Real Madrid traveled to London for the first leg of their Champions League quarter final tie against defending champions Chelsea. Having not beaten Chelsea in a competitive fixture before, and with the wounds of last year’s elimination still fresh in the minds of Madridistas, Real Madrid walked away from Stamford Bridge as 1 - 3 winners in the tie — thanks once again to the heroics from Karim Benzema. The French international scored back-to-back hat-tricks in Champions League knockout games, taking his tally to 11 goals in the European competition.
Real Madrid now carry a two goal lead back home ahead of the second leg next week, with Eder Militão missing that one due to accumulation of yellow cards.
Here is a look at how the teams approached the game and what the numbers tell us about it.
Game flow and Territorial Dominance
Despite the scoreline suggesting a comfortable lead for Madrid, the game was anything but. While Madrid did have their opportunities, especially in a 15-20 minute stretch in the first half, it was Chelsea who consistently managed to get the ball into threatening areas. The game flow chart, or the momentum chart for the game suggests the same. Following the second half changes, this only improved for Chelsea as game state also played its part.
Chelsea not only saw more of the ball but were also able to sustain possession in the attacking third constantly. They had 58% possession while having almost 80% territory, meaning Madrid’s possession mostly occurred outside the final third, as the major source of threat was actually Madrid’s transition.
Madrid largely dealt well with Chelsea’s box entries, and with a right footed Cesar Azpilicueta on the left, it meant there wasn’t much threat from the wingback running towards the touchline for a cross or cutback, as can be seen with lack of touches in those zones. Madrid also managed to keep the wingbacks in check — owing to the support from wingers.
Chelsea attempted a total of 20 shots, equally split between attempts from outside and inside the box, accumulating an xG (expected goals) of 1.1 compared to Real Madrid’s 1.8, most of which stemmed from the third goal. There were some excellent efforts from Chelsea that would have sneaked in had it not been for Thibaut Courtois, who was yet again excellent on the night.
Chelsea showed up in their 3-4-2-1 shape with the Pulisic - Havertz - Mount trio forming the thre up top. The Blues’ strange off ball structure, especially while pressing, got them in trouble. Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel later moved to a back four system in a 4-2-3-1 with Mount as the #10. This aided their pressing plan (explained below) and resulted in Chelsea being able to suffocate Madrid in the 2nd half.
Carlo Ancelotti on the other hand, decided to go with the 4-3-3 with Fede Valverde start over Marco Asensio / Rodrygo Goes as the right flank option. Valverde’s dynamism was essential in keeping Chelsea’s wingbacks in check.
Real Madrid morphed into what was at times a 6-3-1 block off the ball, where the wingers (Valverde and Vinicius Jr) would drop into the backline to provide protection against the threat of Chelsea’s wingbacks. The two floating #10s then became the responsibility of the fullbacks. While this particular set-up didn’t worry Chelsea that much, it was how Madrid used their numerical advantage in the wide areas in case of a switch pass, to then recover possession and have an outlet on the break, mostly in Vinicius, which was what hurt Chelsea as Reece James would be sucked - giving the Brazilian winger free reign over Christiansen.
Real Madrid’s pressing under Ancelotti has been uncoordinated all season. Their press wasn’t intense nor effective. Real Madrid recorded 216 pressure events with a success rate of a mere 16.1% from them. This poor pressing scheme that lacks any structure and is best described as being random has been an issue all season under Ancelotti, which doesn’t come as a surprise looking at his managerial tenure.
On the flip side, while Chelsea’s press was intense, the underlying structural issues led to their defensive collapse. Chelsea pressed in a narrow shape pushing Mount who tucked inwards to block off Casemiro and thus limiting central progression. This led to Ferland Mendy being a free passing option in the build up phase, and to nullify this, Reece James would push up (as we can see in the team shape above as well) to close down Mendy — this led to Vinicius being isolated in 1v1 situations with Chritiansen. Vinicius completely outdid Christiansen for pace and skill with James further up the pitch.
Tuchel changed things up and shifted Mount to a #10 role with Hakim Ziyech and Christian Pulisic on either sides, which allowed Mount to mark Casemiro while Ziyech blocked off the fullback without having Reece James to push high to do the same. The change came a little too late with Madrid already having scored three times.
Benzema is performing as an extra terrestrial. He is Madrid’s prodigal son, one of the best players in the entire world. He elevates, what otherwise would be an average attack, to a threatening one. He is one of the most complete forwards to have ever played the game; he can score off his left, right and his head equally well. He can facilitate chance creation and his link-up play is brilliant. Benzema is the anchor of Madrid’s offensive organization.
The Frenchman’s link-up play, by dropping deep to offer himself as an option while pulling a defender with him, underlines how crucial he is not just in terms of goals he scores but also to Madrid’s chance creation. The first goal stems from a similar action of him dropping off, playing an exchange with Toni Kroos and then slipping a ball in behind for Vinicius, after an exchange with him. He follows this up by making a great run into the box to head the cross in.
Benzema’s timing to hold on to the pass enables him to unlock passing lanes that didn’t exist and then he has the vision to pick out those options with ease. His backheel in the 10th minute to play Valverde into space on the break was a perfect example. The move resulted in a shot by Vinicius that hit the crossbar.
Valverde is a player for the big nights. His tireless energy added a much needed dynamism and balance to the side in both offensive and defensive phases of the game; his selection in the starting XI paid dividends as the Uruguayan was a standout performer.
Valverde’s ball carrying and lung bursting runs were a crucial asset for Madrid that gives them breathing space and adds a threat on the break. He also dropped into the backline to aid Madrid’s off ball shape. In his post match press conference, Ancelotti cited his lineup choice was a way to control their attacking wingbacks and to allow Madrid’s fullbacks to cover up the two floating #10s inside.
Valverde’s defensive engagements on the right portrays his constant presence to support the right back in dealing with opposition attacks.