroic goal-scoring figure for Los Blancos, he’s also underratedly good in possession and has grown in his intelligence off the ball under Zidane.
But this positional fluidity can also be a detriment to Real Madrid at times, given that Asensio is not the fastest runner off the ball, and Vinicius lacks some experience in understanding how to best play off of the Frenchman and support him. Vinicius, Asensio and Rodrygo are not the type to head the ball into the back of the net, and so Lucas Vazquez’s attempts to cross from the right-wing are often mitigated if the opposition defense can get a strong enough read on Benzema’s movement. They have other goal-threats from set-pieces and in Toni Kroos one of the best deliverers, but the likes of Casemiro and Ramos may be unable to get into the box to get on the end of a cross quick enough, unless the game is in the dying moments.Embed from Getty Images
The role of the wingers is also first and foremost to create for Benzema or to allow those more talented than them to get on the ball. As a result, they will often play passes back toward Kroos and Modric, rather than taking players on or finding room for a shot. Benzema contributes to 3.9 of the team’s 14.2 shots per game, with Vinicius and Asensio sitting at just 1 shot per game. As a result, it’s no surprise that the two wing wizards have just 3 and 4 goals respectively. To put that into even greater perspective, Modric, Kroos, Casemiro and Sergio Ramos have all attempted a higher number of shots per game in La Liga, although they also have all accumulated more minutes. Nonetheless, when looking at shots per 90 minutes, Benzema’s tally rises to 4.0, and Vinicius and Asensio are still stuck at just 1.7. For a team that is challenging for the league and Champions League title, you would simply expect more from the wingers in that regard. Instead, their reliance on Benzema remains a bit of a problem, and one that could stifle their chances of winning a trophy this season.
Real Madrid primarily defend in a 4-5-1 shape, becoming more comfortable in their pressing tactics over the course of the season. At the start of the season they were leaving far too much space in central areas. Recently, they have been more compact and have done a better job both in transition and in forcing their opposition into wide areas. One potential reason for that has been the intriguing positional and formational change to an unorthodox 4-4-2 shape out of possession. The shape sees Kroos or Modric join Karim Benzema as the first line of pressure, as the wingers tuck in and track the fullbacks. It may seem strange to push Kroos or Modric up in this regard, and to be fair it is. But a 4-4-2 has many defensive roots in providing two banks of four and very little space to play in between the lines. Premier League sides like Aston Villa and Leicester use this 4-4-2 defensive shape despite playing a 4-2-3-1 in attack, and defensive-minded clubs like Burnley and Atletico have built their reputations on 4-4-2 defensive units. For Real Madrid, it means that a lone striker does not have to press all alone, and that the wingers can sit deeper and combat attack-minded fullbacks such as the likes of Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson. The central midfielder that joins Benzema may be dependent on the side of the ball from the start of the move, but doesn’t often change once they settle into this structure. In this shape, Kroos and Modric need to have an understanding of which one of them is to go and which one of them is to stay. If they don’t do this diligently enough with the right level of communication, the team could easily be exposed in transition.Embed from Getty Images
Luckily, Real Madrid have been very steady in defense this season, conceding just 24 goals in 30 matches this season in La Liga. In Ramos and Varane they have two of the league’s most experienced defenders, and in Casemiro they have one of the best ball winners in the world. The Brazilian has won 2.7 tackles and made 2.3 interceptions per game in the league, the 4th and 2nd most in the league. Lucas Vazquez also stands out as one of the team’s top tacklers, with 2.5 tackles per game (9th best in the league). Sergio Ramos meanwhile has only been dribbled past 5 times in the league this season, showcasing that he still has what it takes to compete at 35-years-old. Finally, Real Madrid’s defensive solidity also extends to the back-ups. Federico Valverde’s never looked out of place when given the chance and leads Los Blancos in interceptions as far as Champions League fixtures go. Nacho and Militao have also put up excellent defensive performances in place of Ramos and Varane and have been more active at the back – completing the 2nd and 3rd most interceptions per game in the team.
concluding thoughtsEmbed from Getty Images
Real Madrid had a rough start to the season, but they are now back on track to challenge for both the La Liga title and the UEFA Champions League. Zinedine Zidane has found innovative approaches to cope with his aging midfield unit, including pushing Casemiro further forward in attack. He’s also made smart tactical tweaks when Ramos and Varane have been out, and has improved the likes of Lucas Vazquez and Vinicius Junior this season. With Karim Benzema operating as a goal-scoring false-nine and still at the top of his game, the French manager still has one of the deadliest scorers in the league that can help to propel the team to the very top once again. Zinedine Zidane’s done a remarkable job at Real Madrid once again, and this season will likely go down as another success, even if the team are unable to claim a trophy.
So there it is! A tactical analysis of Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid in 2020-21. Be sure to check out more of our tactical analyses, and follow on Twitter @mastermindsite to never miss an update. Also be sure to share your thoughts on which team and manager you would like to see analyzed next, in either the comments below or on social media. Thanks for reading and see you soon!
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