Raphael Varane will assume most if not all of the attention when it comes to breaking down the reasons why Real Madrid faltered in Manchester. The reliable French defender had two major lapses of concentration that derailed his club’s hopes of mounting a comeback against Pep Guardiola’s men. There is no question the errors committed by the center back were fatal and almost too difficult to overcome given the quality of their opposition and the nature of match dynamics. However, beyond Varane’s mistakes — there was an underlying structural shortcoming in terms of the tactical setup. Zidane didn’t get the overall tactics wrong per se but there was an element of misalignment in the midfield configuration and the buildup strategy.
Zidane’s men appeared to want to construct possession in a controlled manner starting with passes on the ground from Courtois. This worked well when Modric and Kroos were available to participate and help navigate Manchester City’s intense pressure (City’s press was aided by clogging the central attacking zones with Foden and/or Gundogan) — usually from goal-kicks. Kroos and Modric activated the modified Lavolpian style first noticed under Ancelotti. This buildup model has served the team incredibly well due to the skillsets and capacity of its extraordinary midfield duo.
Midfield dissonance and Ramos’ Absence
The issues arose because of the dissonance in Real Madrid’s pressing strategy which was directed by Modric and Kroos. The two midfielders often led the pressing line and would be among the most advanced players in Machester’s half. This meant that when Real Madrid regained possession and attempted to reset the play — their most valuable and press-resistant players in that context wouldn’t be available in the build-up zone.
This displaced the responsibility for tempo stability and construction of play to the defenders and Casemiro when the ball was recovered in transition and reset. Beyond his pure defensive prowess and abnormal attacking contribution this season, this is one of the areas where Ramos’ absence was most sorely felt. The Spaniard is unquestionably the leader and conductor from central defense and assumes the primary role of distribution and controlling possession at the back (outside of fullbacks).
However, in the game against Manchester City, Varane attempted, completed and received the most passes in the team which was a reflection of the slight dissonance in Real Madrid’s gameplay design as the Frenchman is not the ideal protagonist from a possession perspective. Militão should technically have filled the gap left by Ramos in terms of initiating/controlling possession from the back but the ball ended up more often with Varane (perhaps due to Carvajal’s greater comfort and higher participation on the ball than Mendy).
Casemiro risk resurfaces and Isco suitability
Further to the displacement of responsibility to defenders and Casemiro in transition phases when Kroos and Modric were outside of the buildup zone, Casemiro’s comparably inferior on the ball skills were highlighted as he succumbed to Manchester City’s pressure and couldn’t offer a reliable outlet. The Brazilian had the lowest passing percentage out of all the starters and lost the ball another two times on top of that. Generally speaking, he is typically not as keen to proactively support the development of play from deeper zones as his midfield counterparts.
The one obvious solution to this which has been utilized extensively in the past is to create numerical supremacy via a diamond with Isco (especially to combat Manchester City’s central overloads). Given the apparent gameplan, Isco would in theory have been a great selection as he could have relieved the burden on Kroos and Modric (allowing one of them to play deeper) while offering the central attacking presence that was desperately lacking upfront as the team struggled to gel in the final third. Fullbacks and wingers were often isolated and completely disengaged with most of the little bites of action being funneled to Benzema.
Real Madrid could have tried a more direct strategy
At the end of the day, it wasn’t necessarily that the line-up was flawed. It was the gameplan that didn’t appear to suit the players and how they were deployed. Real Madrid seemed to want to depend on the wingers to instigate individually while playing direct vertical passes to the feet which was somewhat successful as there were three good openings created via passes from Carvajal to Benzema, Modric to Benzema and Hazard to Benzema with the latter leading to an inviting opportunity for the striker to shoot from outside of the box.
Can't believe Isco and Vinicius didn't feature a single minute tonight. I honestly can't believe it. Similar to what happened when Kroos didn't play in the first leg.— Lucas Navarrete (@LucasNavarreteM) August 7, 2020
However, the wingers weren’t optimally utilized in the context of the game with Rodrygo seeing minimal touches and Hazard being trapped by City’s defense due to lack of support. Benzema was left to try and make the best of long balls for the most part — only being able to link up with others very occasionally. Ultimately, a question that will linger is why Vinicius did not feature at all and the team didn’t perhaps look to utilize counter-pressing and transition-based offensive tactics more prominently. While Varane’s mistakes were irrefutably key factors, many will still wonder (perhaps opportunistically but with validity nonetheless) about the overall set-up.