Valencia 2-1 Real Madrid: Valencia risk 3 v 3 at the back and push the wing-backs forward

January 7, 2015

The first-half line-ups

Valencia ended Real Madrid’s incredible 22-match winning run with a brave tactical performance at the Mestalla.

Valencia coach Nuno Espirito Santo continued with the 3-5-2 system he’d deployed for the first time in the 1-0 win at Eibar just before the winter break. There was a significant change, however, with new signing Enzo Perez coming straight into the side in place of Javi Fuego, while Antonio Barragan replaced Sofiane Feghouli on the right. On the opposite flank, Pablo Piatti didn’t last the first half, and was replaced by Jose Gaya.

Carlo Ancelotti selected the expected side, the starting XI which – aside from the absence of Luka Modric, who is still out injured – is his first-choice this season.

(Watch YouTube highlights here)

3 v 3 at the back

The major point of interest here was Valencia playing three-against-three at the back. And not three defenders against any three forwards, but against the world’s two most expensive footballers in Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, and a prolific central striker in Karim Benzema.

While many “three-man” defences against these opponents would actually be a five-man defence, Valencia’s wing-backs showed no interest in tracking back and getting goalside of Bale and Ronaldo. It was all about the individual performances of Shkodran Mustafi, Nicolas Otamendi and Lucas Orban. Luckily for Valencia, all three were outstanding and Valencia defended extremely well in open play.

The three defenders all played a very physical man-marking role against their individual opponents. Orban, in particular, stuck extremely tight to Bale, giving him a couple of pushes and naughty kicks to underline his physical threat – but he largely nullified the Welshman, who only had a clear sight of goal in a strange incident midway through the second half, when Valencia ‘accidentally’ took a free-kick in midfield, and Real counter-attacked quickly. Otherwise, Bale was always receiving the ball with his back to goal, and rarely had the chance to turn and run.

In the centre, Otamendi was also excellent against Benzema. He also stuck close, following the Frenchman to the touchlines when required – but when Benzema dropped deep, Otamendi tended to pass him onto Perez, and remained in position as a sweeper. Theoretically this should have made Valencia more secure at the back, but Real actually had two good opportunities when Otamendi slipped when having no-one to mark. Real’s build-up was better, though, when Benzema came deep – his average position was deeper than Bale or Ronaldo.

Mustafi had the most difficult job of all, against Ronaldo, but his marking was so tight that it’s difficult to remember major contributions from Ronaldo. He opened the scoring from the penalty spot, and had a decent effort at 1-2 down when typically cutting inside and shooting from range, but he barely received the service to influence the game. That was a result of the marking, and Real’s inability to work the ball forward quickly from midfield.


Even more than the formation battle, the most memorable feature of the game was its physicality, and the sheer number of tackles and fouls throughout the game – which was inevitable considering Valencia had basically gone one-against-one across the pitch, with the exception of Perez, who was free in front of the defence.

Valencia were too impetuous with their challenges in the opening 30 minutes, conceding too many free-kicks – one of which resulted in the penalty concession for Ronaldo’s opener – and getting too many players booked. The match was refereed extremely strictly, and at one stage a major concern for Valencia seemed to be keeping 11 men on the pitch, considering they’d had six players booked by the hour mark. They escaped without any red cards.

This, though, was probably the right way to cause Real problems. This is a team that plays without either a proper holding midfielder, or a physical, box-to-box midfielder. Ancelotti is essentially fielding three number tens together in a 4-3-3, and if there’s a clear area of weakness, it’s the lack of a functional destroyer to command the game when the going gets tough.

It has, of course, been an entirely successful strategy – you don’t win 22 games on the trot with a huge hole in the middle of your side – but it’s logical that they struggle against this approach. It’s also arguably that lack of physicality which causes problems against Atletico (although Diego Simeone’s side defend in a different way, concentrating heavily on shape rather than man-to-man marking).

However, it’s worth comparing this performance to Real’s display here three years ago, in a 3-2 win. In that match, Real’s third goal was a brilliant summary of their fierce, determined nature under Jose Mourinho (and, amongst Mourinho’s struggles in his final year, the quality of the side in his second season has rather been overlooked). They won six 50:50 challenges from their own box to the opposition box, scoring a counter-attacking goal that was about brawn rather than brains. It’s difficult to imagine they would have come out on top in six similar challenges this time around.

Gomes role

To characterise this as a simple physical, defensive-minded performance would be hugely unfair on the Valencia players, however, as they also showed great ability in possession. The front two weren’t particularly involved – they worked hard out of possession, kept the side compact, before drifting either side of Kroos to cause problems. Neither enjoyed a particularly sparkling game, however.

A key player was Andre Gomes, who acted as the most advanced midfielder. Without the ball he started the midfield pressure, and at turnovers he made clever runs, sliding past Kroos and into pockets of space between the lines. It meant Valencia’s other midfielders could play an obvious forward pass into a dangerous position, which contrasted with Real’s inability to penetrate Valencia’s midfield. Gomes came close to scoring twice with drives from the edge of the box, where Real were conceding more space than they would have liked. This was the first time for months that Kroos hasn’t been able to command that zone.


Equally important to Valencia’s attacking was the wing-backs, who enjoyed tremendous freedom throughout. Barragan attacked with great energy, while Piatti and Gaya on the other flank were more technical and dangerous in possession.

Either way, they had space. Bale and Ronaldo were understandably told to stay up the pitch, looking for counter-attacking opportunities which surprisingly never arrived. Marcelo and Dani Carvajal couldn’t come up the pitch for fear of leaving their centre-backs exposed to two strikers with no protection (although, of course, Valencia were doing something similar at the other end). Therefore, there was a 40-yard yawning gap between Real’s full-backs and wide forwards. Valencia’s wing-backs often collected possession, then ran at speed.

The equaliser, at the start of the second half, summed up the situation. Gaya was free on the left, then looked across and found Barragan, whose shot deflected in via a Pepe deflection. Both wing-backs were free, and they combined for the crucial first goal. Barragan came close to another midway through the second half, too, and this is a player who had never previously registered for Valencia.

It was interesting that Espirito Santo continued with the same tactics despite being 1-0 down at half-time. He rightly acknowledged Valencia were playing well, didn’t panic, and continued with a ‘more of the same’ approach.

Real problems

Real didn’t play especially badly, although they failed to show many flashes of inspiration, primarily because they couldn’t play around the strict marking upfront. That, in itself, was surprising: Ancelotti would have been delighted that Real were going to be three-against-three against the Valencia backline. Surely Ronaldo or Bale would get the better of their opponents often enough to create goalscoring chances?

That wasn’t the case, and here Real’s lack of movement was arguably the problem. The front three rarely rotated positions, which is natural given their various skillsets, but it made life easy for the Valencia defenders, who rarely had positional decisions to make. There were few runs from James Rodriguez or Isco to link closely with the front three, or get behind them, either.

Ancelotti’s substitution were intriguing. Jese for Bale was a natural move, especially as Bale looked battered from Orban’s close attention. Ancelotti also turned to Javier Hernandez in place of Karim Benzema, presumably hoping his pace would cause Otamendi problems – Valencia were using quite a high defensive line.

More interesting was the introduction of Sami Khedira, in place of James. Not only did Ancelotti decide against using an extra attacker, he actually removed a playmaker and brought on a physical, combative and energetic player. It wasn’t the substitution many would have made, but made sense considering how Real were being outfought in the middle of the pitch. In 20 minutes, Khedira won possession as many times as Kroos in the entire game.

Ultimately Real were unable to make a comeback, and their best chances came from crosses and set-pieces. Isco had a headed chance, and Sergio Ramos twice threatened from good situations too. It was Valencia who won the game from a corner, though, and Otamendi’s bullet header was a fitting way for the home side to triumph – this victory owed much to outstanding individual defensive performances.


This was a very good team performance from Valencia, but also a display where various individuals were magnificent, especially at the back. Orban and Mustafi’s shackling of Bale and Ronaldo was particularly remarkable, all the more incredible considering Valencia played without a spare man. Perez immediately understood his holding role and played well on debut, while the wing-backs were highly attacking and Gomes performed well with and without the ball.

“This [3-5-2] system can give us much in an attacking sense because we can play with two strikers, but we must still work on the variety of systems we use,” said Espirito Santo.

Others might take more lessons from their overall approach (shutting down the wide players with man-marking, and being highly physical overall) than their precise formation, which worked well on the day, but was a highly risky strategy. Less talented defenders wouldn’t have been able to cope with Ronaldo and Bale.

Real hardly need to panic – it’s worth remembering that 22-game winning run – but this asked questions of this system. Kroos has adapted well to the deeper role, but against top opponents he might appreciate Khedira alongside him. Three number tens in tandem can work against the majority of La Liga clubs, but maybe not against strong sides.

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