This article was written for spanishfootball.info
Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid side defeated Real Sociedad in a closely fought game that was settled by a first-half strike from the Argentine Gonzalo Higuain.
Jose Mourinho was without Ricardo Carvalho, Raul Albiol and Nuri Sahin for the trip to Sociedad, so he used Alvaro Arbeloa at right-back with Sergio Ramos moving to left-sided centre-back. He sprung a surprise by selecting Fabio Coentrao and Lassana Diarra ahead of Marcelo and Sami Khedira respectively, perhaps with one eye on their trip to Lyon in the Champions League in midweek. Higuain got the nod ahead of Benzema and Mesut Ozil was selected ahead of Kaka, who has begun to rediscover his Milan form this season.
For the hosts, regular starters Asier Illarramendi and David Zurutza were unavailable, as was Gorka Elustondo. Philippe Montanier, Sociedad’s coach, made a few unexpected changes in terms of formation and personnel. Illarramendi was replaced by Markel Bergara and attacking midfielder Zurutza was effectively replaced by the centre-back Mikel Gonzalez. This resulted in a change from 4-2-3-1 (which they’ve used for the other 9 games this season) to 5-4-1. Liassine Cadamuro replaced Alberto De la Bella at left-back, while the French wonderkid Antoine Griezmann and Imanol Agirretxe were left on the bench, with Daniel Estrada and Carlos Vela picked to play instead of them.
One thing was clear right from the first minute of the game, and that was that Real Sociedad were going to sit deep and try and hit Madrid on the counter-attack. It was also obvious that Coentrao was given almost the entirety of the left flank to exploit, as Ronaldo was instructed to play more centrally than he has been used to in previous games, presumably to try and help break down their opponent’s five-man backline. In the ninth minute, Coentrao received the ball on the left and found Higuain between the right-back and right centre-back with a lovely through ball and Higuain made no mistake, chipping over keeper Claudio Bravo. (They’ve won the last 67 league matches in which they’ve taken the lead, not a good sign for Sociedad).
Indeed, this is something that a lot has been written about recently, Madrid’s propensity to try and kill the game off before half-time. In their two previous victories (4-0 vs Malaga, 3-0 vs Villarreal) all 7 goals were scored before the 40-minute mark. Perhaps Mourinho is looking to the long-term of the final stretch in La Liga (presumably in a battle with Barcelona) and the closing stages of the Champions League, (as well as the two Clasicos against Barcelona) and is trying to keep his side as fresh as possible until then by letting them relax slightly in the second halves of their games.
Sociedad defended with two rigid banks of 5 (defence) and 4 (midfield), which could have isolated Carlos Vela up front, but Xabi Prieto often drifted inside to the no. 10 role when they were on the ball, with Cadamuro pushing up from left-back. Daniel Estrada, usually a right-back but playing as a right-midfielder, also pushed up to support the Mexican striker when in possession. The problem was, they were so often chasing the ball that they barely created any chances in the first half. Madrid had 70% of possession before the break and played most of the first 45 minutes in Sociedad’s half. They created a few chances themselves after the goal, none of them clear-cut, bar a Higuain shot straight at Bravo when one-on-one right before half-time. Key to Madrid’s domination were Lassana Diarra and Xabi Alonso, who barely missed a pass between them.
Madrid’s control of the game continued until the break, with Real Sociedad not having a single shot on goal in the first half.
Real Sociedad came out into the second half looking much more energetic and motivated. As is usual in a 5-man back line, one of the centre-backs (they took it in turns) began to foray forward, creating an extra midfielder and creative outlet. The full-backs also pushed further up the pitch, with the 3 centre-backs spreading out across the pitch. It was a lively start to the second half and the match was fairly balanced.
Carlos Vela had a great chance on the hour mark but could only fire at Iker Casillas. Immediately after that, Antoine Griezmann came on for Estrada and Kaka came on for Ozil, who was poor by his standards. In fact, the whole Madrid side were relatively disappointing after half-time, and looked less dynamic and energetic than they have done in their previous high-scoring victories. Benzema came on late on and played on the left of the 3 in the 4-2-3-1 with Ronaldo going up front, presumably because he was fresh and would be able to track back more. Coentrao continued to give Carlos Martinez a tough time, so the Spaniard was replaced with a few minutes to go.
There was little of note in the second half, from a tactical perspective. Both sides continued in the same shape as before and there were practically no chances to speak of.
In the end, the game was settled within the opening ten minutes with a brilliant finish from Higuain. Other than that, there weren’t many good opportunities for either side and the match was pretty dull, both from a tactical point of view and a spectator’s. Coentrao was the man of the match as he dominated Madrid’s left-hand side, with Ronaldo playing more as an old-fashioned inside-left than anything else.
Mourinho will be happy with three points but his side were far from convincing on Saturday evening. There is plenty to work on, and it will be interesting to see who he picks in his team for the midweek trip to Lyon.
Montanier’s risk of changing formation and players in the end did not pay off, but his side showed good character and spirit in the second-half and gave Madrid a decent game. He should start Griezmann next game against Rayo Vallecano and will hope that Illarramendi and Zurutza are back for that away trip after their respective injuries.