With the benefit of hindsight Julen Lopetegui’s tenure looked doomed from the start. The job only became available due to Zinedine Zidane stepping down. Despite being a club legend and winning back-to-back European Cups (going on to win a third), rumours still abounded that the board were considering the sack for the Frenchman due to poor league form last season, only for him to escape on his own terms.
It became clear that rebuilding work needed to be done on the squad, but Zidane, seeing the board’s seemingly neverending disloyalty to every coach extending even to him, saw little reason why he should be the one to see Real through it when they would be unlikely to show him the same respect.
Wanting to instil a more collective team-based style rather than relying on the talents of individuals as they did under Zidane, Madrid opted to bring in Lopetegui, who was doing a good job with the pass-and-move of the Spanish national team. They also chose to announce his signing just two days before the World Cup started, with the national team already in Russia, and as a result Lopetegui was sacked – such a massive disruption that it undoubtedly played a major part in Spain’s exit from the tournament.
Lopetegui was now in charge of a Real Madrid side that needed rebuilding and was expected to do it with a collective style, yet the club weakened the squad over the summer. Out went star man Cristiano Ronaldo and Mateo Kovacic while James Rodriguez didn’t want to return. Only Thibaut Courtois was a notable (albeit unneccesary) signing – Mariano is a good striker but nowhere near the level of Ronaldo and both Vinicius Junior and Alvaro Odriozola are youngsters for the future.
In short, Lopetegui was appointed in controversial circumstances to turn a squad of aging players used to playing to the strengths of a handful of key individuals – the main one having now left – into a collective with completely different strategy and the only improvement made to the team was in goal, the inherently most individualistic position. Is it really any surprise he didn’t succeed?
Having worked in the Spanish national team set-up for the majority of his coaching career, Lopetegui’s style comes as little surprise. His teams look to keep possession of the ball and patiently pass their way up the pitch. Usually lining up in either a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3, the midfielders are usually playmakers, while Isco – who had sometimes struggled to impose himself on the team under Zidane – had been a key man for Lopetegui’s Spain.
Off the ball, Spain would press, seeking to win the ball back in the opposition half and playing with a high defensive line to compress the available playing space.
Lopetegui wasn’t just a continuation of Vicente Del Bosque’s work though. Talking about counter-attacks, he said: “There are times when it is impossible to counter and times in which it is a fantastic solution. Having the ball is a great way to defend, but when my team don’t have it they should know how to act,” showing he wasn’t adverse to more direct styles. His teams also often had both the full-backs and the wingers ahead of them getting high and wide, creating two-versus-one situations in wide areas, meaning there were clear roles available for the more direct Gareth Bale and Marco Asensio in his side.
Lopetegui may have been taking Madrid in a different direction to Zidane, but it wasn’t a playing style that was completely at odds with a squad boasting playmakers like Luka Modric and Toni Kroos and wingers like Bale and Asensio.
Pretty much all of Real Madrid’s attacks come from the wide areas. The centre-backs may split and open up space to play into the midfielders, but once the ball comes to them it is sent wide to the full-backs or wingers. Once there, they will look to cross the ball into the box and if the option isn’t available they will return the ball to the defenders or midfielders at the base of the team, who send the ball out to the other flank. Real Madrid’s build-up purposefully uses the U-shape build-up that is typically dreaded for possession-focused teams.
They can attempt this in two ways: firstly, as shown above, both the full-back and winger can hug the touchline. Doubling up on the full-back enables them to get a decent cross in more easily as the full-back can’t track or close down both of them at the same time, giving the other the space and time to whip in a cross. However, while the cross may be better, there’s only usually one player available in the box to get on the end of it. The winger on the opposite flank will sprint into the box when it becomes clear that a cross is going to come in, but until then they are having to stay hugging the touchline on the opposite flank in case the attack breaks down and the ball needs to be switched out to them. This means they have to sprint from the touchline into the box in the short time it takes for the ball to be sent in, which is too much ground to cover in a few seconds at most. As a result, the ball is getting crossed into an area with several defenders and just Karim Benzema ready to attack the ball.
Secondly, the wingers can tuck inside and the full-backs can hug the touchline. Having just one player on the flank makes it easier for the opposition full-back to defend, meaning it’s harder to send in a good cross, but it has the benefit of more players being able to arrive in the box to attack the cross, while the opposition defenders having to track more than one man makes it easier to find space.
Marcelo, Dani Carvajal, Bale, Asensio and Isco are all talented enough so that they can quite easily get good quality crosses sent in from the flanks (Benzema’s goals against Atletico, Girona, Leganes and Viktoria Plzen, Carvajal’s against Getafe, Bale’s against Getafe and Leganes, Isco’s against Athletic Bilbao and Marcelo’s against Levante and Barcelona all come from crosses), yet it’s clearly not been enough – the team suffered the longest goal drought in their history this season, going 481 minutes without scoring.
Injuries to Carvajal and Marcelo haven’t helped as it’s meant natural centre-back Nacho has been playing at full-back, who while strong defensively offers little going forward, however Isco, Asensio or Bale all have the talent to make up for his shortfall.
Real Madrid simply haven’t created enough high quality chances and, given the majority of their chances are crosses, it logically follows that crosses generally aren’t high quality chances. The crosser has to aim the ball not only so that the recipient can finish it (meaning it pretty much has to be either driven low or at head height) but also so that it can’t be cut out by the defenders or goalkeepers. Meanwhile, the recipient has to get into a specific area to receive the ball and pretty much has to finish first time, with little time or space to control it, leaving little room for error. As Madrid look to attack pretty much exclusively through crosses, the opposition always expects them and prepares for them, making it difficult to catch their defence unorganised.
Real Madrid have the talent to make it work, but it’s not exactly as easy as being put through one-on-one against the keeper like Bale was against Girona and Roma or Marcelo was against Viktoria Plzen.
There’s a big leap in logic here though: just because Madrid have struggled to score from crosses doesn’t necessarily mean that crosses are inherently bad chances – correlation does not imply causation. After all, Madrid have used crosses all the time in recent years to great success, so what’s changed?
Cristiano Ronaldo. 6ft 2 with a leap like a salmon and a world class finish, the Portuguese was an obvious target for crosses. While his overall creative output has dropped since his time at Manchester United, Ronaldo has become an unrelenting goal machine – he may not be the player to dribble past multiple defenders anymore, but put the ball anywhere near him in the box and it’s likely to end up in the net.
He’s in Turin rather than Madrid now though, so who’s his replacement in the current squad?
Asensio and Bale are obvious candidates yet are often stuck out on the flanks and Dani Ceballos will make runs into the box from midfield, but the most consistent target of these crosses is Benzema. The Frenchman has been the subject of criticism in previous seasons for his lack of goals playing next to such talented players, but that criticism ignored that his role was generally to act as a dummy so that those players could score rather than him. His job was to drag defenders away to open up space for his teammates to use.
Take this goal against Juventus for example:
Ronaldo’s second goal in that game proves that he can find a way to turn even pretty poor situations into goals, but the first shows how valuable Benzema is. Without him there, Barzagli likely clears the ball before Ronaldo can get to it.
The problem for Madrid now is that while Benzema is great at those dummy runs, he’s not as great at making the runs to score himself. Whereas Ronaldo would constantly look to drop off away from his defender, stay on his blind side and make runs in one direction to drag his marker one way before running back the opposite way into the space that has been vacated, Benzema just tends to run in straight lines that make him easy to track.
A good example of the kind of movements Benzema should be making to give himself better opportunities to score is this Ronaldo goal against Sporting Gijon:
Although he’s presumably now supposed to be the main goalscorer, Benzema’s movement is still all about making space for others. He regularly drops off to help the left-sided players work the ball forward, but, although Bale and Asensio will sometimes take his place in the centre, this often leaves no one leading the line – what’s the point in helping players get into a crossing position if they then have no one to cross to?
Benzema has the finishing ability and intelligence to be able to adapt to this role, yet he’s not really the same type of player as Ronaldo. The most similar player in the squad is Bale: he’s the man with the perfect left foot, he’s the 6ft 1 athletic freak, he’s the man capable of racing behind defences, he’s the man who can pull off bicycle kicks on the biggest stage, however he was also generally the man hugging the touchline under Lopetegui. New signing Mariano is more of a goalscoring striker, yet he’s a level below Ronaldo and has only started one game.
Benzema’s movement out to the left isn’t even really necessary though. Two players is generally enough to make space for a cross, while in the 4-2-3-1 Isco drifts to both the left and right flanks to help out the wide players, often making runs in between the full-back and centre-back to pull the defenders out of position and make more space in the box for whoever’s attacking the cross.
Behind the attackers, two midfielders (or sometimes just one when they opt for a 4-3-3) sit in front of the two centre-backs. They are there to receive the ball if the attack breaks down and switch it to the opposite flank. Kroos is perfect for this, hitting perfect-weighted passes into the feet of players on the other side of the pitch. It’s so simple that Casemiro’s attacking limitations are for the most part covered up, although as his long passes aren’t quite as accurate the recipient might have to take a second or two longer to control one of his passes than Kroos’. Likewise, both Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane behind them can play these cross-field balls.
That’s all they do though. These are players capable of dictating a game and picking out killer through balls, yet they are reduced to just sending the ball wide and back out to the other flank.
Luka Modric’s poor form has been blamed on Croatia’s run to the World Cup final however, while fitness has likely played a part, he also doesn’t have much to add to this strategy. Generally playing in a 4-3-3 or as the attacking midfielder in the 4-2-3-1, Modric isn’t deep enough to utilise his passing range like Kroos does, but he also doesn’t get into the box like Ceballos. Instead, he’s found wandering near the right flank in case the wide players need support.
Isco has been given more freedom to roam and has performed well, but, as he can’t really pick up the ball in the centre due to Madrid’s fixation on the wings, he’s left playing a supporting role to the widemen. He, Kroos and Modric could be Madrid’s creative hub, however they are left playing bit parts.
Real have generally defended in a 4-4-2 shape. In the 4-2-3-1 the wingers drop back and the attacking midfielder moves up next to the striker, while in the 4-3-3 one of the centre midfielders pushes up next to him.
Lopetegui has introduced a man-orientated pressing scheme that works decently (admittedly it completely broke when it came up against a back three): Benzema will press the centre-backs, the wingers will press the full-backs, the attacking midfielder will either press the opposition’s deepest midfielder or the other centre-back to Benzema depending on the opposition’s shape or the situation, the midfielders will pick up other midfielders and the full-backs will follow the wingers quite high up the pitch.
It’s by no means perfect – only Casemiro and Ceballos are strong tacklers other than the defenders and as many of the players aren’t good defensively large gaps can open up between them – however it’s often enough to unsettle the opposition and keeps them on the front foot.
Their counter-pressing is better. Attacking down the flanks means that when they give the ball away it’s usually out wide with several players in the area, allowing them to quickly trap the opposition against the touchline.
The midfielders will also push up and the full-backs tuck inside when the ball is crossed into the box, allowing them to counter-press effectively if the ball is cleared.
Real Madrid’s main defensive problem is that few of their players are particularly good at it.
Bale and Asensio don’t do a very good job of tracking their men, meaning the defenders are often having to deal with full-backs suddenly bursting forward and outnumbering them.
Starting their careers as number tens, Kroos and Modric aren’t exactly natural defenders either. Modric doesn’t seem to put much effort into defending, rarely making much of an effort to track players, whereas Kroos does at least try to block the pass into his opponent, however he can frequently get drawn too far up the pitch, meaning a change of angle can leave his man free to receive the ball.
Neither Modric or Kroos are particularly defensively aware, often failing to track back when there is danger that frequently leads to Madrid conceding.
Marcelo does the same and frankly looks overweight, making it easy for him to lose track of his man and impossible to recover.
This lack of defensive awareness throughout the side necessitates the inclusion of a destroyer like Casemiro, who offers little going forward.
It also puts a lot of pressure on Ramos and Varane. The former does a lot to plug the gaps that open up but finally seems to be on the decline, making big errors that led to goals against Atletico Madrid and Barcelona. The captain is still playing well this season, but Madrid leave so many gaps that he needs to be on top form at all times if they are to have any chance of success.
Lopetegui was handed a job that most coaches would struggle to deal with, but he wasn’t blameless either. Madrid had the wide players so that his wing-based attack could have worked, however without Ronaldo they lack the goalscorer to really make it a success. With some of the best playmakers at his disposal surely building up through the middle would have made more sense, rather than only using them to switch flanks.
He can’t be blamed for their defensive weaknesses though. That has been a problem for years and can mainly be put at the feet of the board, who would rather buy yet another shiny new Galactico than build a proper cohesive team. With Ramos seemingly fading, the problem is only likely to get bigger and how they decide to deal with it will determine how they succeed in the coming years.
Whoever they choose to follow Lopetegui will have an unenviable task on their hands.