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Tactical Review (UEFA Champions League): Real Madrid 2 - 1 Sporting CP

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Individual genius covers up a poor performance by Los Blancos.

Real Madrid CF v Sporting Clube de Portugal - UEFA Champions League Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Real Madrid’s Complacency Was A Big Problem

It’s easy to become overconfident when you have the most expensive attacking trio in world football, the two best central midfielders on earth behind them, and a defense consisting of a superstar youngster and one of the GOAT captains of all time. I mean just look at this roster. Who can beat Real Madrid? We’re the reigning European Champions and are on a magnificent winning streak in La Liga - we’re untouchable right?

Well guess what? Sporting CP hadn’t read the script and they came out to play. They battled with passion, fury, physicality, and executed their tactical game plan to near perfection (more on that later).

Madrid on the other hand, came out with a cocky swagger to their step and tossed the ball around like they had already won the game. Their impressive confidence initially subdued Jorge Jesus’ side, as Madrid comfortably dominated possession and found BBC at will. But after 15 minutes, Sporting began to spot the complacency in their opponents and pounced.

Real Madrid escaped unscathed into the break, but their attitude did not improve in the second half. Sporting came out frothing at the mouth, and though they did get a bit of luck, scored a deserved goal in the 48th minute to take a deserved lead.

Los Blancos reacted as if slapped sharply, first stumbling dizzyingly before reacting with the fury and the purpose that we had been waiting for all game. The turnaround in mentality nearly wasn’t soon enough though, and a loss would’ve been a deserved result.

Sporting’s Defensive Plan Was Brilliant

Despite Madrid’s woes, Sporting has to be given a ton of credit. Jorge Jesus drilled his team extremely well in preparation for this game, and it showed as they sat coiled in a fluid defensive unit before lashing out with venom on the counter-attack.

The Initial Low Block

As mentioned before, Sporting began this game with the clear intentions to cede possession and sit in a medium-to-low block. It’s not an uncommon plan when playing in the Bernabeu, and it can prove to be troublesome if executed to perfection.

Unfortunately for Los Merengues, that’s just what Sporting did.

As noted by one of Managing Madrid’s editors, Kiyan Sobhani, Sporting’s spacing from each other when sitting in their low block was unbelievable.

Above, you can see Sporting’s defensive structure early on in the game. They are set in a medium block, letting Madrid play the ball around at the back.

Their superb asymmetric defensive structure in midfield cuts off all access to the center of the park, with the alternating of high and low positioning ensuring vertical and horizontal compactness simultaneously.

William Carvalho completes the puzzle with his superb defensive positioning, centering himself behind his midfield partners in such a way that he can help his men on the ball-side, whilst getting to Modric if a pass somehow finds the Croatian.

With the center cut off, Madrid turn to the flanks, but Sporting are well set-up to deal with that.

Sporting’s midfield quickly shifts over to the right to effectively box off any chance of progression through the channels. Their quickness to react and form their peculiar asymmetric structure once again enables both types of compactness to be achieved, whilst ensuring pressing access to every Madrid player on the right flank.

On the off-chance that Madrid manages to pass through Sporting’s net, Carvalho’s position at the base of the quadrilateral also forms a triangle with the two defenders behind him, thus effectively providing an insurance policy whilst completing their domination of the right-wing.

But Madrid try to penetrate Sporting’s right side anyway, with a man dropping deep to receive the ball. Sporting’s trap snaps shut in response, forcing the ball to be played back to Madrid’s defense to restart the first possession phase of the game once again.

This sort of thing happened over and over again, constantly hindering Madrid’s ability to string to gather meaningful passes and penetrate the final third.

Center blocked off, causing Madrid to struggle to enter the final third in the first half.
The Press

But Jorge Jesus wasn’t content with simply holding Madrid off. About 15 minutes into the game, he sensed Madrid’s complacency and began to ask his side to press.

Completely aware that Ronaldo and Bale could rip his side apart if he played too high a line, Jesus instructed his team to counterpress sharply before quickly retreating into into a defensive shell. In this way, he managed to apply high pressure without stretching his side, and thus managed to banish the dangers of a long ball.

By taking this next step in controlling Madrid’s possession play, Real’s old problems when facing a press began to prop up.

Modric and Kroos dropped deep to try to distribute the ball as evident in this pass map (it must be noted that the pass map represents average positioning when a pass is received and made, so take into account the fact that Modric and Kroos were free from a press in the first 15 minutes of the match and in the last 20 minutes of the match (when Sporting sat back)).

While that usually works against teams that don’t press cohesively, against a top side, Madrid loses penetration and vertical movement into the halfspaces, which is absolutely essential for breaking past a press.

This is where Casemiro’s limitations become obvious, as Madrid need the ability to aim vertical passes through a press so that Modric and Kroos don’t need to drop so deep.

But just to confirm that the problem was the midfield and not the forwards as 11tegen11 suggests, take a look at the BBC’s individual heatmaps.

Benzema, Bale, and Cristiano moved absolutely everywhere to try to receive the ball, but Modric’s and Kroos’ deeper positioning combined with Sporting’s excellent defensive structure forced the ball unimaginatively into wide areas. This caused individual members of the BBC to receive the ball in isolated areas, making it nearly impossible for them to connect with their attacking teammates.

The Bad Substitutions

With the game still only at 1-0, Zidane made his substitutions, bringing on Lucas Vázquez for Bale and Morata on for Benzema in the 60th minute, and James on for Kroos in the 77th minute.

The first sub was an extremely questionable decision, as Bale had been the best player all night, providing the width, pace, and dribbling that Lucas was coming on to execute.

The James sub was a better one, as the Colombian provided the magic and offensive positioning needed to win the game, but it didn’t make too much sense to sub him off for Kroos. He should’ve come on for Casemiro, a player who was no longer needed since Sporting had subbed off their counter-attacking threat in Gelson Martins.

Regardless, these decisions paled in comparison to Jorge Jesus’s only and fatal mistake of the night. On 70 minutes, he subbed off Gelson Martins for Lazar Markovic, ridding his team of not only the young winger’s scintillating attacking skills (7 dribbles and 2 out of 3 accurate crosses), but also of a necessary offensive outlet.

With Sporting deciding to park the bus about the time Lucas and Morata came on, Jorge Jesus needed a player to latch onto long balls and hold up play to relieve themselves of Madrid’s pressure. Martin’s pace and dribbling made him the perfect candidate, but he wasn’t on the pitch. Instead Sporting ceded possession and allowed Madrid to attack them at will and with unbroken intensity.

The result was the creation of chance after chance (Ronaldo’s missed tap-in, Morata’s missed header, and Carvajal’s missed volley being the most notable ones) until Madrid completed an incredible comeback that destroyed all of Jorge Jesus’ work.

Cristiano Ronaldo

Honestly, what more can be said about this.. umm.. man (he’s an alien isn’t he)? Time and time and time and time and time again he steps up when his team needs him most. With Madrid on the edge of a horribly deserved loss and nothing seeming to work, he won a free kick 25 yards from goal and lined up to take it. Then, with the genius of a maestro, he pranced towards the ball and lofted it into the corner of the net with the trademark dip and swerve that we have all come to expect from a Ronaldo free kick.

Such was the power and accuracy of the strike, Rui Patricio could not stop the ball from going in, even after getting a hand to it.

Out of respect for his first club and knowing that the game was not yet won, Ronaldo refused to celebrate and instead returned to the center-circle stony-faced and laser-focused.

Inspired by the apparent resurrection of Juanito, James delivered a beautiful cross that was powerfully smashed into the back of the net by Alvaro Morata.

Lost in all of the madness was one amazing stat:

With Ronaldo’s dominant European campaign last season and his now brilliant return from injury, that 4th ballon d’or seems to be inching ever closer to the grasp of one unquenchable Portuguese.

Bits & Pieces

It is truly amazing how many times individual brilliance has saved us over the course of the 2015/16 and 2016/17 seasons. Our roster is undoubtedly something special.

Martins will receive all the praise, but César was also brilliant.

Modric’s and Ramos’ pair of mistakes before Sporting’s goal was a bit of misfortune, but it also summed up our performance.

As was predicted in this article, Morata is going to be huge for Madrid this season.

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