The former Liverpool coach has ironed out some of los Blancos' defensive deficiencies under Carlo Ancelotti, says Gregor MacGregor...
Rafa Benitez may be something of a marmite coach with a good haul of trophies behind him, but he is having a good effect defensively at Real Madrid already this season. Whether chiefly because of a rebound effect from becoming the new coach (players desperate to impress etc) or subtle tweaking and new training methods, the capital-based side are conceding fewer goals than last season.
So far los Blancos have conceded just two goals in La Liga and none in the Champions League (their best start to a season defensively for five years). And last night they managed to keep a good PSG side at bay for the majority of the game in Paris, and were unlucky not to nick it.
The images below demonstrate the shape of Real Madrid this season and how Rafa has his side set up to play away from home against Europe's fellow big boys.
1) 4-4-1-1 shape
The opening rounds of last night's contest saw Madrid fall back into a 4-4-1-1 shape with Cristiano Ronaldo up front and Isco trying to find the pockets of space between PSG's midfield and defence.
2) Ronaldo kept free
The benefit of keeping the Portuguese superstar up front is that Benitez can then field 10 players behind him who are more likely to put in the industry needed to compete aginst the best teams. Isco can tuck back into midfield leaving Ronaldo alone up front to remain fresh for counter-attacks.
3) Marcelo protected
Of particular consqequence is that the attack-minded left-back Marcelo, often caught upfield and defensively out of position during matches (as we pointed out recently via this look at Madrid's defensive problems caused by Marcelo), can be protected more. Here he wanders forward beyond Madrid's compact high block shape.
4) Jese helps out
With Ronaldo shifted to a No.9 position, in comes Jese, who diligently dropped back to offer help defensively – as befits a young player desperate to earn a place in such a star-studded line-up. The left-sided atacking starlet made 7 ball recoveries last night – just one fewer than Verratti, who made the most with 8. This Stats Zone influence map shows Marcelo and Jese in close proximity.
5) Lucas Vazquez tracks back
Similarly, Madrid senior team newcomer Lucas Vazquez helped protect the athletic Danilo down the right-hand side (he put in the second-most tackles in the game, 6), as Toni Kroos launched raids forward to press the ball, knowing that Casemiro would hold the centre of the pitch behind him.
6) Cheryshev works back too
The second half saw Madrid change shape slightly as substitutions were made. Jese was withdrawn and replaced by Dmitri Cheryshev who also helped fill in in front of Marcelo. By using two young players to protect his full-backs, Rafa seems to have found a way to glean more running from his midfield.
7) A low block
The classic low block as Madrid see out the game, again with every man behind the ball except for Ronaldo who presses if the ball enters his zone of influence, but otherwise relies on service from midfield.
Although missing players through injury, it would not be a surprise to see Real Madrid set up this way for big away Champions League clashes in future.