Real Madrid’s Approach to the Game
Real Madrid came into this match knowing that Roma would play with passion, intensity and a desire to strike on the break. Thus, Zidane adjusted his side accordingly. Understanding the need to control the game and defend through virtue of possession, Zidane put his players in a 4-3-3 and instructed his players to patiently work their way up the pitch.
As you can see on the chart, Madrid attempted a massive 382 passes in the middle third of the pitch, which turned out to be 57% of Madrid’s total. When you add in Madrid’s defensive third passes, only 26% of Madrid’s action was near Roma’s goal. But this isn’t necessarily a cause for concern. I thought Zidane’s approach was perfect. Theoretically, patient possession of the ball in the middle third of the pitch is used to devastate a team’s structure and organization. As a team is forcibly shifted from side to side, it is nearly inevitable that gaps will open up, allowing the forwards up top to take advantage. Against good sides, such an approach takes immense patience and mental energy to continually recycle possession in order to find gaps. This showed as Madrid’s first eleven executed Zidane’s plan well only in parts of the game.
In the opening minutes, Madrid’s slick passing cut through Roma with ease. In the 2nd minute Madrid worked James into the box before their attack was cut out. Madrid continued to probe and Isco often found pockets of space to operate in, allowing him to play the ball to a hungry Ronaldo. As Roma watched their defensive organization unravel, they switched tactics. Around the 20th minute onwards, Roma stopped pressing intensely, and instead formed a low to medium block in front of their defense. This had an immediate effect, as space in the midfield was constricted and Roma had less ground to travel. This made it much harder for Los Blancos to find openings in Roma’s structure, testing the mental energy of Real’s players. This led to stagnant and lethargic play up to the 30th minute, coupled with poor giveaways (which to be fair, were sprinkled throughout the match).
Around the half hour mark, Madrid finally began to cope with the change in tactics, as Madrid began switching the ball from side to side with purpose. But this only lasted for minutes as around 37 minutes onwards, Madrid once again dropped below the required level of movement, passing, and intelligence that was required of breaking Roma down.
In the second half, Roma upped the ante. All the way up to the 56th minute, Roma dominated the game, as they pushed men forward, sprayed passes to the flanks, and looked to combine in the box. But in many ways, such a change in attitude and strategy was just what Madrid needed. With Real’s midfielders and attackers struggling to break down the Roman wall, the space offered to them on the counter and by Roma’s newfound high line, was a breath of fresh air. Ronaldo nearly exploited it with a high ball to James (who was karate kicked in the face, which is apparently allowed in football), before Marcelo released some chap called Cristiano onto goal.
From then on, it was all Madrid, interspersed with brief bright spots from Roma. With Madrid buoyed by their goal, the tactics totally changed. The tempo of the game quickened and Madrid bypassed a dispirited Roma side with ease. James finally decided to get into the game in the 73rd minute (to be fair, he was always there defensively, just rather anonymous on offense), as he found first Ronaldo, and then Benzema with superb crosses. Benzema seemingly inspired by this, also decided to start participate in the game, as he released shot after shot on goal. But just when it seemed like Madrid’s enthusiasm was petering out, that lad Jesé came on the pitch, sprinted through the heart of the defense, and rifled home a shot into the bottom corner. WORLD CLASS.
Real Madrid’s Defensive Tactics
With the way Zidane has been instructing his side to play recently, it was always obvious that Madrid’s fullbacks were going to push far up the pitch in an effort to provide with, create overloads on the flanks, and deliver an end-product through crosses.
The question was how Zidane was going to cope with this. While it may have looked like he ignored the issue at times, I can assure you that Zidane had a chat with Carvajal before the match began. While the Spaniard definitely came forward with freedom and verve, he also wasn’t as cavalier as we’ve seen him be before. Especially in the first half, there were several moments where Carvajal checked his runs as he saw Marcelo barnstorming forward. The reason this restraint from Carvajal was so crucial, was because it gave Madrid a back three in case of a counter. With the threat of El Shaarawy and Salah omnipresent, it was imperative that Carvajal stay a little further back so Ramos could shift over to the left in order to cover for Marcelo, who was… god knows where he was. Add in to the fact that there was no way Isco, Modric, Kroos, Kovacic, Casemiro, whoever, was going to be able to sprint back fast enough to help out Marcelo vs Salah, and you can understand just how important having a back three were.
But due to the flow of the game, and well, Madrid being Madrid, we didn’t always have a back three. Especially in the second half, Carvajal was often caught too high up the pitch along with Marcelo, giving Salah and Shaarawy huge amounts of space down the flanks. I can’t count the number of times Salah screamed down the right flank with acres of space in front of him. If it wasn’t for Ramos’s own supreme physical abilities and world class anticipatory qualities, Madrid would’ve conceded three for sure.
Impressive Player Performances
It was almost inevitable that Ronaldo was going to score after the press decided to rile him up right before Madrid’s most important match (so far) under Zidane. Yet the way he played, coupled with the beauty and decisiveness of the goal, made him the standout performer of the night. He was hungry and motivated from the first second, as he dropped deeper to receive the ball, looked to beat Roma’s press with the ball at his feet, and took strikes on goal. As the game progressed, Ronaldo became Madrid’s sole outlet in attack. As Benzema faded badly and James was bogged down with his defensive duties, nearly every Los Blancos pass was aimed at for CR7 in the hope that he would spark something in Roma’s defensive third. Ronaldo didn’t disappoint. In the first half he focused on combining with Marcelo, taking players on, retaining possession and making himself available in the box. While in the second half he looked to combine with Benzema, beat players himself, and be the offensive outlet for Madrid. With Ronaldo’s side seemingly overwhelmed with Roma’s newfound attacking impetus in the second half, the Portuguese superstar bailed his side out of jail as he raced up the pitch, slaughtered Florenzi, and looped a shot into the top corner. That is the moment we have been craving from Ronaldo all season and it was a moment worthy of his status as one of the best players in the world. That goal deflated Roma like a balloon and gave Madrid the confidence to steamroll Roma from the 56th onwards. He came, he saw, he conquered.
But while Ronaldo will take all the plaudits, let’s not forget our captain, who also put in his best performance of the season. As I described in detail before, Ramos was the one responsible for Salah, as the Spaniard tracked every run the Egyptian made. While Salah did manage to burn Ramos on a couple of occasions, for the most part, Ramos shut him down brilliantly. In particular, is wicked clearance off of Salah’s first touch and his quick feet to break up Salah’s attempted combination in Madrid's box stunk of class. By the end of the game Ramos had a mind-blowing 10 tackles, 4 clearances, 2 interceptions, 2 blocked shots, and only 1 foul.
Let’s also not forget the other center back who was brilliant on the night. After a horrid display vs. Athletic Bilbao, Varane showed great mental character to pick himself up and respond to it. His recovery pace was immense, as he cut out dangerous attacks time and time again, with the highlight being his otherworldly tackle on El Shaarawy in the 44th minute. While his stats weren’t as good as Ramos, he still completed an impressive 2 tackles, 3 interceptions, 3 clearances, 1 block, and only 1 foul.
Jesé may have only played a small portion of the game, but he was decisive when he came on. From the off he looked motivated and sharp, as he took on Roma’s right flank in one of his first moves of the game. Soon after in the 85th minute, Jesé received the ball from Modric and charged from deep, before decisively smashing the ball into the bottom corner. This was quite simply Jesé’s most important goal and most important performance this season. Advantage Madrid.
He may have run himself out of play a couple times and he may have had some poor decision making, but Mohamed Salah was easily Roma’s best player of the game. Despite coming up against the best center back in the world, who played the game of his life, Salah still made 5+ lung-busting runs down the right flank that had Madrid at their panic stations. He will need to play like this if Roma are to have any chance of coming back at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Bits & Pieces
Keylor Navas was incredible when called upon.
Kroos was fantastic and was the only midfielder who showed the mental strength to continually probe at Zidane's expected level. He had a 100% pass accuracy in the 1st half and was brilliant throughout in his control of the game. His poor form is long gone.
Benzema was surprisingly poor, offering little in build-up, link-up play, or in offensive output.
Zidane made good substitutions, with his decisions to bring on Jesé for James, Kovacic for Isco, and Casemiro for Ronaldo, all 100% correct. The only thing I can nitpick at is that I think Kovacic should’ve come on earlier.