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Four Tactical Points from the Draw in Mönchengladbach

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Real Madrid clinched a last minute draw from Germany. What tactical lessons can we learn from it?

Borussia Moenchengladbach v Real Madrid: Group B - UEFA Champions League Photo by Mario Hommes/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

Real Madrid visited Germany and delivered a better performance against Borussia Mönchengladbach than what they did against Cádiz and Shakhtar. The buildup mechanisms were solid and despite some issues in defending Monchengladbach’s talented attackers on the counter, Real’s defending of transitions proved to be more solid than last week. However, the team coached by the great Marco Rose - Rene Marić duo are also stronger and more talented opposition than Cádiz and Shakhtar. This was not a bad game by Zidane’s men, but against a team of Mönchengladbach’s quality, “not bad“ is not enough to win.

Let’s talk about some key tactical and statistical aspects of this game.

The power of a compact deep block

In this game Zidane essentially started the same group of players who soundly defeated Barcelona over the weekend, but they struggled a lot more in creating good chances this time. The big difference is that the Germans are a better drilled and much more compact defensive unit than the Blaugrana.

In the week-to-week madness of the Bundesliga, Rose sets up his team to be more aggressive in pressing. Against Real, he chose a deeper defensive block instead, prioritizing compact spacing between his lines and not conceding space to Real’s attackers. Mönchengladbach only pressed occasionally, during goal kicks or in open play situations when Real’s defenders passed the ball all the way back to Courtois.

How Mönchengladbach’s 4-4-2 deep block was laid out against Real’s 4-3-3 buildup shape right before their first goal.
Source: http://sharemytactics.com/153109/

Until the 70th minute, Real attacked exactly the way Mönchengladbach wanted. They could not penetrate the center of the German’s defense, so they always had to progress through the wings. And when they arrived in the final third, Mönchengladbach defenders tracked Real’s fullbacks and wingers well enough that their only option was crossing into the box.

The importance of shot quality vs shot quantity

During the first half, Real produced a surprising 11 shots, but how many of them were actually good? As pointed out by Om Arvind, only 2 of those were truly dangerous open play chances.

The best way to summarize the first half of this game: by the end of it Real had 11 shots while Mönchengladbach had only one—the goal.

Source: https://www.whoscored.com/Matches/1508852/Live/Europe-Champions-League-2020-2021-Borussia-M-Gladbach-Real-Madrid

Mönchengladbach defending deeper meant they generated fewer chances than usual, but their objective was to produce high-quality chances off the counterattacks. By the time Thuram scored the second goal in the 57th minute, his team had scored only 2 goals out of 4 shots! Yes, you need a fair bit of luck to score with that efficiency, but also individual brilliance. Marcus Thuram’s brilliant runs and finishing, Alassane Pléa’s good holdup play and his spectacular pass that led to the first goal. It felt like Mönchengladbach’s attackers had the bite Real’s attackers lacked, which takes us to the next point...

Where do Real’s struggles in the final third come from?

As pointed out by our colleague Matt Wiltse, Real’s key problem in this game has been the same key problem of the last 2+ seasons: creating dangerous goal scoring opportunities once the team is in the final third.

While Real could certainly use better movements and mechanisms in this area, getting things done in the final third usually depends more on individual brilliance than tactics. This principle was best illustrated by this popular analysis from Thierry Henry on the tactics of Guardiola’s Barcelona.

Henry explains that Pep—usually a control freak—gives a lot more freedom to his players once they get to the final third. Guardiola even told his players that “my job is to take you up to the last third, your job is to finish it”.

I highlight this analysis from Henry because I want to emphasize that tactics can only go so far to improve Real in the final third. If, say, Benzema or Vinicius are having a bad day, getting those good shots and goals will be an uphill climb no matter how well the team plays. As of right now, I see three pathways to improving in the final third with the current squad:

  1. Hazard and Ødegaard, the most talented attacking playmakers in the squad, come back from injury and manage to go back to their usual level
  2. One of Asensio, Vinicius, Rodrygo suddenly “makes the leap“ into world-class attacking output
  3. Making Jović great again, which Zidane doesn’t seem willing to do

In other words, improving in this area mostly boils down to improving the form of individual players or recovering them successfully from injuries. Funnily enough, the last 20 minutes of this game gave us a good example of how to improve in the final third through attacking playmaker talent...

The creative impact of Modrić and Hazard on the game

After the 2nd Mönchengladbach goal, Real struggled to react. The German side enjoyed 10 minutes of counterattacking opportunities against an increasingly desperate and disorganized Real. This could have perfectly led to a 3-0 had it not been for some luck and a great Courtois.

Thus came the substitutions of Modrić and Hazard, and the pair took creative control over the game. In the final 20 minutes of the game, Hazard racked up more touches than any of Real’s attackers (24) and Modrić racked up more touches than any of Real’s midfielders (36). The heatmap shows which areas of the pitch they operated on.

Source: https://www.sofascore.com/real-madrid-borussia-mgladbach/CabsEgb

The Belgian became the center of attention in the left half space, with teammates giving him the ball and letting him go for the dribble or the passing combination with a teammate.

Because he replaced Kroos, Modrić started out in in the left side too. However, as the minutes passed by the Croatian maestro operated with more freedom, moving across the entire width of the pitch. This gave Hazard more space to do his thing on the left and helped Modrić create some passing combinations with Valverde and Lucas Vázquez on the right side too. One of Modrić’s crosses from the right is what ultimately led to the second goal that tied the game.