Real Madrid: Zinedine Zidane’s latest, innovative experiment

Real Madrid, Zinedine Zidane (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)
Real Madrid, Zinedine Zidane (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images) /

When Real Madrid released their line-up for the Getafe game, everybody expected to see a 4-2-3-1 with Ferland Mendy as the RB (who has the experience of playing for France in the same position) and Marcelo as the left-back.

On paper, it looked like a Modric-Casemiro double pivot to hold the ball, with Asensio operating as a number 10. The most surprising name on the team sheet was that of Marvin Park, who was expected to be an RW, with Vinicius and Benzema forming the front four by playing in their usual positions. But Real Madrid’s manager Zinedine Zidane, who’s known for his surprising decisions at times, had other ideas.

The actual formation

Zinedine Zidane used a 3-4-1-2, with Ferland Mendy playing as an LCB in the back three, while Varane was central and Nacho behaved as an RCB. Marcelo played as a wingback on the left side, with lesser defensive responsibilities. This new role enabled Marcelo to dictate the attack through the left-wing without any signs of hesitation or fear, with few flashes of brilliance giving us some 2016/17 vibes.

Marvin Park played as the RWB, with Luka Modric and Casemiro forming the double pivot as expected. During some sequences, Asensio acted as an RW making the formation look like a 3-4-3, but he was a number 10 for most of the game and took maximum advantage of being played in a free role.

While it was interesting to see the team shaping up differently, the way they operated was even more interesting. Marcelo, Asensio, Modric, Casemiro, and Benzema (who was being his usual self, dropping deeper and linking up as always) often interchanged positions, and it was really difficult to say who was playing in which position. Marcelo operated as an LWB for most of the game, but sometimes he drifted inside to act as a CM. Modric compensated for the absence of Toni Kroos by offering additional control, and he also did well to distribute the ball to the flanks.

Casemiro played his usual game, helping the team in defense and joining the attack to provide an additional option in the box. But yesterday, he drifted to the left during certain sequences, to make up for Marcelo drifting inside. Asensio kept moving around from one flank to another and looked like a calming presence. Mendy’s role was similar to that of an inverted full-back (often used by Pep Guardiola’s Manchester city), and he did join the attack occasionally and scored a goal in one such sequence.

Did the formation work out well for Real Madrid?

A three-man defense helps defend and retain the ball, but for ball progression, the build-up play needs to be properly executed. While building from the back, the center backs often chose to pass the ball to their wing-backs and progress the ball through the flanks, but at times the pressure from Getafe’s physical players forced the players to pass the ball back. The CB’shad to find a way to build through the middle.

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With Toni Kroos suspended for the game, the only natural midfielders on the pitch were Luka Modric and Casemiro. It’s important to outnumber the opposition midfield for better ball progression, as the numerical superiority enables the midfield to retain the ball with relative ease. Here’s where Luka Modric and Marcelo’s supreme technical abilities proved to be useful. Modric was being marked well by the Getafe players and all the passing lanes to Luka were blocked.

Whenever Luka dropped deeper to collect the ball, he attracted pressure, but his superb press resistance and quick decision making proved to be crucial for ball progression.

Casemiro isn’t that press-resistant and teams usually try to take advantage of this particular weakness of him, but Marcelo drifting inside created an overload in the middle and this certainly took some pressure of Casemiro.

Asensio also dropped deeper to help the midfield, and he was crucial in switching the buildup to the flanks. Modric, Asensio, and Nacho often released Marvin down the right-hand side, while Marcelo and Mendy tried to release Vinicius down the left.

Though the ball progression was executed well, the team wasn’t that decisive in the final third and the final ball was missing. All the chances created in the initial 30 minutes came from set-pieces, including a Benzema header hitting the bar and a Casemiro shot from close-range which flew over the bar. The primary source of chances was from flanks, with two quick 20-year-olds on each flank.

Marvin beat defenders on the dribble and used his right foot to chip in some crosses. Marcelo and Modric often released Vinicius with some through balls and chipped passes, and the Brazilian used his pace and strength to get onto the end of the pass. He couldn’t produce much in the final third but he took on players and was a constant threat.

But in the 40th minute, a quality chance was created for Luka Modric. Nacho, Asensio, Marvin, and Casemiro created an overload on the right flank near the halfway line, and the Getafe defense drifted towards their left.

Marcelo and Vinicius immediately made a quick run on the blindside of the defense, and Casemiro was quick to find them with a left-footed long ball. Marcelo had options, but he chose to make a square pass towards the onrushing Croatian, who shot straight at David Soria with his left foot. This was a one-off chance, but the buildup was something which we haven’t seen much in recent games.

The first-half ended 0-0, but there were some good signs. Getafe began the second half better, but we were quick to retreat. The team tried something different, and they tried to create chances through the middle. Asensio found Benzema with an excellent pass, who took a fierce shot that was saved by Soria.

Marcelo found Casemiro with a similar reverse pass, but the Brazilian was slow to make a decision and his delayed shot was blocked. Arribas came on for an injured Marvin, and he started from the left, with Vinicius switching his flank. There was some decent buildup through the middle, and one such sequence ended with Vinicius getting the ball on the right and making a superb cross, which was headed in by Karim Benzema. Real Madrid got their well-deserved goal, and it completely changed the rhythm.

The team grew in confidence and started attacking quickly on the break. Mendy found Arribas in one such quick attack down the left and started making a run towards the near post. Arribas released Marcelo down the left with a one-touch pass, and the Brazilian veteran’s near post cross was sent into the net by Mendy’s toe-poke. The game slowed down after the second goal and some more substitutions, but the damage was already done.

There were few weaknesses with this formation though. Usually, we get to see one of Kroos, Modric, or Valverde initiating the press, but this time the midfielders couldn’t press much as them moving forward could’ve broken the double pivot. The front three tried to press, but they couldn’t win the ball much.

But the players were positioned well, and this forced Getafe to try long balls and ended up giving away the ball. Getafe is a team that looks to counter-attack and they never really build through the middle, but it would be interesting to see how this formation would work out against teams that would like to have the ball at their feet.

The defense did well, as expected. Nacho and Varane were extremely comfortable in their roles, with the Frenchman making some vital interventions. Varane was calm with the ball at his feet, unlike his French compatriot Ferland Mendy, whose heavy touches could’ve proved to be costly. They didn’t face much threat from Getafe, who had zero shots on target.

Will Zinedine Zidane repeat this formation in the future?

It is kinda obvious that Zidane had to use this formation and start a Castilla player only due to the unusual number of first-team injuries. It’s difficult to imagine Zidane discarding two out of Kroos, Modric, Casemiro, and Valverde to use this formation. Though this might have been a one-off game, this experiment worked out pretty much good. Zidane might not employ the formation in every game, but this can be used for some games.

Next. 3 things we have learned about Real Madrid's defense. dark

Mendy and Marcelo looked good in their respective roles, as this formation didn’t involve testing the weaknesses of both the players. The idea was innovative, gotta see if we can have another game in the future where Zidane uses this formation. But one thing is for sure, this wasn’t a regular Zinedine Zidane game, and considering the number of players he had, we can term this as a ‘tactical masterclass’.