Real Madrid – Real Sociedad: Vinicius shines but a chaotic Real Madrid lose against developing Real Sociedad (0-2)
The early goal changed Real Sociedad’s game plan into a more reactive one, and despite initial struggles, they improved in the second half and managed to disorder Real Madrid’s chaotic defense. Despite Vinicius’s best efforts, Real Madrid’s rigid and predictable attack failed to get past an outstanding Rulli in the opposing goal. Solari’s woes as manager continue.
Tactical analysis and match report by José Perez.
Real Madrid league results under coach Santiago Solari have improved to compared to the short-lived Lopetegui tenure. However, a look at Real’s underlying numbers reveals worrying trends. Under Solari, there has been a significant decline in Real’s expected goals. The amount of goals a team is expected to score based on the quality of the shots they take. Both created and conceded, even compared to Lopetegui. They were even outshot by Huesca and Rayo Vallecano, the two teams at the bottom of the league table. Solari’s Real has obtained better results simply because of more efficient finishing and shot-stopping. Therefore, it only seems a matter of time before Real’s results match their poor performance on the pitch.
Against Real Sociedad, Solari went for the usual 4-3-3 lineup. Thibaut Courtois at goal was defended by Marcelo, Sergio Ramos, Raphaël Varane, and Dani Carvajal. With the unfortunate injury of an in-form Marcos Llorente, Casemiro returns to the starting eleven, accompanied by Luka Modrić and Toni Kroos. Up front the trio Lucas Vázquez, Karim Benzema, and surprisingly, Vinicius Jr were started. The young Brazilian prospect was chosen to replace the injured Gareth Bale and Marco Asensio instead of Isco.
Real Sociedad are in a curious situation. Now-former manager Asier Garitano had built one of the more solid defensive structures in the league, only behind Atlético in expected goals conceded. And Garitano did that within six months despite inheriting a squad built mostly for possession-based football. Despite such defensive solidity, Sociedad’s offense struggled and Garitano was harshly sacked shortly after Christmas. Imanol Alguacil – coach of the youth team – will take over the reins of the senior team in a caretaker role.
Against Real Madrid, Alguacil chose to line up his men with a 4-3-3 shape in the offensive phase. Gerónimo Rulli in goal, protectd by Hector Moreno and Diego Llorente as central defenders, with Aritz Elustondo and Aihen Muñoz (first team debut!) as fullbacks. Midfield was composed of a trio of Asier Illarramendi, David Zurutuza and Mikel Merino. Up front featured a trio of Adnan Januzaj, Mikel Oyarzábal and Willian José. The team turned into a 4-4-2 shape when defending, with at least one of the forwards dropping into the midfield line.
Real Sociedad reverts to the Garitano game plan
Judging by his more technical personnel selection in midfield and the initial phase of aggressive pressing, Alguacil probably wanted his team to play a more possession-based style. Merino successfully pressed and stole the ball from Marcelo, which led to a second minute penalty and Sociedad’s first goal.
The goal was both a blessing and a problem, however, as it changed Sociedad’s original game plan. They opted to stay back and cede the initiative to Real Madrid, taking on a 4-4-2 defensive shape, like the one used under Garitano. Sometimes Januzaj would drop into midfield to defend, while Merino moved forward to press alongside Willian José. Other times, Merino would stay back with Januzaj pushing up to press. Since Sociedad were not pressing with the same intensity and coordination used under Garitano, their defensive block could be disordered and overpassed even by a rigid and predictable Real Madrid attack.
Real Madrid’s 4-3-3 shape in possession against Real Sociedad’s 4-4-2 mid-block. Notice that Casemiro moves forward during build-up almost like an attacking midfielder.
Furthermore, offensively the team struggled as much as they did under Garitano. It looked as if Sociedad players were instructed to play out from the back, which they are not accustomed to. Therefore, when Real Madrid pressed (and they do so quite aggressively under Solari) defenders would usually try to send long balls to Willian José or the other Sociedad forwards.
In this chaos, midfielder Merino was perhaps the one Sociedad player who was providing some continuity to the team’s passing. He smartly dropped deep or drifted to the center to provide good passing options to his confused defenders.
Vinicius breaks the mold in Real Madrid’s predictable attack
Despite the confusion among Sociedad players, Real Madrid’s own tactical problems prevented them from taking full advantage of their opponent’s weakness.
Solari’s Real depended heavily on combinations on the flank to move forward, and then produced crosses and cutbacks into the box. With the central midfielders taking conservative positions and wingers instructed to remain on the wings, Real usually had no options to progress through the center lanes other than Benzema. The excessive focus on wing play made Real’s attack predictable. They were unable to disorder Sociedad’s defense through collective mechanisms. Therefore, Real were forced to depend heavily on the one-versus-one ability of their attackers to disorder the opponent’s defense and create chances.
Fortunately for Real, Vinicius was willing and often successful at dribbling past his opponents, attempting twelve dribbles throughout the game and completing six of them. As he moved into the final third, Vinicius refused to stay on the wing and preferred cut inside to shoot or assist. This a much needed element of unpredictability, and more uncertainty and confusion to Sociedad’s defenders. And to top it off, Vinicius was often very good at reading when to run into the spaces behind Sociedad’s defense.
All in all, Vinicius became Real’s main mechanism of progression into the box, the key element to disorder Sociedad’s defense. His offensive numbers were outstanding throughout the game, with six shots (three on target), three key passes, and six completed dribbles.
Real Sociedad passing game disorders Real Madrid’s shaky defense
For the second half, Real Sociedad’s defenders improved their composure on the ball and stopped getting desperate when pressed by Real’s forwards. Soon enough, Sociedad started finding options to break past Real’s pressing and progress through the flanks. On the left Oyarzábal and Willian José dropped deep to provide valuable passing outlets behind Real’s forwards, and then combined to overload the outmanned Real defense. On the right, Merino and Januzaj did something similar.
Real Sociedad’s 4-3-3 shape in possession against Real Madrid’s 4-3-3 high pressing block.
Given the aggressiveness of Real’s pressing and the lack of coordination in their defense, Sociedad’s improved game on the ball easily exploited the big spaces they left behind. Sociedad started creating chances more consistently, and this became even easier once Lucas Vázquez was sent off in the sixtieth minute.
After Vázquez’s sending off, both teams chaotically trade punches
In terms of offense, things for Real remained basically unchanged from the first half. They continued to be predictable and excessively focused on the wings. To deal with this, Solari substituted Isco for Casemiro in the 57th minute. However, the sending off of Vázquez four minutes later rendered this change mostly useless, as Isco or Modrić had to move over to the right to compensate for Vázquez’s absence. This meant that Isco -who’s not in inspired form these days – had less freedom to move around and link up all the pieces in Real’s attack.
With an uninspired Isco nullified by the circumstances, Real once again depended heavily on Vinicius’ dribbling ability and shooting. And just like in the first half, that was enough to disorder Sociedad’s confused defense and create chances. However, Sociedad’s central defenders – Moreno and Llorente – were excellent at blocking shots against, while keeper Rulli completed an outstanding shot-stopping performance, with eight saves. Thanks to all this shot-saving and Real’s offensive predictability, the home side finished the second half with 17 shots but only one big chance.
After Vázquez red card, Real’s defense became even more chaotic. They needed to stage a comeback with ten men, so they kept pressing and pushing and trying to get a goal. That left even more spaces behind their uncoordinated defense that could be exploited by Sociedad. And with their improved passing chains on the wings, Sociedad could launch more and more dangerous counterattacks.
To take advantage of this, Alguacil substituted the more defensive right back Elustondo for Joseba Zaldúa (69th minute) and midfielder Merino for the more counterattacking Rubén Pardo (73rd minute). The latter substitution would prove decisive as Pardo scored from a counterattack led by Illarramendi and Willian José in the 83rd minute, effectively sentencing the game.
In a Real Madrid where everyone seems too afraid to break away from Solari’s rigid script, Vinicius was bold enough to improvise and be unpredictable. This speaks volumes about his personality and potential. However, the current European and world champion should not be depending on an 18-year-old for chance creation, as exceptional as he may be. Real had some unlucky moments in this game, but the harsh reality is that this loss reflects their current performance as a team. Their attack is predictable and rigid, and their defensive structure is easily disordered. The worst part about all this? There is no tactical progress or evolution. The problems of Solari’s Real Madrid are the same problems they had two months ago.
At Real Sociedad, it seems that Alguacil wants a more proactive, possession-based approach for his team, but the ideas of Garitano’s counterattacking plan are still fresh in the players’ minds. Right now, his team looks like a mix of his plan and Garitano’s and fails to execute either plan consistently well. This is quite normal considering the sudden mid-season change in coaches. It will take more time for Alguacil to create a team identity that reflects his football preferences.
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