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Real Madrid - AS Roma (UCL; 2-0) Tactical Review

How Zidane beat Roma's press and coped without Benzema, how Marcelo nearly ruined our night, and top player performances.

Denis Doyle/Getty Images

How Zidane Beat Roma's Press

If you remember Madrid’s last game against Roma, one of the things you will have probably have noted coming into this game, was the intense press that Roma employed. El Shaarawy, Perotti, and Salah, constantly pressured Madrid’s center backs, while the likes of Nainggolan, hungrily waited until the ball strayed into their zone. Los Blancos got around this by employing a patient possession game, slowly exploiting the gaps left behind by Roma’s intense, but somewhat disorganized pressing. It worked well enough, but Zidane was obviously looking to take things to the next level today.

This time, Casemiro came in for Isco, freeing up Kroos and Modric from some of their defensive duties. The slick duo made the most of it, dancing into pockets of space in order to beat the press. Modric in particular, enjoyed himself, as he took 86 touches of the ball, completed 92% of his 73 passes, executed 3 dribbles, and rattled off 3 shots as a roaming playmaker.

Kroos also had a field-day, as he completed 94% of his 80 passes, executed 7 out of 9 long balls, attempted 8 crosses, and took 3 shots. The result, was that Real Madrid dominated the attacking third, completing a mad 83% of their total passes.

Modric and Kroos simply could not be contained. Their effective movement off-the-ball, enabled them to exploit the space left behind by Roma’s press, allowing them to ping accurate passes into one of Madrid’s 3 attackers.

As can be seen above, this left Ronaldo, Bale, and James in enviable one-on-one positions vs defenders, prompting them to take on their men and attempt shots from range. This is how Madrid worked the vast majority of their chances, looking to play incisive possession in order to catch Roma by surprise and punish them with individual skill. As the Italian side got tired and found it more difficult to regroup, Madrid found that the same chances they received in the first half, turned into full-blown counter-attacking opportunities late in the second. Madrid’s two goals were borne from this strategy.

How Zidane Worked Around the Lack of a Center Forward

One obvious problem coming into this match was the lack of a natural center forward on the roster, with Benzema out injured and Mayoral not selected. This deficiency cost The Whites vs Malaga, as the lack of a focal point destroyed Madrid’s possession play and allowed the host’s press to dominate Madrid. Solving this issue would’ve been key for Zidane if he was to make use of Modric and Kroos’s floating roles to beat Roma’s press.

Instead of trying something different, Zidane implemented the same plan vs Malaga, with his front three all rotating and assuming the roles of left-winger, center forward, and right-winger. But this time it was more structured, as each attacker would only shift across to the zone next to him (instead of flailing wildly around the pitch like against Malaga), and would maintain their position there for a couple of minutes in order to provide some stability. This required extremely intelligent off-the-ball movement from Ronaldo, Bale, and James, who executed their work admirably. Ronaldo in particular, took on the responsibility of the center forward role and shifted from wing to wing in order to keep the point of the attack moving.

Ronaldo's steadily improving off-the-ball movement is becoming a nightmare for defenses

Ronaldo's return to his older brand of off-the-ball movement is proving to be a nightmare for defenses

James played slightly deeper and received 36 more touches than Ronaldo’s 54, choosing to combine with Danilo and feed his fellow forwards the ball in dangerous areas. However, his end-product in terms of his final ball was rather lacking, as he instead opted to be more involved in build-up.

Bale on the other hand, did less of the dots connecting and executed more of the end-product. Clearly given a floating role on the left-wing role, the Welshman made the most of this by pummeling 6 crosses into the box, taking on 4 players, and getting 1 shot off.

The end result of the trio’s performance was scintillating. The off-the-ball genius of the front three created chance after chance for Madrid and had the Roma back-line in organizational tatters. However, it is important to note that there were periods (especially in the first half) where Madrid threatened without releasing a good final pass into a player. This had to do with the complicated set of movements that Ronaldo, James, and Bale were trying to execute in order to create the illusion that a center forward was on the pitch. However, this constant movement, rather than a more fixed focal point like Benzema, made it quite hard for crosses to find their target, as only 4 out of 29 reached their destination. But a CF cannot truly be replaced without an actual CF on the pitch, so the offensive results produced by two wingers and a number 10 were extremely satisfactory.

Marcelo Nearly Cost Real Madrid the Tie

For all of Marcelo’s attacking genius today (2 dribbles, 2 key passes, & 6 shots), he was an absolute liability defensively. He had no discipline whatsoever, often gallivanting up the left-flank, only to jog back as Mohamed Salah raced away at the speed of light. Nearly every single chance the Egyptian got could be attributed to the fact that Marcelo was nowhere to be seen, even in the frame of someone’s flat screen TV.

Honestly where the hell is Marcelo on this one?!! Around the 7-9 second timeframe you can see Marcelo calmly jogging back while his fellow defenders are frantically trying to hold of a dangerous Roma attack. Real Madrid were seriously lucky that Salah and co. couldn’t finish to save their life.

Marcelo receives a D- grade from me today. He gave up his man from second 0.00000001 and made little effort to come back from his marauding runs. What infuriated me even more, was that the 2-3 times Marcelo actually was in front of Salah (in terms of a defensive point of view), the Egyptian was completely stifled and was easily dispossessed as he had no space to run into. It was a matter of marking out his space, not defending his tricky dribbling (which is a lot harder to do), that would’ve stopped Salah, and Marcelo couldn’t even do that.

But Marcelo's lack of sensible positioning could've been even more disastrous, if Roma had exploited the stretched defense Madrid were operating under. Just like the night in Rome, Ramos consistently had to shift over to the left-flank to deal with Salah, but he wasn’t as successful today. Casemiro had to help out the Madrid captain big-time, and he did rather well, making 7 tackles, one of which was utterly crucial in preventing Salah from running free in the 43rd minute (though Salah probably would’ve missed his chance anyway). But all this left wholes in the middle of the park, which Salah could’ve created chances from if he had picked his head up and delivered the appropriate pass. But it is only fair to note that there would’ve been no one there, as no Roma player was making runs into channels that would’ve exploited this central space. Madrid would've conceded 10 if Roma had done this (this is assuming one of their players would've suddenly acquired the capacity to finish).

Star Performers

Luka Modric: 9/10

An artist at work.

Keylor Navas: 9/10

If the Berlin Wall was personified, it would be Keylor Navas.

Ronaldo: 8.5/10

Brilliant off-the-ball movement, a crazy number of self-created shots, a goal, and an assist. An extremely solid day for the Portuguese superstar.

Toni Kroos: 8.5/10

Controlled the game from the first second and never had to move out of Kroos control once.

Casemiro: 8/10

Casemiro did the dirty work well, but more importantly he freed up Modric and Kroos to beat Roma’s press and deliver god’s scripture on how to play football.

Lucas Vazquez: 8/10

He made the difference, as simple as that.

(All stats and charts taken from and fourfourtwo statszone)

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