Real Madrid were up against another English team after defeating Chelsea in the Quarter Finals of the Champions League. Madrid had failed to beat Pep Guardiola’s Man City in their previous encounters, carrying the wounds from two years ago where they lost both legs 2 - 1, making some terrible defensive errors in the process.
City were coming into the game without either of their starting full-backs, with Joao Cancelo suspended and Kyle Walker carrying a knock. Madrid had some causes of concern themselves with Casemiro and David Alaba doubtful and Ferland Mendy rushed back from injury. Alaba ended up starting the game before being replaced by Nacho at the start of the second half.
The game was a seven goal thriller with City narrowly edging out 4 - 3 winners in the end. Madrid, meanwhile, managed to keep themselves alive in the tie going into the second leg. City had the tacticsm but Madrid had the ViBe (Vinicius-Benzema).
Here is a look at how the teams approached the game and what the numbers tell us about it.
Game Flow and Threat Creation
Right off the bat, it’s not hard to say Madrid were a step behind City in terms of their tactical acumen. City were, simply put, a better coached side with a very good structure on and off the ball. This translated on the pitch in terms of dominance over territory. In terms of controlling the flow of the game though, City weren’t as proficient.
For Carlo Ancelotti’s side, it was more of a case of finding those transitional opportunities to hurt City on their right flank where there was no natural cover. Vinicius burnt Fernandinho on occasions which also resulted in Madrid’s 2nd goal. They were incredibly efficient in making the most of those half-opportunities.
City had 60% of the possession and entered the final third more, recording 265 touches in the final third compared to Madrid’s 75. They had sustained possession in the final third and constantly found joy on the left flank via Phil Foden, as can also be noted by the volume of touches on the left flank. It would only take a ball over the top to find him in space with one of the floating #8 and fullbacks being immediately available for support. Carvajal found it hard to deal with and it wasn’t helped with some lack of support.
Over the course of the game Man City took 16 shots with five of them on target, and accumulated an npxG of 2.7. Meanwhile Real Madrid took 10 shots with four on target, generating a npxG of 0.9. They managed to place their shots on target pretty well, converting the 1.6 pre-shot xG to 2.2 post-shot xG. City should have won the game by a margin greater than 1 given the opportunities they had but Madrid were incredibly effective in the few transition opportunities they manufactured.
Pressing and Defensive lines
City’s press was brilliant. It was intense and relentless and constantly managed to catch Madrid on the flanks and disrupt their buildup plans. This showed up in numbers as well: Real Madrid made 442 passes in total with 114 of them being under pressure. They put as many as five bodies near the touchline to cause turnovers high up the pitch with all the front three moving closer to the ball side.
Man City did a brilliant job to prevent Luka Modric and Toni Kroos from getting on the ball with the help of Kevin de Bruyne and Bernardo Silva. Bernardo closely followed Modric most times and KDB would react quickly to shut the passing lanes for Toni Kroos in the buildup phases. Foden, Bernardo and De Bruyne were the players with most pressures applied for City, with De Bruyne registering 11 pressure regains.
There were a few occasions when Madrid managed to escape the press, one such occasion was when Madrid scored their second goal after shifting the ball from one side to another but that wasn’t the norm. Kroos wasn’t given time on the ball as he made the most passes under pressure but his switches and long balls were an escape mechanism for Madrid.
Madrid’s disjointed and half-hearted press, which has been the case the entire season, was a cause of worry on most occasions and left Kroos woefully exposed. Modric and Valverde were on a different wavelength pressing high and trying to disrupt City’s buildup while Kroos mopped up in front of the backline.
Both the teams lined up in a 4-3-3. Man City started with Stones as right-back but he had to be taken off due to a possible discomfort in the 35th minute and was eventually replaced by Fernandinho. City were able to circulate and retain possession very well with a 3-2-5 structure while building from the back. The positioning and movements among the forwards and midfielders allowed for tight connections in wide areas. Off ball movement was the name of the game for Manchester City. The movements from De Bruyne on the first goal and Bernardo Silva throughout the game posed a lot of questions of Madrid.
With Casemiro absent, Kroos was positioned in the hole and it wasn’t his best night as he was overrun. It was more down to the circumstances due to Madrid’s disjointed press putting him in regularly. Madrid found it hard to have long possession sequences and form connections higher up the pitch, as can be seen from the passing network. Modric couldn’t get on the ball much to dictate proceedings like he did against Chelsea and his positioning to try and find space between City’s midfield and defensive lines was dealt with well given how compact City’s lines were.
City played on the front foot, maintaining a high line. Man City’s defensive line was 56.8m away from their goal while Madrid were pinned back with an average defensive line of engagement only 35.6m away from goal.
Bernardo Silva was excellent throughout the game, capping off his performance with a goal. Him dropping deep to receive the ball from City’s first line caused Madrid a lot of problems as that would often suck Modric deep and leave large gaps between Madrid’s midfielders. He was omnipresent and his work-rate was phenomenal as usual.
Kevin De Bruyne
Kevin De Bruyne showcased why he is one of the best midfielders in the game right now. Madrid’s disjointed press, and Bernardo dropping deep, allowed De Bruyne to operate in areas where he thrives (i.e. between the opposition midfield and defensive lines). He could then pick out passes in behind or put in a cross as was the case for the second City goal. His movements off the ball were phenomenal all game — on the first goal he times his run into the box to perfection to meet Mahrez’ cross. His role in City denying Modric or Kroos to get on the ball was crucial as well.
Benzema has transitioned into the ‘inevitable’ category this season. No matter the game and whether Real Madrid generate multiple chances or half a chance, Benzema manages to convert them. He single handedly elevates Madrid’s offense with his goalscoring, combination play and ability to shield and hold the ball for the right amount of time. On the first goal he did so brilliantly to get ahead of Zinchenko and placed his shot really well. His second goal displayed ultimate composure in pressure situations with the Panenka.