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Real Madrid 1 - 0 Manchester City (UEFA Champions League Semifinals 2nd Leg): Tactical Review

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A general description of the game, with a specific analysis of both teams' tactics.

Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

General Flow of the Game

This was a complex, tactical game that forced Real Madrid and Manchester City to adopt various tactics and formations throughout the 90 minutes. Real Madrid lined up in a 4-3-3, with Isco as the LCM, Kroos as the DLP, Modric as the RCM, and with a forward line of Ronaldo-Jesé-Bale. City lined up in a 4-2-3-1, with Yaya Toure replacing the injured David Silva as the CAM.

Zidane set-up Real Madrid quite cautiously in the first 10 minutes, as Los Blancos sat back and invited City to take control of the game. This was a sudden break from Real’s pressing strategy of the past, possibly aimed at masking the positional weaknesses of Toni Kroos as Madrid’s deepest midfielder. With City’s attempt to make a hot start to the game, a deeper and more compact midfield block reduced the spaces players could run in behind. Thus, City were limited to unimaginative wing-play on the flanks coupled with the odd cross.

After Real stifled City’s initial energy, they began to take control of the game back, as Kroos and Modric pushed up the pitch and set the tempo of the game. This change in attitude was signaled by 2 minutes of excellent possession play, where Kroos and Modric pinged the ball to all areas of the pitch, eventually creating an opening where Carvajal found Ronaldo with a cross. While the Portuguese forward put his shot way over the bar, this passage of play shifted the flow of the game in Real’s favor.

This newfound dominance soon led to Real Madrid’s only goal of the game, as Kroos shifted the ball to Modric, who found Carvajal, who then slipped in Bale down the right channel, causing Bale to ricochet a cross of Fernando into the back of the net. From then on, Real had near total control of proceedings, as City backed off and allowed Real to dominate the game.

The second half brought no changes to this pattern, as Real Madrid’s powerful midfield duo of Modric and Kroos controlled the game and shattered Pellegrini’s dream of dominating the middle of the park.

Looking at Kroos’ passing chart, you can see the masterclass he put together in regards to controlling the game. His short passing up the field was crucial in transition, and helped Real Madrid battle a City side intent on controlling the game through pressing. He also played intelligently, connecting the dots between the most influential attacking players on the night: Modric, Bale, and Isco.

Modric for his part focused on the right side, combining with Carvajal and Bale to great effect. He was the link that allowed the dynamic right-wing duo to scream up the flank and create the damage that they did. Thus, the little Croatian’s influence on this win cannot be underestimated.

The dominance of Kroos and Modric created a series of chances for Real Madrid, with Ronaldo, Jesé, Bale and Modric himself, all getting chances to put the game away. But things soon changed when Zidane subbed James on for Isco. Real Madrid receded into a defensive shell, with Lucas (who had come on for Jesé in the 56th minute) positioned on the right wing and Bale positioned on the left in a 4-5-1 formation. Ronaldo remained as the only attacking outlet, with the role of opportunistically chasing down long balls. While this gave total control of the game to City, the side from Manchester failed to capitalize and thus Zidane’s conservative tactics from the 68th minute onwards were vindicated.

Specific Tactical Observations - Real Madrid

Movement into channels

This game was dominated by attacking movement into the channels. With no Benzema, Real Madrid concentrated their attacks down the flanks more than usual.


As can be seen on the chart above, barely any passes attempted to pierce through the middle of City’s midfield. Everything was concentrated wide, specifically to the right flank. But looking only at Bale’s heatmap, this doesn’t seem very obvious.

On initial viewing, his central positioning makes it look like he congested the center of the park unnecessarily. But on second viewing, you can see that Bale was occupying the half spaces of the pitch, where no one could pick him up. Jesé and Ronaldo did this more infrequently, but this off-the-ball movement showed a crucial step forward in Zidane’s tactical evolution. Previously, Real could be suffocated down the flanks (especially without Benzema), as teams simply played their central midfielders wide on defense to aid their fellow fullbacks and wingers. But with the occupation of the half space between the wings and the center of the pitch, Zidane essentially played the likes of Bale in a territory that made him a nightmare to mark. This strategy was crucial in the build-up to the goal, as Carvajal slipped Bale into the channels in the build-up. Due to the fact that City were trying to maintain their shape, they could not cope with this sort of dynamic off-the-ball movement, leaving Bale free to run in behind the defense and make his attacking move. Understanding this style of play very well, Carvajal fed Ronaldo the ball in the right half space several times in the second half, in order to create several potential attacking opportunities. If Zidane makes this clever penetration strategy a mainstay in his possession play, Atlético Madrid might just become slightly easier to break down.

Isco Was Key

A player I didn’t mention in the earlier paragraph was Isco, who I thought was absolutely brilliant in the 1st half. Under Ancelotti, the diminutive Spaniard learned the LCM role to perfection, using his dribbling skills and his foundation as a left-winger to master the movement into the left half space. This created utter chaos in City’s defensive lines, as their midfield scrambled to try to pick up the free roaming playmaker. Isco used this attention to slip in the likes of Ronaldo, Marcelo, and Jesé into the left channel, a tactic which created a solid chance for Cristiano Ronaldo in the 24th minute and spawned many more attacking moves.

But aside from his superb link-up play, Isco was also crucial on defense. It was incredibly clear that Pellegrini was trying to exploit Ronaldo and Marcelo’s suspect defensive positioning, but Isco ensured that this never became a problem. His work-rate when tracking back was truly immense, and he always made sure to track Navas’ runs in order to nullify him as a threat.

Additionally, Isco also helped Modric put in a defensive shift at the center of the park. For all of Kroos’ passing brilliance, the German did leave space in behind him as he charged forward to press when he should’ve held his position.

His heatmap in the first half represents his high positioning, which nearly cost Madrid at the end of the first half when Navas slipped in De Bruyne behind Kroos, who then laid the ball off to Fernandinho, who then struck a shot off the post. Had Modric and Isco not plugged the gaps and harried the opposition like their lives depended on it, this sort of attacking play by City could’ve been more common.

Zidane Used a Rotational System for His Front Three In Order to Cope With the Absence of Benzema

This system isn’t new and I’ve talked about this before previous articles. With Benzema out, the best strategy for Zidane to pursue, is one where each player in the front line takes some share of the role as the No. 9 in the side. This gives Real Madrid some attacking structure, but also ensures that one of the front three are not shut out of the game because they are playing in a position they are uncomfortable with.

The heatmaps are rather misrepresentative of the system Zidane employed, because of the fact that Ronaldo became the center forward from around the 70th minute onwards. But the charts do somewhat show the system that I observed.

While this tactic has previously meant that Real Madrid were only potent on the flanks, the use of half spaces and channels ensured that City’s defense never truly had a handle on Real’s front three due to the absence of Benzema.

Zidane’s Subs Made Little Sense

I thought Zidane was on the right track when he brought on Lucas Vazquez to replace Jesé in the 56th minute, but the Frenchman soon changed my mind when he brought on James for Isco 22 minutes later. Isco had petered off a bit in the second half, but there was no reason to sub off a player who understood his role perfectly in the context of the game. Isco was playing into the channels exactly as Zidane wanted, but even more importantly, he was holding down Real Madrid’s fort on the left flank. While James proved himself to be a marvelous attacking player in the same position under Ancelotti, his defensive qualities in that position are questionable, and his understanding of the role is not as complete as Isco’s.

But perhaps even more questionable was Modric being subbed off for Kovacic. While I like the kid and want him to play, there is no way he provides more defensive stability and ball retention than Modric at this point in his career. Taking him off made it theoretically harder for Real to hold on to the ball when they lost it, and harder to defend when City attacked. Combine that with James playing in an unnatural role, and you realize that it was the paucity of creativity in City’s attack that allowed us to close out a clean sheet with ease.

Specific Tactical Observations – Manchester City

Manchester City’s Mantra was "Pass to Aguero"

Manchester City’s ability to only create one chance in that match was truly mind-boggling. Possessing the likes of Kevin De Bruyne, Yaya Toure, and Fernandinho, Pellegrini for some reason instructed his team to look for Aguero at every opportunity. The frequency with which City did this in the first 7 minutes of the match, alerted Real’s defenders to this strategy. From then on, City’s attacks became incredibly predictable. Any ball that was directed out wide was obviously going to be hurled into the box, making it easy for Real’s fullbacks to stop such deliveries and easy for Real’s center backs to mark the only man in the box - a 5 foot 7 Sergio Aguero.

Only 1 out of 12 crosses were successful

Only 1 out of 12 crosses were successful

Aguero didn't even touch the ball in the box, such was the dominance of Real's center backs

Aguero didn't even touch the ball in the box, such was the dominance of Real's center backs

What City needed to do was exploit the space in behind Kroos, which should’ve been the attacking midfielder's job. But since Yaya Toure was utterly useless, Pellegrini should’ve played De Bruyne as the CAM, with Sterling and Navas flanking him. This would’ve allowed the masterful Belgian to focus all his attention to one area of the pitch, which would’ve surely allowed him to prance into space and create all sorts of danger for Los Blancos.

Incredibly, Manchester City decided to avoid the space through the middle, and instead attack through the congested wings

Incredibly, Manchester City avoided the space through the middle, and chose to attack through the congested flanks

But instead, De Bruyne was spread thin, as he tried to take on too many duties at once.

Trying to defend as well as influence every part of the attacking third was insane, but also somewhat necessary as De Bruyne’s teammates played at a level well below his own. Thankfully for Madrid, it ensured that the former Chelsea man was never a threat, possibly making City fans wonder what would’ve happened if he had help from a certain Spaniard.

David Silva’s Injury Was a Huge Blow To Manchester City’s Chances

Even more than De Bruyne, David Silva was the perfect candidate to exploit the space left behind by Kroos. He would’ve done his job 10 times better than Toure, and would’ve added some much needed fluidity and creativity to his team’s attacks. This would’ve allowed De Bruyne to focus on attacking one area of the pitch, which would have made him incredibly potent and more difficult to defend. Thus, Silva's injury in the first leg was quite possibly the most influential moment in this two-legged tie.

Bits & Pieces

Carvajal had a very good game, contributing crucially in attack and defense.

Navas showed his assurance when claiming crosses and snuffing out any danger near his box. It was encouraging to see this considering that this is supposed to be a weak point of his.

Marcelo was actually good defensively and positioned himself well in the first half. His heatmap on whoscored.com actually showed him being deeper than Carvajal in the first 45 minutes. But since I didn’t take a screenshot I can only show you Marcelo’s heatmap across the full game (which is more stretched out due to Real's dominance for a large part of the second half). You’ll just have to trust me on this.

Ronaldo clearly wasn’t fully fit. He had some neat touches and a nice dribbling move in the first half, but his finishing was way off and his off-the-ball movement wasn’t up to par. I'm not sure why Zidane let him play the full 90.

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