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Tactical Review: Real Madrid 3 - 0 APOEL, 2017-18 Champions League

Real Madrid start the Champions League with a strong 3-0 win at the Bernabeu against APOEL.

Real Madrid v APOEL Nikosia - UEFA Champions League Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images

The Champions League got underway on Tuesday and saw some remarkable wins from the heavyweights. This season looks to be one of the most exciting editions of the tournament due to the re-emergence of Premier League clubs as well as the continued evolution of “new” powers such as Paris St-Germain in addition to the usual suspects.

Real Madrid’s turn to debut came against APOEL and Zidane decided to field a relatively strong line-up excluding three regular starters. Benzema was out due to injury while Kroos and Varane were presumably being rested for the weekend.

Soccerway website

Real Madrid attempt to break through APOEL’s deep block

APOEL assumed a very deep position entrenching themselves in their defensive third at the beginning of the match. This posed issues for the hosts who employed possession as an exploratory mechanism in order to create spaces for attacking actions. Ronaldo and Bale were heavily surrounded by APOEL men undermining their ability to utilize positioning and movement to support offensive dynamism.

WhoScored website

Modric and Isco were the main instigators as their mobile positioning allowed them to bring their teammates into the game and test areas of the field for viability. They focused their attentions on opposite wings (Isco on the left working with Marcelo and Modric on the right). In addition, they would try to activate desirable zones by dribbling or playing passes into central areas close to APOEL’s box which served the dual purpose of drawing out the defenders as well as providing Ronaldo, Bale, and others with service.

Despite showing measure and composure in their possession and initiating a few promising moves, Real Madrid were for the most part effectively contained by APOEL’s staunch conservative team defense. The very first time the Cypriots committed significant numbers in the first half was punished with a ruthless Real counter that resulted in Ronaldo opening the score. Isco’s dribbling and Bale’s marvelous pass were instrumental in setting up the goal.

Los Blancos show great positioning but are let down by poor incisiveness

Los Blancos displayed coordinated and systematic positioning when in possession to provide central outlets (which are generally preferable and more dangerous). This support was critical as it allowed the ball to move from the base of the midfield and wings into positive locations which could in turn become catalysts for vertical progression.

Real Madrid were able to do this by moving in between lines and into half spaces as can be seen in the below graphic. These pockets are the best way to exploit a packed defense such as APOEL’s — which was the case for the majority of the match. Furthermore, half spaces provide an excellent vantage point to players and enable those that are technically proficient (such as Isco, Modric, Ronaldo etc) to create chances or advance play strategically.

purple arrow=pass into central outlets, dotted arrow=pass/shot options for vertical progression

On the flip side however, Real Madrid were let down by the midfielders’ growing trend of “shooting first, passing second” in play-making situations. This seems to have become more and more common as Isco, Modric, and Kroos (who came in for an injured Kovacic) seem to drive an effort towards net whenever they find themselves with space at the top of the box. From an observer’s viewpoint, it appears that is their first option and they only look for penetrative passes secondarily.

The above dynamic combined with poor execution of key passes in dangerous areas significantly hampered overall creativity and quality delivery to attackers.

red dotted arrow=unsuccessful pass attempt

Continuing a theme evident in this version of Real Madrid, players do not take advantage as well and as consistently of prime opportunities to play attackers in as they could.

APOEL concede a penalty which opens up the game

Soto’s handball in the box was caught by the referee early in the second half leading to a penalty call. Ronaldo made no mistake from the spot to double both his and Real Madrid’s tally on the night. The match became much more open and stretched after the goal as APOEL were more adventurous and came out of their shell.

As a result, both sides created significantly more openings than they did in the first half but couldn’t capitalize on either end (Real mainly due to poorly timed runs and APOEL poor decision-making in breakaways). Ramos and Nacho who hadn’t been really challenged in the first half were forced into making interventions and preventing counter-attacks. Overall however, Real Madrid continued to dominate and created the better chances of the two teams. Even Ramos got in on the action with a great overhead kick to make it 3-0.

Ceballos and Mayoral were called upon to help close the game which was essentially over by that point.

Conclusion and observations

Ronaldo and co thoroughly dominated proceedings at the Bernabeu and deservedly came out winners. The visitors were outshot 26 to four (six to one on target) and had an xG of only 0.2 compared to Real’s 3.17.


Numbers aside and on a different note, one interesting aspect of Real Madrid’s structure to highlight was the almost asymmetrical implementation of the formation due to the recurring left side bias the team had in attacking phases. This is due to Isco naturally favoring that side of the field — a preference likely borne (at least in part) by his previous experience as an inverted winger.

WhoScored website

The above, showing Isco almost operating as a wide midfielder, was much more evident in the first half where Carvajal did not see as much on-the-ball action and involvement as Marcelo which is often a good indicator of the focus of activity on the field.

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