Real Madrid just about held onto victory over Chelsea in their second International Champions Cup match of the summer on Saturday night, winning 3-2 thanks to goals from Marcelo (two) and Mariano Diaz in a dominant first half.
Once again, manager Zinedine Zidane opted to make plenty of changes during and after the break. But the first hour or so gave plenty of insights into the tactical work that is ongoing this summer.
Real once more fielded the 4-4-2 system that they are expected to utilise once the UEFA Super Cup, their first competitive game of the season, rolls around on August 9. However, Zidane made a few in-game tweaks that saw the team play more directly from back to front, tilt to a 4-3-3 at times in the first half and, critically, had his midfield less linear on the ball than in their fixture against Paris Saint-Germain on Thursday.
Key to this last point was Casemiro's movement and use of the ball, starting once again in central midfield alongside Mateo Kovacic.
The Brazilian proved one of the most important parts of the team last season, giving former boss Rafa Benitez a defensive shield in the first half of the season when opponents showed a counter-attacking proficiency, and after the new year—under Zidane—he was a rock-solid base who gave the platform for the attackers to shine.
Playing as the defensive midfielder in the 4-3-3, Casemiro had the physicality, the mobility and the presence of mind to track back with runners, make tackles and distribute the ball well. He is not, however, a pure anchor who is content to sit and pass short—instead, he was often seen showcasing his ability to surge forward in possession, covering 30 or 40 metres in short order, bypassing Luka Modric and Toni Kroos in the process.
That acceleration and power gave Real a surprise outlet from time to time, and in a 4-4-2, it becomes even more important; both pivot players will typically have to be able to contribute in both halves of the pitch, even if their main strength is in one or the other.
This summer's first ICC game for Real, the loss against PSG, saw Casemiro sit tight and move only according to Kovacic's position, but the second match saw an evolution of the system.
4-4-2, Opening Chelsea's Lines
The teams essentially lined up 4-4-2 vs. 4-4-2, though Chelsea were more a five-man midfield out of possession. After an opening period when the English team were superior, Real Madrid quickly gained control of the ball and, thus, the territory in which the game was played.
Chelsea were not a press-high side, allowing Real to move the ball easily into midfield, where the shift in shape was seen and Casemiro's importance came to the fore.
Instead of having a straight quartet in the middle, Real encouraged two, or at times even three, players to have higher starting positions, leaving Casemiro to drop deep, take possession from the centre-backs and room in front of him to play from. A driving run forward, a sprayed pass wide or even a diagonal long ball to the front men into the channels—either way, Real's strategy was to get the ball forward rapidly.
Rather than play as a two alongside each other, Casemiro and Kovacic looked to make angles and put distance between themselves to provide an outlet for a pass closer to the goal they were attacking.
It made for a risky strategy if Real lost the ball in midfield, but that's of greater likelihood against a team pressing high upfield. Casemiro was diligent in possession and, of course, protected the defence well while he was on the pitch.
As well as the midfielder's importance, the switch marked a tactical nuance from Zidane that will be interesting to watch develop over the course of his first full season in charge.
Modric and Kroos
Casemiro and Kovacic have impressed individually and as a pair, but it has to be noted they likely remain a second-string pivot for Real when everyone is fit—and only for the times when 4-4-2 is the starting system.
Kroos and Modric will return to the fray soon enough, and Zidane is likely to stick with them whenever possible, though they lack the defensive mobility and composure of their Brazilian team-mate. Kroos and Modric shone in a four-man midfield under Carlo Ancelotti, but as a regular option together, the German needs to make a big improvement on his performances from last season if Zidane is to rely on them.
Casemiro is almost a guaranteed starter against any opponent with offensive strength. No alternative has been signed, he fits both formations Real play in and doesn't lack for contributing going forward.
Pre-season form won't count for much once the real action gets underway, but performing well on tour will do nothing but cement the amount Zidane will rely on him in the games that matter most.
- Marcelo's two goals were expertly taken but again highlighted how Real's left side is hugely superior to the right during the early part of pre-season. The buildup, movement and runs off the ball all came down that channel when Zidane's side looked most dangerous.
- Kiko Casilla showed why the fitness and form of Keylor Navas is critical to Real's success this season; despite not conceding, the Spanish goalkeeper was largely disappointing, showing poor footwork, making rash decisions and only pulling off one save worthy of noting as a positive.
- Kovacic and Alvaro Morata continue to impress, suiting both the system and the style.
- The 22-year-old striker Mariano Diaz showed his qualities as similar to Morata's: running the channels, taking possession and turning quickly. And he scored a phenomenal goal to boot. He'll likely leave on loan, per Marca, but might there be a case to keep him at least until January if Real are going to play 4-4-2 with some regularity?