An Mbappe and Neymar-less PSG side ran riot on Wednesday night against an oh-so-familiar lifeless Real Madrid. After the match, Zidane refrained from mentioning any tactical issues, but instead focused on the team’s lack of intensity. Maybe he uses “intensity” as a mask to the public or maybe he truly believes intensity was the major issue, irregardless there is no denying the huge tactical flaws in Madrid’s game. The formation and the personnel that Madrid had on the pitch can get a result against any team in the world, but without proper discipline, recognition, or instructions, that same team can be dismantled with ease. Like almost every sport, the game of football is about mere inches. The understanding of space — when to condense the pitch, when to expand, as well as when to solidify your unit and when to open up — is critically important at the highest level of the game. Under Zidane, Real Madrid’s understanding and use of space has been sub par, and that’s putting it nicely.
Zidane set the team up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, giving James a more advanced role in the center of midfield. On the defensive side of the ball, Madrid had two blocks of four in a 4-4-2 formation with James occasionally dropping deeper into midfield. This system has been a corner-stone to Zidane’s defensive playbook since his first time in charge and is a page out of Carlo Ancelotti’s book. This system could have worked, but there were a few problems. Tuchel and PSG recognized Madrid’s lack of options in midfield. Numerical superiority in the center of the pitch was key to Tuchel’s game-plan. With three work horses, and essentially all three defensive midfielders in Gueye, Marquinhos, and Verratti, Tuchel had his engine. Simply from a base perspective, PSG had a 3 v 2 advantage all night long. But, to further exasperate Madrid’s lack of options centrally, Di Maria and Sarabia tucked into the half spaces between the midfield and defensive line, giving all the width to Bernat and Meunier in the fullback positions. At many points in the game, Casemiro and Kroos were up against a 5 v 2 centrally.
Now there are multiple ways to combat Tuchel’s plan, but the most essential ingredient— regardless of formation or personnel — is to limit the space between the forward, midfield, and defensive lines. Madrid needed to limit PSG’s space and suffocate them by condensing the size of the pitch. If Di Maria attempted to pick up the ball in the half-space, Carvajal should have been hounding him and pressing from behind, while Casemiro should have been close enough to block the passing lane to other central options. The Brazilian then could have helped double down on Di Maria. That was not possible. Why? Because the gap between Casemiro and Carvajal was huge. Dani would be unsure about pressing Di Maria or worrying about an on-rushing Bernat, making him late when he ultimately would decide to step to Di Maria. Subsequently, Casemiro wouldn’t have the speed to make up the distance between him and the ball carrier (Di Maria). Thus the Argentine could turn and run at Madrid’s backline at will. And so he did, ending up the man of the match after having a cow’s field to run into every time he picked up the ball.
During this same phase in the game with both Di Maria and Sarabia tucking into the half-spaces, Madrid could have provided further midfield stabilization to off-set PSG’s numerical superiority through the roles of Hazard, James, and Bale. Had Madrid tighten up their lines and then had the weak-side (the flank which was opposite the ball) winger tuck in centrally, along with James dropping deeper to cut off the option to the deep-lying Marquinhos, the team would have nullified PSG’s ability to turn and run at their back line.
Instead, Madrid were chasing shadows. The same example can be compounded even further. Once Dani Carvjal had made up his mind to press Di Maria, albeit far too late, Bernat was on his way up the pitch looking to exploit the space left behind by Madrid’s right full back. Since Di Maria was able to turn (due to the lack of an adequate press from a Madrid formation full of large gaps between the lines) he could easily find that pass. In an effort to prevent a cross from Bernat, Varane would then be pulled out on to the wing further dismantling Madrid’s shape. Once the cross did arrive, Madrid would be outnumbered in the box with Toni Kroos jogging back and Casemiro scrambling to decide which of the three open PSG players is the most dangerous option at the top of the box.
Because Madrid’s midfield and defensive lines were at sixes and sevens trying to determine whether to press or not, PSG numerical superiority meant runs were being made without any tracking what so-ever. Two Madrid players would go to close the ball without the slightest clue of their previous mark running in behind them to pick up the give-and-go. There was no accountability, no structure, and no spacial awareness in any part of Madrid’s game yesterday evening.
On the offensive side of the ball, Madrid did not even muster one shot on target. They failed to do so because they could not build out of the back. PSG’s tight and compact 4-1-4-1 formation was exactly what Madrid was lacking on the defensive side of the ball. The backline, nor Kroos or Casemiro, could not find any vertical options because PSG denied Madrid any space between their lines. If a ball somehow made it’s way into Bale, James, or Hazard, it was immediately played back to origin as there was a defender or two breathing down their neck. When playing against a compact unit, you need constant movement and interchange in your positions. Triangles need to be created all over the pitch in order to provide quick give-and-go passes to beat your marker and open up space. Triangles were rarely ever created for Madrid. Each member of the attack was infuriatingly static, just waiting for the back line to make a miracle pass to find them.
Even when the team was in more advanced positions high up on the pitch, the possession had no purpose and no intent. The team never truly looked like scoring. According to Opta, Madrid had a meager 0.7 xG, but even that seems generous. The lack of urgency, hunger, and desire in Madrid’s game was so apparent and resulted in zero shots on target for the first time in over ten years.
The result is the fault of both Zidane and the players. The Frenchman deserves the heat he is receiving, but I don’t doubt that he can see the issues. To rectify the countless problems takes time. The first order of business, regardless of formation or personnel, is to close the space between Madrid’s lines. When the team attempts to press, the lines become disjointed with inexcusably large gaps between each set of players. Zidane needs to hold off on pressing teams and organize his defensive shape. A compact, solidified unit is imperative otherwise the goals will continue to leak. Sunday against Sevilla provides Madrid with a huge test and an opportunity for Zidane to prove his doubters wrong.