The wait was over. All the discussion, pre-game analysis, rumours, and speculation came to an end. The Santiago Bernabeu served as the venue for the second leg of the semi-final as Bayern Munich, playing the role of the challenger, tried to unseat Real Madrid from their European throne. The Spanish club was on the verge of doing the unthinkable by moving a step closer to the mythical three-peat.
Zidane made three significant changes to the starting line-up. Vazquez was utilized as a makeshift right back in place of the injured Carvajal while Asensio filled in for Isco. Kovacic was deployed as a holding midfielder presumably to better support possession as he is more press resistant than Casemiro. And lastly, Benzema was selected to partner Ronaldo upfront which would mitigate the isolation felt by the Portuguese in the first leg.
Heynckes, for his part, chose Sule, Thiago, and Tolisso to replace Boateng, Javi Martinez, and Robben respectively. Muller moved to the wing and Tolisso slotted into the advanced midfield line ahead of Thiago. In addition, Alaba recovered in time to start in his usual left back position.
Modric helps mitigate Bayern’s wing overloads
Alaba’s return strengthened Bayern’s left side even further after it caused untold trouble in the first leg. Ribery was incredible in individual matchups in Munich and being able to leverage Alaba’s support made him even more dangerous (or at least that was the intent). The two combined to great effect to target Vazquez (deputizing for Carvajal).
Modric, however, adjusted brilliantly to counteract this threat and intelligently positioned himself well enough to track Alaba’s overlapping runs and prevent numerical superiority. Despite their excellent coverage, Alaba and Ribery were still able to engineer several opportunities to cross.
This was possible due to constant switches between the two in terms of who made runs. Additionally, Alaba and Ribery’s chemistry shone as the latter almost intuitively knew when to exploit the former’s decoy runs to penetrate towards the middle where he would have more space to trigger a more threatening attacking sequence.
Bayern’s right side was not nearly as active as Kimmich did not offer the same level of industry as Alaba. The right back was isolated because Muller moved in-field in possession. Unlike the intricacy between Alaba and Ribery to free each other, Kimmich was limited to crossing from fairly restricted areas.
Bayern’s strategic crossing and Real Madrid’s faulty midfield
It was clear from the onset that the visitors were going to try to place pressure on Real’s defense through repeated crossing. Because of the size of Lewandowski and Muller as well as their commitment of numbers upfront – it made sense for Heynckes’ men to adopt this tactic. It paid off immediately as Ramos’ mishit clearance landed perfectly for Kimmich to score. This is also how Bayern scored their second goal.
Part of the reason why Bayern were successful with their crossing was the space and numerical superiority afforded to Bayern attackers in the box. Varane and Ramos were often outnumbered and without support to deal with the rush of opposition players in the box.
This was a symptom of a larger issue. There were clear signs throughout the match (before the Casemiro substitution) that Real Madrid’s midfield defensive positioning was faulty. Bayern Munich players slipped in between the lines far too easily which compromised the team’s compactness and defensive integrity.
The issue was twofold:
• Systemic – Bayern’s midfield benefitted from three central players (Thiago, Tolisso, and James Rodriguez) which outnumbered Real Madrid’s pivot (Kroos and Kovacic). Modric couldn’t tuck in as much to help out with closing down spaces as the Ribery-Alaba duo required his full attention. Asensio could have done more in this regard but he was also needed to back up Marcelo.
• Personnel – Kroos’ defensive intensity was fairly low which combined with Kovacic’s questionable positioning was a recipe for structural instability. Given Madrid weren’t employing any kind of collective consistent pressing scheme, it didn’t make sense for the Croatian to liberally push up as much as he did when Bayern had the ball. Kroos, on the other hand, didn’t show much better judgement and seemed to put in less effort.
Offense and possession redeems the 4-4-2
Given all the noted issues, Zidane’s decision to field a 4-4-2 without Casemiro seemed odd. However, looking at the context of the match and the offensive capability of the team, it began to make more sense. Kovacic’s speed, press-resistance, and possession play is better than Casemiro and was a useful tool in utilizing ball circulation to wear down Bayern. Furthermore, the 4-4-2 is better for transition offense which Real Madrid relied on quite heavily. If not for poor execution of final passes, the hosts could have punished Bayern for their adventurous system.
Real Madrid attacked very effectively as a result of the 4-4-2 (which alternated between a flat configuration and the diamond). They were able to hold on to the ball extremely well because of Kovacic’s touch and feel while being able to also utilize transition as Asensio and Kovacic broke through Bayern’s lines. Missed final balls let Bayern off the hook as their overcommitment of forwards left gaping holes that were easily exploited.
The team became even more focused on counter-attacking towards the end of the match when Bale and Casemiro entered the fray. Chances fell for both sides but one was certainly left feeling that Real Madrid’s wastefulness made the ending tenser than it needed to be.
Bayern Munich took advantage of the 4-4-2 and starting line-up’s defensive positioning by exploiting the exposure in between the defense and midfield lines. However, for those very same reasons, Real Madrid were more dangerous going forward as they could hold onto the ball better as well as quickly transition into attack.
While it’s true that the Bavarians significantly underperformed their xG (especially over both legs), that speaks very little of how Real Madrid would have reacted to being placed in the position of having to score. Naturally, as the team led the aggregate score for most of the tie, they didn’t have the same responsibility to attack as Bayern and subsequently set themselves up to absorb pressure. That being said, the team should have been able to manage periods of the game better by limiting the number of chances given up. On to the final.