Why Real Madrid's diamond has to go
Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid triumphed in Cardiff last season against an astute Juventus on the back of eliminating Atletico Madrid and Bayern Munich. The secret to the defence of their champions league crown was the use of the 4-4-2 diamond with Casemiro at its base and Isco at its apex.
This system surprised Madrid’s opponents due to the free-floating role employed by Isco making it harder for opposition players to mark him. His work rate and creation of overloads across the pitch made it easy for Real Madrid to press, retain possession and snuff out opposition passing lanes. It is, of course, not very surprising that he rarely lasted the whole 90 minutes, usually replaced by the likes of Marco Asensio.
The system, although, ensuring numerical superiority in the middle of the park, lacks in providing the necessary coverage for Madrid’s full-backs, especially with their reliance on the width contributed by Marcelo and Dani Carvajal’s runs. This leaves acres of space in behind the full-backs ready to be exploited, forcing Luka Modric and Toni Kroos to simultaneously cover the centre of the pitch and their respective flanks.
Further, Casemiro lacks the positional discipline required to pull off this formation. His constant movements up the pitch coupled with Madrid’s over-reliance on wing-play, especially on the left flank (with the likes of Marcelo, Kroos, Isco, Ronaldo), means that any opposition counter through the middle leaves the players back peddling, putting further pressure on the centre-backs.
Fast forward to this season and the diamond, despite all this, is now Zinedine Zidane’s preferred formation, especially in the big games, the difference being that his opposition knows this too. The results have been less than pleasing, a draw and a loss to Tottenham Hotspur in the group stages of the Champions League meant that Madrid ended up as group runners-up and received the task of overcoming an in-form Paris Saint-Germain.
Zidane’s diamond struggled but the use of Marco Asensio and Lucas Vazquez changed both games in Madrid’s favour. This switch to a flat 4-4-2 assured complete horizontal coverage and the tireless work put in by the wingers meant that the Madrid full-backs had the necessary support going forward as well as the ability to stretch play.
It appears Zidane has found his new end of season secret weapon but curiously enough, stuck to the diamond in his quarter-final tie with Juventus. The Italians controlled most of the first leg but a Ronaldo masterclass coupled with a strong showing by Madrid’s centre-back pair and Zidane’s second-half substitutions meant that Real Madrid went home with a dominant 3-0 lead.
The return leg, however, was disastrous as Juve’s high intensity saw them score twice as Real Madrid’s diamond was overrun, and Zidane was forced into an uncharacteristic half-time double substitution, with the possibility of extra time looming. The introduction of Vazquez and Asensio, despite the Navas error that led to the third goal, allowed Madrid to achieve some semblance of stability and it was this newfound strength that led to the attack which culminated in an injury time penalty.
It seems quite apparent that time has run out on the diamond and moving back to the simple 4-4-2 is the need of the hour. Isco’s ambiguous role has reduced his efficiency and the downside of Marcelo’s attacking prowess is that he is sometimes caught out of position.
Further, Casemiro’s troubles against opposition pressing continues, as does his up-field marauding. It is imperative that Zidane considers these facets of Madrid’s game when picking his XI against Bayern Munich. If the half time substitutions in the second leg loss to Juve are any indications of what’s to come, the semi-final will see Madrid lining up with a flat midfield, that is ruthless in its attacking and organised in its defending.