Why Do Real Madrid Struggle Against Low Blocks?

, SPAIN - DECEMBER 30: Luka Modric of Real Madrid during the La Liga Santander match between Elche v Real Madrid on December 30, 2021 (Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images)
, SPAIN - DECEMBER 30: Luka Modric of Real Madrid during the La Liga Santander match between Elche v Real Madrid on December 30, 2021 (Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images) /

Real Madrid had won six games out of six after losing to Shakhtar Donetsk in the UEFA Champions League. That included overcoming tough challenges like Sevilla in La Liga and Borussia Mönchengladbach in the Champions League, ensuring that they qualified for the Round of 16.

This hot streak saw the team, and Zinedine Zidane, avert what many in the media and the fanbase like to call a “crisis.” However, a draw against Elche halted Real’s winning run and that meant two more points of leeway for rivals Atlético Madrid in the league.

The draw was followed by a win and then a draw against Celta Vigo and Osasuna respectively. These two draws completely sucked the life out of Real Madrid’s league ambitions. However, what is common between Elche and Osasuna? Well, the obvious reason is that they both drew against Real Madrid. The second is that both of them are battling relegation, constantly hovering in or around the relegation zone. And the third – and most important – reason is that these two teams play with a low block.

What is a low block, you may ask? Let me explain. It is a tactical setup/system that a team inherits without the ball (basically, how the team maintains its shape without the ball) with two banks of four or sometimes all the ten players playing deep inside their own area to keep the pitch compact. Such a system makes it difficult for the opposition to penetrate through the defence.

La Liga is a breeding ground for teams that field a low block. Elche, Osasuna, Cádiz: La Liga’s smaller teams opt for a more conservative approach. The foundation of the tactical setup hinges on the team’s ability to defend in numbers and catch the opposition on the counter. What do Real Madrid have to do with these teams?

Kryptonite. Teams with low blocks have been Real Madrid’s kryptonite this season. The team is almost clueless when they face such teams. The gameplay looks too pedestrian even with all the possession. These teams have taken (valuable) points away from Real Madrid. While Elche and Osasuna held Real to a draw (1-1 and 0-0 respectively), Cádiz gave the team a humiliating reality check even though they defeated with just a scoreline of 1-0.

Ironically, Real Madrid have fared much better against teams that pose a bigger threat, and that can be attributed to the fact that the relatively stronger teams do not play with a low block as they try to push forward and take control of the proceedings. That will definitely mean that Atalanta will have a tougher task regardless of their status as the underdogs in the Round of 16 in Champions League. Atalanta play attacking football and they have had a fair share of defensive problems.

Back to La Liga and low blocks, what could be the possible reasons behind Real Madrid’s seemingly everlasting issues? I mean, they are one of the best teams in the world with a deep squad and an exciting pool of talent eager to rise to the occasion. Why does a team of the stature of Real Madrid become toothless against low blocks? I try to break down and analyze why.

Eden Hazard of Real Madrid
Eden Hazard of Real Madrid (Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images) /

Real Madrid lack an efficient dribbler in the XI

Dribblers have and will always be highly regarded in football. They are the oil of the attacking machine of the team. When you have a good dribbler on the pitch, the opposition is always on their feet, whether or not they play a low block. Real Madrid, though, have been unfortunate to afford such a luxury.

Eden Hazard was a dribbling supernova in the Premier League, and when he came to La Liga, he brought a big reputation. It’s not surprising to see that he was the second-best dribbler in La Liga behind (you know it) Lionel Messi in the first 8-10 weeks of his debut season (one can only wonder the magic his feet would have produced if not for that Thomas Meunier tackle).

If you go back to October-November of 2019, you will see that Real Madrid were in tremendous goalscoring form, and it’s not a coincidence that Eden Hazard was nearing his best form during that period. He didn’t score goals or provide assists as you’d expect, but it was his ball-carrying and elite dribbling that unlocked the defences.

Vinícius Júnior seems to have lost some confidence after his first two seasons in Madrid, where he showed excellent skills and close control with only his end product leaving more to be demanded. Sharing the same position on the pitch with Hazard has seen him compete for the left-wing spot, but Hazard’s injury-ravaged Real Madrid career has given the Brazilian youngster more opportunities than he would have imagined.

Vinícius is an excellent talent. He probably has the highest ceiling of all the youngsters if he can improve his finishing and end product. Probably. This season, he has been inconsistent with his form oscillating up and down. That has led to Zidane being a bit apprehensive when it comes to the 20-year-old.

Martin Ødegaard of Real Madrid
Martin Ødegaard of Real Madrid, on loan at Arsenal (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images) /

Zinedine Zidane didn’t incorporate playmakers in the Real Madrid XI

When Martin Ødegaard’s return was announced, it seemed that Real Madrid’s prevalent issues against low blocks would get resolved. The Norwegian was a real asset for Imanol Alguacil at Real Sociedad, becoming one of the best midfielders in Spain and Europe. More of the same was expected of the player when he was recalled by Zidane. After half a season now, Real have only Isco as a natural central attacking midfielder on the roster (if you don’t know yet, Ødegaard has been loaned out to Arsenal for the rest of the season).

Toni Kroos and Luka Modrić have shown unprecedented levels of quality and class this season, while Casemiro has saved the team on multiple occasions, be it with his golden form in front of goal or his defensive contributions. Kroos had created the most chances in La Liga this season (50) and I think we don’t even need to say anything about Modrić. He is nearing immortality.

The duo can wreak havoc in the middle of the pitch with their acumen, but a three-man midfield with a holding midfielder and two midfielders might not always produce favourable results against teams that field a low block. We have seen the holy trinity of Kroos-Modrić-Casemiro dominate the proceedings. But a lot more is desired from them. With the wingers, and Benzema, the midfield fails to make inroads into the opposition defence.

The ball is passed from left to right, and then from left to right. The full-backs make overlapping/underlapping runs to get into good crossing positions. However, Real Madrid do not possess a typical ‘fox in the box’ figure like Cristiano Ronaldo. Having Luka Jović would have put an end to these woes to some extent. But with Benzema, Hazard/Vinícius, and Asensio in the box, the crossing tactic is not very influential (credit to Benzema though since he has been on the receiving end of the crosses to find the back of the net).

In simple words, Real Madrid lack directness. There were flashes of directness on show in the 4-1 victory against Alavés in January, but there hasn’t really been much on offer otherwise.

Possible solutions for the rest of the season?

One obvious solution is to play Isco as the playmaker in either a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-4-2 diamond formation. However, I think that scenario can be ruled out since Isco is on the periphery of the squad. Zidane clearly doesn’t trust him anymore, and it would be delusional to consider Isco becoming the player he once was, although anything can happen in football.

But what if Marco Asensio is given that free role in the middle of the park? Can he thrive? Maybe. Maybe not. But he has been playing quite well lately, taking on defenders and covering a good amount of ground with the ball. We all know the damage he can do from the middle of the pitch (some of his best goals have come right from the centre of the width of the pitch). With that sort of freedom, he can play on the right, through the centre, and on the left, where he has been very, very comfortable.

Against Getafe, Real Madrid fielded a 3-4-3 formation. Getafe are known for their defensive nous, but Real Madrid toyed around with their neighbours effortlessly. A change in formation can possibly help Real Madrid play more effective football against conservative teams.

Sergio Ramos, Casemiro, and Raphaël Varane can play in a back-three. Marcelo and Dani Carvajal can play as wing-backs, while Toni Kroos, Luka Modrić, and Fede Valverde can rotate for the two central midfield spots. A front three consisting of Karim Benzema, Marco Asensio, and Eden Hazard/Rodrygo/Vinícius Júnior can do a lot of damage, without a shadow of a doubt.

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Low blocks have troubled Los Blancos for too long now, and the only way to overcome this underlying issue is to be flexible tactically. At this stage, Atlético Madrid look destined to win the league. But if Real Madrid are to have even a sniff at retaining the title, they will have to win all their games, and that will mean facing teams that play with a low block. It’s the performance between small sides that has seen city rivals Atlético Madrid gain such a huge lead in the race. Zidane will have to find a way to neutralize low blocks. They are a huge threat even if they don’t come across as threatening. Here is where Zidane’s tactical genius will come into play. Can he save the day?