Real Madrid vs. Real Sociedad: Key Observations Live from the Bernabéu
After two consecutive draws in La Liga, Real Madrid returned to their winning ways on Saturday night. Los Blancos were impressive in front of the home supporters, thrashing Real Sociedad by a scoreline of 5-1.
With manager José Mourinho, fitness coach Rui Farias, Mesut Özil, and Pepe missing the match through suspensions, it could have been a difficult fixture for Madrid.
However, an early strike from Gonzalo Higuaín, and two goals from both Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema, secured the three points for Los Blancos.
I was at the Santiago Bernabéu on Saturday night, and here are six key observations I made in Madrid's convincing victory.
Fábio Coentrão Will Have to Earn Back the Madridistas' Trust
Fábio Coentrão returned to first-team football on Saturday night, after being left out of the squad for Villarreal due to "coaching decisions."
The Portuguese international was photographed smoking outside of a restaurant on his birthday, which led to Mourinho dropping him from the midweek squad. When he came on as a substitute for Karim Benzema in the second half, the home supporters jeered and whistled Coentrão's introduction.
The former Benfica star has fought for the Madrid shirt since his move this past summer, showing great determination and work-rate. However, he will have to win back the Madridistas' trust after this recent birthday incident.
Coentrão's versatility makes him a key player in this final push of the season, but the Bernabéu wants to see 100% commitment both on and off the pitch.
Raphaël Varane Is Ready to Face World-Class Opposition
Raphaël Varane gave an absolutely world-class display against Real Sociedad.
Quick, strong, and composed on the ball, the 18-year-old Frenchman was excellent alongside Sergio Ramos in defense. Filling in for the suspended Pepe, Varane showed the talent and potential of a top-quality centre-back in the making.
The former Lens defender was strong in the air and committed in the challenge. With his impressive pace and athleticism, Varane was able to make a few key interceptions and well-timed tackles.
Although he was excellent at the back, there were a few occasions where Varane looked hesitant to step up and pressure Sociedad's attackers in transition. Where Pepe would provide that initial pressure with Ramos covering, both Varane and Ramos dropped off.
This slight miscommunication is mainly a result of the two defenders rarely playing together. As Ramos and Varane play together more frequently and start to build better chemistry, they will sort out these situations with ease.
Although the Frenchman has mainly featured against average opponents, such as Sociedad, Granada, and Racing Santander, he is ready to face tougher opposition. Pepe and Ramos are still the first-choice central defensive partnership, but Varane has shown the quality to slot alongside either defender against top sides in La Liga.
Nuri Şahin Looked Decent in His First Minutes of 2012
Nuri Şahin has endured a rough start to his Real Madrid career. Sidelined through injury and struggling for full fitness, the Turkish international has played the least first-team football out of all the summer signings.
Şahin received his first minutes of 2012 for Los Blancos on Saturday night, coming on as a late substitute for Sami Khedira.
Although the three points were already secured for Madrid, the former Borussia Dortmund star looked decent in midfield. Alongside Xabi Alonso in midfield, Şahin helped keep possession and spread the play.
He looked comfortable on the ball and slightly quicker in his movement. Şahin hit a precision cross-field pass to Higuaín and showed great commitment in one sliding tackle.
The Turkish star has to keep working before he gets regular first-team football for Los Blancos, but he showed bright flashes against Sociedad.
It's System over Individual Players for Mourinho
With Özil missing through suspension, and both José Callejón and Ángel di María out with injuries, Mourinho could have easily adjusted his tactics and system for the match against Sociedad.
The Portuguese tactician could have played a true 4-3-3 with Alonso, Khedira, and Esteban Granero in midfield, with Ronaldo, Kaká, and either Benzema or Higuaín as the attacking trio.
Mourinho could have experimented with both Benzema and Higuaín playing together upfront in their natural positions, but he opted against using a possible 4-4-2 formation or 4-2-2-2 system.
However, Los Blancos set out with their standard 4-2-3-1 formation, with starting Higuaín upfront and Benzema out on the right.
Higuaín and Benzema Were Not Strike Partners, but They Can Play in the Same XI
Higuaín and Benzema were not strike partners against Sociedad. Mourinho selected both players in the starting XI against Sociedad, but they did not play as a duo upfront.
The Frenchman featured out on the right of Madrid's standard 4-2-3-1 formation, with Higuaín starting as the central striker.
Although Benzema primarily featured on the right, he occasionally swapped positions with the Argentine hitman. If the run of play took Benzema inside, Higuaín drifted out wide and kept the shape.
With Higuaín's lethal finishing ability and Benzema's versatility, the two strikers can be effective in the same starting XI.
They linked up well for the opening goal, with the Frenchman coming in from the right wing and finding Higuaín at the edge of the box. The Argentine hitman took the shot early and beat Sociedad keeper Claudio Bravo at the near post.
Both strikers were in the starting XI, but Mourinho did not send them out to play as strike partners. With their significantly different styles of play and tendencies on the pitch, Benzema and Higuaín showed that they can play in the same squad.
Karim Benzema Provided Much-Needed Width and Attacking Balance
Karim Benzema was the star man for Real Madrid on Saturday night.
The French star showed world-class control and technique with his first goal, taking down the precision long-range pass from Xabi Alonso on the full sprint and providing the deft touch to lob the keeper.
Although Benzema started the match slightly out of position, he has the versatility and movement to be effective out on the right. In this breakout season with Los Blancos, the Madrid No. 9 has shown the ability to play any of the four attacking positions in Mourinho's 4-2-3-1.
Benzema's play down the right was instrumental to Madrid's impressive football on Saturday night. The former Lyon striker provided much-needed width and attacking balance as well.
When Özil plays on the right, he frequently moves inside to combine with teammates. With Kaká drifting left, and Ronaldo staying on the left wing, the team becomes overly dominant towards that side. Álvaro Arbeloa does not provide width from his right-back position, frequently cutting inside or playing square passes towards the middle.
With Benzema starting on the right, Madrid were able to spread out the play and create more space in the final third. Although he did not try to consistently beat defenders to the byline, the Frenchman pulled defenders out of the middle with his positioning, wide play, and intelligent movement.
Real Madrid will benefit from the return of Di María over the next few weeks, but Benzema showed that his dynamic style of play and versatility can bring attacking balance to the squad.