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The Big Questions Heading Into Real Madrid’s Match Vs Manchester City

Kiyan Sobhani looks ahead to Friday’s do-or-die game

Real Madrid v Manchester City: UEFA Champions League Photo by Burak Akbulut/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

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.

It has been five months since Real Madrid lost 1 - 2 to Manchester City at the Bernabeu. Since, Real Madrid have dialled in their defense, have won the league title, and welcomed back two key players — Eden Hazard and Marco Asensio — from injury.

Let’s revisit the first leg, and look ahead to this week’s do-or-die clash — one with several key questions:

Will Real Madrid exploit City’s high line this time?

Manchester City have taken 10,068 touches in the opponent’s third this season — the highest mark of any team in Europe’s top-5 leagues. They live in the final-third, get comfortable, and cook up cozy meals in the half-spaces before cutting it back to incisive runs across the box. They have been an armageddon offensively since coming back from quarantine. When they lose the ball, their counter-press runs on auto-pilot. Only two teams in Europe — Liverpool and Southampton — have committed more pressures in the final third this season.

That leaves them vulnerable defensively if their press doesn’t do its job. That aspect of their game has remained a constant throughout this season. Real Madrid knew what they had to do in the first leg: Get the ball to Vinicius over the top and let him run in transition. They tried, and failed. Kyle Walker put Vinicius in his pocket and took his lunch money.

Maybe that’s harsh. Real Madrid were able to get the ball to Vinícius enough times to make some offense happen, and Vinicius had the intention of being incisive. But he often shied away from taking Walker on, and just couldn’t stifle the City right-back enough. Given his line-breaking ability and speed was a huge part of Real Madrid’s game plan, it was hard to create offense otherwise.

City knew Vinícius was going to be the main outlet. They watched him like a hawk:

City will live with Vinícius balking away from danger:

Will Vinícius — an improved version of himself since that game — get another chance in Manchester? If not, Hazard, or another winger, will have to take the mantle.

Will Pep go the conservative route again?

This has been a recurring theme for Guardiola in the Champions League: He deviates from his cutthroat, incisive offensive approach in big knockout melees in hopes of masking his defensive frailties and hedging into a more timid defensive shield. It has, rightfully so, drawn criticism in the past as he bounces out of the Champions League. In the first half at the Bernabeu, City were lax in their pressing and were not aggressive trying to win the ball back nor were they keen to make too many offensive runs — especially down central channels which Guardiola explained a bit in the post-game presser. With a 2 - 1 lead heading into the first leg, he does not have much incentive to put the foot on the pedal — which may or may not lead to his downfall, as City are generally not comfortable getting pinned to defend deep.

City were, for large stretches, slow and flat in their offensive build-up. Real Madrid did not flinch:

In the second half, particularly after going down a goal, City unchained themselves more, and the result showed. Guardiola may be better off pretending he’s losing this tie rather than winning it. He will have vulnerable defensive moments either way, and if Real Madrid smell blood, all it takes is one goal for the nerve parasite to shift from one team to another. One goal will never be off the table. Once one arrives, the momentum of that wave will almost inevitably lead to a second. Once you have two, the away goals become upper cuts — particularly when you don’t have fans behind your back.

City will not have Aguero according to Guardiola, which further defangs them if they decide to let the game come to them in a more neutral approach. But with or without him, they are still a tsunami offensively.

There is also another question: Will Guardiola have learned from his initial approach in Madrid?

There is also the other side of the coin to that: while being criticized for being too conservative in that first half, City still held Real Madrid to just 1.1 xG overall, and limited them to little in that first frame. In other words, what Guardiola deployed worked from a defensive stand point, even if it was ugly — which incentivizes him to do it again at the Etihad. He may also be jarred from his time at Bayern Munich when he faced Real Madrid in 2014 — keeping a lot of possession in Real’s half, throwing out a high line, and not being able to find a single opening while being blown away on the counter-attack. Against Real Madrid in February, he defended in a 4-4-2, with Kevin de Bruyne and Bernardo Silva as the most advanced pressing cogs. He clogged the passing lanes to prevent his line from being exploited again.

Real Madrid will need to come up with more creative ways to chip away at City’s shield. That 4-4-2 gave Guardiola a safety net, and Real Madrid were often too obsessed in finding Vinicius even when the space didn’t allow it:

Real Madrid’s initial build-up was not terrible. They had nice passing sequences coming out of the back, even on rare sequences when City went aggressive with their pressing. Isco was important connecting the team’s defense and attack, and his press-resistancy helped with ball progression. There were other good things brewing: The team’s counter-press was good, Mendy had a good two-way game, Valverde’s vertical passing helped part City’s lines, and Varane mopped up just about every mistake Carvajal made that night. But some of those sequences looked good without an end product. Guardiola will live that.

City are also good at hoodwinking you into thinking they’re doing nothing with or without the ball, before unleashing a dagger from their belt. This sequence, within two seconds of this screenshot, led to a breakaway for Riyad Mahrez as City were casually passing the ball back and forth in their defensive line:

City will create those opportunities with or without Agüero. They have too many smart off-ball cutters and elite passers not to.

How can Real Madrid counter those off-ball runs? By being hyper-alert defending them the way Kyle Walker was against Vinícius, in a constant, never-ending chess match. Not having Ramos defend those runs hurts. Will Zidane be tempted to start Marcelo over Mendy because he needs goals? That would hurt the team even further in that famously vulnerable half-space.

Mendy gives you insurance against Bernardo Silva, Riyaz Mahrez, and any Kyle Walker overloads:

Note the subtle applause from Ramos. Militao would appreciate it too on Friday.

Will Casemiro and Dani Carvajal show up?

On February 26th, in Real Madrid’s first leg match-up against Manchester City, both Dani Carvajal and Casemiro chose the wrong game to churn in their worst performances of the season. If Real Madrid are to advance on Friday, they will likely need both of those players to make amends to flip the team’s destiny. Casemiro and Carvajal are so important to the defensive synergy, and by default, they are important distributors. If they fail, the team becomes vulnerable.

Casemiro completed 76% of his passes that night — marking a team low. It somehow felt worse than that number indicates. Three clear giveaways under pressure gave Manchester City three clear, needless opportunities.

Most teams want to punish Casemiro for daring to be the deep-lying ball-carrier. City actually did it. Luka Modric often dropped deep between Varane and Carvajal to alleviate Casemiro of those duties, but in the second half, City were able to hound Casemiro any moment he had the ball deep. Zidane has opted not to push Casemiro higher up the pitch this season (as often as the past) in order to mask his liability on the ball. To be fair, he hasn’t needed to. Casemiro has improved dramatically on the ball (ignoring the inevitable one giveaway per game that puts a minor dent in his cost-benefit analysis), and even in this particular game we’re analyzing he was good on the ball until the second half.

Casemiro being one of the team’s downfalls was hard to foresee, and it is not meant to be a huge knock on him. He was so important in stopping several City attacks in the first half in particular, and was a strong presence with the ball at his feet up until mid-way through the second half. Even the best have their dark moments. What happened in the first leg was an aberration to his incredible season. Anyway, that first leg was over five months ago. He is in a different state. He, and the team, have discovered their bounce.

It will be interesting to see if Zidane plays his break-in-case-of-emergency card: unleash Casemiro into the box. He did it against Sevilla when Real Madrid couldn’t find a goal, and Casemiro got two. The Brazilian made calculated runs into the box while his teammates covered. He is an underrated presence when arriving at the top of the box or causing mayhem providing numerical superiority in an attack.

Carvajal’s performance will be just as vital. City are dangerous on the flanks. They will shape-shift from defense to attack by widening their shape. Carvajal’s defensive ceiling is high, and he is generally a chief instigator of something (an assist, a defensive intervention, or a straight up physical melee with someone) on big Champions League nights. He can’t switch off the way he did back in February, where he gave the ball away in dangerous positions, and put Varane in several unideal situations. He is an underrated soul stone of Real Madrid’s collective nervous system on the field.

It’s worth pointing out that in the ensuing game, a Clasico at the Bernabeu days later, both Carvajal and Casemiro bounced back and had arguably their best performances of the season respectively.

How should Real Madrid line up?

Zidane has more options now than he did in the first leg. Hazard and Asensio are back and Vinicius is in form. If he wants to punish City’s high line and keep them honest, Asensio is worth a look. But as hard as it’s been to predict Zidane’s line-ups, it’s also hard to see him deviate from his go-to in big games: Isco’s roaming presence in the diamond as the third ‘attacking’ slot alongside Benzema and Hazard. If Hazard is healthy, he plays. He ran rings, almost single-handedly, against Manchester City last season in the Premier League (and Cup Final) when Maurizio Sarri had him play off the shoulder of Guardiola’s defensive line and burdened him with ripping through by himself. It was a bummer not having Hazard around in the first leg.

Vinicius tried those same runs in the first leg, and was largely unsuccessful — although he did do damage on a couple occassions.

Again, give Walker credit, for not only keeping Vinicius in check, but also tracking back when Mendy caught wind.

Whoever Zidane chooses in attack has direct consequences defensively too. Isco is an excellent presser and organizer of said press, but his positioning puts a lot of onus on Casemiro to be in multiple places at once. Playing asymmetrical also puts a bigger load on Carvajal who won’t have a natural winger helping him the way the left-back does on the opposite side. Modric naturally shifts to the right to compensate.

“They press so high, we saw it with the centre-backs and there was space outside,” Guardiola said after the first leg. “I watched the most amount of matches of Real Madrid and their defensive game was different. We played without a proper striker because of the way they defend — they are so aggressive though the middle and when that happens you have to make the pitch wide. We wanted to give diagonals as much as possible.”

Clogging the middle with an extra midfielder can make you vulnerable if you get too narrow. It can also provide you with a good balance of possession and counter-pressing:

If Zidane chooses to go with a wider approach, it’s interesting to note that things don’t necessarily improve defensively (or offensively), or at least they didn’t in the second half of the first leg, when he started to dig his bench out. Recurringly in the diamond, Zidane makes a tweak in the second half, bringing on a winger for Isco — ungluing the middle of the park and attempting a curve ball at opponents by trying to expose tired wing-backs with fresh flair out wide.

It has worked, even on the biggest nights, in the past. It did not work in the first leg. When Zidane took off Modric and Isco for Luka Jovic and Lucas Vazquez in the 84th minute, the team lost any sense of control it had remaining, and didn’t actually attempt a cross in that traditional 4-4-2 scheme until the 90th minute.

Losing control of the ball, and asking City to pick off predictable crosses (and without Ramos’s runs into the box, at that!) is going to make this tie more difficult than it should be for Real Madrid, and it will let a vulnerable defensive team off the hook.

Zidane is unpredictable, but so is Pep, as the first leg (and years past in the Champions League) have proven. If Pep gets in his head and plays it safe, Zidane will want control of the midfield to pounce. It will be hard to see Zidane going with anything less than four central midfielders, but of course, there is always room for the five-man-midfield curveball when it comes to guessing, although that seems unlikely with the amount of devastating offensive wingers Zidane has available to him. It is also possible that one central midfielder (it was Kroos in the first leg, and likely Valverde if it happens this time) could sit out to accommodate a winger on the right side to balance out the Hazard - Benzema dyad.

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