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Real Madrid 3 - 0 Wolfsburg (UEFA Champions League): Tactical Review

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How Zidane blitzed Wolfsburg, the unsustainability of such a strategy in the long-term, Real Madrid's lack of creativity, and Cristiano Ronaldo's legendary performance.

Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Zidane’s Hyper-Pressing Scheme Blitzed Wolfsburg in the Opening Minutes

A lot can be said about Zidane’s lack of tactical experience, but compliments must be paid to Zidane for just how bold he is in the big games. Against Barcelona, he played in a defensive scheme that took us back to the Mourinho years, and against Wolfsburg, he asked his team to press like wolves.

Real Madrid’s back line pushed up insanely high, sometimes operating at the 45-yard line inside Wolfsburg’s own half!

Real Madrid's defensive heatmap in the 1st half

Real Madrid's insanely high defensive line in the 1st half

This served to constrict the area in which Wolfsburg could play, allowing Madrid to scrap for the ball in the middle of the park and launch attack after attack. Key to this was Casemiro, who was positioned higher than Modric and Kroos in the first half in order to instigate pressing movements. Carvajal and Marcelo also played their role, executing presses on the flanks whilst ably supported by one of the BBC and a central midfielder. For their part, the central defenders acted as stoppers, as they challenged everything in the air and constantly rushed out to close down the opposition. This suffocative pressure completely overwhelmed Wolfsburg and shocked them into submission.

In the 15th minute, Carvajal rushed out from his position and intercepted a wayward Wolfsburg pass around the 40-yard line. Using an incredible turn of pace, Carvajal raced towards the right-wing, and after a lucky bounce off the leg of a defender, he whipped in a cross that took a deflection and fell to the most dangerous man on the planet, Cristiano Ronaldo. It was a bit of luck for the Vikings in the final third, but Zidane’s brave pressing scheme created the opportunity.

Feeding off of this momentum, Real Madrid won a corner seconds later and converted through a magnificent leap from the one and only. In a mere 86 seconds Real Madrid had erased the deficit and had pounced a jittery Wolfsburg defense. In that moment, it seemed as if the remontada was inevitable.

Zidane’s Tactics Were Unsustainable in the Long Run

Zidane knew this, and therefore asked his team to begin to sit back accordingly. Around the 25-30 minute mark, Real Madrid began to slowly transition to a more normal 4-4-2 defensive structure, with Bale dropping into a wide midfielder role. People and pundits alike heavily criticized this move across social media. But these players are only human. Implementing Zidane’s plan was insanely tough, and was probably a strategy borne out of the desperation to score goals. It was unreasonable to expect that the players, no matter how fit, would’ve been able to sustain that level of intensity. Thus the period from the half hour mark to half time was merely a waiting game. Real Madrid withdrew into a compact shell and invited Wolfsburg onto them. While the Germans got several set-piece opportunities, the only real danger they created was when Schurrle got in behind Carvajal and delivered a dangerous ball into the box. Henrique somehow scuffed his first time shot and put his second one wide of the post. Without Draxler, who went off injured in the 32nd minute, Wolfsburg had no punch up front and Madrid escaped into the break unscathed.

Real Madrid’s Offensive Display Was Not as Impressive as it Seemed

The 3 goals on the board along with the 16 shots fired might disagree with me, but those statistics are misleading. Two of those 3 goals came from set-pieces and a large portion of those shots came after Madrid went 3-0 up. This was when Wolfsburg were pushing up the pitch in order to chase a winner on aggregate, leaving them open to fast breaks. This allowed shots from Jesé, Benzema, and Bale, leading to an inflated shot count.

In addition to this, Madrid were severely lacking in creativity from and through the middle.

As can be seen in the chart above, nearly all of Madrid’s completed attacking third passes were directed to the flanks, the place where Wolfsburg successfully suffocated Real in the first leg. This put an incredible onus on Carvajal and Marcelo to create, as they collectively pummeled 8 crosses into the box. This led to the lull in the second half before the goal, as Real struggled to penetrate Wolfsburg’s compact defensive lines. Additionally, the passing to the flanks limited Bale, who struggled to make himself offensively useful because he was being constantly hounded by at least two Wolfsburg players on the right wing. While Benzema had more efforts on goal (4 shots), he also struggled to make a true impact on the game, often being forced to move into channels to receive the ball.

This lack of central play can be partly put down to the presence of Casemiro. This isn’t to take away from what the Brazilian brought today. He was extremely solid and provided an effective shield for a back-line that desperately needed a clean sheet, but there is no doubt that Casemiro hurts Madrid’s offensive flow in games like this. Especially because of his high positioning, Casemiro’s lack of ability to construct play forced him to: play the ball backwards, pass the ball to Modric and Kroos (who because of their wider positioning played balls to the flanks), or play long balls to the wings.

Casemiro didn't facilitate play and hindered Madrid's attempts to attack through the middle

Casemiro didn't facilitate play and hindered Real Madrid's attempts to attack through the middle

If it wasn’t for Marcelo and Carvajal’s individual dribbling ability and Ronaldo’s dramatics, Real Madrid would have been completely stifled like they were in the first leg. It’s in times like these that Kroos’ importance to the team rises to the fore. Unlike Modric or Casemiro, who both struggled to find the final pass, Kroos orchestrated Madrid’s only penetrative passages of play, as he found pinpoint passes to whomever of the BBC occupied the CF role at the time, and found scything passes that allowed players onto goal. His post-match numbers are incredibly impressive: 96 touches (a team high) 1 assist (the only assist of the match), 6 key passes (another team high), a 91.3% passing accuracy, 5 out of 11 crosses completed (also a team high), and 5 out of 6 long balls completed (best accuracy on the team).

Cristiano Ronaldo Saves the Day (Again)

Mirroring the Champions cup match vs. Schalke, Ronaldo single-handedly thrusted Real Madrid to the semifinals in one of the greatest Champions League performances ever seen. From the off, Ronaldo was focused and determined to win the game. His pressing was intense and his movement off-the-ball was incredible.

While Benzema’s heatmap represents that of a left-winger and Bale’s of a right-winger, Ronaldo’s represents that of a roaming forward who covered every blade of grass in the final third. He took up central positions to connect with Kroos and he linked-up with both fullbacks in order to drive Madrid up the pitch.

Of course, who can forget his goalscoring? The first was a classic poacher's finish, borne out of the instinct of being in the right place at the right time. Clearly emboldened by this crucial strike, Ronaldo’s focus strengthened. A mere 86 seconds later, he flew highest and craftily glanced Kroos’ cross into the corner of the net. With that strike the whole Bernabeu was lifted and destiny seemed to beckon Real Madrid to the semifinals. But things stayed difficult as Wolfsburg scared the Vikings with counter-attacks and Benzema and Ramos missed golden opportunities. With seemingly everything in the arsenal exhausted, Real Madrid turned to their most powerful weapon when Gustavo brought down Modric in the 76th minute. Ronaldo immediately stood over the dead ball and waved everyone away. Only one man could take that free kick. After taking his peculiar stance and sizing up his options, Ronaldo sprinted towards the dead ball and smashed a devastating arc through a chink in the wall’s armor and into the net. That brought up an incredible accomplishment for Ronaldo, something that was only overshadowed by what he'd done before.

Bits & Pieces

Keylor Navas once again executed several clutch saves which crucially kept Real Madrid a clean sheet.

Ramos had an excellent game, constantly cutting out danger and nearly scoring twice. He ended the match with 2 tackles, 5 interceptions, 7 clearances, and 7 aerial battles won.

Zidane’s passion is so immense, that he ripped his own pants in frustration.

(All statistics & charts taken from whoscored.com and FourFourTwo statszone)