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.
Among the many tactical banes in the second leg of the Champions League semi-final against Bayern Munich, none were as dominant as the lack of defensive compactness Real Madrid required to zip up vertical passing lanes — something that Bayern salivated over:
James Rodriguez’s initial one-two pass and run in-behind Karim Benzema is harmless, only because the Colombian decides to ping the ball back to Frank Ribery rather than turn into space. It’s his run after the second pass that allows him to waltz up the pitch unchallenged. He’s not on the radar of any white shirt, and though visible to the naked eye, goes as undetected as the Ant-Man. This is where Mateo Kovacic, a player we’ve generally raved about in previous big games for his positional awareness, needs to sharpen his antenna. He’s caught between James and Corentin Tolisso. Perhaps he’s anticipating Ribery will pass to James, and tries to close the angle. What he doesn’t do — calculate the indirect routes Bayern can take to get the ball back to the Colombian. Karim Benzema’s light, sagging pressure on Ribery allows the French winger to get the ball to Tolisso (whom Toni Kroos hedges away from, in order to block the passing lane to the striker behind him as well as narrow the angle to the marker on his left). When the ball eventually gets to James, Kovacic isn’t even close, and Lucas Vazquez is already occupied with David Alaba.
Luka Modric, who shrugs at the beginning of the play, frustrated at Benzema for allowing the first pass to James, could’ve dropped back — but his job is to press the ball-carrier. The front-line of the press always needs cohesive support behind him. One lapse, and everything collapses.
Bayern press high masterfully well. They retain possession as well as anyone. But give them time to build out of the back, and they’re just as difficult to deal with. Jupp Heynckes is a connoisseur of the half-spaces. With and without the the ball, he emphasizes the importance of dominating those zones on the pitch where opposing players will have nightmares trying to defend. There’s no real surprise that James continues his off-ball run from deep to get into that channel and in a dangerous position — it’s all part of the blueprint.
Real Madrid generally had no answer for these off-ball runs and continual vertical daggers. Their main stopgap was Sergio Ramos — intervening with an impressive mop-up job when Real Madrid’s midfield just couldn’t figure it out:
Whatever works — right? Both Ramos and Raphael Varane were busy on the night — as they’ve been time and time again this season amid chaos when the scheme abandons them completely. That anyone questions the season these two are having is blasphemous. They have the heaviest observable burden and will be scrutinized for their play the most. In big games, they just come out on top, continually, despite being hung barbarically while having hot iron slicing their feet. Real Madrid’s center-backs had a combined 24 clearances against Bayern at the Bernabeu (for perspective, Bayern’s duo had seven), and in the process, Ramos had to tidy things up last second.
In the above sequence, Ramos ensures Real Madrid’s heart keeps beating. If James decided not to turn with the ball at his feet in the first play, he does it masterfully here — shifting his torso to bamboozle Kroos, the last remaining midfield anchor. Ramos makes two great interceptions to stifle Bayern’s chance in transition.
Ramos can only make those strategic (and necessary) gambles when the ball comes at him — but he can’t hedge high enough to intercept the passes that break Real Madrid higher up the pitch when the dam is broken.
For the most part, Bayern avoided Bogeyman-Sergio, and they feasted on Real Madrid’s frailty without the ball.
These are not complex plays from Bayern. There is a beautiful simplicity with which they play. Real Madrid just weren’t in good positions all night to defend these routine passes out of the back. One pass from Mats Hummels here should not be so surgical, but Kovacic and Modric were outnumbered more than once. One of the underlying issues here is how much Zidane had Modric stretched by giving him (near) right-back duties. With so much onus to help Vazquez, Luka had no relief to slide centrally and plug gaps while conserving his energy for other things. This was rectified when Nacho eventually came on and Lucas Vazquez pushed higher up the pitch. This is where a traditional winger generally helps Real Madrid alongside their full-back. The diamond formation tends to spread Real Madrid’s central midfielders thin. You can see how occupied Modric is in the above sequence with David Alaba. And he has to be. By the time he realizes Kovacic is high up the pitch and not in a position to intercept the pass to an open Thiago, and makes the judgement-call to leave Alaba, it’s just too late.
Credit to Heynckes. His team was riddled with injuries and he churned out the right tactics with his remaining (very very talented) resources. He would’ve enjoyed that Zidane opted to roll with a diamond scheme rather than traditional wingers who can track cutting runs while putting pressure on players like Alaba (who stayed high up the pitch, without being punished for it).
In almost every one of these sequences, Kovacic decides to press, and no one can cover for him. The system failed:
Real Madrid’s shape here, at first glance, is fine. Quick thinking has perks and drawbacks. If done right, you can retain possession high up the pitch. If the press is disjointed, you’ll be so vulnerable that you’ll regret pressing at all. Ribery makes a subtly smart decision in the above play. When Kovacic decides to press the ball-carrier, the Frenchman recognizes that Kova has just left an unoccupied space, and gets into his blindspot, while losing Modric in the process.
Bayern broke the lines often. Sometimes in the shape of a pass, and other times, in the shape of a terrifying run from Hummels, who bullies his way past a loose midfield:
Hummels uses Ribery and Tolisso, whom Modric and Asensio both have their eye on, as decoys before blitzing through and getting the ball to Lewandowski in a dangerous position.
As the game wore on, Real Madrid didn’t rectify these issues. Until the last breath of the game, the Bernabeu was in a collective fetal position, praying to a false idle — Zidane’s black magic. Here, Kovacic presses and cuts off the passing lane to James; but Kroos is too high up the pitch to close Tolisso behind him. Alaba parts the sea:
Not everything was disastrous, to be sure. For one, Real Madrid are in the final, again. It’s an exciting era to be alive in. Bayern were brilliant with their press, but some of the passing sequences to get out of the back from Zidane’s men were pure eye-candy. It was laboured, but it was beautiful; and sequences like this will need to be plentiful against Klopp’s rock-and-roll gegenpress:
Even the best of pressing schemes have weaknesses. Bayern do almost everything perfect here, but so do Real Madrid. And here’s the main alarm bell for Bayern (and Liverpool, for that matter, who are masterful at forcing the ball to the full-backs while eliminating the defensive midfielder as an outlet): If your press, great as it is, breaks due to brilliant passing, movement, and individual talent, than your opponent has plenty of space to exploit in front of your skimpy defensive line.
I loved this chain of build-up:
There is one major caveat with those gorgeous passing arrangements — they were few and far in between, and just not prolific enough. Bayern controlled the tempo and dictated where the ball went. They will live with those moments from Real Madrid, knowing they can somewhat limit the amount of times they get burned. That Zidane’s men could not control the tempo over the course of two legs was a shame (or not, because, after all, who really cares? Real Madrid advanced), but a lot of the credit should go to Heynckes.
In moments where Bayern lost possession, they were good at quickly aligning themselves back into their proper shape — getting behind the ball with a bank of four, and five midfielders in front of them to form a barricade as soon as they gave the ball away:
James, Ribery, Kimmich, and Alaba — they immediately react without the ball. Kimmich even tries to win the ball back from Asensio. It’s clockwork. It’s routine, to be sure — any elite team generally does play this way behind the ball — but some do it better than others.
In-game judgment calls are underrated. Sometimes we think managers move players around like chess pieces. We can assume this is partly true — if a manager and player are in-synch enough with their tactics, players will naturally excel and make the correct decision. We can assume the way Bayern react without the ball in the above play is simple and routine for everyone. But it’s not always easy deciphering what to do without the ball. Here, Marco Asensio can prevent putting Real Madrid in a position to concede by simply registering that Kimmich is well within reach; but there is no urgency or spidey-sense kicking in:
Zidane likes the diamond. He likes the idea of always having outlets who don’t have strict defensive duties popping up around the field. Live and die with it, or in this case — die. White shirts continually guess where the diamond spearhead is, and in turn, have to recalculate where they should be.
Klopp will be taking notes.