Model of Play
Santiago Bernabeu was ready for the return leg of the Champions League quarter final against Bayern Munich. This presented the unique opportunity to qualify for the semi-finals for the seventh consecutive time and continue the chase for a historic repeat.
Zidane selected Isco to replace an injured Bale in the starting XI while Lewandowski, Boateng, and Hummels were confirmed as starters. Ancelotti chose to leave Muller on the bench opting instead to have more men in the center of the park.
Real Madrid’s formation to begin the match was a little curious and resembled several different things due to Isco’s floating role. At times, it would be a flat 4-4-2, at times a diamond midfield, and at times a 4-3-3. Casemiro, Kroos, and Modric did their best to support Isco’s dynamic positioning but there were issues defending the wings. Whenever the diminutive Spaniard would play more centrally or in advanced spaces, it would impact coverage in the middle as there were less men to handle Bayern’s offensive pressure and recover possession. Isco’s “freedom” however had many positives. Defensively, it wonderfully complemented Real’s pressing scheme allowing him to combine with Ronaldo and Benzema in reducing passing options and cutting off lanes as Bayern attempted to build from the back.
The three designated midfielders were excellent in implementing the pressing system. Modric, in particular, artfully activated intense pressure systematically throughout the game based on several triggers. The idea revolved around creating enough pressure to unsettle the player in possession and force them to make risky plays. If Alonso, Thiago, or Vidal received the ball facing their net and without any visible and easy passing options in close proximity, Modric and co would immediately pressure the ball carrier. This led to several significant dispossessions — some in dangerous areas and resulting in great attacking opportunities. The pressing system was one component of Real Madrid’s overall defensive framework. The other major element was disciplined containment.
The defense and midfield lines successfully collaborated to absorb pressure and “hold” Bayern when the Germans were in passive possession mode. As Bayern would circulate the ball in order to create openings, Real held firm by maintaining their shape and tracking runners. Bayern, in response, shifted the attacking responsibility to the wings as they did in the first leg. And similarly as well, Robben was tasked with leading the charge. This, based on the eye-test, worked measurably well as there were countless scenes of the Dutchman (Lahm secondarily) and Alaba (Ribery secondarily) — on the left —- bursting into open space to provide deliveries into the box. Robben was more targeted than Alaba but still managed through individual quality to produce crosses. From Real Madrid’s perspective, allowing that level of activity on the wings seemed to be a calculated risk as they were set up to comfortably mark Lewandowski in the box.
The Pole was isolated upfront in many instances and didn’t really have consistent support until Muller’s introduction in the second half. Real Madrid’s resilient shape and organization denied access to central zones preventing Thiago from moving into that area. As a result, his role seemed in a sense to lack added value as he duplicated Vidal and Alonso’s duties. This contrasted sharply with Isco who was a force when Real Madrid had the ball showing necessary composure and dynamism. He beautifully compensated for Casemiro’s slightly casual possession play and supplemented Kroos and Modric’s steadying of play and tempo. Real Madrid were able to create chances by adeptly engaging the fullbacks and utilizing movement and positioning to generate good shooting opportunities. In addition to the combination play based offense, Real Madrid also vigorously counter-attacked Bayern.
Bayern made a slight adjustment at the start of the second half which saw Robben move from the right to the centre of the offense. This caused a lot of disruption and almost immediately significantly improved Bayern’s attacking verve. The first reason was providing numerical support to Lewandowski against Real Madrid’s defenders but the second, and perhaps more important, reason was having a presence in the treasured locations close to zone 14. Robben took turns (alternating with midfielders — mostly Vidal) shifting centrally and this continued to pose problems for the home side eventually leading to the first goal of the game via a penalty call. Real Madrid reacted well by committing more players to defense (bringing on Asensio for Benzema to play a 4-5-1) and generally retreating. However, Bayern’s new offensive scheme resulted in even more space on the wings — as the Germans had more numbers in the centre — enabling Robben, Alaba, Lahm, and Ribery to test the offense much more than the first half.
Real Madrid continued to create through channels and transitions in their more defensive minded setup but were let down by the quality of deliveries and decision-making as Asensio and Vazquez failed to do more with the balls they received on the wing. Despite this, there was a sense that they were just inches away from providing a ball that Ronaldo could get to the end of. When the equalizer finally came, it was from a Casemiro cross but in the same vein as Real’s second half strategy. Los Blancos’ euphoria and relief was shortlived as Ramos scored an own goal only minutes later. These two goals along with Vidal’s red card in the 84th minute were key moments that altered the state of the game.
Bayern fought valiantly and showed great resolve — taking the game to extra time — after going a man down but there was a feeling of inevitability that Real Madrid would score. The home side, while not as surgical (compared to the first leg) in taking advantage of their extra man, still firmly established control and began furiously prodding a tired Bayern defense. Ronaldo broke the deadlock before he and Asensio added another two. And that was essentially game.
Summary of Select Key Chances
Minute 53: Lewandowski-->Goal
Lewandowski made no mistake and dispatched the penalty awarded for a Casemiro foul on Robben. Casemiro was reckless and didn’t need to take that risk as Real Madrid had sufficient cover in the box.
Minute 75: Casemiro-->Modric-->Vazquez-->Modric-->Vazquez-->Modric-->Casemiro-->Ronaldo-->Goal
This play showcased the type of combination play the team selectively and effortlessly employed when in possession. Modric combined with Vazquez before feeding Casemiro into space. The Brazilian did well to get past Muller and spot Ronaldo’s run behind the defense with a great cross — the latter connected well to send it past Neuer.
Minute 77: Nacho-->Ramos-->Own goal
Hummels played a ball into the box from deep that Muller tried to divert into Lewandowski’s path. Nacho read and intercepted it but Ramos instinctively touched the ball and it rolled into his own net as Navas had come out to collect.
Minute 104: [Off Camera]-->Carvajal-->Kroos-->Asensio-->Marcelo-->Nacho-->Kroos-->Vazquez-->Kroos-->Marcelo-->Ramos-->Ronaldo-->Goal
Real Madrid patiently built from the back before Ramos found Ronaldo in the box. The Portuguese controlled and finished with his left foot. The combination play, Ramos’ exquisite pass, and Ronaldo’s control and finish were key highlights.
Minute 109: Casemiro-->Marcelo-->Kroos-->Marcelo-->Ronaldo-->Goal
Marcelo’s burst of speed and energy took him past the defensive line before he selflessly teed Ronaldo up for the hat-trick goal. This was classic Marcelo. It brought back memories of that one run in the 2012 semi-final and his goal in the 2014 final.
Minute 112: Asensio-->Goal
Asensio put the final touch to what has been a remarkable performance over two legs for the young Spaniard. He intercepted an attempted pass behind the halfway line before charging towards Hummels and Boateng with Ronaldo flanking him. He deftly brought the ball back before gliding past Hummels to slot the ball into the back post with his weak foot.
A nervier and more tense conclusion to a tie than it needed to be but one that seemed fitting from a Real Madrid perspective given the balance of the shots over the course of both matches.
The numbers were relatively even during regulation time (graphic below does not include extra time) with Bayern accruing a higher xG despite Real managing more shots and shots on target (six to two). Including extra time, Real Madrid had 31 (11 on target) shots to Bayern’s 20 (two).
The refereeing performance has and will no doubt dominate the headlines for this encounter due to the number of high profile controversial calls made. Each side has a case that the officiating was not in their favor but it is, ultimately, difficult to quantify the consequence/outcome of those decisions. This is a conversation worth having and it is important that the influence of the match officials is acknowledged. Whether the game could have turned out differently if a different call was made in several situations is a very loaded question.
On the whole, although both teams brought their A-game to the table and fought very hard, Real Madrid created better quality chances and had more goal-scoring opportunities in the tie. Zidane and his men defied the “odds” and outplayed Bayern for large periods of both legs and more importantly qualified for the semi-finals.