Model of Play
Real Madrid encountered Atletico Madrid for the fourth time in as many years in the Champions League. This year’s tie means the two teams have now faced each other in every stage (barring the round of 16 where two teams from the same country can’t play each other) of the Champions League knock-out phase: quarter-finals, semi-finals, and final. The previous three contests ended in Real Madrid’s favour with Los Blancos claiming the Decima and Undecima titles in 2014 and 2016. Despite Atletico’s emergence as one of the best teams in the world in the last five years and proving almost unbeatable for Real Madrid in the league pre-Zidane, the latter have had their neighbor’s number in Europe.
Zidane’s record against Simeone was 2-1-1 prior to the first leg clash at the Bernabeu and there was a sense that he had discovered the key to unlocking the red and white fortress that stood in their path to Cardiff. Isco was the biggest question mark for the match as his performance in the devastation of the opposition in the first league game as well as his recent form led to vehement calls for a starting berth. The manager seemed to agree with fans and media as he named the silky Spaniard to his starting XI. Varane, recently recovered from his injury, reclaimed his spot in central defense and the remainder of the team was unchanged from the second leg against Bayern Munich.
Diego Simeone, eager to reverse his side’s record against their nemesis in the Champions League, fielded the strongest team available. Carrasco, who was a doubt due to a knock he picked up against Villarreal, was declared fit to play boosting the away side’s chances. However, there was no such luck in the right back position where Lucas Hernández was required to cover for primary options.
It was curious to see whether Isco would be given the same role he had in the home match against Bayern Munich where he played at the tip of a loosely defined and fluid 4-4-2 diamond midfield. His position against Atletico was even less pronounced as he seemed to occupy a variety of zones freely and as needed. The match commentators noted that Zidane’s deployment of the player in such a manner allowed him to strategically create numerical superiorities in possession. This was accomplished by Isco’s intuitive interpretation of zonal dominance — an uncanny ability to support dynamic ball circulation and constantly create passing options. Because of his preference for the left side of the pitch, Real Madrid’s shape while very fluid, predominantly alternated between a 4-3-1-2/4-4-2 (diamond) and a traditional flat 4-4-2.
Ronaldo and Benzema led the team offensively and played well off each other to maintain balance. The Portuguese, as is typical, focused on the left during play progression and steady possession but would move centrally (also to the right occasionally) once in the final third — especially without the ball and in anticipation of final ball deliveries. Benzema was required to drop deep and facilitate controlled access to prime locations. Beyond the natural benefits of an added body when holding the ball, the French man’s function as a retreating striker was partially to disorganize Atletico’s rigid and stable structure. Benzema did this very well and combined efficiently with the midfield to enable direct penetration to the offensive third adding a level of desirable unpredictability.
The midfield played superbly and were a core component of the attacking system. The match followed the narrative as the hosts dominated ball possession while Diego Simeone’s men implemented a containment and absorption scheme. However, the quality of the possession play shouldn't be underrated as it went far beyond simply matchup dynamics. Kroos sat deeper and acted simultaneously as a part of the possession base as well as a link between the defensive line and the rest of the team. The German excellently supplemented Varane and Ramos’ composed initiation and resetting of possession cycles. They did this conservatively to limit risk-taking but intentionally sought to create space and time for vertical advancement. Kroos, particularly, made this possible with directed passing and less explicitly through the momentary elimination from play of pressing/attacking Atletico Madrid players.
A word often used to describe Modric is dynamic and it could not have been more apt for his performance in this match. The Croatian’s versatility was fully leveraged as the team took advantage of his tempo setting and mobility. He was the key cog for transition working fantastically with every player around him to move the ball down the field. He shared responsibilities for initiation (to a lesser degree) but mainly acted as a central instigator in the middle third. Mirroring Isco’s swift untethered movement though within a narrower perimeter, Modric enhanced Real Madrid’s proactive edge which served to destabilize Atletico’s defense in order to ensure the availability of space. Marcelo and Carvajal were helpful in this sense as they characterized Real Madrid’s adventurous attitude when attacking. Carvajal was especially active in the first half with Marcelo being the principal driver in the second (partially due to Carvajal’s forced substitution).
The match could be split into three different parts. The first part was at 0-0. Atletico came to the game with a conservative mindset and looked to stave off Real Madrid’s electric energy at the start of the game. Real were able to overcome Atletico’s slightly lethargic defense to score the first goal from a set piece. Ramos and co’s accumulation of corners in the first half seemed like a gamble for the visitors due to Los Merengues’ aerial strength and the significant threat they pose from freekicks and corners. The second phase of the match was at 1-0. Atletico broke out of their shell and asserted themselves in possession in an attempt to build rhythm and, secondly, to obtain an equalizer. Save for one or two promising opportunities, they didn’t succeed in meaningfully testing their opponents’ goal.
Ramos and Varane’s height and anticipation cut off repeated supply to the forwards and allowed Real Madrid to counter-attack. Furthermore, Casemiro*, along with the overall disciplined and compact possession recovery scheme that looked to deny space and unsettle midfield ball carriers, stifled Atletico. The third phase of the game was at 2-0. Atletico became stretched as they desperately searched for an away goal. Real Madrid methodically exploited this with continuous waves of counter-attacking propelled by Asensio and Vazquez’s introductions — who injected valuable pace and vigor. The hosts managed the remainder of the game almost perfectly as their possession model allowed them to maintain calm and composure. This prevented the match from descending into an end-to-end affair. And as a result, Real Madrid seemed the likeliest to score in the last 20 minutes of the match.
*Casemiro’s industry, disciplined coverage, and defensive ability were key ingredients of the defensive masterclass.
Summary of Select Key Chances
Minute 6: Marcelo-->Casemiro-->Ramos-->Carvajal-->Ronaldo-->Carvajal-->Varane-->Kroos-->Casemiro-->Carvajal-->Modric-->Carvajal-->Isco-->Carvajal-->Shot on target
A splendid opportunity within the first 10 minutes of the game. Controlled possession led to a great switch of play by Casemiro to Carvajal. The right back combined with Modric and Isco before skipping past Godin in the box to strike a shot blocked by Oblak. This play showcased the controlled verticality of the attacking model.
Minute 10: Casemiro-->Ronaldo-->Goal
A Ramos cross into the box is headed out by Savic but falls to Casemiro who volleyed into the ground. The ball rebounds into the air and is delightfully met by a calculated Ronaldo header.
Minute 17: Koke-->Gameiro-->Shot on target
Perhaps Atletico’s best chance of the match. Benzema poked the ball away from Saul but Real Madrid players did not react quickly enough. Koke picked up the loose ball and played Gameiro in behind Varane (who lost focus on his man). Navas made an amazing stop to prevent Gameiro from rounding him.
Minute 28: Isco-->Marcelo-->Ramos-->Kroos-->Ramos-->Marcelo-->Isco-->Marcelo-->Isco-->Ronaldo-->Isco-->Ronaldo-->Benzema-->Shot off target
This sequence contained several elements of Real’s strategy: 1) Ramos, Isco, and Marcelo’s composed resetting of play before the center back’s vertical pass to Kroos and 2) Isco’s free movement which allowed him to support Marcelo and Ronaldo to progress play. Ronaldo received the ball from Isco on the left wing and did well to deliver a good cross that Benzema volleyed beautifully with his weak foot.
Minute 32: Griezmann-->Godin-->Shot off target
Godin almost scored from a chipped Griezmann freekick. Marcelo failed to track his man and Ramos had to cover.
Minute 73: [Off camera]-->Ramos-->Kroos-->Casemiro-->Marcelo-->Kroos-->Ramos-->-Modric->Kroos-->Ramos-->Varane-->Ramos-->Kroos-->Marcelo-->Benzema-->Ronaldo-->Goal
Another example of Real’s controlled buildup with intentional vertical progression. Real Madrid resetted play with Kroos and Ramos following a throw-in in Atletico’s half. The ball circulation freed Marcelo who Kroos found with a pass.
The Brazilian made an excellent pass into the danger zone to Benzema. The latter held off a defender at the top of the box before passing to Ronaldo — the ball was almost intercepted but still got to Ronaldo who thunderously scored.
Minute 85: Ramos-->Casemiro-->Vazquez-->Ronaldo-->Vazquez-->Ronaldo-->Goal
Having been a theme throughout the match, Ramos made an excellent early interception. Subsequently, Real Madrid ruthlessly counterattacked Atletico. Vazquez and Ronaldo combined to bring the ball into the box before the Spaniard fed the Portuguese who coolly slotted the ball into the net.
A complete masterclass by Real Madrid gave them an incredible 3-0 win. This was the same score when the two sides met for the first time this season back in November. The shot count paints a picture of utter dominance. Real Madrid had 17 (seven on target) to Atletico’s four (one on target). Diving down a little deeper, the underlying shot quality still heavily favored the home side. Real Madrid accrued an xG of 2.4 to Atletico’s 0.26 (!). Limiting their opponents to such a low xG is remarkable and indicative of just how defensively solid Real Madrid were.
Isco played well but his influence could have even been far greater if his touches and dribbling were at the standard level. He was a little sloppy at first (similar to Carvajal) and gave the ball away when in threatening zones. Thinking of just how much more potent the offense could have been is quite something. Zidane has yet developed another workable framework that provides a crucial tactical alternative when required. Although scoring first certainly provided an advantage in nullifying Atletico’s foundational defensive focus (Navas’ interception on Garmeiro was a very important stop), the viability of this system was clear and undeniable.
Ronaldo is finding the tail end of the season in otherworldly form. The Real Madrid talisman has a logic defying eight goals in his last three games in the Champions League. While his goalscoring will always be vital and one of his most important contributions to the team, it doesn’t define him. From his midfield support, transitional play, to playmaking on the wings, he was an offensive force in the match. The records continue to topple as he puts together another spellbinding season. His three goals today make him the record holder for the most goals in the Champions League knockout stage — big game player.
It is one game at a time from now on. The season is almost done but it doesn’t quite feel that way. Between now and the last game lie gargantuan obstacles in the form of league and CL opposition. It’s how you finish that matters.