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.
Zinedine Zidane has become more unpredictable by the day. That’s not a bad thing. Ask an opposing coach what tactical scheme they’ll face on the brink of a Champions League do-or-die melee, and they’ll shrug. The list of ‘untouchables’ has shrunk over the course of the season. The lauded BBC — the one that was criticized before people longed for it as they grew gluttonized to the diamond, sensitive to the sight of it — appeared for the first time in almost a year against Deportivo earlier this season. The result? A 7 - 1 thumping where everything clicked. Caveat alert: It was Deportivo, it was one game. Yet, it was fun, when it necessarily hasn’t been this season — up until that point anyway.
Those who thought that that thumping might signal the return of the 4-3-3 are still waiting. Gareth Bale has folded into the darkness. Questions over Casemiro’s comfort in a press, and the defensive dominoes set off by his bombing runs, have lurked for months. Zidane finally reacted by taking the Brazilian anchor off at half-time against Juventus when the team needed better coverage for Marcelo, and better resistance to all of Allegri’s strategic hounding. Lucas Vazquez has emerged as a real contender in high-stake matches; and Isco fluctuates in an out of the starting line-up like a flickering lighthouse.
So much of the media has gotten it wrong when predicting Zidane’s line-up in big matches. For an opposing coach, that’s not always easy to deal with. It’s a guessing game. The Managing Madrid Podcast crew generally don’t like getting questions about line-up predictions, because anyone who thinks they know the answer doesn’t. Zidane keeps a tight ship. We’re throwing darts at the wall here, and that’s a good problem for us to have.
Bavarian FB Works tried to get me to bite. Nope. Likewise, Jupp Heynckes would love to know what he’ll be facing on Wednesday.
There are more questions than answers. How will Zidane cover the flanks while keeping Lewandowski isolated? How will Zidane deny Bayern’s two-way midfielders space in transition? Arturo Vidal’s absence is a blow for Jupp, but his squad is deep, and he’s versatile with his schemes — with the ability to shape-shift away from his favoured 4-2-3-1 when needed. Thiago can slot deeper, and Javi Martinez can slide in as the anchor. It’s crazy that a player of Arjen Robben’s stature might come off the bench -- but that’s where we are. Robben can be a difference-maker in the second half, and James Rodriguez has been firing this season. Jupp would almost be crazy not to start James, fully knowing the chip on the Colombian’s shoulder, coupled with his efficient form, will be tough for Real Madrid to deal with.
Last season’s bloodbath against the Bavarians saw Zidane play narrow, isolating Lewandowski and letting Robben and Ribery dance on the flanks. He picked his poison:
On that sequence, Lewandowski gets a head on the ball, but he was bodied. And that was Zidane’s plan — let Robben, lethal and all, boogie on the wing. Give him space, but clog the middle to make sure Bayern are suffocated meeting his crosses. And, as the saying goes, never let Robben cut inside into his sweet spot. The benefits of a narrow scheme were clear — Robben only had two cut-in shots from the left (one of his most dangerous weapons as a footballer). Both were blocked:
As soon as Robben thought about cutting inside, Real Madrid’s collective spidey-sense kicked in, and the team converged on the Dutch winger rapidly:
The aforementioned incident where Lewandowski gets his head on the ball — that was his only header in the entire match. Staggering. Isolating the Polish striker while curtailing Robben is not an easy feat, but Zidane did both.
Real Madrid deserved to win the tie. They were the better team over the course of two legs, and pinned Bayern over and over again for large stretches, particularly in the first half at the Bernabeu. Zidane got it right playing narrow. How he sees the upcoming tie against Heynckes will be interesting, given the emergence of the 4-4-2. Will the complexion change?
Knowing what will carry over from last season’s tactics to this season’s, against a revamped Bayern side, is a wild guessing game. Sevilla exploited Bayern in a ton of ways. Real Madrid should too, offensively. It’s the defensive transition that will worry Zidane. He’s zipped up his scheme in big matches, and the team defended well against Bayern last season. Real Madrid are less likely to face a low-block in matches like this, and that gives them the flexibility to find space and counter-press. Zidane isn’t known for his counter-press, but the team has been able to retain possession quickly when it matters, enabling them second and third chance opportunities at firing on the same sequence. Last season’s second-leg at the Bernabeu saw Real Madrid combine for 20 interceptions and 20 tackles (while having 11 shots on target and limiting Bayern to just two) — Casemiro leading the charge in both categories. The Brazilian anchor did give the ball away in dangerous areas, but he was also responsible in ensuring the team had the ball back quickly to nullify and demoralize the Bavarians.
It shouldn’t have gotten to extra-time that night, but it did. When tired legs kick in for both sides, the team started to surrender dangerous opportunities. In moments like this, Robben needs to be cut down, and someone needs to take a tactical foul:
Zidane didn’t have to worry about Lewandowski in the first leg in Munich, where the Pole was sidelined. The emphasis that night defensively was slightly different, where Ronaldo would, at times, drop deep to lend Marcelo a hand to double-up the flank. Here he cuts off the passing lane to Robben before showing as an outlet:
The approach in Munich was slightly different, but the desired result was akin. (Again, the Whites had 12 shots on target, while holding Bayern to just three, and limiting Robben to just one shot altogether). Real Madrid’s press was peaking around that time last season. This was the last Champions League match where Zidane had Gareth Bale available, and the Welshman helped pin Bayern deep.
From last season’s first-leg column:
This is a great sequence. Modric presses high up the pitch, which has been a recurring theme when he’s surrounded by Casemiro and Kroos in a midfield trio. These three will take turns being the front pivot, but Modric finds himself in this position the most. He’s often the spearhead. Out of the two brainiacs, Kroos and Modric, in midfield; Modric is the most irrevocable binding agent to link the BBC to the midfield. In the above string of passes by Bayern out of the back, their passing lanes are being strategically picked off one-by-one. Benzema and Modric put pressure on the center backs and take away their comfort zone; while Ronaldo, Kroos, and Casemiro take Alonso, Thiago, and Robben out of the equation. On the far side, Bale doesn’t look like he’s doing much, but once the ball swings, he hedges to the flank to cut off the pass to Alaba. All of this buys time for Modric and Benzema to continue hounding before Neuer is coaxed into conceding possession.
What ensues is a subtle piece of artistry. The recognition and sheer ability from Bale to throw the ball into a wide-open Benzema in the penalty area from long distance leads to a great chance for Toni Kroos in his usual sweet spot
Ancelotti had a miserable time trying to close Kroos down in zone 14. The shot that the German midfielder gets here was available to him almost anytime he wanted it over two legs. Five times he popped up in that position, in prime Cyborg territory, and each time Bayern frantically survived.
This is a sharper Bayern Munich side now. Heynckes, fair or not, for those of you who are in love with Carlo Ancelotti, has revamped this side and gotten everyone to buy in. He is a master of the half-space, and even without Arturo Vidal — a massive cog for Bayern this season — he’ll have coverage on both ends of the field. His central midfielders both press and cover, and in some cases, roam unpredictably to befuddle opposing lines.
James is a quick and decisive player — one of the most productive wizards in the final-third on earth. He doesn’t need much time or space to break lines, but under Jupp, he’s even allowed the luxury to roam and find those gaps as needed. In just 16 appearances in the Bundesliga, James has slung 10 assists, and he leads the league in key passes with 2.7 per game.
Like Allegri, Heynckes strategically has his center forward press high, but is just as comfortable hedging back into a medium block and having his midfielders cut off passing lanes while denying access to the half-spaces. Against a bigger opponent like Real Madrid, we’re more likely to see Bayern sit back slightly rather than press too high and allow Marcelo, Kroos, Modric, and Carvajal find ways to find space in-behind them. By clogging the middle, Heynckes can also unnerve Casemiro too -- taking the Brazilian out of his comfort zone and suffocating his space.
David Alaba has enjoyed a mini-resurgence under Jupp after an uncharacteristic (and dramatic) drop in form earlier in the season. Joshua Kimmich has been great. Bayern’s full-backs enjoy providing overloads and stretching the flanks while assisting the likes of Robben, Ribery, Coman (unfortunately not coming back from injury anytime soon), and Muller.
Both Heynckes and Zidane have an embarrassing amount of talented options and tactical versatility at their disposal, which means for fans — neutral or otherwise — this should be fascinating. Unfortunately, it should be gut-wrenching too, as is typically the case when Real Madrid and Bayern Munich square off.
Further due diligence
- I was on the EiF Soccer podcast to discuss Real Madrid’s match vs Bayern (among other things).
- I did a Q&A over at SB Nation’s Bavarian FB Works about the tie.
- Here’s my article last season about the most gut-wrenching Real Madrid vs Bayern Munich matches ever.
- We’ll be doing a preview podcast on Sunday night.