Real Madrid – Espanyol: Madrid Manage To Get Narrow Win Despite Questionable Substitutions By Lopetegui (1-0)
Real Madrid dominated the first half thanks to Julen Lopetegui’s increasingly familiar possession-based strategy and assured performances from his midfielders. This changed in the second period, as Lopetegui made second half substitutions that lost them control of the game and allowed Espanyol chances to equalize the final 1-0 scoreline.
Espanyol manager Joan Francesc Ferrer Sicilia, better known as Rubi, was forced to bring in backup Naldo at right center back after losing key defender David López to a left quadricep injury. Rubi also chose to rest wingers Sergio García and Leo Baptistao, allowing him to give minutes to Pablo Piatti and Hernán Pérez. The rest, including the formation, was standard. A 4-3-3 formation held together by the familiar Esteban Granero-Marc Roca-Sergi Darder midfield.
Julen Lopetegui also made rotations of his own, following a decisive 3-0 victory against AS Roma in their midweek Champions League clash. He rested Toni Kroos for Dani Ceballos, Marcelo for Nacho, Dani Carvajal for Álvaro Odriozola, and Gareth Bale for Marco Asensio. These players and their teammates lined up in what looked like their usual 4-3-3, though Lopetegui mixed things up with his wingers and fullbacks.
Espanyol’s high press when Real Madrid was building up
Espanyol’s high press causes Real Madrid some trouble
Espanyol, perhaps emboldened by Athletic Club’s intense pressing performance against Real Madrid last weekend, started the game with a high press that went all the way back to Thibaut Courtois.
As can be seen in the lineup graphic above, Iglesias would press the Belgian keeper while protecting the passing lane back to Casemiro. He was supported by Pérez and Piatti man-marking Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane respectively, and by more man-to-man duties on Madrid’s fullbacks and advanced central midfielders.
This strategy greatly unsettled Courtois, who often panicked and completed only three out of his twelve long balls. When he managed to keep his cool, or when play did not start from the keeper, Madrid usually built down the left.
Espanyol reacted to this by collapsing their pressing structure towards that wing, thereby congesting the space the home side could play in. Although the skill of the likes of Ceballos and Isco usually negated this adjustment, both Ramos and Varane committed foolish giveaways that created dangerous chances for Rubi’s men.
Ramos’ mistake in the 65th minute, in particular, was particularly egregious, as it allowed Borja Iglesias to chip a free shot just off the woodwork. This press also troubled the likes of Lucas Vázquez, who gave the ball away twice near his own half after coming on in the 63rd minute.
Lopetegui’s tactical tricks with his wingers and fullbacks
However, as a whole, Madrid did well to beat the press and progress into the opposition’s half. Once there, a curious dynamic with Isco and Asensio emerged.
Real Madrid’s positioning on Espanyol’s half. Asensio always provided width while Isco played inside.
It is hard to tell just how much of this Lopetegui explicitly designed, but it is clear that he asked the two Spanish playmakers to periodically switch flanks. This affected the way Nacho and Odriozola positioned themselves depending on who was next to them.
Regardless of whether Asensio was on the left or the right, he would stay wide and keep the width for his team. This made the relevant fullback sit deeper and a little narrower. If Isco was the player on the flank, the fullback in question would move wider, because the bandy-legged midfielder enjoyed moving inwards.
This fluid experiment created interesting structures in the first half, but it did not seem to amount to anything tangible. Asensio’s best moments in the final third of the pitch came when Nacho – the fullback on the left, most often paired beside him – burst down the overlap, something that can be seen as a more traditional fullback-winger relationship.
The first half goal came from a counter-attack – a play that had nothing to do with the aforementioned tactical scheme. In the 41st minute, a quick break from Real ended through a couple of fortuitous bounces at the feet of Asensio, who clinically finished in the far right corner with a low, driven shot.
Perhaps this was the case due to Lopetegui’s rotations. The absence of Kroos meant that Madrid were lacking his laser-like diagonals to take advantage of the space Isco created for Odriozola. Additionally, pushing Gareth Bale out of the lineup meant that his side sorely missed some serious firepower. Thus, even if the fullback-winger trick led to some good crossing opportunities on the wing, only Benzema was providing presence in the box – and a weak one at that.
Lopetegui loses control of the game in the second half because of his substitutions
Real Madrid came out of the tunnel after half-time with a slightly different look. Isco began to gravitate to whatever wing Asensio was stationed on – which was usually the left – in order to provide overloads. This created some nice passing combinations that overwhelmed Espanyol’s defensive structure.
As a result, Isco and Modrić managed some good shots to start the half and Real enjoyed an extended period of dominance in the final third. Nevertheless, one must wonder whether the inclusion of Toni Kroos would have better enabled Real to capitalize on the free space this left-sided overload created for Odriozola on the right.
Regardless, this second experiment ended quickly when Lopetegui substituted the impressive Ceballos off for Lucas Vázquez around the hour mark. Isco dropped into a permanent role in midfield and Lucas took up a more disciplined position on the right. It is possible to see this as Lopetegui’s rejection of earlier tricks he tried with Isco and Asensio, but it is just as likely that Lucas came on to provide greater defensive stability.
If the latter explanation was the real reason, it is ironic that Madrid looked more vulnerable after the substitution. As mentioned before, Lucas’ performance under pressure and against the Espanyol-initiated congestion was poor, contributing to a more end-to-end game that suited the away side.
But that was not the whole story, as Madrid stopped implementing their very effective counterpress and chose to sit deeper and counter-attack as the game wore on. Espanyol midfielders Esteban Granero and Marc Roca took advantage of the situation and accurately sprayed passes into their attackers. This put Madrid’s back-line under the most pressure they had faced the whole game and their shot output was nearly matched, seven to six, after Ceballos came off.
Lopetegui reacted to this by bringing on defensive midfielder Marcos Llorente for Isco in the 79th minute, shifting Madrid from an attacking 4-3-3 to a defensive 4-2-3-1 / 4-4-1-1. While Llorente certainly helped shore up the midfield and was instrumental in stringing together effective counter-attacks, the change allowed Espanyol even more time in the final third.
However, Espanyol simply were not able to take advantage of the more favorable situation and Lopetegui’s men escaped with a narrow 1-0 victory.
If there is one thing Lopetegui can take away from this game, it is that Real Madrid simply do not possess the mentality to park the bus after spending most of the game in the opposing half. They have proved that they can do it when specifically prepared to defend deep from minute one, but otherwise, you get Sergio Ramos running up to score a goal in the 89th minute with only a single-goal cushion. This squad is simply more suited to staying on the front foot and retaining leads by holding onto possession.
Additionally, it is clear that Gareth Bale provides Madrid with a level of high-quality shot production that cannot be replicated by anyone else. If Bale is to rest more games like this, it is up to Benzema to provide more of a threat up front, as there is no longer a certain Cristiano Ronaldo to take up that responsibility.
As for Espanyol manager Rubi, he will likely be happy with what he saw from his team. His side was unable to create much thanks to Lopetegui’s effective counterpress, but it was his own pressing that also made life difficult for Madrid. Hopefully, Espanyol can keep up this level of intensity and tactical discipline when they face lesser sides in LaLiga.