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 thing. All previous editions can be found here.
PSG annihilated Real Madrid 3 - 0 without Kylian Mbappe and Neymar back in September. Since then, Real have turned a corner, and are a completely different side heading into the second match-up between the two teams this season.
Here’s a look back at the struggles Zidane’s men had in the first game, and how things might go differently this time around.
Takeaways and adjustments
In a comforting twist, Real Madrid’s second melee with PSG is less frantic. Zidane’s men have (all but) qualified for the round-of-16, and they likely won’t top the group (although there is a path where that’s possible). Loosen your sphincters. The team is safe.
There will be less pressure than there was in Paris when these two teams met in September, where Real Madrid were blown away on both ends of the field by an undermanned PSG side.
The team has come a long way since that night. Results have started to come together, and the line-up since then has been shaken up. New players — Rodrygo, Fede Valverde — have emerged from fringe pieces to bona fide A-team contributors. Eden Hazard is becoming Eden Hazard again. The team’s press is slowly falling into place, and there is a defensive stability emerging with Casemiro’s more censored role this season.
But it’s worth noting how badly PSG exploited Real Madrid in Paris in September. Certain things need to change if Zidane wants to flip the tables on the Parisians. Real suffered a near season-low .7 xG that night — the second-lowest mark of the season after an xG of .38 against Atletico (the team that barely anyone can create chances against). They scarcely crossed the final third, and PSG picked off every long ball that came at them. Real couldn’t stop PSG’s attacks or track the cutting runs of Di Maria despite Zidane calling the press off and stumbling into a muddled 4-4-1-1 guise.
But as Tuchel said in Monday’s post-game presser, this is a different Real Madrid team now. Things are clicking, and Sergio Ramos — who didn’t play in Paris — is back. What did Zidane learn from that 3 - 0 in September, and what adjustments can he make on Tuesday?
- Eden Hazard is better now. Hazard had signs of life in Paris, but most of his influence was his work rate deep and the occasional ball-carry in transition. But he was too isolated and leg-heavy in tight-spaces. Zidane doesn’t have to tweak much to get Hazard involved now — it’s a natural progression in Hazard’s fitness which will give PSG’s backline something new to worry about. Most of Hazard’s involvement in Paris came through his defensive help on the flank:
Hazard picks Angel Di Maria’s pocket before finding Toni Kroos, but the build-up is short-lived thanks to a rabid PSG counter-press. Real Madrid have not faced a solid high-press in this string of good games until the Real Sociedad game — but their build-up is looking sharper, and Hazard’s line-breaking ability has already hit another gear, which should help.
- James Rodriguez was the third midfielder in Paris. Individually, the Colombian has had an impressive season (bar a few blips, and two poor performances — one against Mallorca and a short cameo against Galatasaray where he didn’t look good at all). Offensively, he was one of Real’s better players that night, and had a few slicing vertical passes. But defensively, his presence in midfield gave Real Madrid a wonky and permeable shape off the ball. He will not play on Tuesday, and Fede Valverde gives the team a better two-way structure.
- Valverde’s emergence brings out the best in others. Casemiro had a lot on his shoulders in Paris when the initial line was surpassed. Valverde takes the pressure off a little bit. Casemiro — like the rest of the the team — struggled with their passing in the first game, but came up big defensively a couple times to balance some of it out:
But Casemiro wasn’t always able to cover the ground on his own (see: Di Maria’s second goal), and the loose defensive shape even in the face of a slow-paced build-up from Tuchel’s men was alarmingly bad (and you can see Kroos’s frustration here):
- The balance that Fede provides, and the fact that Casemiro’s role this season has been more disciplined and effective does not guarantee anything. Martin Odegaard found plenty of space on Saturday night, even popping up for a shot in the box unchallenged which he shot point-blank at Thibaut Courtois.
Outside that, there is the obvious: PSG are the best team Real Madrid will face during this tough stretch, and they can punish you for mistakes where other teams couldn’t. More obvious things: Both Neymar and Kylian Mbappe (who didn’t play the first game) will be back on Tuesday. Mauro Icardi is in good form up top. PSG are comfortable shape-shifting into a defensively compact team that can blitz you on the counter. Tuchel knows how much space Real Madrid can leave behind their full-backs. There is good reason to believe that Zidane’s men will be vulnerable in those moments.
- It’s hard to see this game open up unless Real Madrid are up by a goal or two in the second half. PSG have no real reason to gamble away their successful defensive shape from the first game. They are through, have patience without the ball, and know they only need a handful of sequences where Mbappe and Neymar get the ball on the counter to score a goal. The best way to create chances may be through Karim Benzema (or any attacker working hard to win the ball back in opportune areas) dropping back to intervene on the Parisians’ build-up:
That Benzema interception led to Gareth Bale winning a free-kick right outside the box, which he nearly scored from. The best way to break down a good defensive team that won’t budge is to pick the ball off of them high up the pitch, or in moments like the above sequence where PSG don’t have a set defense when they give the ball away.
- ‘Intensity’ exists now. In one of the most memorable post-game pressers this season, Zidane said the team lacked ‘intensity’ after Real Madrid lost in Paris. In the ensuing game against Sevilla, everyone — including the robot in jog-mode, Toni Kroos — started pressing and tracking like maniacs. There is an up-tick in tempo during this run of good form from everyone. The body language is just better now.
- The increase in moxie leads to better chances. Real Madrid have better production from the flanks with Rodrygo and Hazard (and Bale) in form to help Benzema offensively. Wingers cutting in to create quick switches to open players as defenders collapse have helped create productive offensive chaos.
That quick tempo will be needed against an organized team like PSG. You’re going to need constant off-ball movement, quick switching, and high-pressing to gets Tuchel’s team to budge, otherwise they send you into a whirlwind of spiralling possession:
Tuesday night will mark a big test for Real Madrid — one that many will hold up as the measuring stick against the best team they’ve faced this season until now. They failed in Paris, but gained some learning which they’ve applied since. The win over Real Sociedad was a good warm up at the Bernabeu. Whatever happens, this won’t be the defining moment of the season, but it will be a good barometer of where the team’s progress is during a pivotal stretch.