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PSG vs Real Madrid, Champions League: Tactical Review

A full in-depth analysis of Rafa's tactical decisions in Madrid's 0-0 draw with PSG.

Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Overall Tactical Impression

Within the first 10 minutes of the match Benitez’s plan became clear. Madrid started off in a 4-4-2 to stay compact and create quick transitions. This defensive approach was more proactive then you would think as Madrid employed an intensive pressing game that looked to put the Whites on the front foot. However, this style made it hard for Madrid to create any real openings when in possession of the ball and there were also problems with the execution of several counters. Overall this was a decent result for Benitez as he was without several starters and was playing away from home against a world-class side in PSG.

In-depth analysis of defensive shape and tactics

Even though Los Blancos have kept an amazing number of clean sheets in La Liga, this was the first time I saw the Madrid defense actually reach the expectations that everyone placed on them when Benitez took charge. Playing against an assortment of world-class attackers, Madrid’s defensive teamwork (for the most part) easily outplayed Ibrahimovic and co.

There were three key facets to Madrid’s defensive game and the first and most important was their pressing. It was orchestrated impressively by the central midfielders in Kroos and Casemiro, as both continually stepped out to challenge the PSG midfielders as soon as the ball entered the Madrid half. The wide midfielders Isco and Vazquez joined the CM’s to create a two-pronged press on each half of the pitch. With the center congested, PSG forced the ball out wide. This is where Madrid’s second stage of defensive organization came into play

When the ball was punted wide Madrid quickly formed a low block with their midfielders (even Jese dropped into this wall from time to time). This quick re-organization after a frantic press forced PSG to recycle possession. Eventually they had to go back out wide as any ball attempted through the center of the pitch was easily intercepted by the likes of Kroos and Casemiro. By the time PSG sent the ball wide again, Isco and Vazquez had tracked back to help their fullbacks and close out almost all attacking options for PSG. This level of organization quickly prompted Di Maria to float long balls to Cavani and Ibrahimovic, but this was dealt with easily by Madrid’s third stage of defensive adeptness.

To deal with Di Maria’s decision to go route-one in the first half, Madrid’s back line pushed up together to continually catch PSG’s forwards offside. In all they managed this 7 times and completely eliminated Di Maria’s ability to make a difference. Madrid even had the confidence to play an effective offside trap on the edge of their box and managed to catch out Javier Pastore in a crucial moment that could have led to Madrid conceding.


For all Madrid’s defensive nous, there was a significant drop in defensive quality past the hour mark. The press almost completely disappeared (most likely due to tiredness) and Madrid were left open to PSG’s attacks. Suddenly the Parisians had ample time to find players and even play through the middle at times. Modric was brought on to try to remedy this and give Madrid the control of the match, but this shifted the shape to a 4-3-3 and made it harder for Madrid to employ their previous defensive tactics.

In addition there was some defensive weakness created by Marcelo as he was rarely in line with his other three teammates and was positionally too high up even when he had time to get back. Ramos continually had to cover for him and was absolutely clutch in the last 25 minutes of the match.

In-depth analysis of offensive shape and tactics

Benitez’s defensive decisions molded the way Madrid were going to attack. The whole match Real looked to employ the fastest transitions possible by exploiting the spaces left behind by Maxwell and (especially) Aurier. The press was key to this as it allowed Madrid to face a misbalanced PSG defense with several two vs one situations. In addition, Ronaldo’s position as the striker kept the PSG midfield and center backs tight to him, allowing the likes of Jese and Vazquez to go one on one with their markers.

Along with the press, the other facet to Madrid’s attacking style was high fluidity between the likes of Vazquez, Jese, Isco, and Ronaldo. They switched positions frantically to destabilize PSG’s defensive shape and create spaces to play teammates into. Once a man was released into the danger area, they looked for Ronaldo whose effective movement was supposed to lead to a shot on goal.

Tactically, this is exactly what you want to do when playing a counterattacking game and Benitez has to receive a ton of credit for thinking this match out to the last detail. But there were serious problems with execution.


What really hurt Madrid was their sloppy offensive play. Often times, there would be an attacker free only for someone to play a ball straight to a PSG defender. If the ball wasn’t going straight to the opposition, the passes fell behind players or just didn’t have the right pace or spin on them. This gave Thiago Silva and Marquinhos just the extra second they needed to mark Ronaldo and seriously reduce the chance of a cross creating any significant danger.

There is also the fact that the approach may have been too simplistic at times. Yes Benitez was playing a counterattacking game, but Madrid had several opportunities where they were on the edge of the box and had no inventive way of breaking PSG down. The ball was shifted wide for the predictable cross with only Ronaldo in the box. Marcelo did a better job in creating something more with his fantastic footwork, but it in the end his missiles were constantly deflected away. Ronaldo for his part did get three half chances in the game, but in the end Madrid didn’t do enough to say they deserved a goal.

Final Takeaways

I really liked the fact that there was some real defensive improvements this match. It looks like Madrid are finally ready to take the big step where they no longer have to rely on Navas to bail them out every game. But to help them do that, Madrid’s pressing plan needs to be sorted out. It’s worked a treat for Madrid every time they have used it, but today it was unsustainable. This is partly because only two players were in charge for each side of the pitch and also because such a strategy is particularly tiring. Benitez needs to work on balancing and expanding his pressing game especially if he sees it as key to his defensive and offensive plans.

Which leads me to my final point. Over the course of 10 games Madrid have played I have gotten a solid idea of what Benitez is trying to do (especially against the big sides). He is looking to use defensive organization as the base for his game plan and utilize pressing and solid counterattacking theory to create chances for his side. While Madrid still haven’t fully grasped his methods, it is clear that Benitez’s plans have not really worked in creating a multitude of chances for Madrid. Rafa must diversify his ideas and be bolder in changing Madrid to a more attacking and creative mindset when trying to win the game in the last 20-30 minutes.

But aside from this, I think we must give credit to a coach that has been under immense pressure from day one and has managed to stay undefeated for 10 games.

(Stats taken from

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