Real Madrid – AS Roma: Real revisits midfield diamond to outclass Roma (3-0)

Real Madrid goes back to Zidane-esque tactics to outclass a confused AS Roma. Real achieved an overwhelming 3-0 victory through great moments in both possession and counter-attacking play.

The ambitious Julen Lopetegui wants his Real Madrid side to impose a dominant possession game week in, week out, against any rival. An objective that requires a tremendous degree of technical ability that is seemingly at odds with the more physical skill-set of midfielder Casemiro.

While the Brazilian might be expendable against weaker opponents in La Liga, overcoming tough opponents in the Champions League will often require his defensive contribution. As such, Lopetegui has spent much of this early season thinking about how to create a collective structure in which the terms Casemiro and dominant possession game are not mutually exclusive.

Although Real Madrid has obtained excellent early league results when starting Casemiro – 4-1 scores against Leganés and Girona – from a tactical point of view, his integration still seemed like a work in progress, with the team’s possession game being less fluid than desired. However, with Casemiro once against starting against Roma, Real Madrid enjoyed some of their best moments in possession in this early season.

Interestingly enough, the key tactical solution that allowed for this excellent collective performance is one that harks back to the tactics of their former coach, Zinedine Zidane. On paper, Real Madrid lined up with their usual 4-3-3, featuring Casemiro, Luka Modrić and Toni Kroos as the central midfielders, and Isco Alarcón as the nominal left winger. In practice, however, Isco often played in a deeper, more central position, one that reminds us more of the Isco seen in Zidane’s 4-3-1-2 midfield diamond.

Real Madrid’s general positioning and movements in possession

Meanwhile, Roma has been facing a tough start to the season. The side of manager Eusebio Di Francesco achieved great success last season with a very direct, high pressing game plan, but the departures of the physical Radja Nainggolan and Kevin Strootman make it harder to execute this strategy.

As such, Di Francesco’s struggle in this early season is finding a game plan that fits his new, more technical midfielders: Steven N’Zonzi (signed from Sevilla), Javier Pastore (signed from PSG), and one of Italy’s most exciting midfield prospects, 19-year-old Nicolò Zaniolo (signed from Inter).

Up to now, Roma’s early season attempts to build a new system have not led to consistent results, with Roma accumulating only five points out of twelve in their initial four Serie A games. Against Real Madrid, Roma lined up in their traditional 4-3-3, featuring the usual suspects in defense and forward lines but with changes in the midfield. Nzonzi would be the right central midfielder (instead of his usual defensive midfield role) while Zaniolo replaced the injured Pastore and played in left central midfield, making his Roma debut against none other than the European champion.

AS Roma’s general positioning and movements in possession

Using Isco’s position to overcome Roma’s initial pressing

The first ten to fifteen minutes of the game saw Roma press very aggressively, with all three forwards and N’Zonzi and Zaniolo darting forward to harass Real Madrid defenders and prevent them from connecting with midfield.

Initially, Real Madrid overcame this pressing through the individual talent of their central midfielders and the mobility of their forwards. Modrić and Kroos produced genius line-breaking passes that cut through the press and found one of the ever-mobile Isco, Karim Benzema or Gareth Bale up front. And if Roma’s defensive line tried to push up and make the team compact, then Kroos and Modrić could produce devastating passes into the spaces behind Roma’s defensive line, to be exploited by the speed and explosiveness of Bale.

Eventually, Real Madrid figured out a simpler, more repeatable mechanism to overcome the heavy press. Isco, who had played the first fifteen minutes in the traditional left winger position, started moving into deeper, more central zones that were closer to Kroos.

This movement generated the ‘quasi-midfield diamond’ structure that was mentioned earlier and put Marcelo-Kroos-Isco in a constant three-versus-two situation against Nzonzi and Cengiz Ünder, the Roma players who were pressing in that zone. With such a gaping hole in their press, Roma was forced to assume a more conservative defensive position.

Using switches of play to break the Roman defense
Top coaches like Pep Guardiola like to remind us that one of the core attacking mechanisms in football is to overload one side of the pitch, draw the opponent into that side, and then quickly switch play to the opposite side to take advantage of the spaces left behind by the opponent.

And thanks to the outstanding long passing capabilities of players like Sergio Ramos, Kroos and Modrić, Real Madrid is one of the best teams in Europe at quickly switching play. Having pushed Roma back into a deeper defensive block, Real Madrid spent the rest of the first half using long, diagonal switches of play to move forward on the pitch as well as disorder the compact Roma defense.

In particular, the left side of Real Madrid’s attack, featuring Ramos, Marcelo, Kroos and Isco, would often take the ball, patiently rack up short passes to attract Roman defenders, and then send pinpoint diagonal long balls to Bale and Dani Carvajal on the right.

Bale often moved in the channel between Roma’s left center back (Federico Fazio) and full back (Aleksandar Kolarov), creating space for Carvajal to receive these switches close to the touch line and produce dangerous crosses into Roma’s box. It was yet another dominant performance from Real Madrid’s right back, who has started this season in tremendous form.

Real Madrid struggled to see their first half tactical dominance reflected in the score line. The team looked somewhat desperate in the final third, often relying too much on crosses into the box or long-distance shots. By the end of the first half, Real Madrid had generated 17 shots, but only 4 of them were on target, including the stunning 45th minute free kick that Isco brilliantly struck to put Real Madrid ahead in the score.

Effective counter-attacking of Real in second period

Bold as ever, Di Francesco and his Roma side decided to start the second half in a more aggressive fashion, pressing intensely once again in an attempt to level things up. This intent was reflected in Di Francesco’s early second half substitution of Zaniolo for the more physical Lorenzo Pellegrini.

However, it would not take long for Real Madrid’s individual talent to crush Roma’s attempted comeback. In a lightning quick counterattack in the 58th minute, Modrić took advantage of Roma’s higher defensive line and produced a stunning defense-splitting pass into space for Bale, who coolly slotted the ball into Roma’s goal.

After this second goal, a demotivated Roma side decreased the intensity and aggression of their press and switched over to a more direct game plan. N’Zonzi was replaced by striker Patrick Schick, and Roma increasingly relied more on sending long balls and other vertical passes towards him and Edin Dzeko. Meanwhile, Real Madrid continued betting on their counterattacking plan, with Marco Asensio coming on for Benzema.   

With Benzema’s exit and the expected decrease in focus after the second goal, Real Madrid struggled to control the match in the final half hour, with both teams evenly splitting possession (52-48) and trading punches at a high tempo. Right winger Ünder in particular often succeeded at attacking the space behind Marcelo and produced several good attacks for Roma, which were often stopped by Ramos, Varane and Casemiro—who were all brilliant tracking back in transition—or saved by a sharp Keylor Navas.

The cherry on top of Real Madrid’s good collective performance was provided by their final substitution. Striker Mariano Díaz replaced Bale around the 70th minute and made his 2018/2019 season debut in a Real Madrid shirt. In this 20-minute cameo, Mariano demonstrated many of the key attributes that convinced Real Madrid to bring him back home from Lyon. Diaz added some physical intensity in pressing and fighting with defenders, speed on the counter, and—as his stunning injury time goal showed—a devastatingly effective long shot.

Real Madrid, their fans, and Julen Lopetegui could not have asked for a stronger start to the 2018/19 Champions League campaign. Roma was—at least on paper—their strongest rival in Group G, and they completely dominated this opponent both through tactics and individual talent. Real’s possession game looked more fluid and confident than in previous games that featured Casemiro. Meanwhile, Mariano showed in his debut that he can deliver the goods as an impact substitute.

As for Roma, conclusions are not so optimistic. Losing an away game against Real Madrid should not be considered a failure, but the way the team is playing in this early season will certainly worry fans. Di Francesco and his staff are still trying to find the right tactical setup, that can take advantage of the team’s new midfield, and it looks like this process might take longer than expected. And in top-flight football, time is always a scarce commodity.

José Pérez (31) writes and talks about anything football-related: players, tactics, analytics, the relationship between football and society. Whenever he is not working on high-power lasers, he tries to keep up with all big five European leagues, but focuses particularly on La Liga. Outside of Between the Posts, you can find him arguing with people and posting analyses on Twitter or answering questions on Quora. [ View all posts ]


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