Model of Play
The odds were staggeringly in Real Madrid’s favour in the second leg. One Real Madrid goal and Atletico Madrid would need to score an almost impossible five to earn their ticket to Cardiff. Considering Los Blancos had gone 60 games without drawing a blank, you would not be blamed for thinking the Vincente Calderon’s European farewell match was a mere formality. Armed with this information, there was still an air of unease and anxiety in the Real Madrid camp. Not least because it’s never over until the referee’s final whistle (especially in a Champions League semi-final) but mostly because of the foe that stood before them. Derby games tend to have a different type of energy and there is always a sense that anything can happen.
Zidane predictably played the same XI that started in the home leg with the exception of Carvajal who sustained an injury in that match. Danilo, a slight surprise, was selected to marshal the right side of the defense. Diego Simeone for his part made two changes to Atletico’s line-up. Giménez, traditionally a central defender, was brought in as the right back after Hernández struggled to deal with Real Madrid’s rampant attack a week ago. The other change was Torres, who replaced Gameiro, presumably to give Atletico more aerial options.
Atletico started the match with tremendous intensity and a clear intent to score first. Koke, Saul, and Carrasco pushed up and formed the first line of pressure along with the two forwards. Their plan seemed to be to force quick releases and consequently hamper the pass selection of Real players. This worked relatively well as Atletico’s execution of the concept was sound but their opponents are one of the best ball possession teams in the world. Real Madrid were able to navigate this pressure with some degree of comfort but couldn’t progress the ball vertically effectively. Modric, Kroos, and Casemiro appeared to occupy the same lateral zones inhibiting progressive combination play. There was a noticeable gap between the forward line (Ronaldo, Benzema) and the midfield. Isco’s movements weren’t enough to compensate for this separation due to Atletico’s compactness and rigid structure. The Spaniard couldn’t facilitate central access as Atletico’s intense and organized recovery play smothered evolving sequences.
Despite Atletico being two goals up by the 16th minute, Real Madrid weren’t defensively weak. Their setup was solid and the players implemented it without significant issues. Coinciding with the flatness on the ball due to lateral redundancy, Real’s conservative midfield positioning allowed them to achieve great space coverage naturally and ensure active support for defenders in key areas. This approach was reasonable as the visitors were able to absorb the early and electric, if unsustainable, intensity Atletico attacked with while simultaneously limiting Diego Simeone’s men to long range low probability shots and crossing. Aerially, Real had the advantage height wise and all things being equal should have had the edge on that front. Atletico’s best moments were led by Carrasco whose dribbling and speed allowed him to drive directly to the box occasionally.
Atletico’s early goals changed the complexion of the match. The hosts’ level of urgency and proactiveness immediately decreased. Their priority switched from scoring to not conceding — part of this adjustment was likely due to how much effort their initial strategy required and how tough it would’ve been for them to maintain it over the course of the game. Real Madrid’s chance creation issues still persisted however because of Atletico’s reinforced 4-4-2. Modric and Isco responded by using their mobility and ball retention qualities to instigate penetration. Their on-the-ball movement was less constrained as they sought to pull Atletico players out of position and eliminate them from actionable locations of the pitch. This proved successful but was let down by final pass decisions. Ronaldo and Isco were the prime culprits in this regard as they continuously failed to pick out open men or pass accurately when they did choose the optimal pass.
Benzema’s moment of magic was the inspiration that led to Isco’s death blow. The goal was a huge relief for Real Madrid but given the state of the match, it seemed to preempt the inevitable. Benzema managing to create space from such a constricted angle was not to be expected certainly. However, as Atletico were still one goal “down” in the tie and would need to chase the goal at some point, Real Madrid would have been looking to exploit a more stretched side. This is essentially what happened in the second half. Atletico committed more numbers going forward with a feeling of desperation as they needed to score three goals in 45 minutes without conceding. The game became more open and both sides accumulated a number of half chances. Varane and Ramos were called to action several times and were mostly up to the mark. Navas, similarly, was tested and had to make some very important saves.
Other highlights in the second half were: Benzema’s support in ball circulation and play construction, Asensio and Vazquez’s injection of pace (contributions of both were ultimately underwhelming), Marcelo/Danilo’s elevated participation, and Real Madrid’s general patient and composed play to see out the match.
Summary of Select Key Chances
Minute 5: Koke-->Saúl-->Carrasco-->Koke-->Shot on target
The first real chance of the game. Koke collected a Ramos clearance before passing to Saúl who found Carrasco on the right wing. The latter sprinted to the byline and crossed into the box. Koke got to the ball at the near post and tried to guide it past Navas but the Costa Rican was alert and made a good stop. Casemiro’s marking should have been tighter on Koke.
Minute 8: Kroos-->Casemiro-->Shot on target
Casemiro made an excellent headed attempt at goal from a Kroos freekick. An impressive Oblak save was needed to prevent a goal.
Minute 12: Koke-->Saúl-->Goal
Atletico’s midfielders combined for the opening goal. Saúl started his run from a little deep in the box to powerfully meet a Koke corner. Navas got a hand to it but didn’t do enough to make a save. Ronaldo was the key culprit as he did not maintain awareness of Saúl’s run.
Minute 15: Griezmann-->Goal
This play stunned Real Madrid and their fans as the worst start possible start to the game became reality. Varane unnecessarily clipped Torres in the box resulting in the referee pointing to the spot. Griezmann scored but Navas should’ve done better as the forward’s effort was subpar.
Minute 42: Isco-->Goal
This goal had Benzema’s name written all over it. Ronaldo took a throw-in quickly in the offensive third. Benzema received the ball and turned on the touchline only to see of the literal end of the field. With Savić, Godin, and Giménez closing him down, the striker somehow maneuvered his way into the box before cleverly passing to Kroos. The German’s shot was parried away by Oblak but Isco was there to tap the ball in off the rebound.
Minute 57: Ramos-->Isco-->Modric-->Kroos-->Marcelo-->Benzema-->Ronaldo-->Shot off target
One of the better opportunities in the second half. Real Madrid regained possession and switched play to the left wing. Benzema slid Marcelo in behind Partey. The Brazilian subsequently made a directed pass to Ronaldo who shot the ball inches wide.
Minute 66: Gameiro-->Shot on target
Carrasco latched onto the ball after Danilo’s miscued clearance just outside the box. The Belgian cut inside and shot but Navas expertly blocked it. Gameiro was there to head the loose ball back towards goal — Navas again made a great instinctive save.
The match was fairly even as Atletico’s early surge saw them sprint to a two goal lead. Real Madrid responded well and asserted themselves more positively and in doing so created better chances. Benzema’s magical move in the lead up to Real Madrid’s goal was the turning point as it essentially ended the tie and shifted the balance of play in Real Madrid’s favour. Shots were somewhat equally distributed between the two sides — Atletico had 18 (seven on target) to Real’s 20 (six on target). Taking everything into account, xG (a measure of quality of shots taken) was tied at 1.9 for both teams but excluding the penalty, it was 1.9 to 0.9 for Real.
If there was any question as to who has the easiest claim as the best midfielder in the world, they should have been put to bed by Modric’s splendid performance. The Croatian is beyond words and really does seem to conduct an orchestra with his feet. The catalysis when things get tough, he was instrumental in allowing Real Madrid to ride the tumultuous period at the beginning of the match.
Isco had an interesting performance. Similar to last week and against Bayern Munich at home, his influence was undeniable and fundamental for the success of the team. However, there is little doubt he didn’t shine as brightly as he could have and that the team would have been much more potent if he displayed more consistent decision-making in key situations. Specifically, his passing in certain moments was disappointing and failed to take advantage of great opportunities to create good quality chances. Overall, he was stellar and did things only he’s capable of but it is fair to hope that he upgrades his game slightly to be even more impactful.
And so Real Madrid qualifies for its second Champions League final in as many years. They are one step closer to attaining the unprecedented and herculean Champions League repeat. The team deserves many plaudits for making it this far but there is no time to rest on their laurels as they take on Sevilla in the first of three remaining La Liga finals this weekend.