Real Madrid 1-1 Valencia: Xabi Alonso dictates the game but Real fail to find the finishes
Mauricio Pellegrino’s debut as Valencia coach resulted in a draw at the Bernabeu.
Jose Mourinho’s side was very familiar from last season – no new signings played. The main surprise was that Lassana Diarra was fielded alongside Xabi Alonso in midfield.
Valencia continued to play in a 4-2-3-1 system, the formation they’ve pretty much used since Pellegrino’s mentor Rafael Benitez was in charge of the club a decade ago. New signings Joao Pereira, Fernando Gago and Andres Guardado all slotted in where you’d expect.
This was a game that started surprisingly open, before becoming increasingly cagey as the match wore on, as Valencia sensed they could pick up a draw by parking the bus.
Many 4-2-3-1s are effectively just 4-4-1-1s, and when you get two 4-2-3-1s playing in a defensive fashion, the game can simply be two banks of four against two banks of four, and little excitement. In the first half of this match, however, we had two true 4-2-3-1s against each other, with the wingers pushed high up, level with each side’s number ten. Defensively, those players looked to watch their opposing full-back, rather than forming a second bank of four.
It was essentially four attackers against six defensive players for much of the first half, with the play stretched and attacks flowing quickly from end to end. Valencia were brave in pushing their full-backs forward, with Jeremy Mathieu a threat down the left in particular.
Real Madrid seemed to work the left flank a great deal – Mesut Ozil tended to drift to that side, as he often does to combine with Cristiano Ronaldo, while Fabio Coentrao played high up the pitch too. Some good combination play also occurred when Gonzalo Higuain moved to the left, too – he drifted to the right just as often, but found fewer teammates to combine with.
Ronaldo tested Diego Alves very early on with his trademark shot from an inside-left position after cutting onto his right foot, but overall was much quieter than usual. It was notable how rarely he got the ball in a one-versus-one situation against his international colleague Joao Pereira – the first time he did, deep into the second half, Pereira got himself into a terrible body position, and crudely checked Ronaldo for a free-kick within shooting range.
Though Ronaldo would have liked the majority of Real’s build-up play coming down his side, perhaps Real should have varied it more, attacking down the right before switching play quickly to give him space to run with the ball. He only contributed one dribble past an opponent all night.
When the play did move out to Di Maria on the right, he looked in good form. Like Ronaldo, he had an early shot after coming inside onto his stronger foot, and also played an excellent ball over the top for Higuain’s goal after similar initial movement.
The man switching play to the flanks was Alonso, who was the game’s key outfield player. He attempted 76 passes – Sergio Ramos was next on 62, and no other player attempted over 48, outlining his continual influence. Of these passes, he completed 15 of his 16 attempted long balls – the only exception was a diagonal towards substitute Jose Callejon in the final minutes, when Real needed something special.
Even by his standards, his long-range passing was superb, and his work to receive the ball in deep positions was also impressive. Jonas and Roberto Soldado dropped back and prevented easy passes from Real’s centre-backs to their central midfielders (the type of compactness Benitez was famous for demanding) so Alonso made a big effort to drop deep, often to the left, collect short balls, then spray passes out to the wings.
As Diego Alves kept Valencia in the game with some excellent saves, Mourinho went chasing the victory. His Plan B was both early – arriving on 60 minutes – and dramatic. He took off Diarra, his combative central midfielder (Alonso was less effective after this as he now had to tackle more, and picked up a booking), and threw on Karim Benzema as a second striker. Real became a 4-1-3-2, with Ozil dropping slightly deeper to pick the ball up in the centre of midfield, but still playing as a number ten. Callejon replaced Di Maria ten minutes later.
Immediately after the switch in formation, Real enjoyed a big spell of pressure, and the second goal appeared imminent. Pellegrino responded, taking off Soldado and introducing another midfielder, Daniel Parejo. Tino Costa moved forward and Jonas became the main forward – in effect, it was still roughly 4-2-3-1…expect Parejo got behind the ball quickly, and the wide players defended in front of the full-backs.
It was now 4-5-1, and Valencia resorted to parking the bus and withstanding Real pressure, complete with some unsubtle timewasting. Their tactics weren’t particularly special – they relied on Alves too much to credit Pellegrino with any kind of spectacular success – but Valencia looked well-organised and frustrated Real in the final 20 minutes.
Pellegrino woudn’t have chosen to face such a tough game first up, but maybe it was a good time to play Real Madrid – both Ronaldo and Ozil weren’t at their best, and they lacked the raw physical power that was crucial in their title win last season – which was most obvious when beating Valencia at the Mestalla.
Real’s approach doesn’t appear to have varied significantly since last season, though this depends upon any late transfer activity. Luka Modric is still expected to sign, and this would certainly give them a different option, although it remains to be seen how he’d fit into the centre of Real’s midfield. Alonso’s performance here underlined his importance to the side, and while it’s odd to talk about a 30-year-old as having improved at this stage of his career, Alonso has become a more consistent, pivotal player in the past 18 months.
For now, there’s little to discuss about Valencia’s new coach – this could have been the Valencia of Benitez or Unai Emery – but Pellegrino is a promising young coach and is one to watch this season.