After Isco’s goal gave Real Madrid a 1-0 lead, the catastrophic final 15 minutes of the first leg saw Real Madrid concede two-goal to Manchester City and Sergio Ramos sent off. Two prolonged absences and a crammed league conclusion later, we return to UEFA Champions League play.
Now, nearly six months later, this spectacle reaches its climax. Manchester City are heavy favourites to advance, but, if the UEFA Champions League has taught us anything over the past decade, it’s that you should expect the unexpected.
In this tactical analysis, we’ll focus on the match from Real Madrid’s perspective. The objective of this tactical preview is to highlight realistic attacking tactics Real Madrid can implement to overturn the deficit and claim a spot in the quarterfinals at City’s expense. This analysis will focus exclusively on the attacking side of the ball.
Real Madrid must pick apart City’s high press
A tactical given when playing against a Guardiola coached side is the need to play through, around or over the high press. Both clubs found it difficult to beat the other’s high press in the first leg, though both teams go about it differently. Studying City’s match film, especially when the side uses a double pivot, the high press frequently became stretched as the City players chased.
In the first leg, Madrid’s compact 4-4-2 attacking shape gave Zidane the rest defence he wanted, but it also simplified Manchester City’s transition to defence. With little ground to cover from attack to defence, City was able to effectively press Madrid. While a sound rest defence is important, EPL’s top sides have shown offered a blueprint for beating the high press.
Rather than overloading the midfield with a diamond, a 4-3-3 will give Zidane’s side more outlets higher up the pitch and pin back City’s outside-backs and midfield. With City utilising the double pivot, that leaves four players in naturally high positions, disconnecting them from the deeper players. Since City engage in a zone oriented high press, they often leave large gaps between the lines, allowing the opposition’s midfielders to offer an outlet.
In the recent match against Chelsea, we saw the Blues attempt to play out from the back, encouraging De Bruyne and the forwards to continuously move higher up the pitch in pursuit of the ball. In the image below, Chelsea start the press with a really nice structure. The only ways out of pressure are back to Kepa Arrizabalaga or a hit-and-hope ball forward.
Antonio Rüdiger calmly played back to Kepa, then moved wide to receive again. With Bernardo caught between the two players, City was slow to round out their shape. The diamond allows the return pass to Rüdiger, who then plays N’Golo Kanté, who navigates that space so well on the play.
Casemiro, Kroos and Modrić will have to learn from Kanté’s example. It’s especially important for Kroos to locate and fill open pockets of space. With his ability to progress play, it’s vital that’s always searching for enough space to unleash his passing range. If City wants to use a high press, his press resistance and playmaking from deep can help Real Madrid break the first lines of pressure.
Once Real Madrid bypasses those first four City players, the match will open up. As City’s first wave of pressure is beat, it’s common to see them overcommit numbers near the ball without applying adequate pressure on the ball carrier. The far-sided outside back is typically the widest of the Manchester City 11 and, as you can see in the image below, Walker is in the vertical middle of the pitch. Narrow as they are, City gifts Willian an easy switch of play to the onrushing Marcos Alonso.
One of the other points worth mentioning is that Willian, even in the midst of City’s defensive imbalance, still managed to find a pocket of space for his distribution. Within the red circle, Manchester City enjoyed a 5v4 against Chelsea. However, with Benjamin Mendy dropping off on the play, that pocket emerged. You could say this aggressive team pressing tactic failed because the players carrying it out were not aggressive in their pressure.
Real Madrid’s highest players enjoy dropping between the lines to receive. If those movements are also coordinated with far-sided runs into open space and a near-sided forward running behind the lines to create space, Real Madrid should have a lot of success in progression through switches of play.
Attack City through half space and wing superiorities
With both teams a bit tentative in the first leg, I don’t think we saw either team hit peak performance. Rather, it was a cagey affair with each side trying to solve the problems presented by the other. While three goals were scored and each team had a couple of other quality chances, it was each team’s mistakes that produced the best chances.
Second legs tend to be more open as the result is decisive in the tie. With manche heading to Manchester staring at a 2-1 deficit, there’s a sense in the football world that this tie is City’s to lose. Oddsmakers list Manchester City as the heavy favourites to advance, so all the pressure is on them. Aside from the obvious psychological edge that gives Madrid, especially given Pep’s recent knockout stage results and City’s seven losses in 12 matches against the EPL’s top seven, this frees Madrid to play more freely.
Recognising Pep’s preference for the double pivot against top-class opposition, breaking that first wave of pressure, as mentioned above, is critical. However, once that first wave is beat, Real Madrid has to identify the best qualitative, quantitative and spatial attacking opportunities.
Since City are likely to have more possession, we’ll take this analysis a step back and look at City’s rest defence. When in possession with a double pivot, City’s left-back will provide width high up the pitch. If Guardiola wants his side to play more conservatively, Walker will linger behind to provide depth and stretch the opposition’s defence. Since Real Madrid aren’t likely to drop off as much as Chelsea, this option seems less likely, but it’s something the La Liga champions must prepare to defend.
If City approaches the match this way, those two holding midfielders have more leeway to move about the central channel. With so few players committed to the middle, Real Madrid have obvious outlets to Benzema and a narrowly positioned Hazard at their disposal. If Vinícius gets the start in place of Hazard, Asensio is the more likely of the two to take up a narrow position in defence.
What if Manchester City elects to move both outside-backs high up the pitch? We’ll cover that tactic from Real Madrid’s defensive perspective shortly, but, in terms of attacking opportunities, expect the centre-backs and holding mids to form a square in the middle of the pitch. As space in the middle decreases, look for Madrid to target the wide forwards in the wings or half spaces.
Now, in an open possession, Madrid must prepare for the high press and City’s middle block. If Manchester City settle’s into the middle block, look for the same 4-4-2 that we saw in the first leg. As you can see in the image below, City does concede space between the lines, so there is an opportunity for the simple up, back and through pattern.
However, if the split pass isn’t on and Los Blancos are denied quick progression, the spotlight will turn to Kroos. One of the keys to Real’s attack is creating space for Kroos against the middle block. His ability to pull himself out of the play, allowing defenders to chase the ball or stick to their team’s defensive shape is excellent.
Much like Isco in the image below, Kroos must drop outside of City’s press, finding a pocket of space that will allow him to receive with his body oriented to see as much of the pitch as possible. Since Kroos is a right-footed player who operates as a regista in the left half space, he positions himself with the intention of free up the line breaking pass. The German’s vision is a key element of his side’s attack as he has both the awareness of movements higher up the pitch and the ability to hit runners.
Sitting Kroos for the first leg really hurt the attack. His range, consistent presence in the left half space and ability to dictate tempo were sorely missed. However, he looks set to start in this match, which should lead to more scoring opportunities for Madrid.
As Kroos receives in the left half space, the wide overload of Hazard and Benzema, with help from Mendy, can help Madrid unlock this City defence. As makes his checks into the half space, keep an eye on the City defenders. If the centre-back goes with Benz, does the rest of the line become more compact? If not, is there a running lane for Hazard to get behind the defence?
If Vinícius Júnior starts instead of Hazard, the young Brazilian has better pace to get behind the line, but his recognition of opportunities and chemistry with Benzema are nowhere near the level of Hazard. If the Belgian isn’t able to start, look for more isolation against Walker than interchanges with Benzema.
In our best-case scenario, Hazard starts and plays the full 90 minutes. His movement between the wing and central channel is disorienting to opposing defences, creating freer lanes to goal for both himself and Benzema. With the left-back providing width, Hazard and Benz will stay closely connected in the half space and central channel in order to work off of each other. In this example against Villarreal, Hazard receives in a wide area, then plays negative. Upon releasing the ball, he then transfers command of the wing to Mendy by moving centrally. Benz pushes higher and Hazard enters the newly vacated space while Rodrygo moves wider and deep.
With Kroos in position to create from the half space and Modrić offering a central option, the three Madrid forwards pushed higher to pin the defence back. One option is the early cross into the box, another is that lateral pass to Modrić. If the latter, Modrić can then drive at the backline or complete the switch of play to Carvajal.
Real Madrid’s right side is less emphasised during that initial attack on the opposition, but the combination of Asensio, Modrić and Carvajal give Real Madrid an attacking trio that can overwhelm Manchester City’s left side. Additionally, as Madrid overload the wings and half spaces, the City pivots will move into wider areas in response. Use of width can help Madrid unlock this City side, letting their defensive imbalances come back to haunt them.
Without Bernardo Silva in the starting lineup, Real Madrid should find it easier to break City’s high press. Success in this area is vital for a result. Given the use of a double pivot, Madrid will have space to break down the press. and find those wide outlets.