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Wolfsburg 2 - 0 Real Madrid (UEFA Champions League): Tactical Review

How an unfair penalty rattled Real Madrid, an analysis of Wolfsburg's efficient defensive tactics, and an explanation for why Zidane wasn't at fault for this loss.

Stuart Franklin/Getty Images

An Unfair Penalty Rattled Real Madrid

For the first 15 minutes of this match, one could not have guessed the disaster that was to come. Real Madrid were playing fine football, dominating possession and slowly working their way into the game. Ronaldo’s offside goal in barely the 1st minute of the match seemed to signal a hungry and sharp Madrid who were ready to bury Wolfsburg. Ronaldo and Bale drifted everywhere, as they dropped deep to receive the ball and switched flanks on a minute-by-minute basis. They were ably supported by their midfield, who patiently retained the ball and looked to probe Wolfsburg’s low block (5 midfielders in front of a back 4).

Wolfsburg seemed a little nervous because of Madrid’s sharp start to the game, as their press wasn’t coherent, causing gaps to open up in their defensive block. This allowed Modric and Kroos to slip balls into BBC, allowing for attacks to be launched on goal. If in that passage of play, a pass were misplaced, Madrid would intercept the ball immediately, pressing high up the pitch in order to suffocate Wolfsburg. This relegated the underdogs to route-one football for the majority of the first 15 minutes, stringing only one coherent attack from a Draxler counter, who cut inside and played a cross to Henrique. Unmarked by Marcelo - who’s positioning was too narrow - Henrique got his header on target, but it was an easy save for Navas. Things still looked good for Madrid.

Then, two minutes later, Wolfsburg constructed play down the left-flank again, leading to a cross that led to a penalty. It was a ridiculous decision by the referee, but all the complaining in the world did nothing as Ricardo Rodriguez coolly slotted home. Clearly rattled, Madrid struggled to get back into the match. Instead of calmly working the ball around and through Wolfsburg’s shaky press, Los Blancos played right into their opponent’s hands by forcing the issue, as Modric, Kroos, and Casemiro looked to play difficult balls that were simply not possible. This led to a terrible first half passing accuracy in the final third of the pitch, demonstrating Real’s complete loss of composure.

Real Madrid only completed 66.7% of their attacking third passes in the first half

Real Madrid only completed 66.7% of their attacking third passes in the first half

This sudden collapse tipped the tie in Wolfsburg’s favor, as suddenly a frantic, physical fight for the ball in midfield became the norm. This allowed Wolfsburg to win the ball more frequently and launch more potent counters, especially down the left-flank (an Arnold counter in the 23rd minute should’ve resulted in a goal for Wolfsburg). Increasingly rattled with each touch Draxler took, Danilo gave the German all the space in the world to cut inside onto his ride foot and switch play to Henrique in the 25th minute. Marcelo, who was once again caught ball watching and defending too narrowly, rushed out to try to meet his man, but it was too late. Henrique slid the ball across a seemingly empty Real Madrid box, allowing an unmarked Arnold to freely tap home a possible knockout blow.

Real Madrid Defensive Summary

The way in which that first goal rattled Real Madrid was rather amazing. Within minutes, Zidane’s men went from a well-organized and patient side, to a frantic and rustled group of school kids, who looked like they had never faced a decent press or an energetic counter in their life. Not only did Real Madrid’s defense completely lose their sense of positioning in relation to each other and the men they were marking, but Real Madrid’s midfield also lost their defensive shape. Modric, Kroos, and Casemiro bundled together in a flat line that gave plenty of space for Draxler to play switch balls and/or play through balls that exploited the width of the pitch and the space between the midfield and defense respectively. We simply made it too easy for Wolfsburg, and we were lucky not to concede 4 or 5 goals.

Real Madrid's Offense Played Into Wolfsburg’s Hands

Besides their low block and press, there was another aspect to Wolfsburg’s defensive display: their clogging of the flanks. Keenly aware that Ronaldo and Bale were Los Blancos' biggest threats with Benzema off the pitch, Wolfsburg shut down Real Madrid’s passage down the wings.

RR sat amazingly deep to deal with Bale

RR sat amazingly deep to deal with Bale

As can be seen above, not only did Ricardo Rodriguez sit amazingly deep, but Wolfsburg’s central defensive midfielders and wingers did due diligence on the flanks, shutting down passing lanes and making it unviable to work proper attacks out wide in possession play. The only times Madrid attacked capably down the wings were on counters.

Yet for some reason, all of Madrid’s central midfielder’s passed the ball out wide.

It probably didn’t help that Madrid’s main link-up man in Benzema was out, but Ronaldo and Bale weren’t stagnant on the wings.

They moved everywhere, desperate to receive the ball. But in the end, they were starved of any real chances unless Bale and Ronaldo combined themselves, which usually came from crosses from Bale. To receive the ball, they had to move wide, where they were marked heavily and lost possession.

It is perhaps telling then, that Madrid’s only clear-cut chance of the match came from a through ball cutting open the middle of the pitch, which played Ronaldo into a one-on-one situation. This, along with the first 15 minutes showed that Wolfsburg were weak in the middle, from their press, to the positioning of their fullbacks in relation to their center backs. Real Madrid were just too flustered and shocked to take advantage of it.

So Why Did This Happen?

The likely answer is overconfidence and complacency. Coming into this match on the back of a strong El Clásico win, combined with the fact that no one gave Wolfsburg a chance, probably led Real Madrid to take this game for granted. Thus when Wolfsburg netted a penalty, Los Blancos were unable to cope with something they had never forseen. Some may argue that the goal should’ve woken Madrid up, but the truth is, match sharpness doesn’t arrive in the middle of the a game. If you aren’t switched on an hour before kick-off, you won’t be switched on all of a sudden when Julian Draxler is charging towards you. Which brings me to another point; Zidane wasn’t at fault for this loss. Tactically there was nothing he could do, as his players were incapable of executing anything. There was no problem with his line-up either. Those going after Danilo have the benefit of hindsight, but coming into this game, there was no indication that the Brazilian would play like this. He had recently entered a strong run of form over the past 6-7 games and had actually matched Carvajal’s level.

It’s also worth noting that Danilo was just as bad as the rest of the back line. Marcelo couldn’t mark Henrique to save his life (forget is maddening playacting), and Pepe and Ramos were clueless. Add to this the fact that all of Madrid’s midfielders were positionally suspect on every single counter-attack, and it’s hard to understand why Danilo is being scapegoated. Nevertheless, there are concerns about the fragility of his confidence in my mind. It seemed that once Draxler showed Danilo his stuff, the Brazilian shrunk into a shell, and instead of tackling the German, jockeyed him endlessly. This gave Draxler the ability to take the initiative and control the game.

(All statistics and charts were taken from and FourFourTwo statszone)

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