“VAMOS!” Lucas Vazquez had filmed the team’s arrival to the Bernabeu and the atmosphere had said it all—thousands upon thousands of fans filled the streets, red flares lit up the sky, and chants of “Como No Te Voy A Querer” reverberated against the bus. This was not just a game, this was judgment day; to put it simply, it was make or break for Zidane and his men. On the other side of the fence, PSG awaited. The holy grail of the Champions League has evaded them since their inception as a club. The Parisians spent over 400 million in the summer to win games like these, to finally place a hand on the coveted “big ears”. Ultimately, the clash of two European titans yielded a spectacular game in which both teams displayed their supreme technical ability and managers showed off their tactical flexibility. The surprise of the night came from Zinedine Zidane. As he so often likes to do in big games, he made a big call and altered the line-up; it was Isco to start over Gareth Bale. The Frenchman implemented his beloved diamond, which has struggled this season but triumphed in last season Champions League against the likes of Juventus, Bayern, and Ateltico Madrid. Starting with Isco meant Zidane felt PSG’s weakness lay in midfield. His goal was to overrun the midfield three of Lo Celso, Rabiot, and Verrati. It meant prioritizing possession over the counter attack. Emery made big calls of his own, dropping captain Thiago Silva for the impressive Kimpembe, swapping Yuri in for the attack-minded Kurzawa, and leaving the in-form Di Maria on the bench.
PRESS! PRESS! PRESS!
It was clear Zidane came with his tactical guns loaded. Madrid came blistering out of the blocks. Forty seconds into the match and Benzema, Modric, and Isco were relentlessly hounding the PSG backline, taking no prisoners. Zidane wanted his men to set the tone.
Zidane’s wildcard, Isco, was particularly impressive in the first half. He completed the most passes for any outfield player and worked tirelessly to close down Lo Celso as well as both full backs. For the diamond formation to function, it demands high fitness levels from the four midfielders, as they have to cover an immense amount of ground. The plan was clear—target the young and out of position, Lo Celso.
Again, Madrid press high targeting the young argentine and it is again Isco who makes the tackle, earning possession for Madrid and then earning a close-range free kick. After the first forty-five minutes had passed, Lo Celso had been booked and had given away a penalty. Madrid found the weak link.
PSG’s X-Factor: Neymar
Few burdened more pressure in Madrid last night, than the Brazilian, Neymar. The weight of the massive price tag, the constant rumors of a move to Madrid, the first true test—could he break the duopoly of Ronaldo and Messi, could he push PSG amongst Europe’s elite? Some may argue, the Brazilian flopped on the night but his quality and pure talent were there to be admired even for the most ardent Madrid supporters. He gave fill-in right back, Nacho, fits and starts. It would often take three men to slow down one of his slaloming runs. Emery gives the Brazilian total freedom, said freedom is not afforded to a youngster like Kylian Mpabbe who was often defending deep as a right midfielder last night. Neymar starts from the left, but is free to move inward. Nachos bared the most responsibility, but clear instructions were there for Casemiro and Modric to double down on the Brazilian. It would be in transition from defense to attack, where the Brazilian thrived. Nacho on more than one occasion was caught in two minds:
Nacho is pressing high, likely following the instructions set out for the early part of the match. Though, there is a disconnect between he and Varane. The space between center back and full back was far too large for Nacho to press. Neymar duked one way and went flying down the wing in the other direction. In this instance, the Madrid backline should have dropped as soon as Areloa distributed the ball out. There were moments throughout the match where players did not recognize the danger and react accordingly, thus PSG exploited those mistakes. Nacho was caught out on a number of occasions trying to decide between pressing or dropping in.
On the opening goal, PSG exploited a similar mistake. Luka Modric fails to track Rabiot and instead is caught ball watching. Like Luka, Isco fails to cover and fails to communicate to his Croatian teammate, leaving Rabiot free in the box:
At the highest level, these types of lapses in concentration are punished. Modric played a phenomenal game, particularly in the second half, but this will be a blemish on his record.
Game Changers: Introduction of Bale, LV, and Asensio
The game was soon to enter the final ten minutes and fitness levels were waning. The diamond demands so much of the midfield and the fullbacks and PSG was beginning to tighten their grip around a solid 1-1 result. It was clear Zidane did not want to draw this game. With his last roll of the dice, on came Marco Asensio and Lucas Vazquez—joining Gareth Bale who had entered moments ago. The team altered their formation to a 4-4-2 and immediately reaped the benefits. The speed and dynamism of all three players was too much for PSG to handle. Gareth Bale’s tactical IQ cannot be understated. He was crucial in creating openings and opportunities for Madrid. Multiple times he would come deep, dragging his center back or defensive midfielder with him, and freeing the space behind:
In both instance above, Gareth comes deep into the midfield and then sends a ball wide or over the top to stretch the PSG backline. He follows his pass with an untracked run into the box on both occasions.
Equally understated, is Marco Asensio’s understanding with Marcelo down that left wing. Their quick and incisive one-twos, can unlock any defense in the world. They did just that for Madrid. Marco earned his second assist and Marcelo produced another Champions League performance for the ages, capping it with the third and final goal for Madrid. Emery opted to take off Edison Cavani for Thomas Meunir in hopes of securing the result and slowing down Marcelo. His decision was a signal. It was a signal to his team, to buckle down and sit-in, while also signaling to Madrid that they can attack.
The atmosphere was irresistible, the Bernabeu faithful was insatiable, and the boys in white brought the “remontada”—the comeback, and the never-say-die attitude that had been lacking for most of this season. Matches of this magnitude are decided by the smallest of factors. The difference may very well be that switch in attitude, the signal from Emery. Madrid never stopped searching for the win, while Emery wanted his team to resign for a draw with the introduction of Meunir. Emery had a clear plan to play on the counter-attack and make Madrid suffer in transition. With talents like Neymar and Mpabbe, Madrid did suffer and PSG were afforded opportunities. But Zidane rolled out his plan as well. He wanted numerical superiority in midfield, he wanted his four to out-posses and overrun the midfield three of PSG. Implementing a high line and high press for most of the first half, meant Zidane wanted to go for it—his team were to set the tone for the match. And when the result seemed destined for a draw, the introduction of three dynamic players: Bale, Asensio, and Lucas Vazquez were able to turn the game on it’s head with seven magic minutes and two beautiful goals. An up and down game, with chances for both sides, but it was Madrid who capitalized when it mattered most. Ninety minutes remain and Zidane will need to bring another fully loaded tactical gun to his next duel.