Isco and Bale – the key to victory over Atletico. Atletico v Real Madrid match analysis

This analysis was first published at soccerspecific, a coaching education platform with the mission of creating and sharing the highest quality of coaching information in order to positively impact player development around the world.

 

The last Madrid Derby at Vincente Calderon stadium didn’t finish only with a surprising result but also provided various tactical surprises. While it is difficult to judge if Zinedine Zidane made the tactical changes to his team due to numerous injuries, it is sure it worked.

Despite the extraordinary form Real has shown this season, they didn’t come to Vincente Calderon as favourites. “Finally, we play against Real as equals” stated Diego Simeone before the match. His confidence added pressure on Atletico which proved too much to handle in the end.

While Simeone had luxury of whole squad, Real Madrid legend Zinedine Zidane was riddled with injuries ahead of the game. Toni Kroos, Alvaro Morata, Casemiro and Pepe weren’t available while Sergio Ramos amd Benzema were still not available for full match.

Zidane didn’t have exactly the best players available before the big game. However, he knew he could go in the match with more patience than Simeone. He used this fact t his advantage and brought out very fluid side that was hard to mark even for great defending outfit as Atletico.

Real tried to keep secure in possession and not being exposed by too advancing full backs. Additionally, Kovačić was seldom playing in an advanced position essentially staying in line with centre backs for even more protection. Crucial for Real game plan was, however, Isco. Playing against such an organized defence Zidane recognized he needs a clever player in midfield who will unbalance the defence with off the ball movement.

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Isco drifting into pocets of space and finds a bag of it

Above you see Isco as he drifted deep into right half space to pick up the ball from defence. Due to his good off the ball movement he has time to turn, face the goal, and decide where to distribute the ball.

While Isco was free to move around as he saw fit, Real needed more to break the rival.

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Marcelo-Carvajal-Vazquez stretching Atletico defensive unit to create space in the middle for Isco and Bale’s horizontal runs into the center

Above you see how Real wanted to break Atletico, although, at this instance it was unsuccessful since Juanfran anticipated Bale’s movement. However, you can observe the general idea behind it.

Full backs form a wide line with two centre midfielders to keep Atletico forwards and middle line occupied. Vazquez holds the touchline in very advanced position to keep Luis Felipe engaged. This positioning on the pitch serves to stretch Atletico as far as possible diagonally while opening space in the central area for 4v2 situation. It was on Bale and Isco then to use individual skill and break the middle defensive line of Atletico.

 

Ideally, Cristiano Ronaldo should have been on the left side to make Juanfran less eager to close down Bale giving him more space to turn. This particular move was broken down by Altetico but visitors still had enough men behind the ball to cover.

Although Atletico has great defensive organization that many teams around the world try to emulate, flexibility from Real was slowly eroding their confidence.

It was difficult to follow what formation was Real playing when in possession since Bale and Isco were constantly moving horizontally trying to unsettle the middle line of Atletico defence. However, this movement and exchange of positions from these two players were the reason why Atletico failed to cope with Real in the end.

Once Real got the lead and was playing with more confidence and even less risk, flexible game plan proved even more successful.

Atletico was struggling to keep the visitors during the first half. While their pressing game up the pitch was largely fruitless, they made series of clever tactical fouls to stop the counter attacks from their rivals.

While first half Real was perhaps a better team, Atletico still had the plan going forward.

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Fernando Torres drifts to left taking his marker Varane with him. After a back pass to Koke space opens between two center backs for third man run which is used by Nunez.

Atletico creates overload on left side where Luis Felipe, Carrasco and Fernando Torres drag Carvajal and Varane to the touchline. This creates opening between two centerbacks. Since Kovačić and Isco look the ball carrier Nunez has time and space to get into the box. Unfortunately for Real, although Nunez often cut inside, situations like this were too few and far between.

With the beginning of the second half Atletico seemed more aggressive in their high pressing and reluctant to surrender. However, a mistake from Savić effectively killed the game of. By the time Simeone made changes the game was already gone. Hosts were pushing to get one back but that meant taking more risks against an opponent who already gave them trouble great movement.

In conclusion, it was Zinedine Zidane who absolutely dominated this match up. While Cristiano Ronaldo probably played the best game of the season, the key to great victory was Zidane and his decision to field Bale on the left side alongside Isco. Those two were crucial for unbalancing probably the best defensive team in last five years.

A detail that cost United the win against Arsenal, Man Utd v Arsenal match analysis

Before the match at Old Trafford, Arsene Wenger met Mourinho 14 times and failed to get a single victory against his side. Everything he thought about for the Saturday game was useless and, in the end, he was saved by a bit of luck and good intuition. Two changes gave him an assist and a first goal against Mourinho in nine long years to claim a point in a match with Man Utd.
THE CONTEXT

Arsenal came to Old Trafford without defeat since Day 1 of the Premiership wit three wins and two draws in last five matches. Wenger’s team was a clear favourite against the hosts that didn’t connect two wins in a row since August. To make it worse, United had to face Arsenal without suspended Zlatan Ibrahimović and without both starting center backs, Eric Bailly and Chris Smalling. Nevertheless, Mourinho was encouraged by a win in League Cup against Guardiola’s City and two matches in Premiership without a loss. Thus, he ditched six men defence he employed to get some kind of result against Liverpool and Chelsea, and went for relatively open match against Arsenal. Well, to his standards at least.

Although he didn’t park the bus, Mourinho didn’t want to risk too much either. It was yet another difficult game for him since a defeat would settle him back after carefully nurturing his team shaky confidence level in recent games.

MANCHESTER UNITED – DEFENSIVE ORGANIZATION

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United didn’t rush mindlessly into pressing Arsenal and covered spaces in the middle

Above you can see how he, mostly successfully, closed the middle of the pitch forcing Arsenal to build up down the flanks. He was defending zonally oriented on a man while Arsenal was transitioning to the middle third.

He did press Arsenal on his half, however, he did it very selectively. There were two triggers for Man Utd to get out of their defensive shape and close down on opponent in their half.

First trigger were deliberate long balls from their own defensive line. United doesn’t dwell on the ball in their half if they can avoid it. Even less so when opposition is pressing high. Without Ibrahimović upfront, Mourinho instructed his defenders to clear the ball into specific areas. Mainly down the flanks and near the touchline. Reasoning behind this is that receiver of the pass will have less space to cleanly trap the ball. This was the trigger for whole squad to raise their defensive line. Rashford was first man to chase the ball ensuring the receiving full back/defender has also minimal possible time to turn towards United goal and pick his next pass. In meanwhile, midfielders ensured to man mark anyone who could receive that pass. Theoretically this would give Man United a chance to clear the ball on their own terms and react to it with a possibility to win the ball high up the pitch.

Another pressing trigger was largely a reaction to Arsenal actions as United players would defend from front to chase down any back pass to Peter Čeh. The point behind wasn’t really to win the ball high, but to force an opponent to hoof the ball in an uncontrolled manner and then regain the possession since Arsenal lack any strength or aerial ability in the advanced positions. Theoretically, that would allow United to win the ball deep/medium position while opening routes for a quick counter attack when they still had their attacking players in advanced positions against unbalanced defence.

ARSENAL COUNTERING UNITED ZONAL DEFENCE IN MEDIUM BLOCK

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While Arsenal managed to get into the middle third, if Sanchez couldn’t think of something to do with the ball, they were largely without an idea against quite deep and staggered UTD defence

Above you see one of solutions that Arsenal provided to avoid the marking in middle third. One of the weaknesses of man oriented zonal marking is that defender will follow the opponent in his zone. Arsenal is using this with clever off the ball movement from Mesut Ozil and Chilean Sanchez. While Ozil leaves his position in middle towards the right channel, Pogba follows him opening the space. This, in turn, is used by Chilean who drops deep from his central forward position. Depending on reaction of defence, he might have time and space to face goal side or, at least, pick a back/sideways pass.

Arsenal used reverse movement as well to the same effect. At times it was Theo Walcott who would make horizontal movement from right wing position into the centre of the pitch. This would either pull away his marker Darmian or make an overload in the middle. If Darmian followed, a space would open for right back Jenkins to exploit.

MANCHESTER UNITED – OFFENSIVE ORGANIZATION

Due to high value of points in this game (more for the confidence of the team than table position), United was quite reluctant to commit too many men to offensive. This was surely influenced by presence of Theo Walcott who can exploit the space if given. Thus, Darmian largely stayed back together with Michael Carrick to cover for counter attacks. This meant Mourinho had only two central midfielders and Juan Mata to connect their midfield and attack. Despite this, the work rate and off ball ability of Mata/Herrera proved quality more important than quantity.

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While Arsenal was quite solid on defence, the quality of Mata and Herrera provided numerous troubles for them. Above animation is an example of typical movement those two made. Herrera was able to find space and use the ability of Martial’s one trick (cut inside) to receive the pass and unbalance the defence. After Herrera got attention from defence pulling out of the line one of the centre backs there was space behind that was open for Mata to exploit.

This cooperation in the end resulted with seemingly easy finish from Mata from inside the box. However, while it looked pretty straight forward clear chance, it took great deal of composure and technique to connect with such a fast ball. You will notice it was gain a third man’s run that concluded Man United move.

Unlike Mourinho, Wenger was trying to unsettle United defence with number of players in the offensive third. While Sanchez was very effective in a deep lying striker role coming deep to pick a pass, he had no support Mata provided to his team mates. Whenever Sanchez went deep Ozil and Walcott went infield often joined by Ramsey. Unlike United, that failed to give an advantage to Arsenal as their runs were predictable and United defence always had an answer due to deeper stance.

To conclude, United did very well to both, limit Arsenal and create in front of their goal. Visitors were saved by a bit of luck and hunch from Wenger who, midway through the second half, introduced Olivier Giroud and changed the fruitless approach. In the end, Mourinho might be held accountable on the fact he left Rashford on the left flank when Oxlade-Chamberlain was introduced. It was young forward who was supposed to mark Arsenal winger in right back position when fatal cross to Giroud was swung in. Either way, Murinho didn’t get what he wanted despite a solid performance and his team is still looking for confidence although this game seemed a step in right direction. Arsenal on other hand, had a poor performance, especially in the second half and lost the opportunity to challenge the very top of the table. Yet, it is a long season.