The first international break of the 2020/21 La Liga season is upon us and Real Madrid head into the break with a one point lead at the top of the table after drawing one and winning three of their four matches. Despite their healthy position atop the table, it hasn’t been smooth sailing for the defending champions. They failed to impress the critics and Madridistas alike in any of those matches. Also, Madrid relied heavily on Thibaut Courtois’ brilliance to keep the unbeaten run alive. This scout report focuses on Real Madrid’s lack of fluency in attack.
Defensively, Real Madrid have been impressive so far despite a few errors which can be easily accounted to the lack of pre-season. They let in only two goals and have kept three clean sheets in the four matches and are primed to rack up clean-sheets.
Whereas, Real Madrid have clearly struggled while going forward as they scored only six goals in four matches with three of those coming against Real Betis – their best offensive performance of the season. They failed to score in the opening match against Real Sociedad. Despite winning against both Real Valladolid and Levante, Madrid were far from spectacular in the final third. Without further ado, let’s move on to the tactical analysis and dissect Real Madrid offensive struggles this season.
The offensive setup
The above illustrations depict the two different tactics employed by Zinedine Zidane so far this season with a few personnel changes over the four games. Zidane has lined them up in two different formations over the four matches – the 4-3-3 and the 4-4-2 diamond. The absence of both Eden Hazard and Marco Asensio combined with their failure to score in the opening match prompted Zidane to employ the diamond formation.
Madrid’s most productive game came in the 4-4-2 diamond against Betis when they scored three goals with an xG (expected goals) of 2.89. But in the subsequent match, Valladolid effectively negated Madrid’s two-pronged attack by packing the central areas and restricted them to an xG of only 1.66. Asensio is already back, and Hazard is expected to return after the break. This offers Zidane a variety of options in either wing, and hence, the return to 4-3-3 is expected. Fans and analysts alike will be keeping a keen eye on the return of the two wide men and how they can uplift an offence that is in dire need of inspiration.
Madrid have created very little clear cut chances this season. Of the six goals they scored, one came from the penalty spot while the other came from an own goal. When a team struggles to create chances, the onus is on the forwards to finish the best chances they receive. In each of their matches this season, the best chances from open play landed at the feet of one of their forwards. But none of them even managed to keep the shot on target.
The above sequence depicts Madrid’s best chance in the match against Valladolid with an xG of 0.37. Luka Jović is at the end of an exquisite low cross from Federico Valverde after a quick break by the hosts. The striker then blasted his shot wide of the post with only the goalkeeper in front of him. Even though Madrid won the match on the back of a fortuitous goal by Vinícius Júnior, a striker of Jović‘s stature should at least work the goalkeeper from such positions.
The above situation shows Madrid’s best chance in their win against Levante with an xG of 0.57. Casemiro’s excellent pressing in the half-way line wins the ball and results in a quick break. This then leads to Benzema giving an excellent pass onto an onrushing Vinícius. With the goal post wide open, he attempts to pass the ball into the far post. But he scuffs his shot, and the ball soars past the far post. Even though Vinícius opened the scoring with an excellent curled effort earlier in the match, Madrid cannot afford to miss chances like these especially with chances coming at a premium.
In their season opener against Real Sociedad, Madrid had an xG of 1.26 but failed to score. The above situation depicts their best scoring chance in the match with an xG of 0.43. Benzema received the ball in the box as a result of Martin Ødegaard’s splendid vision. This resulted in a one-versus-one situation in the box against Aritz Elustondo. But, the defender successfully blocks the resulting attempt by Benzema.
The above situation shows their best opportunity from open play in the win against Betis with an xG of 0.35. An excellent movement by Valverde results in him squaring the ball into an onrushing Benzema. Benzema then scuffs his attempted poke from a point-blank position. This occurred when the scores were level at 2-2. If not for a late penalty which was converted by Sergio Ramos, Benzema’s miss would have cost them the win.
Lack of presence in the opposition box
Real Madrid averages 59.3% possession in the league this season while averaging 571.5 passes at an accuracy of 87.6%. Despite this domination of possession, they only average 25.5 passes into the opposition box at an accuracy of 48%. This accounts to just 12 successful passes into the opposition box per match. For a team that dominates possession and boasts few of the best offensive talents in the division, these numbers should be a huge concern.
Here, Vinícius is moving forward with the ball towards the Sociedad box. Benzema halts his run with no other player close enough to attack the box. As a result, despite being in a promising position in the final third, Madrid’s attack breaks down.
Here we can see that Madrid have the ball in a promising position in the attacking-third. Benzema has the ball just outside the Valladolid box. But other than Jović no one is moving into the penalty area. Hence, Madrid’s chances of creating scoring opportunities from the position are limited.
Benzema is not a conventional striker who stays in the box waiting for the ball. He constantly drops deep or occupies positions in the half-spaces. As we can see in all of the above situations, when Benzema drops deep or into the half-spaces, no one attacks the space vacated by him. Benzema is Madrid’s best source for goals, and he averaged just five touches in the opposition penalty area. Vinícius comes second behind him with 13 touches in three matches. None of their midfielders except Valverde make regular runs into the box.
No team can create scoring opportunities without attacking the opposition box. A big chunk of Madrid’s troubles in the attacking-third arises from their lack of attacks into the opposition box. Madrid needs to create situations where more bodies are present in the opposition box and ensure more dynamism in their movement in the final third in order to create more scoring opportunities.
Marauding full-backs have been an integral part of Los Blancos in their recent success. The presence of full-backs in the attacking-third allows them to create a lot of crossing opportunities. The full-backs either underlap to create space for others to cross or they overlap to move into crossing positions themselves. But the important question is, does Madrid have the aerial prowess to benefit from the barrage of crosses? The following analysis will give us an insight into the effectiveness of their crossing tactics.
As we can see in the above situations, Benzema is closely marked by the opposition defenders. But the rest of the attackers lack the physical prowess to win aerial duels. Hence, in the event of a cross, if the opposition defenders close down Benzema, it drastically reduces Madrid’s chances of scoring or even winning headers in the box.
Real Madrid averages 18.5 crosses per match this season with a success rate of only 25.6%. They scored only once from a cross, that too a low cross with Valverde making a run into the box. Madrid’s crosses have resulted in just seven shots on goal over the four matches with five of those coming in the match against Betis. As a result, it is evident that Madrid struggle offensively when the opposition is successful in limiting the success rate of their crosses.
Real Madrid are no longer the offensive juggernaut that we have seen in the past decade. As we saw towards the end of last season, Zidane emphasises defensive stability over goals. He is more than happy to grind out 1-0 victories. Despite that, they still need to create chances and convert them in order to have any chance of retaining the La Liga trophy.
Real Madrid are set to visit Barcelona for the first el clásico of the season in the 2nd matchday after the break. Barcelona have conceded just one goal while scoring eight in their three matches, including a 1-1 draw against Sevilla. It will be an intriguing watch to see how Zidane attempts to solve their lack of offensive fluidity while maintaining defensive solidity.