Model of Play
There were two changes to the team that started against Napoli at the Bernabeu a fortnight ago. Pepe was selected as a replacement for Varane who is suffering from a knock and Bale unsurprisingly manned the right wing. The XI was the same as the one that took the field in Milan on the fateful day Real Madrid claimed their 11th Champions League title. As far as good omens go, this was a pretty good one.
Napoli for their part were virtually unchanged from their squad when they lost 3-1 to Real except for Allan who took Zieliński’s place. This was a strong side with a clear aim. The team — led by their attacking talisman, Dries Mertens, who is in scintillating form — was going to be a challenge for Los Blancos to contain.
Real Madrid began very cautiously attempting to gauge the pulse of their opponent’s intensity and offensive plan. As a result, the opening phase of the game was defined by heavy Napoli possession dominance. This was facilitated by an effective and rigorous press employed by the home team creating discomfort and panic whenever Zidane’s men tried to settle play. The latter deliberately weren’t focused on this aspect of their play as Navas, Ramos, and Pepe would liberally clear the ball with long dispatches without hesitation. This highlighted the risk sensitive approach Real adopted at the beginning of the first half and more generally throughout the match. The emerging dynamic as a consequence seemed to favor Real Madrid as, although Napoli were clinically moving the ball around with intention and control, they were somewhat limited to low to moderate quality chances and opportunities.
An aspect of the Italian side’s possession scheme that particularly stood out was very precise verticality. This was especially evident when their center-backs or midfielders (dropping deep) had the ball and would make line-breaching ground passes to players in advanced positions. This persistent pass selection worked very well and allowed them to proactively navigate a fairly clustered area (Real’s defensive half). This strategy attempted to capitalize on the individual capability of players such as Mertens, Insigne, and Hamšík. It worked to a degree as their sharp movement freed up enough room for their players to test Ramos and co. Furthermore, their wingers were periodically supplied with hopeful looping balls that were well defended.
Modric’s individual competency shone. Due to the lack of standard connection and possession control, players were often more isolated and held the ball for longer. While Kroos and Casemiro struggled in this context, the Croatian excelled and gave his team the valuable time to momentarily recollect, reshape, and organize. This aided the counter-attacking based offense on display as Napoli’s significant pressure left them vulnerable in transition and exposed at the back. This almost proved costly as BBC (predominantly Bale) had great opportunities to score or layoff the ball for simple finishes that they couldn’t take advantage of. In turn, Real Madrid would be made to pay as Mertens lay the finishing touch on a remarkably worked goal. Napoli’s controlled passing, movement, and individual quality all came together beautifully to give them the lead.
As in the first leg, Real Madrid reacted very positively to going down and immediately shifted up a gear. The balance of play swung the visitors’ way as reflected by their assertiveness with the ball. Resembling something like a switch, Marcelo and Carvajal broke out of their guarded positioning and began supporting the midfield and forward lines much more consistently. After this powered surge subsided, the game became more even and stretched with Napoli regaining the upper hand to close the first half. The game state and implications of a second goal without answer in an electric Stadio San Paolo meant there was more room for Sarri’s players to operate in as Real Madrid pursued an equalizer.
Reminiscent of the stunning succession of headers he scored in the second leg of the semi-final against Bayern Munich in 2014, Ramos scored a brace (counting the own goal as his) within the first fifteen minutes of the second half. This effectively killed the game and the tie due to the near impossible task of mounting a 4-goal comeback in half an hour. In the lead-up to Ramos’ equalizer, Napoli defended reasonably well and continued to create danger — in spurts and not overly worrying but sufficient to cause a few scares. After Real Madrid took the lead, the game entered into time and play management mode. It slowed down and Real Madrid contained Napoli while trying to hit them on the break. Substitutes were used to provide the team with energy and vitality in seeing out the match.
Summary of Select Key Chances
Minute 16: Allan-->Insgine-->Diawara-->Insigne-->Ghoulam-->Diawara-->Albiol-->Hamšík-->Shot off target
This sequence was a good illustration of the pattern of Napoli’s attacks in the first half. A strong press to recover the ball was followed by measured passing and movement. Once Albiol got the ball, he scanned the half spaces and made a directed ground pass from the center of the field to Hamšík, situated close to the box, who turned and shot.
Minute 18: Pepe-->Casemiro-->Pepe-->Navas-->Ronaldo-->Marcelo-->Kroos-->Casemiro-->Ramos-->Kroos-->Casemiro-->Bale-->Shot on target
Buildup in this play was less patient and controlled than typical. Pepe combined with Casemiro off a throw-in before resetting to Navas. The goalkeeper searched for long ball options finding Ronaldo. The ball worked its way to Casemiro who made a delightful long pass to Bale. The Welshman controlled magnificently but failed to find Benzema and elected to shoot. The tame effort was easily saved.
Minute 24: Diawara-->Koulibaly-->Diawara-->Koulibaly-->Hysaj-->Albiol-->Allan-->Koulibaly->Insigne-->Hamšík-->Mertens-->Goal
Candidate for play of the night. Almost mirroring Real Madrid’s fluid and controlled buildup in the first leg, Napoli held onto the ball patiently before making a succession of progressive space optimizing passes that surgically broke down Real Madrid’s compact shape.
Mertens controlled a great pass from Hamšík to finish expertly. Casemiro’s failure to monitor the critical zone and Pepe not recognizing the loose man were the key issues defending this brilliant play.
Minute 29: Pepe-->Kroos-->Marcelo-->Ramos-->Kroos-->Benzema-->Modric-->Kroos-->Benzema-->Ronaldo-->Post
Real’s best attacking play of the game. Pepe won the ball back and immediately looked for a switch to the opposite side. Marcelo, Ramos, and Kroos composed possession before Kroos made a vertical pass to Benzema on the wing whose subtle movement and delicate passing were crucial.
The Frenchman received the ball in a more central position shortly after and played a great through-ball for Ronaldo. The Portuguese did well to round the keeper but hit the post from a sharp angle.
Minute 51: Kroos-->Ramos-->Goal
Ramos made a close run to the near post to get at the end of Kroos’ cross from the corner and score decisively.
Minute 57: Kroos-->Ramos-->Mertens-->Own goal
Opposite corner. Same crosser. Same scorer. Ramos powerfully connected with Kroos’ cross deflecting the goal off a defender into the net. The captain’s movement and anticipation were truly excellent.
Minute 91: Morata-->Goal
Morata followed up very well to score after a Ronaldo shot was parried away by Pepe Reina. The lead up to Ronaldo’s shot saw adept ball circulation and movement (Ronaldo’s run being a highlight).
The scoreline from the first leg was repeated as Real Madrid came away with a 3-1 win. The match contrasted how things played out at the Bernabeu to a degree as Napoli took charge in their stadium while Real Madrid were more conservative. Although the Italians generated a fair number of chances and had several very good opportunities, shots were evenly split between the two. The visitors had the edge when it came to shots on target and quality of chances. However, it should be noted that for a large portion of the game, xG was equal with both teams accruing similar types of chances.
Based on the first leg score and what was needed, Real Madrid will look at the game more favorably (beyond just the score) as their gameplan successfully and substantially limited a very vibrant and energetic Napoli to perimeter shots. Ramos and Pepe marked the solidity of Real Madrid’s defense with a stellar display (almost error free!) that firmly and fully met any challenge posed by the home team.
Modric is a special player and his ability to excel in any type of game against any type of opposition is beyond words. He provided necessary and important relief when Napoli had their stretches of dominant possession. At the same time, once Real Madrid became more proactive seeking to gain momentum, he was again able to provide very high level support to the team’s ball retention and circulation.
Overall, this match and the tie showed Real Madrid’s versatility — their ability to play many different systems using different players in a variety of modes of play (e.g. proactive, controlled possession or reactive, diligent containment) is exceptional. In addition, the spectrum of tools they have in their arsenal is incredible. They can go from a touch focused delicate style to a physical, individually propelled approach in the snap of a finger. This seamless (still evolving) in-game adaptability is one of the best things about the team.