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Match Review (2016/17 Champions League Round of 16, 1st Leg): Real Madrid 3 - 1 Napoli

Los Blancos trounce Mauricio Sarri’s men.

Real Madrid CF v SSC Napoli - UEFA Champions League Round of 16: First Leg Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Model of Play

Real Madrid lined up in their traditional 4-3-3 playing their strongest XI with the exception of Bale (who just recently started training again). Varane-Ramos helmed the defense and were flanked by Marcelo and Carvajal. In the middle of the park, Casemiro sat in between Modric and Kroos. Ronaldo, James, and Benzema formed the offensive trident to complete the team. It was great seeing so many first team players on the pitch at the same time after a period marred by an unfortunate string of injuries. Napoli essentially played their best team. Milik, their presumed starting striker, who made a recent return from a long-term injury was on the bench.

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Real Madrid’s strategy was to obtain control of the match through patient possession play while proactively testing the Napoli defense. It didn’t take long for the first chance to materialize as barely 20 seconds had elapsed before Ronaldo played a great one-two with Benzema that led to the Portuguese feeding the #9 with a beautiful pass which the latter got to with his left foot. Pepe Reina did well to get a hand to the ball to prevent a goal. This play served as a foreshadowing of Real Madrid’s eagerness to move the ball vertically once channels opened up.

When Napoli’s defensive shape was sound however and there weren’t any visible holes to exploit, Los Blancos moved the ball extremely well in possession. Build-up was assertive and controlled as Navas, Ramos, and Varane would not hesitate to use each other in order to create better angles and spaces to breach the first line and deliver the ball to the midfielders. All three of the midfielders supported this scheme excellently as Kroos and Modric would retreat into our zone to give options to the defenders in order to progress play. However, this was employed in a risk sensitive fashion as Navas and the defenders would not force any passes that weren’t clearly feasible, choosing rather to play a long ball down the field.

Napoli utilized their biggest threat, speed through counter-attacking, to trouble Real Madrid’s defense several times. This together with their solid passing ability allowed them to wait until ideal moments to release forwards. This was perfectly exemplified by Insigne’s goal and the lead-up to it. To combat this, Real Madrid attempted to cut off supply as early as possible in the midfield with Modric and Casemiro in particular targeting loose balls or any opportunities to dispossess their players.

In addition to that (it’s standard at this stage), Varane and Ramos’ (Pepe when he came on too) ability to manage a lot of ground as well keep up with pacy attackers due to their speed was again indispensable. Direct interference (tackles/interceptions) supplemented our shape in more static situations such as the period after Napoli’s goal and towards the end of the second half when the Italian side would try to steady tempo.

Ronaldo, Benzema, and James were instrumental in our possession game as their involvement was impressive. All three participated heavily to ensure the availability of numbers in offensive areas. Modric would engage them more actively (one-two’s, short passes etc) while Kroos (moreso as usual) and Casemiro would initiate switches of play with long lobbed passes to the wings for James, Marcelo, Carvajal, and Ronaldo to a lesser degree. This connectivity in our game was overwhelming as it was almost impossible to contain. The team dynamically responded to Napoli’s defensive pressure and focus. If Carvajal found that the right flank was blocked, the ball would automatically find its way to Modric who would either reset or circulate to Kroos for a reassessment of the state of play and how best to advance.

Summary of Select Key Chances

Minute 8: Diawara-->Hysaj-->Diawara-->Albiol-->Diawara-->Koulibaly-->Diawara-->Hamšík-->Koulibaly-->Mertens-->Hamšík-->Insigne-->Goal

This play illustrated great movement and passing by Napoli but ultimately was not a concerning situation as Insigne’s run was tracked. Navas’s error was the critical mistake.

Minute 18: Kroos-->Ronaldo-->Kroos-->Carvajal-->James-->Modric-->Kroos-->James-->Carvajal-->Benzema-->Goal

This goal showed Real Madrid’s possession and passing composure. It started on the left wing, worked its way to the right, came back to the middle, and then again to the right as James found Carvajal whose sumptous cross was headed in by Benzema.

Minute 27: Marcelo-->Ramos-->Benzema-->Kroos-->Modric-->Marcelo-->Modric-->Marcelo-->Kroos-->Modric-->Benzema-->Modric-->Ronaldo-->Shot off target

This has a case for Real Madrid’s best offensive sequence of the game. It displayed all the elements of Madrid’s match: progressive patient possession, forwards’ participation, and attacking instigation. Modric was key in this play and Ronaldo should’ve scored from inside the box.

Minute 31: Albiol-->Diawara-->Zieliński-->Insigne-->Hamšík-->Shot off target

Another play showcasing Napoli’s rapid transition play. Varane and James could’ve done better to close down Hamšík.

Minute 42: James-->Marcelo-->Ramos-->Modric-->Varane-->Ramos-->Modric-->Ronaldo-->Carvajal-->Ronaldo-->Benzema-->Post

Another contender for attacking play of the night as Real Madrid’s initial patience with the ball created space on the right wing that Ronaldo and Carvajal exploited. This resulted in Ronaldo playing a wonderful sweeping pass to Benzema that the Frenchman almost scored.

Minute 48: James-->Ronaldo-->James-->Ronaldo-->Kroos-->Goal

James and Ronaldo (mostly) shined in this play as the Colombian intercepts the ball and exchanges it with Ronaldo. The Portuguese then does the rest of the work upon getting it back to work his way into the box and find Kroos who places it perfectly into the net.

Minute 52: Casemiro-->Benzema-->Modric-->James-->Benzema-->James-->Idle Ball-->Casemiro-->Goal

There was team play involved but this was all about Casemiro. One of the goals of the season, no doubt. Beautiful volleyed effort from outside the box.

Minute 68: Hamšík-->Diawara-->Callejon-->Mertens-->Shot off target

This was one of Napoli’s best goal scoring opportunities. The entire defense lost focus but particularly Marcelo who did not track Callejon’s run at all. Neither Ramos or Varane picked up Mertens and Carvajal failed to close off the passing option to Hamšík at the back post.


Real Madrid dominated Napoli and in so doing exhibited their greatest strength - dynamism/adaptability. The team is one of the most versatile in the world and can approach games in numerous ways. They’re able to play patient combination play and able to turn that into fruitful offense through excellent proactive transitions and utilize the skill-sets of their exceptional players to its most lethal effect.

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The numbers support the eye test as Real Madrid managed 20 shots (6 on target) to Napoli’s 8 (2). Factoring in quality of shots, Real Madrid still bested Napoli as we had a significantly higher xG.

Notable Player Performances: Ronaldo, Casemiro, and Kroos. It must be emphasized this was a fantastic team game where every single player did well.

Additional notes:

  • Real Madrid’s offensive set-pieces are very interesting and creative. The two shots (Modric’s and Marcelo’s) created from playing a short pass as opposed to a cross from those types of situations today were good outcomes and, upon reflection, a continuation of how that particular aspect of our game has evolved over time.
  • Similarly, how seamlessly Real Madrid seem to be able to activate their pressing is fascinating. The second goal was a result of this as we relentlessly pressured Napoli in their own half until they gave up the ball. This is another element of our framework that is continually growing.

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