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The Nitty Gritty Of A Wild Night At The Bernabeu

Carvajal had a nightmare, Juventus were almost perfect, Zidane’s subs stretched the field, and Real Madrid deserved to go through

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.


We are halfway through our annual April-from-hell stint. So far so good, in the Champions League, result wise. La Liga is a write off at this point — done and dusted prematurely with top-four seeding rendered inconsequential with the champion already decided. It was a disastrous campaign and, the week-in week-out grind that is required to win a league title just didn’t exist from Zinedine Zidane’s men. That needs to be rectified next season and beyond. Every egg is in the European basket now.

Real Madrid survived its Champions League tests this month (deservedly), even if it was more uncomfortable than anyone imagined it would be in the second leg. Let’s dive into the nitty gritty.

Dani Carvajal’s nightmare

Dani Carvajal struggled defending Mario Mandzukic. At times he was outmuscled and physically overpowered. Let’s not pretend it was just a matter of physical inferiority.

This was not a good start for Real Madrid, for obvious reasons. When Casemiro loses out to Douglas Costa, Dani Carvajal’s positioning is fine. Everything that ensues, is not. Costa was Marcelo’s man. Casemiro rightfully steps in to thwart his progress, taking Sami Khedira out of the equation in the process. A subtly good tackle from Casemiro goes wrong, as now he’s dispossessed, with Marcelo out of position — leaving Khedira and Costa charging forward with a numerical advantage. Yet, there’s plenty of time to recover. Jesus Vallejo has Khedira in his scope. It’s Blaise Matuidi who bamboozles everyone, sucking in Carvajal into a vortex he can’t be rescued from. Raphael Varane has to recognize the situation and call the Spanish right-back off. Varane’s shoulder-glance shows he’s aware of Matuidi, yet, he decides to double-up to help Vallejo (who was fine on his own in this situation). Carvajal cuts inside to guard Matuidi when that should’ve been Varane’s marker -- leaving Mandzukic free at the far-post.

Allegri has become a more versatile tactician over the years. This year, he’s thrown out a bunch of different schemes, and he was able to adapt from his first leg mistakes. Ramos and Varane man-handled Dybala and Higuain in Turin, and Zidane completely took Chiellini’s ball-carrying ability and vertical passing from the back (an underrated weapon, which earned Juve’s winning goal at Wembley, when Tottenham stopped pressing the Juventus center-back in the second half) out of the equation. Chiellini touched the ball more than any other Juventus player in the first leg, but struggled to find outlets. With Pjanic’s return in the second leg, the responsibility was shifted a bit, and Pjanic was the focal point of distribution.

Allegri started to look through the flanks from there, fully knowing Real Madrid’s coverage this season for Marcelo has been poor. He looked to get the ball behind the Brazilian left-back and cross it far post. It worked. Douglas Costa’s seven successful dribbles in Dybala’s absence; and Mandzukic’s aerial threat and off-ball runs worked almost too perfectly for Allegri.

Seven times Juventus crossed from that position:

That is not a huge number, but it can be, if you spin it the right way. Allegri’s men only had 38% of the ball, and six of those seven cross all came within the first half -- before Allegri sat in a deeper block to patch up the hard work that paid off for them. The result of that emphasis: Three goals and delirium.

If Carvajal could’ve made a better decision on Mandzukic’s first goal, there was little he could do to react to the Croatian’s second — outmuscled and all despite being in a good position. Pinning everything on Carvajal in this bizarre match would be unfair. It was a weird game where Real Madrid had a huge margin of error, and almost everything that could’ve gone wrong for them did. Carvajal did have three key interceptions.

Juve, denying vertical channels

Something Allegri did really well — deny Jesus Vallejo and Raphael Varane vertical outlets from the back. No one is ever going to defend Real Madrid perfectly, but Juventus contained them as well as anyone. The odd Isco outlet in-behind the lines broke them, but generally speaking, they snuffed out a lot of Real Madrid’s options with strategic pressing, or during Real Madrid’s build-up, denying them passing lanes.

As is generally the case, Real Madrid recycled possession between the full-backs, while using Toni Kroos and Isco as outlets, particularly through the left — keeping Dani Carvajal in their peripherals for a cross-field switch. Of the three brainiac creators in midfield — Isco, Kroos, and Modric — the Croatian touched the ball the least. Perhaps he should’ve seen it more, as it was consistently his directness and quick thinking in tight spaces that broke Juventus:

Juventus though, gave Real Madrid issues otherwise. Vallejo, a vertical maestro with Frankfurt, looked forward every time he touched the ball, and at times, had to shift possession elsewhere to a less surgical outlet. Varane was unnerved into making forced passes.

Casemiro, who struggled with Juve’s press (more on this later), was sacrificed at half-time. Mateo Kovacic was introduced much later in the match, for the last quarter-of-an-hour, and didn’t have much influence (just nine passes for the Croatian wiz, and 66% pass completion rate). He had entered during peak-Juve-barricade mode. Had he started, he may have put a dent in Juve’s press with his ball-carrying abilities.

Explaining the Bale - Vazquez swap

It’s hard to pinpoint what Gareth Bale did wrong. His leash was ridiculously short, and there was no real tactical shake-up when Lucas Vazquez replaced him — a like for like substitute in this situation on the right flank. We weren’t entirely sure where Bale would play (do we ever?); but you’d be justified in assuming it would be somewhere that doesn’t suit his strengths. His role against Juventus was fine, though. He is never going to play off the shoulder against a deeper block like Juventus or Atletico, so a deeper role on the flank would theoretically make more sense against these teams. With Juve getting their goals early, they had no real reason to open up and concede space in transition — though it did happen at times throughout with Isco being the main cog on the counter-attack.

Bale drifted centrally, while hedging to the right flank most. His pace was important in helping Modric find an outlet in the aforementioned, press-breaking sequence. He did some good things offensively. Taking him off seemed harsh, as Lucas slotted into a very similar role, which was confirmed after the match when reviewing their heat maps respectively.

What Zidane looked to solve immediately — providing assistance for Carvajal and Marcelo who were getting grilled repeatedly. Gareth Bale and Lucas Vazquez may play similar positions, but there were moments where Bale was slow to react to Juventus’ threat on his flank, or in some moments, not reacting at all:

That was a moment where Real Madrid dodged a bullet. Bale was high in Juve’s half, but had plenty of time to get behind the ball with Juve’s slow build-up. He opts to return to the middle of the pitch, where holes were already plugged. He does it consciously, looking over at the wide-open Alex Sandro darting up towards the outnumbered Carvajal. A heavy pass from Higuain disbands Juve’s attack.

Taking action

If the Bale - Vazquez swap was subtle; then the Asensio - Casemiro sub was dramatic. It takes some balls to use two-of-your-three changes at half-time with extra-time possibly looming. Zidane saw issues and took action immediately — no leash necessary when Real Madrid’s season is on the line.

One thing that’s been recurring — Casemiro’s discomfort in a press. Zidane often masks this by sending the Brazilian anchor higher up the pitch to avoid him being caught in a dangerous position. This is, umm, not a great solution; and has crazy bad consequences that Allegri — or plenty of other coaches, like Unzue — have exploited.

Last season, Kroos and Modric were in unison when Casemiro bombed forward as an unlikely offensive threat -- they’d cover for him immediately. The coverage this season has been shifty. There is almost no way to excuse some of the positions Marcelo ends up in defensively — that he is caught where he is here is surreal. These are systematic issues. Zidane has one of the greatest offensive full-backs in the history of football — a system in place to cover for his surging runs and defensive naivety should be in the manual. It’s often not. Jesus Vallejo should not be put in this position -- hoping the ball doesn’t arrive towards the flank where he has to mark two players.

Asensio’s emergence killed two birds with one stone. He stretched the field by unclogging the confusion in the middle of the park, and he hugged the left flank, often sliding in-behind Marcelo to cover when needed; while providing a dose of flair high up the field to threaten Juventus’ defensive line. Asensio was a prong in pinning Allegri’s men in the second half.

Marco’s introduction helped stabilize the team in the second half, and Keylor’s blunder may have overshadowed the fact that Real Madrid’s shape was simply better. Asensio stamped his influence, and became an offensive instrument for Zidane.

Casemiro is a brave ox. He may not be a perfect match-up against every opponent, and that’s ok. What Zidane may have learned at half-time is that the team can, in some matches, add an extra element of attack without him — without sacrificing defensive solidity.

His important interventions were there:

It was in other areas of the pitch, in tight spaces, were Allegri licked his lips from the bench and watched his pressing-scheme make Casemiro uncomfortable:

This was closer than it looked

Real Madrid deserved to go through. On another day, Isco’s goal isn’t incorrectly called offside, Varane’s header doesn’t hit the bar, Keylor doesn’t make a blunder — blah blah blah. Real Madrid were not good in this game and none of those things are excuses. Things did not go their way, and they were the inferior team in the second leg. Juventus played well defensively, but also had an xG of 2.75, and looked more dangerous throughout. They deserved to win, but Real Madrid deserved to advance.

There are alarm bells, but there are alarm bells for all four remaining teams left in the competition. Everyone has something to improve on — not everyone has legends to mask certain flaws. This is something we’ll surely break down further once the semi-final draw is made on Friday.

Zidane’s men weren’t as terrible as they were made out to be, either. There were positives sprinkled in: Jesus Vallejo, nerves and all, kept his composure and had the best passing accuracy on the entire team. Varane fended off plenty of Juve attacks on a busy night for him. Toni Kroos distributed the ball at an elite level. Isco continues to look more like himself, and, as Adam Digby pointed out on the post-game podcast, Juventus fans were terrified every time Cristiano Ronaldo touched the ball. As Adam pointed out, no one will remember Ronaldo’s great header dropped into Lucas Vazquez’s path just before the penalty — it was the Michael-Jordan-game-six-steal just before he hit the game-winner over Bryon Russell.

In addition to Vallejo’s passing, he had moments go under-the-radar. This intervention won’t show up as an interception on the stat sheet:

From the first minute, Zidane’s men pressed really well:

There were even moments where we saw a rare counter-press:

Juventus made it difficult. Every time Real Madrid found rhythm in controlling tempo, Juve would score, or something sucked the life out of the team. Allegri’s men were also hard to break down, even amid counter-attacks, where they would get back into position quickly:

There are things to complain about, and things to be excited about. Real Madrid are still in the running for an unthinkable three-peat, and, for the first time in the club’s history, have reached the semi-finals for eight straight seasons -- a feat not even the fans during the Alfredo Di Stefano era were able to witness. At what point do we count this crazy run as playing with house money?

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