Deportivo Alavés – Real Madrid: Alavés stun struggling Real with late, deserved winner (1-0)

Alavés rewarded their excellent performance and near-perfect game plan with a last-second winner, which allows them to catch Real Madrid in LaLiga’s table. Real Madrid complete their fourth match in a row without scoring, having lost three of those, and talks about a true ‘crisis’ are surely about to increase in the capital.

Real Madrid are a team in a difficult transition. Losing Cristiano Ronaldo was never going to be easy, and replacing Zinedine Zidane with Julen Lopetegui brought unique challenges. The Basque manager is far more demanding when it comes to the execution of his playing system than the easy going three-time Champions League winner Zidane was, so it would be reasonable to expect some difficulties in the beginning.

Or at least, it would be at most clubs. Not at Real Madrid. At Real Madrid there is no time, and after Tuesday night’s Champions League loss in Moscow at the hands of CSKA, many were already using the c-word – crisis, that is, what else were you thinking?

Alavés arrived in this game in a very different mood. Having assembled eleven points in seven games, the team from Vitoria-Gasteiz were just behind the big boys and have been one of the surprise packages of this season.

Manager “El Pitu” Abelardo Fernández surprised with presenting his team in a 4-3-3 (that turned into a 4-5-1 in defense) instead of the usual 4-4-2 formation. Combative midfielders Tomás Pina, Darko Brašanac and Mubarak Wakaso all started, with Jony and Ibai Gómez on the wings and Jonathan Calleri as the lone center forward.

With Isco and Marcelo out injured, Lopetegui must have cursed his luck even further when Daniel Carvajal also picked up an injury in Moscow. There was also some good news, though, as Gareth Bale was cleared to play and started on the right wing.

The biggest doubt was on the left wing, whether Lopetegui would opt for either Dani Ceballos or Marco Asensio and it was the former who got the nod. Luka Modrić and Sérgio Ramos returned to the side as expected while Álvaro Odriozola replaced Carvajal.

General shapes of both sides when Real Madrid was in possession of the ball

Alavés with perfect plan to frustrate Madrid
Alavés have a style typical of the teams from the north of the country: occasional moments of strong pressing, the use of fast traditional wingers, and a focus on set pieces. Alavés manager Abelardo Fernández read his opposition perfectly and knew just how to adjust to frustrate Lopetegui’s men.

With the switch to a 4-3-3 formation, Fernández looked to congest the center and force Real Madrid to play wide, knowing that physical center-backs Guillermo Maripán and Víctor Laguardia would be comfortable dealing with crosses.

Other than counterpressing situations, in which Alavés were quite aggressive, the team mostly dropped back into a 4-5-1-shaped low block, but would at times surprise with sudden bursts of pressing. The triggers for those sudden presses weren’t obvious – it wasn’t every time the ball went wide, every time someone received the ball with the back turned to the opponents or any of the other usual situations that can ‘trigger’ a press. It seemed to be up to striker Calleri to decide when Alavés would press forward, and when he did, the team was ready. Wakaso, Brasanac and the wingers were all ready to quickly step up and apply pressure.

On the ball, Alavés played a simple, direct game. There was little attempt to play out of defense with some possession-based football. At the tiniest sign of pressure, the center-backs would hit long. Striker Calleri contested a whopping 18 offensive aerial duels. The midfielders would then fight for the second ball. This is clearly a team that is comfortable not having possession.

The plan for chance creation seemed to be hoping to force a mistake with their pressing, hit on the counter through wingers Jony and Ibai Gómez or make the most out of set pieces. Dangerous situations were born from all three, including the goal.

Real Madrid dominate possession but fail to penetrate in the final third
Against a side that was not particularly concerned with keeping the ball, it is no surprise Real Madrid achieved ridiculous amounts of possession, but the lack of ability to create chances against an organized opponent is starting to become a theme. A theme that those who followed Julen Lopetegui’s managerial stint at FC Porto are all very familiar with.

Against Alavés’ compact 4-5-1 block, Real Madrid had a lot of ball circulation, but rarely found a line breaking pass. There was no presence between the lines with Ceballos staying wide and all three midfielders positioned deep. Karim Benzema dropping deep as a false 9 just wasn’t enough. The visitors kept switching play from one side to the other but could never stretch or unbalance Alavés’ defense.

Lopetegui tries everything
If we’re talking clear cut chances, the first half was as uneventful as it could have been. Lopetegui didn’t wait and replaced Benzema with Mariano, looking for a stronger presence in the box. Mariano had a couple of near-chances, first being sent behind the defensive line but trying one too many dummies before losing the ball, and then being on the receiving end of a good cross from Bale but failing to hit the ball properly.

That was about it from Madrid during the whole second half. Watching a highlights video of this match is seeing a collection of half chances that would usually not make the cut.

Lopetegui brought Asensio on for Casemiro, moved Ceballos to the center, tried Vinícius Júnior later on, but nothing changed the flow of the game. Alavés remained comfortable. In fact, as Real Madrid pushed on, looking for a goal, there was more and more space behind their defensive line to be exploited by Alavés’ pace on the counter and from one such situation Jony enjoyed one of the best chances of the game shooting just wide.

Another goalless game would have already been bad enough for Real Madrid, but things were about to get worse as Alavés scored from a corner with the last kick of the game. With so few chances created – only 0.45 Expected Goals, their lowest of the season – it’d be fair to say Lopetegui’s side did not deserve to win.

But it would also be harsh to say they deserved to lose. That said, Alavés do place special focus on set pieces, as mentioned earlier. They had scored four goals from such situations this season, the joint highest tally in the league together with Barcelona and Espanyol to that point, so Real should have been warned.

After a late Alavés corner, Varane, who had been flawless all game, ended up losing the man he was marking, Rubén Sobrino. The substitute headed the ball across goal towards the second post where Manu García, who had also come on during the second half, originally marked by Nacho, popped up all alone to guarantee three very precious points.

Takeaways
Problems with penetration are often a symptom of problems with other attacking principles. We could talk about Real’s current lack of mobility, but the most glaring problem seems to be a lack of improvisation, flair – of just being unpredictable at times.

That is why Isco and Marcelo’s absences really hurt. Sometimes, you can do most things right: you have possession, support on the ball, and width –  but if you remain predictable at all times, an organized opponent will still be able to negate you good quality chances.

How many times have we seen Real Madrid play worse than against Alavés or CSKA, but still win thanks to a couple of moments of brilliance by Isco, Marcelo, Bale or a certain Cristiano Ronaldo? In this match, there was only an uninspired Bale and later Asensio.

It is no exaggeration that to say Lopetegui’s spell at Real Madrid seems under threat already. Many will insist he needs more time to let the team make the transition to his style. But Real Madrid now look, after just a few weeks, very much like FC Porto did after a year and a half of Lopetegui’s leadership. The team is solid defensively and dominates possession, but against a solid defense can often look completely out of ideas and too dependant on their magicians – which was the case with Yacine Brahimi and, reluctantly, Ricardo Quaresma at FC Porto.

Alavés, on the other hand, have had a start to their season that is well above expectations with a well-drilled, sober style. Their recent failure to beat Getafe at home – where Getafe came closer to deserving the win – suggests they’re not as comfortable playing the favourites’ role, but they look ready to be a very ‘annoying’ team away from home or against the biggest sides in the league.

Sérgio Sampaio (30) is an amateur football analyst and author of the blog Segundo Volante (segundovolante.com). You can find him watching, and perhaps writing about, all kinds of football: more likely to watch an Europa League qualifier in the summer than friendlies, only to then complain about the quality of the game. He abandons reason when it comes to believing FC Famalicão will play European football in his lifetime. [ View all posts ]

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