Having already broken their club record, Real Madrid headed into their game at the Mestalla just two wins shy of Coritiba’s world record 24 game winning streak and as worldÂ champions, having emerged victorious against Copa Libertadores winners San Lorenzo in Morocco. It was a tricky return from the winter break however: Valencia aren’t all that far behind Real, currently fighting it out with Sevilla for the final Champions League spot, and have only lost at home to Barcelona all season.
Valencia started very aggressively in a 3-5-2, pinning in Real Madrid high up the pitch, while Madrid continued in their 4-3-3/4-4-2 hybrid where Cristiano Ronaldo and James Rodriguez switch between central and left-sided roles.
Valencia’s shape was somewhat unusual in that it truly was a back three. Typically when we talk about a back three, it’s really a back five, where an extra man gives enough cover for the full-backs to get forward. Here, the wing-backs were truly midfielders and would generally position themselves higher than those in the centre, against the opposing full-backs. The result was that the back three would get very stretched – Lucas Orban meeting Gareth Bale on the left touchline and Shkodran Mustafi meeting Ronaldo on the left, leaving Nicolas Otamendi with little cover in the middle, although Enzo Perez would drop into the backline if needed with Dani Parejo moving back into that midfield area ahead of the defence.
Usually such a stretched backline would be suicidal but here it wasn’t for two reasons: firstly, Otamendi was imperious; secondly, the pressure Valencia put on Madrid’s backline meant they weren’t getting any quality balls out from the back. Toni Kroos, Isco and, to a lesser extent, Rodriguez were all having to come very deep to get on the ball and even they were under heavy pressure from Parejo and Andre Gomes, meaning Madrid were having to resort to long balls out from the back towards their attackers.
Orban was taking a very aggressive approach to dealing with the particularly isolated Bale – it was his scything challenge that gave away the freekick leading to the handball penalty from which Madrid opened the scoring, but he otherwise bullied the Welshman out of the game. Madrid’s play tends to gravitate towards the left with Ronaldo and Rodriguez interchanging and Karim Benzema making diagonal runs out to that side, and this game was no different, other than that it didn’t really work. Rodriguez was frequently having to go very deep in search of the ball and Benzema and Ronaldo were only ever receiving long balls that were easy to cut out for their opponents. With Bale reluctant to leave the touchline, Benzema’s diagonal runs were making it easier for Valencia as there was no longer any threat in the box. With Madrid’s players pinned back, they only ever had a maximum of four attackers forward and three of those were forever getting themselves stuck near the left corner flag.
Valencia’s aggressive pressing was creating them problems going forward however. Since Madrid couldn’t get men forward, whenever they lost the ball they always had plenty of men back to defend, meaning Valencia would win the ball back easily but had no space to use it in. Their only chances in the first half came from Gomes sneaking off the back of Madrid’s midfield two and even those weren’t clear cut. The result was an entertaining and fast-paced half, yet one with few chances.
The second half was more open but broadly followed the same pattern, with Valencia still dominating. The difference being they actually got their reward this time.
Six minutes into the second half, they equalised. Orban stole the ball from Bale and Isco moved across to cover, anticipating him trying to dribble past Bale. Instead he hit the ball straight down the line to substitute Jose Luis Gaya, who cut straight inside into the central space Isco should really have been covering and knocked it on to Antonio Barragan – his deflected shot sent past Iker Casillas. It’s another example of Madrid lacking a proper defensive midfielder – while Isco, Kroos and Luka Modric all do good jobs there, none of them are natural holding players and in these instances it shows. They will overpower most teams to the extent that it won’t ever be shown but against teams with quality like Valencia, it can be easily punished. Valencia’s second was simply a good header from a corner – a just reward for Otamendi’s superb performance.
The change of the scoreline meant the mechanics of the game swung around. Real Madrid were now forced into pushing more men forward while Valencia were happier to sit back and counter, bringing on the speedy Sofiane Feghouli for Barragan on the right. The deeper positioning of Valencia’s wing-backs made it easier for Real Madrid’s wide players to pick out crosses which created a couple of chances, but, those aside, Madrid didn’t really threaten at all.
Losing out on the win record will be mildly annoying for Madrid, but looking forward the match doesn’t really mean a great deal. Valencia completely dominated the game but their strategy of going straight man for man was very risky and succeeded primarily due to the brilliance of Otamendi and Orban – few teams are going to be able to mimic their tactics.