Real Madrid 2-0 Valencia: Real win the midfield battle

April 18, 2010

In the end, this was a routine win for Real, and the scoreline doesn’t really reflect their dominance.  As if the gap between Spain’s top two and the rest needed to be outlined any further, the difference between Real (2nd) and Valencia (3rd) is now an incredible 24 points.

Real played the diamond shape they’ve played for most of the season, and were unchanged from their previous game, a win over Getafe. Rafael van der Vaart played ahead of a flexible midfield trio – Fernando Gago, Guti and Xabi Alonso all took their turn to go forward, but one was always sat in front of the defence. Cristiano Ronaldo started playing wide-right, up against the makeshift left-back Jordi Alba, whilst Marcelo got forward on the left.

Valencia were in their accustomed 4-2-3-1 shape, with a highly flexible front four – the two wingers switched throughout, and David Villa often dropped deep to try and win aerial battles, with David Silva becoming the highest player. David Albelda played a solid holding role whilst Ever Banega was more energetic.

Real dominated the first half. Ronaldo was playing almost on the touchline against the isolated Alba, who was keen to confront Ronaldo before he could pick up speed and run at him – and this opened up space in a Valencia defence that generally plays very narrow, space which was exploited by forward runs from the midfield players early on. Indeed, Valencia’s defence looked shakey throughout, and twice Gonzalo Higuain broke through easily in a centre-left position – once he scored, one he chipped onto the top of the net.

Real were on top because they were dominating the centre of midfield. David Silva occupied one central midfield (generally Alonso) but further forward it was 3 v 2, especially with Rafael van der Vaart dropping deep and playing in Gago and Guti, who made forward runs. Gago played an interesting role – coming short to collect the ball from the centre-backs and looking to play one-twos around the Valencia midfield, and he created Higuain’s second chance with an excellent pass, when a Valencia centre-back had come into midfield to try and solve Valencia’s numerical disadvantage, and left space for Higuain to go through one-on-one.

Valencia didn’t get a grip of the game in the first half, and their wide players in particular struggled to make an impact. Both stayed wide of the Real full-backs when Valencia had possession in midfield, making it difficult to play them in. They were also expected to get goalside of Real’s midfield when Valencia didn’t have the ball, meaning they were constantly inside their own third when they received the ball, and met straight away by Real’s carrileros.

That is generally Valencia’s game – they are content to soak up pressure and hit the opposition on the counter, but their defence looked so nervous tonight that it seemed a dangerous game – and with the wingers struggling for space, neither part of the tactic was working. Real also did well defensively – rather than pressuring Valencia’s six defensive players, they dropped deep into their own half and made it difficult for Valencia to play in behind them.

Valencia changed both personnel and strategy in the second half. Pablo Hernandez was replaced by Joaquin at the break, and Mata with Vicente soon after, a clear sign that Unai Emery was distinctly unimpressed with his wingers. Banega was moved further forward, almost making a 4-1-4-1, which stopped Real making so many runs from the centre of midfield, and this also had the effect of pushing Silva further forward, where he linked up much more frequently with Villa. Valencia started dominating possession and the wingers had less defensive responsibility, although Joaquin letting Marcelo go free should have led to a second Real goal.

The away side also seemed to play 15 yards further up the pitch, squeezing play and meaning Real’s midfield supremacy was less noticeable. This risked Real playing balls over the top for Ronaldo and Higuain, but a linesman too keen on raising his flag for offside constantly came to their rescue, as did the on-form Cesar Sanchez in the Valencia goal.

Real switched Ronaldo to the left where he was much less effective, and meant that Real were unbalanced – generally their threat from full-back comes from Ramos at right-back, so Ronaldo can play on the left without destabilizing the side. Today, however, with Ramos in the centre of defence, Marcelo was the full-back with more attacking qualities, and Ronaldo was occupying the space Marcelo had in the first half. Rafael van der Vaart also looked less suited to this system.

As if to underline the point, Real finally sealed the game in the 78th minute when Ronaldo moved back to the right-hand side. Marcelo was happy to see empty green grass infront of him – and the Brazilian got forward, cut the ball back for Ronaldo making a diagonal run in from the opposite flank, and the game was won.

Overall, an interesting 4-4-2 diamond v 4-2-3-1 match-up, and credit should go to Emery for his half-time team talk that seemed to put Real on the back foot. That said, Valencia still struggled to create chances, although they did hit the woodwork from a 30-yard Silva piledriver at 1-0. Real’s 11 shots on target to Valencia’s 3 tells the story of the game, and on another day Real would have won by a greater margin.

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