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Manchester City 2-1 Real Madrid: Tactical Review

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Real Madrid crash out of the Champions League in disappointing fashion. Another detailed look at what went down in Manchester.

Manchester City v Real Madrid - UEFA Champions League Round of 16: Second Leg Photo by Ricardo Nogueira/Eurasia Sport Images/Getty Images

We’re sorry to put you through this again, but here is yet another tactical breakdown of a season-ending performance at the Etihad as we continue to delve into our sorrow.

Further reading: Kiyan’s reflection on the season | C-Trick’s match analysis.


Real Madrid were back into Champions League action for the first time since late February against Manchester City, looking to overturn a 2-1 deficit at the Etihad Stadium on Friday night. When the match concluded, it was clear as day that Manchester City were better than ‘Los Blancos’ in every tactical aspect. They exploited Madrid’s weaknesses and capitalized on their mistakes with a high pressing scheme from start to finish which suffocated Real Madrid.

Zinedine Zidane started with a 4-3-3 with Eder Militao filling in for the suspended Sergio Ramos. Casemiro, Luka Modric and Toni Kroos made up the midfield. As we all know by now, there is always one curveball in the lineup with Zidane, and on Friday, it was Rodrygo Goes starting on the right flank. Eden Hazard started on the left amid rumours of discomfort in his ankle.

Differences Between Pressing Schemes

Pep Guardiola’s front three of Raheem Sterling, Phil Foden and Gabriel Jesus caused Madrid’s defenders a lot of trouble with their tireless high pressing. Zidane’s men team just couldn’t escape the press. Even when Kroos and Modric started dropping very deep to support the defenders, City players rushed to cover them — providing their opponents with no outlets.

Real Madrid’s pressing system was the same in the second half as it was in the first: Karim Benzema, Kroos and Modric were usually the ones to press City’s defenders, with Hazard helping out occasionally. Rodrygo usually stayed a bit behind to support the defence. The team usually defended in a 4-5-1 in their own half.

The weird part is, due to Kroos and Modric staying so high up the pitch, Casemiro was left alone to cover a lot of space, for which the wingers had to drop deep to cover. The team’s shape seemed very flexible and unorganized. Do that against a team like Manchester City and you get punished for it.

Two of the main differences between the pressing of the two sides was intensity and organisation. Manchester City looked focused and had a clear idea of what they were trying to do and completely dominated through it. They looked hungry for the win. They looked like the team that’s behind on aggregate. Real Madrid, on the other hand, looked absolutely lifeless. They were all over the place, literally.

Too Many Giveaways

It was so shocking to see a team as good and experienced as Real Madrid making so many mistakes in a game so crucial. These were amateur mistakes. Take Raphael Varane’s first error for example: He crumbled due to Jesus’ press. It could’ve been avoided easily. Instead of dealing with the press, he decided to do the one thing that would’ve resulted in a potential ball loss. That was very uncharacteristic of him. The same narrative follows Varane’s second mistake. Heading the ball wasn’t the only option he had. He could’ve just controlled it and turned to his left so that he had much more space to operate in before Jesus pounced on him again. The Frenchman’s head just wasn’t in the game:

Unfortunately, he wasn’t the only one who made these mistakes.

Casemiro’s performance in the first leg against City was his worst till that point in the season. Immediately after, he churned in his best performance of the season against Barcelona. In the second leg against City, he was arguably worse than he was in the first leg. He had a team-low 73% passing accuracy and he gave the ball away many times throughout the course of the game. One particular instance was when Casemiro was about to receive the ball being the only player left wide open, City players rushed towards him from behind. Casemiro, bamboozled, passed the ball to his right without looking, which resulted in a City interception:

A point to note is that when Real Madrid did have the ball, Casemiro was usually seen roaming in front of Luka and Kroos — who dropped a little deeper, at least for some time. This decision was to mask Casemiro’s inability to handle high pressure. (Which has improved significantly this season.) Of course, it didn’t matter, because City still capitalized on that and a thousand other mistakes from a team who looked defeated from the very first minute.

City Were Unstoppable

First and foremost: Kevin De Bruyne was incredible for Manchester City. He had moments of brilliance one after the other, an unbelievable nine key passes and had a really good defensive performance. There were four to five minutes ( around the 35-minute mark) where Kroos and Mendy were somewhat successful at limiting Kevin De Bruyne’s contribution to an extent. That, of course, changed the second the Belgian switched to the left and started governing City’s attacks, only to switch to the right again. There wasn’t a single answer for his passes, all game. The spaces left in between certainly didn’t help much:

A lot of things changed when there was a switch in the front three for Manchester City: Foden — who started as a false nine but switched places with Jesus late into the first half — went to the right, with Sterling on the left. It seemed much more natural. This impacted Dani Carvajal a lot. As we saw in the first leg, he had problems keeping up with the pace of the English winger, and the same happened in the second leg. Joao Cancelo and Sterling dominated the left side and it forced Carvajal into a few giveaways of his own.

Zidane And Co. Were Out Of Ideas

Taking nothing away from City’s brilliant game, Real Madrid would’ve had a chance to win the game had they exploited City’s high line. All of it indirectly comes down to one thing: not being able to escape the press. Manchester City asphyxiated Real Madrid to death by consuming all the space in Madrid’s half whenever the ball was with the team in pink — the team couldn’t keep the ball for long because of this, and it forced the players into clearances or giveaways.

Madrid tried to exploit City’s high line by picking out the wingers in the first half, but it didn’t work for the most part because there wasn’t much movement between the lines, or the long balls launched from the halfway line weren’t accurate enough. In the second half, the fullbacks provided overloads quite a few times, but to no avail, because City defended them well by sitting back on many occasions. That was the difference between the first leg and the second: This time, Guardiola knew that City had the advantage. He had no problems in asking the team to drop back sometimes and let Madrid have possession since he knew Madrid won’t be able to make much of that possession.

Real Madrid’s xG proves the above-mentioned point. Their xG was an underwhelming 0.83. In a game where they needed at least two goals, that is utterly disappointing. In comparison, Manchester City’s xG stood at 1.83; but that doesn’t even tell the whole story. The scoreline could’ve been far worse. City were brilliant all game and Madrid weren’t.

Here’s a situation: even if Varane didn’t make those two mistakes, who is to say Real Madrid would’ve had a chance to go through? They needed at least two goals either way, and they scored one. As terrible as the mistakes were, the team was bad as a whole, and that’s why they lost. City cut them open like it was nothing. They almost ripped Real Madrid into shreds, but some good last-ditch (and some panicky) tackles helped lessen the impact. One of which was Carvajal’s on De Bruyne:

Before Jesus scored his goal, Los Blancos were still in the game, on paper. But in reality, the game was over long before that. Real Madrid had no chance of going through playing the way they played.

There were no changes from a tactical standpoint at the start of the second half or even towards the 60th-minute mark. For example, Rodrygo went off for Marco Asensio at the 61st minute which didn’t have a schematic change. The only thing different from the first half was that Hazard started to play more centrally (which resulted in him being even more isolated) and Benzema regularly drifted towards the left. Other substitutions didn’t take place until the 80th minute. Zinedine Zidane was out of ideas. He had accepted defeat. Guardiola had already outwitted him in every aspect of the game and made the legendary Frenchman look like a rookie.