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Retro Tactical Review: Real Madrid 3 - 2 Manchester City (2012/13, UEFA Champions League)

A comprehensive analysis of Mourinho’s Madrid in the context of their win over Man City.

Real Madrid v Manchester City FC - UEFA Champions League Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images

The Context

Real Madrid

Los Blancos were in a real crisis in the build-up to their first UEFA Champions League game of the 2012/13 season. They started off their title defense with a limp 1-1 draw against Valencia at the Bernabeu, before being defeated by Getafe and Sevilla in the league.

In all, Real had only won 4/12 points in four league games and had lost a total of three out of the six matches played. They did manage to sandwich their miserable league form with a Super Cup trophy, but that did little to hide the obvious unrest and sense of unease at the Bernabeu.

With Mourinho already ranting, Ronaldo unhappy, and the Bernabeu’s whistles sharper then ever, Real Madrid needed to put in a thumping performing vs. the reigning English Champions, Manchester City, to put their campaign back on track.

Manchester City

As vulnerable as Real Madrid were, Manchester City weren’t much better off.

They had managed to stay unbeaten in their opening five fixtures, but they were leaking goals and their tame performances vs. Liverpool and Stoke did little to inspire confidence. Thus, City came into this match-up looking to truly kickstart their season, with the goal of banishing the specter of last year’s European campaign.

The Line-ups

Real Madrid
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Jose Mourinho chose to employ a more cautious 4-3-3 (relative to his usual 4-2-3-1), deciding to bench Ozil in favor of Essien, in order to pack the midfield with another energetic and physical ball winner (in addition to Khedira). He also made the startling decision to bench Sergio Ramos, sparking rumors that the two had had a row, something that seemed ridiculous at the time. Other than that, the line-up was filled with first team regulars, with Higuaín still being Mourinho’s preferred striker in the big games at that point in time (Higuaín had also played in the most recent Clásico).

Substitutions: Ozil -> Essien 65 min (changed formation to a 4-2-3-1), Modric -> Khedira 73 min, Benzema -> Higuaín 74 min

Manchester City
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Roberto Mancini also changed his usual formation, abandoning his previously successful 4-4-2 in favor of an asymmetric 4-3-3 with two very defensive minded midfielders in Gareth Barry and Javi Garcia. Yaya Touré was to be the main creative engine in the center of the park, supported by the inwards-drifting David Silva and Samir Nasri.

Substitutions: Kolarov -> Nasri (injury) 36 min, Dzeko -> Silva 63 min (changed formation to a 4-4-2), Zabaleta -> Maicon 74 min

Real Madrid’s Tactics In Possession

The Tempo

Characteristic of Mourinho’s philosophy, Real Madrid maintained an extremely high tempo in possession, looking to exploit any structural weaknesses in the opposition and create one-on-one situations as quickly as possible. This led to a rush to enter the final third through a high amount of low percentage passes from Casillas, the back-line, and Xabi Alonso (they all combined for a mind-boggling 35/51 accurate long balls), aimed primarily at pace merchants Cristiano Ronaldo and Ángel Di María (who were tasked with gargantuan ball carrying duties).

Within 3 minutes Real Madrid had already successfully used this tactic to good effect, with Pepe launching a long ball to Ronaldo on the left flank after a long period of possession for Real. After a brilliant first touch, Ronaldo drove straight at Maicon and beat him inside by following his step-over, before taking a dangerous swerving shot from range. The effort whistled past the far post.

This sort of approach continued for the rest of the game, with players like Di María cutting inside to ping chipped passes into the box at even the slightest indication that there was a defensive weakness. This manifested itself into two great chances for Higuaín.

1. The first, was in the 21st minute, when Di María launched a deep pass from the 40-yard line into the box, after receiving a defense splitting vertical pass from Xabi Alonso. Higuaín went one-on-one with Joe Hart but could only fire straight at the Man City number 1.

2. The second, in the 39th minute, was from a free kick inside Madrid’s half. You’d think that Real Madrid couldn’t play a fast transition game with City having plenty of time to set themselves up, but that wasn’t the case. Arbeloa immediately switched play from the set-piece to Pepe, who promptly laid the ball off to Ronaldo. This instantly forced City into transition by asking them to shift the point of their defensive focus. Understanding that Real wouldn’t hold this situational advantage forever, Cristiano Ronaldo burst forward in a 30-yard run into the final third, before passing the ball off to Khedira, who found Di María on the right flank. With City forced to shift their defensive focus to Madrid’s right-flank so soon after settling on the left, their back-line was in a vulnerable state. Sensing this, Di María immediately cut inside and delivered a long ball over Kompany and Nastasic to Higuaín, who could only send his shot over the bar from point blank range.

This frantic necessity to get into the final third was a defining element of this game, and indeed Mourinho’s tenure. It was frankly amazing to see plays where Casillas would receive the ball and immediately throw the ball to Marcelo, who would then play a one-two with Essien to enter the middle third, before playing a through ball to Ronaldo that would only just be intercepted; all-in-all, progressing Real Madrid into the final third in only 12 seconds.

Real Madrid’s Structure

There were several things in Madrid’s structure that allowed them to execute such a high tempo game. The most important, was the set-up of the back-line and Xabi Alonso’s positioning. As we have become accustomed to, Marcelo and Arbeloa pushed high up the pitch to create Madrid’s width and provide an immediate transitional link from defense to midfield.

Marcelo and Arbeloa’s high positioning

To cover for the spaces the two fullbacks left behind, Pepe and Varane spread wide to the edges of their box, allowing for Xabi Alonso to drop in line with his center backs to receive the ball straight from the keeper.

Pepe spread wide to the left to cover for Marcelo
Varane spread wide to the right to cover for Arbeloa
Alonso dropped incredibly deep to control play

This gave the regista a full view of the field, allowing him to launch raking long balls to players making runs in-behind the defense or play simple passes to Marcelo and Arbeloa.

This often created a 3-4-3 structure (with Marcelo and Arbeloa in midfield) when building play from the keeper, which would then morph into a 2-1-4-3 as Real Madrid progressed up the pitch (Alonso moved out of line with his center backs to become involved in play happening in the final third).

Real Madrid players’ average positions

With Alonso taking full responsibility of distributive duties, Khedira and Essien were free to act as box-to-box midfielders, with the main responsibility of providing offensive overloads.

Ronaldo and Di María were free to roam as they pleased, as they needed to adjust themselves to the best attacking positions in order to enable Madrid’s high-octane style of play.

Build-up & Passing Combinations

Real Madrid’s high tempo and structure set the stage for their build-up and passing play. As described before, Real Madrid tried to advance into the final third with directness and speed, but sometimes that wasn’t possible. When Real Madrid were forced to slowly break through City’s low defensive block, clear patterns emerged.

Since both Essien and Khedira’s role was essentially space investigation and the creation of overloads, they often gravitated to one flank, being careful to space themselves no more or no less than 10-20 yards from either Ronaldo-Marcelo or Di María-Arbeloa. When Xabi Alonso sat at the base of this formation, Real Madrid created passing triangles on the flanks, enabling Los Merengues to construct quick passing combinations through City’s midfield and defensive lines. This also obviously overloaded the flank City was defending, forcing them to possibly commit an extra central midfielder to that zone of the pitch.

If Madrid couldn’t make use of the overload, they would quickly switch play to take advantage of City’s defensive compensation. But Los Blancos lacked a central midfield link to do this, with Essien-Khedira-Alonso all focused on one flank, forcing Ángel Di María to push deep into the center of the pitch to receive the ball.

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This made Arbeloa’s, and indeed Marcelo’s (when this same play originated from the right flank), advanced positioning and maintenance of width extremely important, as their mere presence kept City’s defense stretched, allowing Ronaldo or Di María to pick up the ball in time and space and exploit City’s momentary lack of horizontal compactness.

In situations where both Khedira and Essien didn’t move to overload a flank, Ronaldo and Di María would go searching for passing triangles themselves, often drifting into the center of the pitch to create combination passes with Higuaín and one other central midfielder. This type of play was heavily reliant on the two wingers’ ability to handle the ball, as they needed to turn into a congested area of the pitch and maneuver past two or three opposition players before finding a pass.

This strategy led to Real Madrid’s second equalizer, as Di María executed a stunning mazy run past two City players, before playing a pass to Benzema (by this time Benzema had been substituted on for Higuaín) in the box, who turned on a dime and dispatched a clinical strike into the bottom corner.

The Cons to Real Madrid’s Style of Build-up

While Madrid’s commitment to a dizzyingly fast style of build-up was extremely entertaining and often effective, it often led to stagnated periods of possession play when their overloads and quick switches of play didn’t work. This usually happened when City maintained their nerve and refused to move out of their strict defensive shape, forcing Real to result in long shots, individual dribbling actions, and crosses (sound familiar?). This led to a total of 24 attempted crosses and a massive sum of 18 shots from range, few of which managed to truly trouble Joe Hart.

Real Madrid took a massive 54% of their shot attempts from outside the box.

There was also the fact that Real Madrid were handling a lot of risk with their direct style of play, hoping that speculative long balls and quick passing movements would come off. This led to several periods of end-to-end play, where Madrid would give up control in order to try to exploit a City gap with a low percentage pass, and would concede dangerous counters.

This was probably the biggest difference between Mourinho and Ancelotti’s Madrid. In one of his first press conferences, the Italian made it clear that he wanted Real to slow play down when holding the ball in order to control the game and retain possession. Thus, under Ancelotti, Madrid began to ignore many low percentage long balls in favor of a short pass to a player in closer proximity. While this didn’t allow Madrid to score goals in the quickest and simplest fashion possible, it did reduce the amount of counters they received by virtue of holding more possession.

Real Madrid’s Defensive Tactics

The Counterpress

Just as Mourinho’s need for intense speed in attack was startling to watch after such a long time, it was rather surprising to see just how aggressively Real Madrid used to defend.

Immediately after losing the ball, there was an intense commitment to close down the ball-winner by those within close proximity of their target. This often involved three of the un-tiring group of Di María, Khedira, Essien, Alonso, Marcelo, and Arbeloa (the fullbacks would press from their advanced positions instead of tracking back to adopt a more reserved defensive shape) converging on a player at full tilt in an effort to win the ball or foul their marker. However, it would be a mistake to say that this was an organized effort resembling anything like Jurgen Klopp’s or Pep Guardiola’s counterpresses. While the two tactical maestros engage in positional play specifically designed to create counterpressing traps before losing the ball, Madrid had no such preparation. Their counterpress was wholly reactive, and was thus dependent on the individual work-rate and desire of any player closest to the ball. While this usually proved to be enough to subdue City’s counter-attacks, it was a serious gamble that nearly hurt Madrid on a couple of occasions.

The Cons of the Counterpress

Due to the fact that Mourinho’s messy counterpress required Madrid’s players to abandon their defensive organization, any move past the pressure would totally expose Real.

Yaya Touré was a particular thorn in the side of Los Blancos, due to his Herculean strength and mesmerizing ball control, which allowed him to execute three runs that nearly dismantled Real Madrid.

1. His first, in the 31st minute, resulted after David Silva managed to maneuver the ball past a counterpress of Arbeloa, Khedira, and Alonso, before passing it off to Touré. With only Essien next to him, Touré exploded with pace past the Ghanian and played a through ball in-between Varane and Pepe. Nasri just missed the pass, allowing Casillas to collect the ball and avert the danger.

2. Touré was the target of a counterpress in the 37th minute, when he received the ball immediately after Higuaín’s pass was intercepted. Turning instantly, he powered through Alonso, Di María, and Essien’s counterpress, creating a 4 vs. 2 situation against Varane and Pepe. Luckily for Madrid, David Silva wasted the opportunity by cutting inside and attempting a tame shot that was blocked.

3. But the big Ivorian was not done dismantling Madrid’s pressure, as he once again the receiver of a pass following an intercepted cross from Marcelo. Showing unbelievable strength and ball control, he executed a 360 degree turn to fight off Khedira, Alonso, and Marcelo, before playing a one-two with Tevez that took Pepe out of the game and allowed Touré to burst into space. With substitute Edin Dzeko supporting him in a 2 vs. 1 against Raphael Varane, Touré easily slipped a pass to his Bosnian teammate, who slotted home coolly in a one-vs-one with Casillas. 1-0; 68 minutes.

The Passive Press

Aside from their counterpress, Real Madrid did engage in regular pressing in City’s defensive third, albeit in a very passive way. When play started from the keeper or a throw-in deep inside City’s half, only one of Higuaín or Di María would rush the man on the ball. They would receive little support from anyone else, as the rest of the Real squad would recede into a defensive shape. The idea was rarely to win the ball by virtue of tackling, but instead to force a rushed pass that could then be intercepted by Madrid’s midfield or defense.

A good example of this was in the 56th minute, when Alonso cleared a City throw-in back into The Citizen’s half. With the ball looping in the air behind Nastasic, Higuaín followed the City defender like a mad dog, forcing a miserable back pass back to Joe Hart. Higuaín followed the lobbed ball and forced Hart to desperately clear the ball for a Real Madrid throw-in inside City’s half.

Real Madrid’s Defense of the Wings

But perhaps the most important facet of Madrid’s defensive play was their organized structure around the wings. This was especially evident on throw-ins, where the entire midfield three would shift over to one-wing and over-mark players in close proximity to the thrower. This forced City to take touches under pressure and also allowed for easily intercepted throws, with the former leading to Alonso’s clearance as described in the paragraph above.

This sort of defending also manifested itself when City tried to penetrate the wings in open play, as Real Madrid created a defensive structure extremely similar to the one they formed to guard against throw-ins.

The midfield three often overloaded the flank to cut off passing options through the middle, whilst the fullback also pushed up to tightly mark the winger. For their part, Ronaldo or Di María pressed the player on the ball to force a switch of play/lower percentage pass (which increased the risk of City losing possession) or a back pass.

This defensive plan was aided by a medium block (that was at the most 5-10 yards from the halfway line) and a medium-to-high defensive line (this was extremely fluid however, with Madrid’s back-line hanging just outside the box to 30 yards in front of their keeper) that compressed the space City could play in.

However, if City did successfully complete their switch of play, Real Madrid would be momentarily exposed because all of their central midfielders would be stuck on one side. To compensate for this, the winger on the side of the switch would have to intensely press the player receiving the long pass in order to give time for Madrid to recover their shape.

If one of the central midfielders were late to arrive or chose to not create the overload, either Ronaldo or Di María would avoid pressing the player on the ball and would instead drop to cut off Nasri/Kolarov-Clichy’s & Silva-Maicon/Zabaleta’s passing lanes.

This style of defending proved to be extremely successful in preventing City from doing anything meaningful, with a prime example occurring in the 44th minute.

With Real Madrid successfully blocking off City’s access to the left-wing after a throw-in, The Sky Blues shifted play to Los Blancos’ right flank in rather lethargic fashion. This gave time for Alonso and Khedira to cut off access to the center of the pitch while Arbeloa pushed up to pressure Kolarov. Di María positioned himself so as to block a square pass to Barry, forcing play back to Clichy, who was completely unaware of the looming Higuaín. As a result, the Argentinian striker intercepted Kolarov’s pass and flicked the ball to his compatriot, who charged straight into the box before losing the ball.

Aggressive Marking, Defensive Positioning, & the Counter-Attack

When City decided to penetrate the center, Madrid’s midfield three was again key, as they flooded the middle of the park and made it nearly impossible to play short one-twos through Madrid’s medium block. This forced risky vertical passes straight to Carlos Tevez, who would always be followed by either Varane or Pepe (depending upon which defender Tevez was closer to). Once Tevez received the pass, Varane or Pepe would snap at his heels in an attempt to win the ball. In the period from when the pass was played to when it was received, Alonso and Higuaín would drop deep to receive the ball (in anticipation of a loss of possession) and create a transitional chain from defense to attack to spark counters.

For their part, Ronaldo and Di María were purposefully allowed to assume lax defensive positions, so they could easily become outlets for fast breaks when the ball was won.

The best of example of this was in the 8th minute, when City were blocked off from the left-wing after two attempted attacks from throw-ins. Forced to recycle play back to their center backs, City looked to regain their impetus by playing a vertical pass into Tevez. Varane followed the striker’s movement and stepped up to tackle him from behind. The loose ball was picked up by Alonso and passed to Higuaín, who had dropped deep to receive the ball (he did this the whole match). In that short span of time, Ronaldo had moved 20-25 yards up the pitch in anticipation of a counter, positioning himself perfectly to receive Higuaín’s pass and go one-on-one with Kompany. Faking a movement outside by throwing a step-over to the right, Ronaldo brushed off Kompany and dipped back inside to release a shot on goal, forcing Hart into a magnificent save.

The Cons to Madrid’s Defensive Tactics

There were weaknesses in this scheme, though, as the risk of such aggressive marking by Pepe, Varane, and the fullbacks, allowed for a smart first touch or a well-timed pass to expose Madrid.

On one occasion (48th minute), Arbeloa overcommitted and positioned himself too high up the pitch. This allowed Yaya Touré to play a smart through ball to Kolarov, who burst into space and wasted the attack with a heavy touch that took the ball out of play.

On another occasion (59th minute), Clichy played a lofted pass into Tevez, who held off Varane and passed the ball off first time to a supporting runner in the form of Gareth Barry. After a quick combination between him, Silva, and Kolarov, Man City had successfully advanced into the final third. However, they wasted their opportunity with a poorly aimed cross at Tevez in the box.

Manchester City’s Defensive Tactics

The Low Block

It is wholly accurate to say that Manchester City were totally outclassed in this encounter despite the close scoreline. Roberto Mancini’s tactics were not even close to the level sophistication of Mourinho’s, with the Italian choosing to engage in nothing more than a classic 4-5-1 low block. This ceded possession to Madrid and allowed them to put City under relentless pressure. Yaya Touré was the only relief, as his strength and dribbling ability allowed him to break through Madrid’s counterpress and create City’s only attacks.

The Press

In order to create some sort of systemic relief, Mancini asked his players at half time to engage in the passive press that Mourinho’s players were executing the whole game. This did have an affect, as it rushed forced long balls from the back and allowed City to gain more possession in the second half.

Manchester City’s Tactics in Possession

The Initial Plan

Facing an impressively and aggressively organized medium block, The Citizens struggled immensely in possession. They often tried to play quick passing combinations between Touré, Silva, and Tevez in the middle of the park, but this often fell apart under the hustling presence of Khedira and Essien.

This forced them to direct their attacks to the wings and into Madrid’s defensive overloads, forcing City to pass back to their center backs or switch play until they lost the ball and conceded a dangerous Real Madrid counter-attack.

The Change in Build-up

After half time, Mancini decided to change City’s approach when attacking the wings. Instead of giving up on a flank when they saw it blocked off, he asked his side to be more patient and probe till they found an opening. This was a good tactical adjustment, since due to the risky nature of Arbeloa and Marcelo’s high positioning and Mourinho’s tight marking scheme, it would only take a moment of indecision or an error in judgement to open up spaces for City.

In addition to this, Mancini also asked his central midfielders to push into the final third to create passing options for Tevez when he received the ball.

The first change led to a good chance in the 48th minute and Mancini’s second adjustment led to a good passage of play in the 59th minute, which were all described under The Cons to Madrid’s Defensive Tactics section.

The Formation Change

To bolster City’s attack, Mancini brought on Edin Dzeko for David Silva in the 63rd minute, changing City’s formation to a 4-4-2. This not only gave an extra body for Pepe and Varane to worry about, but it also enabled Tevez to drop deep and link up with Touré et al., because Dzeko could keep Madrid’s defense occupied and stretched. This allowed Tevez to make a key contribution in City’s 59th minute attack, in addition to his more important deep one-two with Touré prior to The Sky Blues’ goal in the 68th minute.

Key Individual Performances

Cristiano Ronaldo

Rating: 10/10

Cristiano Ronaldo was the man of the match by a country mile. His pace and intelligent offensive positioning were fantastic, enabling him to become a one-man counter-attacking weapon. Additionally, his long-range shooting and willingness to drift inside to combine with his teammates, were crucial to Mourinho’s plan for breaking down City’s defensive block.

Ronaldo’s heatmap

But most importantly, Ronaldo put in one of the Champions Leagues’ best every dribbling performances, utterly eviscerating Maicon and Kompany off the dribble multiple times.

Ronaldo completed 7/9 dribbles

The fact that Mancini used his last sub to bring off Maicon for Zabaleta in the 74th minute, spoke volumes of Ronaldo’s performance. But unfortunately for City, the change made no difference, as Ronaldo beat Zabaleta in the 90th minute to score the winning goal.

Key Statistics: 83 touches, 1 goal, 3/10 shots on target, 7/9 dribbles completed, 3 key passes, 3 fouls drawn, 50/50 passes completed, 1/1 long balls completed, 1 aerial won, 3 clearances

Ángel Di María

Rating: 9/10

While Ronaldo definitely outshone his counterpart on the wing, Di María’s contribution cannot be forgotten. His ball carrying ability was just as crucial as Ronaldo’s, as it resulted in an assist for Karim Benzema’s equalizer in the 85th minute.

Di María completed 4/9 dribbles

Besides that, his movement in the middle of the pitch was absolutely crucial in creating the link from Madrid’s overloaded wings to the right flank, and he also attempted a fair amount of shots from range in an attempt to break City down.

Di María’s heatmap

Key Statistics: 97 touches, 2 assists, 0/4 shots on target, 10 key passes, 4/9 dribbles completed, 53/61 passes completed, 4/9 crosses completed, 8/9 long balls completed, 2/4 through balls completed, 1 foul drawn, 3 tackles, 1 interception


Rating: 8/10

Just like Arbeloa, Marcelo’s advanced positioning was crucial to maintaining Madrid’s width and creating offensive overloads, but what made the Brazilian’s night special was what he did beyond that. Understanding Madrid’s need to equalize with City after Dzeko’s goal, Marcelo took matters into his own hands and roamed into the center of the pitch to create shooting opportunities for himself.

This did have its risks however, as Marcelo’s urge to get forward sometimes saw him adopt positions that left his team exposed.

Nevertheless, as fate would have it, the pros to Marcelo’s style was juxtaposed right next to his cons, as Marcelo charged forward and scored 1 minute after nearly causing his team to concede

Key Statistics: 73 touches, 1 goal, 1 assist, 2/5 shots on target, 2 key passes, 52/61 passes completed, 5/6 long balls completed, 2 fouls drawn, 3 interceptions

Karim Benzema
Rating: 7/10

Karim Benzema’s came on as a substitute in the 74th minute and scored the second equalizing goal 11 minutes later. What more needs to be said?

Key Statistics: 17 touches, 1 goal, 3/3 shots on target, 1 key pass, 12/12 passes completed, 1/1 long ball completed

Yaya Touré

Rating: 7.5/10

The only Manchester City player that was on the same level as Madrid’s players was Yaya Touré. His strength and ball control was key to beating Madrid’s counterpress, and was crucial in creating City’s best opportunities. Additionally, he was the only one that provided penetrative passes through Madrid’s defensive block.

Key Statistics: 64 touches, 1 assist, 0/2 shots on target, 2 key passes, 46/56 passes completed, 3/5 long balls completed, 1 clearance

Aleskandar Kolarov

Rating: 7/10

Aleskandar Kolarov came on for the injured Samir Nasri in the 36th minute and immediately did better than the Frenchman, providing width and timely off-the-ball runs to create penetration behind Madrid’s defensive line. However, his most crucial contribution was a wicked cross-shot free kick that deceived Casillas and snuck into the far corner.

Key Statistics: 32 touches, 1 goal, 2/3 shots on target, 1 key pass, 2 dribbles, 8/14 passes completed, 1/2 long balls completed, 2 tackles, 2 interceptions, 3 clearances

Looking at this match in hindsight, it is easy to see how things fell apart so easily for Madrid. Mourinho’s style required intensive focus, chemistry, flawless teamwork, perfect structure, and un-ending motivation and belief. These qualities were specifically necessary to execute the direct passing and quick combinations that Real Madrid needed to be effective in possession, something that obviously became impossible due to the fractured squad structure caused by the now infamous dressing room furor.

Thus, teams found immense success by purposefully ceding possession and asking Madrid to break them down as the season progressed.

This match also puts into greater focus how important Ancelotti was for Madrid. Not only did he instantly solve the squad’s dressing room problems, but he also changed Madrid’s style into a more patient possession-based game that could no longer be easily stopped by low blocks.

Nevertheless, this match against City was a perfect example of all that was good in the Mourinho era: vibrant and fast attacking football, scintillating counter-attacks, disciplined defensive structures, selective counterpressing, aggressive marking, and breath-taking ball carries. Oh... how we wish this could’ve lasted...

(All statistics & charts taken from unless otherwise stated)

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