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Champions League Quarter-final Preview: How Real Madrid Can Avenge Chelsea

Real Madrid were tactically outclassed last season, and the themes still remain. Here’s how they need to change their ways in order to avenge last season’s loss

Real Madrid v Chelsea - UEFA Champions League Photo by Oscar J. Barroso/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.


Neither Chelsea nor Real Madrid are currently at the peak of their powers as we head into a rematch of last year’s Champions League semi-finals. Thomas Tuchel’s men are not as dominant as they were last season, and are coming off the back of a 1 - 4 loss at home to Brentford. Carlo Ancelotti’s men, meanwhile, are walking wounded to La Liga’s finish line. Results are still coming (so long as you ignore the Clasico bloodbath), but performances have been laborious and concerning.

It’s hard to see how Real Madrid can magically fix their press, defensive structure, lack of production from the entire right flank, lass of press-resistancy, positional chaos, and lack of efficiency on the counter-attack overnight. Old demons remain from the Casemiro - Kroos - Modric trio which will likely start in Stamford Bridge. Once dominant; now collectively they struggle to keep up with more nimble, dynamic, technically-gifted midfielders who are supported with better tactical structures.

Chelsea obliterated Real Madrid over two legs last season, and despite the performance against Brentford, still have a +35 goal differential in the Premier League, and have the ceiling in these knockout games to get things right tactically. Where Real Madrid have European DNA and individual brilliance up their sleeve; Chelsea have structure, cohesiveness, compactness. Will this come down to a Courtois save? To Modric dropping his shoulder, carrying the ball 30 yards and slinging a through ball on his last legs? To Karim Benzema carrying the offensive burden on his shoulders again? Will Vinicius regain his scoring form? Will Chelsea melt the way PSG did or will they repeat their masterclass from last season?

Maybe Ancelotti will surprise us all — Chelsea included — and shake things up in favour of a more athletic, two-way team that goes toe-to-toe with Chelsea physically. Doubt it. He hasn’t changed things much this season, and curve-balls were more of Zidane’s thing. Toni Kroos and Luka Modric are often seen these days chasing shadows in a low-block, in a scheme that suits neither of them. Some teams, like Atletico Madrid, are in control when they don’t have the ball. When Real Madrid play that way, you can see it in their body language: The bounce and swagger are gone, they get cold and demoralized — never in position to put together three passes to escape their half. It worked early on in the fall, but the team was more fresh then, and the scouting report eventually came out: Press and counter-press Real Madrid and you’ll stop them from reaching attacking zones.

It’s not only tactics that will be Real Madrid’s problem. Several players have been poor and unreliable, and the team is just getting nothing from their right side. They can rectify that somewhat by putting in Rodrygo, who is more active in his line-breaking and is better defensively than Asensio (a much needed trait when Real’s right-backs have been getting torched by star wingers). Ancelotti may also go with Fede Valverde as a pseudo right-winger. The Uruguayan is a reliable ball-carrier and two-way work horse. Anything seems to be more reliable than Asensio, who comes and goes with sporadic long-shots that may go in the back of the net, but offers little else in terms of production.

If Asensio plays, there’s a small chance he’ll shoot from 40 yards and something will budge. But if he doesn’t shoot, there is no other facet of the game where he can contribute. Rodrygo and Valverde will raise your baseline and do other things; Asensio won’t.

Some big questions for Chelsea, which we’ll unpack even further below: How match-fit will Reece James be? How efficient will Timo Werner be? Romelu Lukaku has had a forgettable season, but is there a world where Tuchel can airdrop him for some minutes to take advantage of Real’s weakness in defending crosses?

We’ll address some of these questions by highlighting five big numbers that need to be brought up:

41

Chelsea had 41 interceptions over the course of two legs vs Real Madrid last season. As bad as Real Madrid were defensively in both those games, they were painfully horrific with the ball at their feet too.

Chelsea read everything. Good passes, bad passes — it didn’t matter. Thomas Tuchel’s men picked off passes with their eyes closed, and despite Real having more of the ball (51% possession in the first leg; 66% in the second leg), they looked clueless when they had it. Chelsea were superior from a positional and athletic standpoint (sounds familiar? It should — it was a theme against both Barcelona and PSG recently). Luka Modric, so great usually covering ground, didn’t have the legs to sustain performances from knockout games in years’ past, and Kroos struggled just as much. Chelsea had ceaseless off-ball motors. Mason Mount was a headache, and N’golo Kante’s engine kept running for 180 minutes. It wasn’t even close on two levels: Physically and tactically. One team was in full control, the other treading water as they escaped their sinking ship.

Real Madrid will have to clean up their build-up, because even if this Chelsea team aren’t as cold-blooded as last season, Thomas Tuchel can zip them up in these knockout games.

One thing that will surely be different this time around: Real Madrid’s formation. It’s easy to forget now, but Zinedine Zidane opted to go with a 5-3-2 (distinguished from Tuchel’s 5-3-2 which was more compact and structured in its pressing). When Eder Militao, Sergio Ramos, or Nacho would get the ball, they’d have to force a pass to Casemiro, Luka Modric, or Toni Kroos. Mount, Timo Werner, and Christian Pulisic would rush Real’s three center-backs while cover-shadowing the passing lanes behind them, at which point Kante or Jorginho would pounce on the midfielders receiving the ball.

Chelsea were just as happy with the alternative option: A long-ball prayer to a heavily-marked Karim Benzema who was swarmed too quickly to do anything. Chelsea planned for those passes and coaxed Zidane’s men into hitting them. They isolated everyone in a white shirt, dismembered any sense of collectiveness that existed, and had numerical superiority everywhere on the field. Hence: 41 interceptions.

It does not matter much whether Ancelotti plays a 3-5-2 or a 4-3-3. In whatever formation, Real Madrid has not been press-resistant in big games for four years. It is a problem. It will be a problem. Having an improved Vinicius Jr this season is a perk, but Real have to get him the ball in transition in order to take advantage of any space that may lie behind Reece James.

Chelsea are smart, in unison. These are the kinds of sequences (displayed by Barcelona below) they’ll happily regurgitate from last season. Two giveaways within seconds of each other from Casemiro and Dani Carvajal:

That’s the short pass giveaway attempted into midfield. This is the long-ball prayer which Chelsea will welcome mopping up with ease:

Ancelotti needs to get creative beyond the nominal starting XI which is anchored by the usual three midfielders that get circled and hounded every season where Real Madrid collapse. Eduardo Camavinga’s off-ball movement in the final third can help progress the ball, and Kroos playing deeper as the 6 can help escape some of those pressing sequences. Repeating what doesn’t work will probably result in death.

.3

That was Real Madrid’s xG last season in the first leg and second leg vs Chelsea — summing up to a whopping combined .6 xG over the course of 180 minutes. It wasn’t just that Courtois’s goal was besieged — Zidane’s men sacrificed their defensive shape without compensating it for offensive production. They were outplayed all over the field.

Again, solving this problem starts with better ball progression. An isolated Benzema can’t do much, and if he drops into midfield, he needs help from the other attackers to keep the ball flowing towards Chelsea’s goal. Here are a couple things that you can bank on (that Real didn’t have last season): 1) If Ancelotti starts Valverde or Rodrygo on the right, he’ll get better production than Real got from Eden Hazard last season; and 2) Alaba will be a huge upgrade over Nacho (who was forced to play due to injuries) with his ball distribution. Last season, Nacho had space to carry the ball and pick out a pass, but didn’t have the ability to do so in a way that was conducive to getting the ball in the final third. Alaba alone can fix some of those build-up issues.

5.3

That was Chelsea’s combined xG over two legs. That they only scored three goals is a miracle and can only be chalked up to Timo Werner, Kai Havertz, Christian Pulisic, and Mason Mount all missing big chances.

There were many culprits. As good as Chelsea were, Real Madrid made it easy for Tuchel’s side. Each of the three defenders at the back were on their own island. Rotations were late or non-existent defensively. Any time Chelsea would make a diagonal switch, wingers couldn’t adjust in time. Typically Militao and Vinicius Jr (both on the right) were too out of position to prevent Chelsea’s wingers from raining fire. Modric was gassed tracking runners.

The half-space is where Chelsea did their most damage. Too much space between the three defenders and not enough help coverage was the team’s downfall. Mason Mount in particular was a headache with his off-ball runs. No one in a white shirt could keep up. Look at what the simplest of off-ball runs from Timo Werner does to Vinicius and Ramos — placing them into a vortex of confusion:

Antonio Rudiger knew he was about to inflict pain as soon as he got the ball. Everyone ignored him and dared him to hit a splitting pass. It was too easy. Rudiger receives the ball unpressured, and Werner just walks between Ramos and Vinicius. It is almost shocking how comfortable it was for Chelsea.

Chelsea also put Real Madrid in a blender in transition. The tracking was awful, to put it politely. Bad decision making from Tuchel’s men on the counter-attack was another reason they didn’t blow down the door with five goals minimum:

1172

Chelsea have slung 1172 progressive passes in the Premier League this season. They are also one of only four teams that have hit the 1000+ threshold of passes into the final third. The other three are Manchester City, Liverpool, and Manchester United who hit that mark this past weekend.

Tuchel’s men are progressive, vertical, direct, and to the point. The German manager knows how to design a scheme that aims to maximize space between the lines, and even widen the gap between the opposing players with clever off-ball movement. Last season, Werner, as docile as his finishing was, cooked Real by pinning the central defenders away from the midfielders. Mount and Pulisic would follow by dragging white shirts around between the lines, and Real had no discipline positionally to fight back.

As a reminder, though we are discussing a game from last season, under a different manager, the issues of defensive compactness are still present this season:

Mount can do what Sancet does in the above clip at an elite level: drift undetected in Zone 14. Modric and Casemiro have to do better. They are split with ease. Chelsea have both the runners and passers to draw up that play like clockwork.

One thing Real Madrid did do well vs PSG: Stay tight in the middle of the park. They were able to reduce Lionel Messi’s influence by making the midfield narrow and dense. They can, and should, continue to do that (though will have to do a better job defending the line overall and rotating quickly to the wings):

You can see the hyperactivity of the central defenders here, and when viewing any defensive set-up in a slow-pace build-up play, it’s hard to miss if you’re watching properly. There is, and has to be, a constant, frisky ‘on your toes’ bounce to both Militao and Alaba. If one of the three central midfielders miss the passing lane behind them, one of the center-backs have to step up. There is a collective focus that is required at this level, and in the Champions League knockout rounds, the margin of error even on one slip can be season-defining.

.84

That’s how many non-penalty goals and assists Reece James conjures per 90. That’s, um, devastatingly good. How good? The only player in the entire Premier League who currently generates more is Mohammed Salah, who sits at an even 1 per game. Salah is an attacking midfielder. James is a right-back. Both are great. The latter is an absolute demonic threat in the final third as someone who provides overloads and creates goals from a deeper position.

James came off the bench in both games last season where Cesar Azpilicueta started. This time around, the Englishman will start, which brings us to an obvious clear matchup: Ferland Mendy vs Reece James. If there’s anyone equipped to contain a player like James, it’s Mendy. But that’s in theory, assuming Mendy will be at 100%. In games where he isn’t (see: being rushed back to get cooked by Achraf Hakrimi and Angel di Maria in Paris), that becomes a concern, especially given that the alternatives, Nacho and Marcelo, won’t strike any fear into James’s heart. (Something worth noting here, as we discuss Mendy’s health: It’s only fair to point out that Reece James is only coming back from injury himself, though it looks like he’ll be ready to go without much concern.)

Among many things (tactical, mostly), the lack of physical ability has cost Real Madrid in big games for a few years now. Chelsea are young, hungry to repeat as champions, tactically astute, and dynamic. Will Ancelotti trust the ageing core that’s been part of Real Madrid’s demise since 2018? Will Mendy hold it down with 100% health? Will Camavinga and Valverde provide important two-way oxygen? How much efficiency will Real Madrid get from their right wing? How will Carvajal cope on both ends of the field? All these questions will be revisited once these two legs are done, and to me, they’re all vital questions that Ancelotti needs to find answers to.