These observations — where I look at Real Madrid’s history, its players on loan, Castilla, tactical tidbits, and other relevant thoughts -- are now a regular weekly thing. All previous editions can be found here.
On Wednesday, two behemoths of European football square up against each other in the first of two legs — in a tie that will make-or-break someone’s season. Real Madrid and PSG have eerily similar feelings towards this game, as discussed extensively on this week’s Managing Madrid Podcast with Jonathan Johnson, and it will be fascinating to see how either team will enter both legs. What schemes will be implemented? How will they react to one another? How will they deal with their dips in form? Which team will raise their game the most? Which team will turn up their gear high enough to mask the mistakes they continually make this season?
Nerves may be high in Madrid among press and fans, but they’ve risen symmetrically in Paris. Where Real Madrid rock concerns with their overall form this season; among PSG circles, some are sweating the idea that Real Madrid has finally woken up, winning three-of-their-four La Liga matches, and outscoring opponents 18-6 along the way. That may be a low bar, relative to a team like Real Madrid -- but these things have an impact psychologically, to be sure. PSG has a lot to prove, and they’re eager to shake off their stigma when it comes to dealing with high-stake European clashes. Mental barriers can be tough to overcome, as we’ve seen with Atletico Madrid’s recurring collapses against Real Madrid in Europe over the years.
There is an aura about PSG this season that they’ve been flying — cruising past their opponents and blitzing everyone in their path while their front-three of Kylian Mbappe, Neymar, and Edison Cavani transcend the other mortals in the universe. It’s not unreasonable to state this, but it’s also been overstated. PSG are really good, but there are caveats peppered into their season.
Vulnerabilities in Emery’s scheme manifest themselves when the team gets poked — or in the cases of Bayern and Lyon, when they get stabbed. Against a new-look Bayern team, shortly after Jupp Heynckes took over from Carlo Ancelotti, Bayern ceded possession, lined-up in a low block, and snuffed out space for Neymar and Mbappe to run into. Offensively, Bayern slung back with packed flanks, and with extra men in midfield, overran the positionally lost Julian Draxler.
Zidane may take a page out of Heyncke’s blueprint, but setting up a low block in similar fashion — or to that degree, at least — won’t be likely. Edison Cavani hinted that PSG will play a counter-attacking scheme at the Bernabeu, and with the engines that Real Madrid boast in midfield, a possession-based plan may emerge organically. If that happens, implementing an efficient press is crucial.
This PSG team gets unnerved when the opposition breathes down their neck as they attempt to bring the ball out of the back. The Draxler-in-midfield experiment may have come to an end, unfortunately for Real Madrid fans, but their midfield still has issues of mispositioned players. Without Thiago Motta, Emery has been forced to play players like Giovanni Lo Celso in deeper positions. Against Lyon, Lo Celso (a talented player, to be sure, but one suited to play as a playmaker while defensively-astute players help share the workload in midfield) struggled finding outlets when Lyon pressed high up the pitch. Bruno Genesio’s men made it a point to not allow Paris to cross the half-way line in any significant position to carve out a key pass. If Lo Celso found Rabiot, Veratti, Kurzawa, or Alves with a pass, they were either hounded quickly, or would look up to see every vertical passing lane blocked. If Zidane opts to hedge the team higher to control play rather than sit back and counter, Genesio’s blueprint may be more appealing than Heyncke’s.
This is where Real Madrid need to hit another gear that we haven’t seen since the Spanish Super Cup. Amid a season of turmoil, two main things have abandoned them: 1) their ability to read passing lanes; and 2) their ability to press efficiently. Both of these traits were strong suits of Zidane’s team during the end-of-season Champions League blitz, and peaked to an incredible level during the SuperCups. Inexplicably, we haven’t seen that version of Real Madrid consistently over the course of the 2017/18 season. The team has, for large stretches of their slumps against a whole slew of opponents, been in a dangerous grey area — when possession is lost, the team is neither in a position to counter-press nor are they reading passing lanes. When you’re neither here nor there, you’re actually holding up a sign inviting opponents to carve you unapologetically.
Moments like this, where Real Madrid aren’t on the same page without the ball, will give a clear outlet in open water for Neymar, Di Maria, and Mbappe to swim into:
Notice: Isco floating. A problem we’ve noted continually in the past is that Isco himself, in a vacuum, fabulous, world-class player and all, is not a problem. In wonky schemes though, his presence on any given defensive sequence is shifty. The team guesses where he’ll be, and with that kind of undefined role, the system collapses. Casemiro is tracking his marker, but wanes on his aggressiveness as he notices Isco coming over from a deep position. This means his man is an open outlet for Celta to channel through as an escape route. Once the ball goes there, Kroos doesn’t hedge back to close the second outlet, and Casemiro is still half-pressing his man along with Isco. Boom. Counter ensues. The rest of the team — the ones remaining behind the ball — are already back-peddling.
The BBC will get a lot of criticism game-in game-out — particularly a certain Frenchman who’s been rightfully scolded for being defanged in front of goal. But, collectively, they are a much better pressing trio than PSG’s front three. We have sample size to back this. If Real Madrid fans take any comfort in the Sociedad win, it’s finally seeing some really good pressing in the first half.
The following three sequences all came in the first eight minutes of the match. It was important in setting the tone:
Gareth Bale didn’t start this match, and he’s one of the most intelligent off-ball players Real Madrid has. It was impressive there wasn’t a drop-off in Real Madrid’s press here without him. Vazquez, Ronaldo, Benzema, Modric, Kroos, and Asensio (who’s made leaps defensively over the course of his young Real Madrid career) were all fantastic and in-sync as Real Sociedad recycled possession. Zidane’s front six snuffed passing lanes as they simultaneously pressured Sociedad’s ball-carriers. Caveat: Real Sociedad is a mess this season, etc.
Yet, this kind of pressing will put pressure on even the most elite distributors. Heck, we even saw signs of a counter-press on Saturday:
The ball was not retained here, but the awareness from every Real Madrid shirt in understanding the importance of winning the ball back immediately after it was lost is exactly what’s needed on Wednesday and beyond. PSG are scary good in transition, while Real Madrid have generally been scary bad defending in transition. “To play against Neymar, there is no magic formula,” Carvajal said in the build-up to Wednesday’s clash. ”You just hope he doesn’t have his day. I hope he doesn’t have his day on Wednesday.” Limiting PSG’s chances of getting in the final-third needs to be a point of emphasis if counter-attacking isn’t an option. If you can’t defend, or struggle (surely) defending the likes of Neymar, mask it by holding the ball instead.
Motta’s absence for PSG is problematic for them. It leaves dominoes that Emery would’ve liked to have avoided. If Lo Celso doesn’t play as the anchor, Unai may opt to slide in newly acquired Lassana Diarra. Diarra, for what it’s worth, is still a very good player, even at this stage of his career — but he lacks familiarity with the team.
Another issue for Emery is Kurzawa’s place as left back. If he starts there over Berchiche, Real Madrid will be facing a defensive liability on that flank. Bale’s presence as a two-way winger is key here. He’ll have space to exploit in-behind Kurzawa. Neymar showed last season with Barcelona that he’s very good defensively, but Emery won’t want to tie down the Brazilian with left-back coverage, meaning PSG could be spread thin covering for Kurzawa if they hedge Thiago Silva, or one of Rabiot / Veratti / Lo Celso / Lass over to double-up on the flanks.
Somehow, Real Madrid may actually dodge a bullet if Emery fields Mbappe, Cavani, and Neymar together. It’s almost blasphemous to state it, but Kylian has cooled (and Cavani will be coming back from an injury); while Di Maria has caught fire. At any rate, Angelito will be dangerous off the bench, but Real Madrid fans would cautiously prefer that than to see him start up front, or even worse, as a two-way engine in central midfield. He can play that role, as Madridistas know, where Draxler couldn’t.
One thing to keep an eye on: Areola’s ability to deal with long-range bombs. In general, he struggles to stay in the conversation among the best goalkeepers in the world — and among the elite European teams, he’s one of the most unreliable. It would be worth giving the green-light to Casemiro, Bale, Ronaldo, Modric, and others to test Areola as often as possible. If Areola is not off his line, a stinger from 30 or 40 yards could still serve up a juicy, serendipitous rebound.
None of these points are sure indicators of how the match will unfold. As always, predicting these events is almost impossible. Analyzing strengths and weaknesses of both teams are one thing, but the intangibles — confidence, morale, dealing with psychological barriers of past precedence — are hard to decipher. No one knows if Real Madrid will finally hit that gear we’ve been waiting for them to hit, or if it will all just encapsulate the horror-show of a season and unravel in their faces. On the flipside, PSG’s mental state isn’t at its peak, and demons of past failures are still on the back-burner, according to those around the club. As fascinating as it will be for neutrals, those invested in either party will (probably) be in the fetal position for 180 minutes.
“It’s not a final for me. It’s a Champions League match,” Zidane said in the pre-match pressers on Tuesday.
”We’ve got two legs and what we have to do is go out and play well. The rest I’m not too worried about.
”We’ve got no pressure. We’re happy to play these games.
”People want to see a good game and you’d have to ask PSG if they’re feeling any pressure.”