La Liga has been filled with classic matches throughout the years. One of the best matches of La Liga 2010/11 season was José Mourinho’s mighty Real Madrid against Juan Carlos Garrido’s exciting Villarreal side that ended up earning a Champions League spot. Both sides proved to be top teams in the league, with the two coaches showing their tactical astuteness and flexibility.
Real Madrid (4-2-3-1): Iker Casillas; Marcelo, Ricardo Carvalho, Raúl Albiol, Sergio Ramos; Lassana Diarra, Xabi Alonso; Cristiano Ronaldo; Mesut Özil, Ángel Di María; Karim Benzema.
Villarreal (4-4-2): Diego López; Joan Capdevila, José Manuel Català, Gonzalo Rodríguez, Ángel López; Bruno Soriano, Borja Valero, Santi Cazorla, Cani; Giuseppe Rossi, Marco Rubén.
Real in possession
Real Madrid tried to utilise short build-up play with the back four and the double pivot. Diarra started at a higher position than Alonso, who could utilise his great passing range from deep. Villarreal defended in a mid-block 4-4-2, with the two forwards staying close around Alonso, aiming to nullify Real’s pivotal deep passer. Real’s central progression, thus, had to involve Diarra – the Frenchman was much less comfortable on the ball – more than usual. This made Real built up less effectively, even though their centre-backs were given time and space on the ball. A solution for this was to have Özil drop deep and spread the ball towards either flank.
Villarreal showed good vertical compactness, while their midfield was very horizontally compact and shifted according to the ball’s position. When defending in their own half, the most ball-near midfielder would look to step out to press the ball-carrier. Real was forced to combine through either flank, where Villarreal’s winger nearest the ball would press the opponent’s full-back, and their full-back nearest the ball would press the opposite winger. In the below example, we saw Rubén marking Alonso. Ronaldo, who initially played on the left, received Alonso’s pass and was instantly pressed by Villarreal’s right-back and right winger.
Real liked to expose the opponent’s compact midfield by quick switches of play by the likes of Alonso and Di María. Their front four were flexible in their positioning and continuously tried to switch positions in the first 15 minutes, during which the game was dominated by Villarreal. Mourinho eventually settled with a 4-2-3-1, with Özil, who was better in tight spaces on the left and Ronaldo in the centre behind Benzema. Özil and Di María would support Ronaldo and Benzema with their passing and cutting inside movements from the wings. When these players overloaded the centre and combined, Villarreal’s shape was pulled narrow and space opened up for Real’s full-backs.
In the below example, Özil cut inside to combine with Benzema and Ronaldo, leaving the flank for the expressive Marcelo.
Real Madrid’s front four were smart in exploiting pockets of space to combine through Villarreal’s midfield, as demonstrated by the below image.
When Real had the ball in the final third, Villarreal’s midfield kept a narrow shape, with the wingers higher than the pivots. Cani and Cazorla were not active defensively, and their positioning was to facilitate short combinations and quick counters in transition.
Real generally didn’t have a good shape to counter-press in transition, and only Benzema and the pivots (and sometimes Di María) showed their desire to counter-press. In the below example, we saw Diarra starting the counter-press, but it was not effective as his teammates didn’t follow, and Villarreal had players around the ball and great on-ball quality to combine through the press.
Due to the narrow midfield in defending, Villarreal’s full-backs had to leave their positions to deal with wide threats. This left a gap between their full-back and centre-back nearest the ball, which could easily be exploited by Real players’ runs. Bruno was the one who protected these channels, tracking back as a third centre-back. His wonderful positioning was vital to this.
Marcelo’s forward runs were a threat as expected. Here, Di María’s through ball found the Brazilian, who burst past Ángel – the right-back’s eyes were on Di María. But, Bruno recognised the threat and covered his teammate, stopping the cross with a sliding tackle.
Here, Capdevila stepped out to press Ramos. Bruno covered the gap that had been created. His positioning there meant he could stop Ramos’ cross. In this situation, Ramos turned to his left foot, but Bruno was close and stopped the cross in time.
In the first half, Real didn’t try to hold possession for long periods. They mainly tried to start quick counters after regaining possession, aiming to utilise the pace of the front four. They got one goal from one such situation: a combination of Özil and Benzema in the right half-space gave Ronaldo the chance to score his first goal. It was a simple combination, but Villarreal’s offside trap failed due to Rodríguez’s bad positioning. Other than that, Real struggled to create good chances from open play in the first half.
Villarreal in possession
In the opponent’s build-up, Real pressed high in a 4-3-3, with Benzema between the double pivot and the winger nearest the ball closing down the centre-back in possession. The midfield three would then shift towards the ball side.
Villarreal built up in a 4-2-2-2, with the double pivot deep and the centre-backs spread wide, making it very hard for Real to press in a 4-3-3. Villarreal had too many passing lanes at the back and the pressing resistance of Bruno and Borja allowed them to build up comfortably. While Cani and Cazorla positioned themselves in the half-space to provide good passing options.
Here, Real’s 4-3-3 shapeshifted towards the right, with Di María pressing Català. Cani dropped deep to help the centre-back, and some combinations between Cani and the double pivot helped Villarreal beat the press. Villarreal then quickly attacked through the other side, where Real lacked personnel – Villarreal’s forward nearest the ball would drop to combine with the full-back.
This was a typical attacking pattern of Villarreal in the first half: they pulled Real towards one side, combined their way through the press, and quickly attacked down the other wing. The home side’s midfield three understandably couldn’t adjust their positions in time, meaning the full-back nearest the ball had to step out, leaving a gap between him and the nearby centre-back. Villarreal’s winger nearest the ball would make forward runs to exploit such gaps. Here, Ángel received the ball, forcing Marcelo to step out. Ángel sent a through ball in behind Marcelo towards the forward run of Cazorla.
The wingers could also exploit the space left by Rossi’s dropping movements. A forward with exquisite skill and hold-up play, Rossi constantly dropped between the lines to provide a passing option, dragging a defender with him and leaving space in behind. Bruno and Borja could often find him with their line-breaking passes, and Villarreal could attack quickly.
Here, Rossi dropped deep and dragged Albiol with him. He controlled Cazorla’s pass perfectly, then instantly turned towards goal and laid the ball off to Cani, who finished in style after a run from deep to exploit the space behind Albiol.
Villarreal’s second goal was another example of Rossi’s smart positioning. Here, he moved wide and attracted Marcelo, leaving a gap between the left-back and Carvalho. Rubén successfully exploited that gap thanks to Bruno’s through ball and finished with a great lob over Casillas. Albiol’s bad positioning in the image below made Rubén onside.
Given the number of promising attacks Villarreal had in the first half, they should have scored more. The final pass was often lacking.
Second half changes
At the start of the second half, Sami Khedira came on to replace Diarra, whose passing was not good enough. Real changed to a 3-4-1-2 shape with Ramos as the left centre-back, Özil behind Ronaldo and Benzema, and Marcelo higher than in the first half. Mourinho wanted Marcelo to be more of an offensive threat, especially in transition, while Özil could connect with Ronaldo and Benzema faster.
On the break, the wide speedsters in Di María and Marcelo had acres of space to exploit because Villarreal’s midfield was often narrow in possession. While Real’s trio pulled the visitors’ defence even narrower. Khedira showed better on-ball quality than Diarra. He loved making forward runs and one-twos to further disrupt Villarreal’s defence.
Di María became the main threat, as four out of his six successful dribbles occurred in this half, while four out of Ronaldo’s six key passes also occurred in this half. With the new shape exposing Villarreal better on the break, Di María had more space to dribble inward and connect with his teammates. Here, he moved inside and found Benzema with a delicate through ball.
Garrido had to make the changes. Mario Gaspar replaced Ángel, who got injured, and centre-back Mateo Musacchio replaced Rubén. Villarreal now defended in a 4-4-1-1 with Musacchio and Bruno as the double pivot, while Borja played behind Rossi. Musacchio brought more defensive solidity than Borja, who lacked physicality and defensive skills. Garrido also brought in left-back Juan Oriol for Cani – the former would be a much more defensive-minded winger than the latter.
Kaká, whose pace proved to be lethal in the final minutes, then came in for Albiol. Khedira became the right-back to create a back four with Marcelo the left-back. Real now played with an offensive version of a 4-1-3-2, with Alonso the sole pivot behind the offensive-minded Kaká, Özil and Di María. Kaká would often switch position with Ronaldo to disrupt Villarreal’s defence. Real tried to overload the left side, with Marcelo pushing high and Khedira moving towards the middle, while Di María provided a wide outlet on the right.
Real finally got what they were looking for: a mistake by keeper López gave Ronaldo the chance to score his hat-trick. In the 82nd minute, Kaká started a counter by finding Ronaldo on the left and then rushing towards the box to score from the Portuguese’s cross. The match ended 4-2 to Real.
This analysis showed that Real deserved to win this match. They struggled in the first half but managed to turn the tide and take advantage of the opponent’s defensive mistakes. Villarreal might feel that they should have finished things off in the first half. Their end product let them down, and they lost control in the second half. All in all, this dramatic match was a true tactical battle.