Model of Play
Ever since the quarter final draw that occurred over a month ago and pitted one of the greatest European teams of all time in Real Madrid against another equally illustrious ensemble — the excitement and anticipation has been building to electrifying levels. The wait was no longer as the two titans came face to face in the heart of Bavaria. Real Madrid were dealing with unfortunate injuries to Pepe and Varane requiring the selection of Nacho (a rotational option who while impressive this season is a clear non-starter in a fully fit squad). With the exception of this change, the starting eleven was as expected.
Despite early reports dismissing the rumours Lewandowski picked up a knock over the weekend that could have ruled him out of the match, the Polish menace was sidelined for the game. In light of the monstrous form of the Bundesliga kicker Torjägerkanone leader, his absence was a welcome surprise for Los Blancos. Ancelotti responded by shifting Thomas Müller to the center forward position supported by Robben and Ribery on the wings. Excluding Alcantara, Alonso, and Martinez, the remaining players fielded all participated the last time these two sides met.
The match started evenly as both teams attempted to figure each other out and better define their approach. This consisted of Real Madrid and Bayern Munich taking turns holding the ball and utilizing possession as an exploratory mechanism. The Germans focused their attacking through the wings, particularly on the right via Robben, gauging the vulnerability of the outside channels. Likewise, Real Madrid had a bias, if lesser, for the left going forward as Marcelo emerged as a key instigator partnering well with Ronaldo and the midfielders to test the Bavarians’ shape. Carvajal acted in a similar capacity and both fullbacks were major proponents in the early period of the first half. Both teams implemented sound off-the-ball structures limiting the amount of chances created.
The tense nature of the match appeared as though it would persist before the opening goal. Bayern Munich’s best attacking opportunities arrived in the form of aerial play from corners or crosses and it seemed to be the likeliest way they would score. Vidal answered in kind with a thunderous header in the 25th minute. This enabled Ancelotti’s men to adopt a more passive and patient possession scheme altering the balance of the match. They capitalized on the momentum the goal provided making incisive vertical plays propelled by the qualities of their midfield, selective central fullback positioning (mainly Lahm), and their forwards’ dribbling.
Real Madrid reacted well to this new dynamic adapting seamlessly into a more reserved style. They were able to absorb pressure and clinically translate their attacking moments into legitimate goalscoring chances. Modric and Kroos navigated a more packed midfield (as Bayern pushed up a little higher) to strategically deliver the ball to players in actionable zones. This was mainly accomplished by: 1) taking advantage of Ronaldo and Benzema’s adept movement into the half spaces that slightly but noticeably expanded after Vidal’s goal and 2) feeding Marcelo, Carvajal, and Bale in wide positions to either progress play through combinations or direct crossing. The centerbacks (not forgetting Navas!) and Casemiro’s crucial and controlled resetting of play facilitated the management of Bayern’s active press.
Real Madrid started the second half brilliantly as they equalized within two minutes. This was the culmination of the ascendancy gained after Vidal’s missed penalty in the first half. Their attacking approach thereafter became more explicitly powered through the wings and perimeter shooting in good positions near the edge of the box. An important feature of their wing-play was the incredible quality of the deliveries (and decision-making) into the box. Marcelo and Carvajal would provide exceptionally enticing crosses and openings. The variety of these pays helped as the types of crosses would alternate between high and low and near post and far post and were often purposeful and targeted specific men in the box. Martínez’s second yellow card and subsequent expulsion in the 61st minute enhanced the Spanish team’s control.
Bayern’s push for a lead in light of Real Madrid’s away goal left them exposed to counterattacking situations. This was ultimately the cause of Martinez’s red card as he tried to cut off a Madrid attacking situation while the home side were stretched and scattered. Real Madrid’s performance with a man up (coinciding with Asensio’s entrance for Bale) was nearly faultless. The play selection, focus, intensity, and awareness were exemplary across the board. The only issue was the lack of finishing touch which prevented them from adding more than one goal to their name. The combinations between the midfielders and fullbacks were at times mesmerizing as they effectively created a dynamic base in Bayern’s offensive third.
Unaffected by any possible pressure (resulting in undue urgency) of cashing in on their numerical advantage, Real Madrid patiently established their positional and stylistic tactical model centered around creating space through great movement and passing. The connectivity of the team in the last half hour allowed them to not only proactively cause gaps to emerge in Bayern’s shape but also activate existing gaps. The number of chances manufactured in the box attested to the effectiveness of this strategy — and it wasn’t long before Real scored the go-ahead goal to give them the lead.
Ramos and Nacho (with high positioning and amazing reading of play) were instrumental in nullifying any offensive threat by expertly attacking and cutting off potential counter-attacks. Zidane brought on James who helped further steady and solidify possession control allowing the team to close the game out.
Summary of Select Key Chances
Minute 18: Carvajal-->Bale-->Kroos-->Benzema-->Shot on target
Following a clearance, Carvajal headed the ball towards Bale who guided it to Kroos. The German beautifully crossed to Benzema whose header off the ground was kept from the net by Neuer’s finger tip save. This foreshadowed, in a way, the impressive performance the German keeper would have.
Minute 25: Alcantara-->Vidal-->Goal
One of Bayern’s 7(!) corners in the first half alone. Thiago played a great ball that Vidal emphatically headed past Navas. The key culprit for the goal was Nacho who lost his man and poorly tracked him. Varane and Pepe’s aerial strength was missed in this instance.
Minute 40: Vidal-->Robben-->Vidal-->Shot off target
Vidal made a world-class tackle to dispossess Casemiro. The ball fell to Robben who ran directly at Kroos on the right wing and easily bypassed him to deliver a cross to the back post that Vidal headed over. Casemiro’s dispossession was a big mistake and illustrated some of the issues he had on the ball in the first half. Secondary errors were Kroos’ defending and Casemiro, Kroos, and Carvajal’s positioning.
Minute 46: Vidal-->Shot off target
Vidal badly mishits the penalty and fails to put it on target. Although the call was highly contentious, the lead up to the penalty displayed the individual quality of Bayern’s wingers (Ribery in this case) in creating danger.
Minute 47: Kroos-->Casemiro-->Carvajl-->Ronaldo-->Goal
The equalizer in the second half showed Real’s intentional and selective crossing as Carvajal played a sumptuous low cross to Ronaldo who finished with great accuracy. Casemiro’s pass to Carvajal also deserves credit.
Minute 72: Ramos-->Kroos-->Benzema-->Carvajal-->Benzema-->Shot on target
One of Real Madrid’s best chances of the entire game. Ramos recovered possession from an isolated Robben and played it to Kroos. Kroos and Benzema switched play to Carvajal who made a fantastic run down the wing beating Bernat before sliding the ball back to Benzema in the box. The Frenchman’s strong effort was saved by Neuer.
Minute 74: Ronaldo-->Marcelo-->Ronaldo-->Kroos-->Carvajal-->Modric-->Nacho-->Ramos-->Marcelo-->Benzema-->Ronaldo-->Shot on target
This was the second successive high quality chance within the span of a few minutes. The play displayed good ball circulation before Marcelo found Benzema in the box with a great ball. The Frenchman squared to Ronaldo who controlled well and took a solid shot (which should have been better). Kroos created space by making a decoy run when Benzema released his pass.
Minute 76: Nacho-->Navas-->Ramos-->Kroos-->Modric-->Carvajal-->Asensio-->Modric-->Kroos-->Benzema-->Modric-->Casemiro-->Benzema-->Modric-->Marcelo-->Ramos-->Kroos-->Asensio-->Ronaldo-->Goal
Easily the best sequence of the night if not the season. Real Madrid completed 18 passes and every single player touched the ball. This goal encapsulated Real’s approach after Martinez was sent off.
They played safely (Nacho resetting with Navas), patiently (passing by every player in every zone), progressively (there was intention with every pass and opportunities to advance play were taken such as Kroos’ pass to Asensio), and were positionally exceptional (Asensio dropping into the half space and Ronaldo sneaking in behind the Bayern defenders in the box).
An all-around remarkable goal.
There were minor blemishes and sporadic instances of poor focus and concentration but Real Madrid played masterfully in a very professional manner to get the job done. Excluding the penalty, they accrued almost triple the xG Bayern did — largely due to the sending off. The game was very even prior to the red card but suited Real Madrid more as they were relatively defensively secure and managed to score an away goal. Shots wise, Real Madrid had the edge throughout amassing 23 (12 on target) to Bayern’s 13 (3) over the course of the match.
Asensio is exceptional. The youngster came off the bench early in the second half and had a palpable impact. Offensively, he is versatile and can play in a number of different positions and technically he is incredibly strong due to his favorable mix of speed, good decision-making with the ball, dribbling, and great touch. The substitution was a very positive move by Zidane (admittedly perhaps due to hindsight) as Asensio’s fluid movement and possession play is not something Bale would necessarily have been able to bring to the table.
Quality (or lack thereof) of delivery has been a recurring theme this season. Many times, there are complaints focused on the volume of crossing the team does but the criticism rarely touches on how good the crosses are. This match was a shining example of the difference that selective crossing and decision-making can make once on the wings in the offensive third. This means as opposed to simply crossing the ball in the same redundant manner: attempting different types of crosses (e.g. low, near post, far post), maintaining awareness of activity in the box (e.g. numerical superiority/inferiority, space and movement of forwards), and utilizing a variety of plays (e.g. passing directly into the box).
Finally, Ronaldo and Kroos were standout players, in a match filled with excellent performances, and both elevated Real Madrid’s game. Although, given the conditions of the match after the red card, it is regrettable Real didn’t score more goals - a 2-1 away win is simply astounding.