As the latest batch of world-class international players joined the assembly line at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu over the summer, speculation quickly turned to how José Mourinho would attempt to shape his talent-packed Real Madrid squad into a cohesive team. Two games into the La Liga campaign, his strategy is gradually beginning to emerge.
The diagram below, a screenshot from ESPN Soccernet, shows the average positions of Real’s players during the 1-0 victory at home to Osasuna on Saturday*:
[Squad numbers: 1. Iker Casillas; 4. Sergio Ramos, 3. Pepe, 2. Ricardo Carvalho, 12. Marcelo; 24. Sami Khedira, 14. Xabi Alonso; 9. Karim Benzema, 23. Mesut Özil, 20. Gonzalo Higuaín, 7. Cristiano Ronaldo; Substitutes: 11. Esteban Granero, 21. Pedro León]
Mourinho made four changes to the side that drew 0-0 at Real Mallorca on the season’s opening day, with Álvaro Arbeloa, Lassana Diarra, Sergio Canales and Ángel di María all losing their places in the starting XI. The team’s defensive configuration against Osasuna was straightforward, with four across the back and a defensive midfield pairing of Sami Khedira (playing a bit more conservatively than he did during the World Cup) and Xabi Alonso. It was in attack that things got interesting.
As suggested by the average position data, Real’s attacking set-up was pretty fluid. Gonzalo Higuaín played at the tip of the attack, with Karim Benzema occupying a right-sided role similar to the position that Mourinho asked Samuel Eto’o to adopt at Inter last season. Cristiano Ronaldo attacked from the left, with Mesut Özil providing much of the team’s attacking thrust, both in central areas and on the flanks.
The video below shows that Özil habitually occupied a position in the inside-right corridor, frequently receiving the ball just inside the Osasuna half and then attacking the space inside the full-back. He cropped up on the left from time to time as well, and it was from his run and left-wing cross that Ricardo Carvalho scored the game’s only goal early in the second half.
“Özil makes things very easy for me and for his team-mates with his football vision and the decisions he makes,” said Mourinho. “It’s easy for him to make decisions on the pitch, which is actually the hardest thing there is in football. It is an art to make football look easy and he has that quality.”
In his post-match comments, Mourinho referred to Real playing with “three forwards” – meaning Ronaldo, Benzema and Higuaín – but the heat map below, coupled with the average position data and the video footage of Özil’s performance, suggests the 21-year-old actually saw just as much of the ball in the final third as any of Real’s other attacking players.
Much like he did at the World Cup, Özil brought invention and incisiveness to the Real attack by playing in a loosely defined role in support of the central forward. It made him difficult to track for the centre-backs but too deep to follow for the defensive midfielders, enabling him to infuence the game in different areas by drifting across the pitch laterally in search of space.
So is Özil a midfielder or a forward? Were Real playing in a 4-2-3-1 or a flexible 4-2-4? It is precisely this uncertainty that makes Özil such an elusive opponent and one suspects that Mourinho will not be overly concerned by precise positional designations as long as his German playmaker continues to pull the strings in such an influential way.
* Further research (see comments) suggests a glitch with ESPN Soccernet’s software meant Özil and Higuaín’s average positions in the Osasuna game had been erroneously swapped.