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Four Tactical Themes Leading to Real Madrid’s Champions League Victory over Chelsea

The game was won by Carlo Ancelotti’s men in the first half by exploiting individual and system flaws in Tuchel’s team.

Chelsea FC v Real Madrid Quarter Final Leg One - UEFA Champions League Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images

A single football match can encompass a wide variety of subplots, it’s those subplots – some highly visible and others blind to the naked eye – that can define a game. Some narratives are scripted before the game, others emerge in-game, and then there are the under-the-radar themes that pop up when analyzing a match, a second or third time over. This article will focus on the latter; four under-the-radar consistent themes that helped Real Madrid and Carlo Ancelotti exploit Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea within 45 minutes of the match. Be it Casemiro’s defensive positioning, Toni Kroos’ tactical nous, the numerical superiority in midfield, or Fede Valverde’s role on the right wing — all four came together to help push Real Madrid into the driver seat of their quarter-final showdown.

Casemiro Masterclass in Defensive Positioning

The use of the term “world class” often gets thrown around loosely and many times has been attributed to players when not warranted. Given the plethora of football that is on display over the course of the year, it’s important that the term “world class” hold its value. Against Chelsea, Casemiro’s defensive positioning in midfield was the personification of the term world class. The Brazilian reads the game and anticipates danger as if it were second nature.

Watch the first half again and strictly watch Casemiro when Chelsea have the ball. Nobody understands the defensive requirements of the position better than the Brazilian. He is never in a rush to get to a spot defensively, he seems to meander into the right spots in nearly every off ball sequence. The key for Casemiro is his freedom: he does not track players, he occupies spaces.

He is always in the right spot – waiting for you, expecting you. He seems unassuming as he jogs into position, but he changes attitude, body shape, and direction at a frightening pace to pounce on offensive threats. Case in point, his tackle on Christian Pulisic above.

For Madrid, he is the assurance policy. The likes of Kroos, Modric, Alaba, and Militao can step out aggressively – breaking the team’s shape – knowing that Casemiro will be there to fill the gap. If Chelsea tried to play over the top and exploit the few occasions where Mendy stepped out to Reece James as wing back, then Casemiro was there to deny Mason Mount and fill that space.

This was Casemiro’s best game of the season. His on-ball frailties are always a concern, but a subject often discussed on the Managing Madrid podcast, is that those on ball frailties come with a risk-reward relationship. Tuchel opted not to press the Brazilian and thus his giveaways were not as threatening in this match. Instead, his defensive contribution was immense with a team high of 4 tackles, 3 interceptions, 4 blocked shots/passes, 8 ball recoveries, and 4 clearances – far outweighing the risk.

Toni Kroos Exacts Revenge

A subplot from last year’s semi final was the Kante vs Kroos battle. The Frenchman was arguably the best player in both semi-final legs and bested Kroos in nearly all facets of the game. The German struggled with Kante’s athleticism and failed to deny him on his ball carrying sequences. Flash forward to 2022, and Kroos outwitted Kante. Toni Kroos dropped so deep, often as a 3rd center back or a “false left back”, that Kante was never sure if he should step out that far to press and risk leaving gaps behind him within Chelsea’s defensive structure.

Kroos dropped deep as a “false left back”, leaving Kante unsure of which position to take defensively.
WhoScored

The Frenchman’s constant indecision meant Kroos had time and space to pick up his head and find the next pass. In fact, the first goal that Real Madrid score stems from Kante’s indecision.

Whenever Kante did decide to step out to Kroos, it was too late. He could never get close to the German.

It was a constant reoccurrence, Kante would give Kroos too much time and space. By the time the Frenchman had made the decision to press, it was always seconds too late. In fact, it is fair to say that Kante was lost in this game. Tactically lost – he had no idea where to be, who to mark, when to press, and Real Madrid (specifically Toni Kroos) exploited it over and over again:

Numerical Superiority in Midfield

The midfield headaches only continued for Chelsea. The tandem of Kante and Jorginho were constantly outnumbered, leaving one of Kroos, Modric, Casmeiro, and occasionally Valverde as a free man in midfield to easily feed the ball to in build-up. Tuchel and his team opted not to press Casemiro, instead Jorginho focused on Modric, while Kante tried to keep track of Kroos. Casemiro is not the cleanest in possession, but his mistakes typically come when he is hounded. If given the freedom and time to pick his head up and find a pass, Casemiro usually gets it right. The Brazilian was a constant outlet in the “salida” or exit ball from defense to midfield.

The second goal that Real Madrid scored is a direct consequence of the numerical superiority in midfield and the conscious decision from Chelsea to leave Casemiro free.

In the above clip, Kai Havertz chooses to block off Militao rather than the more dangerous passing option of Casemiro. This was a grave mistake and sets in motion an attack that will ultimately spread the Chelsea midfield too thin. Watch as Jorginho who initially tracks Modric gets dragged over to the ball in an effort to double down on Valverde. The nationalized Italian expects the Chelsea system to cover the space he leaves behind, but there is no one else in midfield. Only Kante, who is preoccupied with Kroos. Thus, Modric is free of any mark and can stroke the cross into Benzema’s head for the second dagger blow. Tuchel made an adjustment at half-time to his midfield, but the damage had already been done in the first 45.

The Importance of Fede Valverde

At long last, Carlo Ancelotti has seen the light. Fede Valverde’s introduction into the starting XI has been one fans, and media, have been clamoring for as the CMK midfield could use the three extra lungs that Fede possesses. As a pseudo right winger, the Uruguayan was an invaluable asset to the Real Madrid team. Valverde completely nullified Azpilicueta’s role as a left wing back and pressed at angles that made it very difficult for Antonio Rudiger to play comfortably out from the back.

In the above clip, Fede’s pressing angles are near perfect. He denies Rudiger any passing lane to the left, forcing him into congested areas where Madrid has numbers. Then after pressing the center back, Fede drops back into the Real Madrid defensive shape and cover-shadows Azpilicueta, again denying that option without having to break Real Madrid’s shape.

Even when Fede is out of position, he is so fast and can cover so much ground that he recovers quickly enough to deny any threat. Dani Carvajal had one of his best games of the season in larger part thanks to the labor of Fede Valverde. Carvajal was never put in a 2 v 1 scenario as Fede locked down the right flank.

In the sequence above, Carvajal thinks about going out to Azpilicueta, but stops himself after realizing Fede is there to cover. Carlo Ancelotti spoke about that exact tactic after the match, “We played with the same system as usual. The only difference was to have Valverde more focused on their left-wing-back. We then had Carvajal a little more inside to try to control Pulisic and Mount. Valverde did very well. It might have looked like a back five at times, but it all depended on the position of Azpilicueta, as Valverde always kept an eye on him. If Azpilicueta stayed deep then Valverde played as a forward. If not, Valverde held back.”

Kudos to Carlo Ancelotti for making the change to his system and sliding in a tactical wrinkle that rendered the Chelsea system ineffective down the English side’s left.

The unison of the four tactical themes mentioned above are often enmeshed within one sequence of play and appear multiple times over. At the highest level, mistakes are punished and punished quickly. Over the years, this Real Madrid team have discovered what it is to be ruthless in European competitions. When a flaw is found, it is targeted and relentlessly attacked. Once again, Real Madrid rose to the occasion in a Champions League showdown. Against Chelsea, the team’s off ball movement and on-field decisions were near perfect —specifically in the first stanza— resulting in a historic Champions League victory away at Stamford Bridge.