How Zidane converted a lackluster defence into a formidable one
Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images

Zidane the man-manager has always been regarded higher than Zidane the tactician. The combination both can be too good to be true but if man-manager Zidane can keep the level of motivation the way it is right now, we may encounter something defensively unprecedented at Real Madrid. The PSG defeat was a wake-up call and Real Madrid responded well so far. Four points from a possible six from the Pizjuan and Wanda Metropolitano are good results. Real Madrid have the chance to build on the momentum now with some favorable fixtures before the biggest of them all: El Clasico.

Zidane’s response in the post-PSG presser seemed to generic but it was as true as it could get. He kept emphasising on intensity, intensity and intensity again and again. With the same set of players that participated in that humiliation, Zidane has done something in those closed training sessions which has brought a drastic change in the defensive structure and thought-process of the team. The credit must go to Zidane the man-manager for ensuring a higher level of intensity on the pitch, but Zidane the tactician has complimented that beautifully by implementing a system where nobody tries to improvise unnecessarily.

Real Madrid conceded just one shot on goal (not even one goal but just one shot on goal!) from three domestic opponents Sevilla, Osasuna and Atletico. Although it did not got the media coverage or hype it could have, regardless of that, this is an unbelievable piece of statistic, specially given how fragile this unit looked barely a couple of weeks ago. The return of Sergio Ramos has obviously helped a lot. He has always been unorthodox with his ways which include his defensive techniques but you just cannot ignore the outcomes. Ramos brings an immense level of quality and intimidation in the Real Madrid backline. He remains one the best center-backs of the world regardless of immature opinions of a significant mass and luckily for Real Madrid, their captain looks to be at a level very close to his defensive best right now. His stats in the last three games reiterate the same thing.

Stats from sofascore.com

Real Madrid did not press opponents extensively let alone having a concrete counter-pressing scheme when you try to win the ball immediately after losing it. Right now, their counter-pressing in their own half has become quite remarkable. The pressing is not necessarily high in the opponent half for long periods in a game but they have started to go after the opponent possession-holder like hounds to win it back as soon as they can, with as many bodies required. This scheme will get better with time as it is only limited to winning back possession right now. With better off the ball movement from Real Madrid players who are away from the ball, this counter-pressing scheme will lead to good attacking transitions as well. But we’ll take it for now.

Heatmap from whoscored.com
Heatmap from whoscored.com
Heatmap from whoscored.com

Another key intervention has been about Carvajal’s positioning. Zidane always keeps his fullbacks high up the pitch, that is not a secret. But Real Madrid have become more efficient in breaking counters recently due to the horizontal shift of Dani Carvajal. It can be clearly seen by the red lines how he remained in very wide positions against PSG, but in the games after that, he remained in much central positions to aid the center back to challenge the counters. He also made himself available to participate in the attacks or to be more creative with long balls from these central positions in multiple transitions. This is in no way, a very orthodox system for a right-back but Real Madrid are reaping rewards.

Casemiro’s positional discipline has also been a key here. While analysing Real Madrid’s opening day team-golazo against Celta, we mentioned how the team instantly becomes more efficient in tackling counters if the Brazillian stays back when he is needed to stay back the most. While staying back he has the freedom to move horizontally to go after any potential threat carrier.

Heatmaps from whoscored.com
Heatmaps from whoscored.com

On the first heatmap here, Casemiro can be seen occupying rather narrower zones against PSG. He spent a lot of time in a much advanced positions to distribute but that didn’t help his defenders at all. On the second one, however, against Atletico, his zones were mostly within his half and provided support in wide positions as well. This is Casemiro’s best role: stay back, be strong and stop the threats in their tracks as quickly as possible with freedom in your half.

Gareth Bale and Eden Hazard have also worked really hard in cohesion with their fullbacks. In tight spaces of the Real Madrid flanks, Bale and Hazard made sure the full-backs had teammates closeby, for getting out of trouble. Again, credit to Zidane the man-manager for convincing two of the world’s biggest attackers about the idea of defending as a team with higher numbers. The same thing can be said about James and Valverde as well. While Valverde had a more conservative role anyway, James was a regular presence in his own half whenever a situation arrived that required more men to win the ball back. Winning back James and Bale’s confidence couldn’t have been easy for Zidane as both the players were practically in exile not too long ago. Similarly, the players also showed great dedication towards the greater goal of the team.

There is a physical aspect of keeping up with this level of intensity for the entire team but if they can manage the psychological side of it by staying on top of things at all times, Real Madrid would do even better later in the season.  Zidane has already hinted towards an A-team/B-team formula again which should mange fatigue pretty well, especially for the big games. Now it’s upon the players to keep up the good work as a unit.

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