Manchester City Were On Top in the Opening Phase of the Game
The first 20 minutes or so were incredibly intense, as both Zinedine Zidane and Manuel Pellegrini went head to head in a pressing battle. Zidane employed his classic press, which involves a central midfielder and a fullback joining a striker and a winger to win the ball down the wings. Pellegrini did the exact same thing, except pushed higher up the pitch and pressured Real's central defenders. This made all the difference, as Ramos and Pepe looked totally flustered, often either passing the ball to the opposition or clearing desperately. If they did manage to pass the ball successfully, to say, the wings, Navas and De Bruyne pressured Madrid's fullbacks into errors. If our CB's passed it off to their central midfielders, Fernando and Fernandinho snapped at their heels. In particular, they targeted Casemiro, who did not look at all comfortable under the pressure he was put under. This made it extremely hard for Real Madrid to find any rhythm, as they struggled to beat the net being cast over them. Any attack Madrid did spark came through Bale, who ended up being beaten one-on-one the majority of the time.
However, this same suffocative effect didn't happen to City when they had the ball. This was because Zidane chose to employ his press in the middle third of the pitch instead of City's defensive third. This strategy gave Manchester City's center backs time and space on the ball to pick out passes. They made good use of the time, as they avoided the pre-prepared congestion down the flanks and chose to pass to their central midfielders and play quick one-two combination passes from the flank to the center.
City's superior space in offense and adept press seemed to put them in the driving seat, making it look like only a matter of time before they started creating clear-cut chances. But to my great surprise, the press began to recede after the 20-minute mark and totally disappeared after 25 minutes. While pressing is very tiring, elite teams are usually fit enough to carry out this scheme for at least 45 minutes (at least Real Madrid can). Whether Man City were tired or it was simply a tactical instruction from Pellegrini, the sudden disappearance of the press ended the Citizen's chances of winning the game.
Injuries Played a Massive Role in This Match
It's a sad thing when injuries influence a game, but that's the reality of football that both Real Madrid and Manchester City had to face today. Real Madrid lost Cristiano Ronaldo seemingly minutes before kick-off, as the Portuguese forward failed a late fitness test. Then to make things worse, Benzema came off at half time for Jesé for presumably an injury. Maybe Real had made their own bed there, as it was doubtful that Benzema was ever 100%, but losing even an injured Benzema still hurt. In the first half, Benzema was key in facilitating those few attacking plays where Bale sprinted down the right flank. In his now classic link-up play, Benzema dropped deep to provide the only real option for the likes of Modric and Kroos to beat City's press. There's no doubt he would've thrived in the second half when City sat off, as he would've used his intelligence to link-play in the middle third and would've used his movement to combine with the other two frontmen. Jesé did his best, but he simply does not possess the required skillset to link Real Madrid's midfield to their attack, and thus Los Blancos' attack suffered.
But that wasn't the only thing Real were missing, as they lacked a spark in attack. Bale did try his best to provide it, and had one brilliant moment where he left a man for dead with a step-over, before curling a shot to the far post (75th minute), but it wasn't enough. Cristiano Ronaldo, the champions league's top scorer, provides that X-factor that Los Blancos desperately needed this match. It's clear Zidane needs him at the Bernabeu, so pray to whatever god you believe in to in order to get Cristiano fit and healthy for the return leg.
But Real weren't the only ones to suffer from injury. The loss of David Silva in the 40th minute undeniably hurt Manchester City's offensive flow. While Iheanacho is a promising talent, he did nothing to replace the cerebral link that attaches Man City's midfield and attack. With Aguero randomly abandoning his presumed role of dropping deeper, De Bruyne was left overworked, as he tried to cover for his duties on the flanks whilst providing creativity in central areas. This made Real Madrid's defensive work much easier, as Pepe trounced Aguero one-on-one and Carvajal managed to mostly keep De Bruyne in check in the second half.
Real Madrid's Offensive Tactics Were Off
Zidane has definitely made great strides in his understanding of the game in a very short period of time, but his inexperience showed today. With City's press non-existent in the second half, Pellegrini seemed to be screaming for Zidane's side to take control of the game. Instead, Real continued to try to force the issue, demonstrated by Bale and Lucas Vazquez switching flanks in the second half. The strategy was to bomb down the wing and cross, and Bale was Zidane's primary tool in executing this, as the Welshman was urged on in order to try to create something on his own. While he did manage 5 dribbles, this strategy proved to be wholly ineffective. Bale rarely threatened, often getting pushed to the byline where he had no support. Zidane should've instructed Real to be more patient and engage in possession football, which suits his philosophy better. This would've allowed Modric and Kroos to arrive in attacking areas of the pitch and would've allowed Madrid's fullbacks to occupy the flanks. This then would've stretched City's back-line and invariably would've created chances. But instead, Real continued to look as pensive and cautious as they did in the first half, refusing to push too many numbers into attack, as if they were still stunned by a press that no longer existed. Maybe this is one time where Zizou's half time talk couldn't do the trick.
Real Madrid's Central Midfielders Didn't Perform Offensively
Luka Modric was the best of the bunch (which isn't really saying that much), as he actively looked to link with his forward line and push Real Madrid up the pitch. But his final pass was lacking, and he was never able to break down a resolute City back-line.
Toni Kroos, on the other hand, seemed to be a passenger in this game. His ball retention was excellent, with a 98.7% passing accuracy and 4 completed dribbles, but he made no attempt to take control of the game. His passes were safe and more suited to a patient style of play, thus contributing nothing to Madrid's direct offensive strategy. It was a total mismatch of ideas between Zidane and Kroos, which put even more burden on Modric to make the difference.
While Casemiro is not expected to be the main contributor in offense, his inability to contribute to build-up seriously hurt Real Madrid in this match. The pressure Fernando and Fernandinho put on Casemiro early in the first half (a pressure I hinted at in my previous tactical review; though the pressure was not employed through a counter-press) seemed to fluster Casemiro, causing him to constantly misplace passes and break down his own team's attacks. His poor pass accuracy for a central midfielder - 75.8% - is a testament to this and Casemiro's limited style of play. Additionally, he refused to make incisive passes up the pitch on counter-attacks when given the chance. There were several frustrating moments where he could've played in Bale or played a simple pass out wide, but instead chose to lay-off a two meter pass to Modric or Kroos.
Casemiro isn't expected to be an offensive genius that breaks down defensive lines 24/7, but right now he doesn't have the skillset to facilitate basic play and move his team forward on offense. Today put Casemiro's full skillset on display, as he displayed great tackling to cut De Bruyne out on a counter in the 17th minute, made a rash and totally unnecessary challenge on Fernandinho in the 10th minute, and constantly relied on Kroos on Modric to facilitate any sort of possession play throughout the whole game. While one may point out that Casemiro's role is to only win the ball and pass the ball off to Modric and Kroos, a modern CDM must have the capabilities to affect transition play, especially for games like these. Look to Marchisio and Khedira at Juventus, or Kanté at Leicester for defensive midfielders who have an all-round skillset.
Bits & Pieces
Dani Carvajal had a strange game, as he was extremely poor positionally in the 1st half, but recovered quite well in the second.
As can be seen above, Carvajal was positioned too high up the pitch in the 1st 45, which allowed De Bruyne to constantly run in behind him and create danger. This forced Pepe to significantly adjust his positioning in order to cover for Carvajal.
But as you can see in the final heatmap, Carvajal's positioning is more balanced. This is because he recovered in the second half and focused more on marking De Bruyne (though De Bruyne did slip in behind the Spaniard on two occasions in the second half).
Pepe was Real Madrid's best player on the night, as he kept Aguero in his pocket, covered for Carvajal's poor first half, made crucial challenges when Madrid were exposed, and had Real Madrid's best chance of the game.
Joe Hart truly came cutch for City, as he first saved a Casemiro header from a corner in the 79th minute and saved Pepe's effort from point blank range in the 82nd minute. Pure class.
Zidane really should have used his substitutions better. There was literally no point in sending on Isco in the 89th minute.
(All statistics and charts taken from whoscored.com)