Valencia 2-3 Real Madrid: Real press well early on, Valencia better after substitutions
Real Madrid maintained their lead over Barcelona after an entertaining win over Valencia at the Mestalla.
Unai Emery went back to 4-2-3-1 having played two upfront in the previous game against Levante. Sofiane Feghouli started rather than Pablo Hernandez, and Daniel Parejo got a rare start in the centre of the attacking trio.
Jose Mourinho changed his system, moving Mesut Ozil out wide, bringing Lassana Diarra into the side and pushing Sami Khedira forward behind Karim Benzema. Angel Di Maria was injured.
This was a game of different stages: (1) Real dominated the first half. (2) The first 20 minutes of the second half saw little football with six yellow cards being produced in this period. (3) The final 25 minutes was topsy-turvy, with four goals.
Mourinho’s use of Khedira high up the pitch suggested he wanted to be aggressive defensively, closing down from the front – and that’s exactly what happened. Khedira and Diarra worked extremely hard to shut down the Valencia midfielders, leaving Xabi Alonso deeper in a less physically demanding role. The opening to the game, a little like the Bayern v Dortmund game earlier in the day, was all about the midfielders tracking each other, preventing the ball being played into feet.
The use of Khedira was inspired. Although he wasted one good opportunity through poor control (the obvious downside of playing a combative rather than a skilful player in that position), his energy set the tone for Real’s pressing, and it was slightly reminiscent of the role Pepe played in the Clasico series last season, albeit with someone less out of position, and less purely destructive.
The 3 v 3 in the midfield was a clear battleground, especially with so much closing down, and the most interesting individual contest was Parejo against Alonso- Parejo was the highest of the Valencia midfield trio, whilst Alonso was the deepest in Real’s three. Parejo saw little of the ball early on and became frustrated, and started dropping deeper and deeper into the midfield zone to try to become involved.
In theory this was the correct approach, but the nature of Real’s midfield meant that leaving Real’s deepest midfielder free was giving the most creative of the three, Alonso, time to dictate the play. He enjoyed the room he got when Parejo dropped deep, and although his assist for Benzema came from a long, quickly-taken free-kick rather than in open play, it showed that he was the man Valencia had to prevent getting space.
Real were very direct on the ball, trying to exploit the space behind the Valencia defence. The majority of chances, or near-chances, came when they got one player through on goal – they didn’t wait for Valencia to form two banks of four.
It was a very workmanlike, battling performance from Real, summed up by the fact that the two least talented players in the front four – Benzema and Khedira – both did their jobs excellently, whilst Ozil and Cristiano Ronaldo were more peripheral figures than usual.
Ozil wasn’t really comfortable out wide in the right-sided position up against Jordi Alba and Jeremy Mathieu – it was surprising that Mourinho wanted to play him up against the most dangerous part of Valencia’s side, and defensively he looked weak in the second half when Valencia grew into the game. The two left-sided Valencia players combined for a good chance, when Soldado couldn’t get a touch at the near post.
Valencia’s problem was that neither Feghouli nor Parejo could get into the game, and it was no surprise when Emery replaced them both, either side of Sergio Ramos making it 2-0 with a header from a corner. He brought on Jonas to play as a deep-lying forward and the Brazilian immediately showed more use than Parejo, happily receiving the ball with his back to goal, holding it up like a centre-forward and bringing others into play. Pablo Hernandez also came on to play a narrow right-sided role and provided direct running from the flank in behind the centre-backs.
Sure enough, Jonas and Pablo combined for the goal – Jonas got the ball between the lines, waited, then slipped a pass through for Pablo’s run in behind – his shot was saved, but Roberto Soldado slammed in the rebound.
Real were suddenly under pressure, but immediately restored their advantage through Ronaldo’s goal on the break. Much focus will be on the mistake from Diego Alves, but it was a very interesting goal from a tactical point of view, because it showed exactly what Real were set out to do. Not just to break quickly – although that was the plan, only obvious once Valencia actually started getting into the final third – but because, as Graham Hunter points out, Real won six 50-50 balls from the edge of their own box, to the edge of the Valencia box. It went:
- Diarra beats Jonas to a header (78:27)
- Marcelo gets in ahead of Pablo to clear (78:29)
- Ozil holds off Alba to flick on the ball (78:31)
- Higuain battles Miguel to head the ball forward (78:33)
- Pepe beats Mathieu to the loose ball (78:34)
- Ronaldo outwits Alves to set himself up for the goal (78:39)
That’s twelve seconds from defending on the edge of their own penalty box, to having an open goal at the other end, and the nature of the break – about tackles rather than flowing passing – shows what Real were set out to be – fierce combative, battling.
That should have wrapped the game up, but Valencia came back again. Artiz Aduriz came on for Alba, Mathieu went to left-back and Valencia went gung ho. Soldado again popped up with a clever finish, and a frantic late finish could well have made it 3-3.
A good tactical battle between two interesting managers. The game came down to this: Mourinho got his starting selection right with the use of Khedira high up, whilst Emery’s decision to play Feghouli and Parejo was a mistake, and Valencia only played well once Jonas and Pablo came on in attacking positions. Real ‘won’ the first 60 minutes before Valencia made changes. When Emery acted, the remainder of the game was 2-2.
There were a myriad of interesting features here: both sides pressing and leaving space in behind, Khedira’s role, Alonso being given space, Ronaldo and Ozil being less prominent than Benzema and Khedira, Jonas holding the ball up, Soldado’s brilliant finishing…but the main story was Real relishing individual battles, and coming out on top.