Facing Europe’s top attacking side, Real Madrid, the top defensive side in Europe, must keep the City defence at bay. The more Real Madrid frustrate Manchester City’s attack, the more likely Pep Guardiola’s side will overcommit numbers to the attack. Though City comes in knowing Real Madrid need two goals, they’ll also be aware that two goals of their own can put the tie to bed.
Zinedine Zidane knows that Guardiola’s side will stick to their attack-first philosophy. While the double pivot should, in theory, help protect the backline and limit Real Madrid’s attack, you have to assume that Guardiola’s side will push forward to widen the gap. This is not just abotu getting through to the next round. City wants to make a statement of intent too. Zidane’s men will surely use this to their advantage.
In this tactical analysis, we’ll look at the defensive tactics Real Madrid should employ. Starting with their wildly successful man-marking in the high press, we’ll show how that tactic, paired with an aggressive counterpress, can tip the scales in Madrid’s favour. Wrapping up the article is an analysis of City’s half space usage and the importance of denying half space entry in or near the box.
Stick with the man-marking high press
Ederson is widely regarded as one of the top distributors among the world’s goalkeepers. 70 metres onto the laces of a teammate isn’t beyond the realm of possibility. That said, he looked uncomfortable playing against Madrid’s man-marking high press in the first leg. Of the 11 long passes he attempted, only five reached his target. Of those passing attempts, three targeted a teammate in the final third, but only one of those passes was completed.
Fernandinho and Laporte are also excellent passers, but the combination of those two and Otamendi struggled to play out of pressure, especially when longing to play long to beat the press. For the match, City completed 24 of 38 long passes, good for a 63.16% success rate. That percentage is slightly below their UEFA Champions League average and below Madrid’s 66% completion rate. Forcing City to play long by man-marking all the short and intermediate-range outlets presents a big opportunity for Los Blancos. You’ll recall the Madrid goal came off of a botched attempt to play out of the back. This City defence will turn the ball over against top opposition.
Going back to the Chelsea match, we again have that blueprint of a successful high press. With the two pivots dropping deep and linking up with the centre-backs, Ederson had no immediate options. His two outside-backs were high up the pitch offering width and the four highest players were more central, provoking Ederson to try for his central targets.
Minutes later, City’s build-up reached midfield. The image below gives us a really nice idea of what City’s attacking structure looks like if they beat the high press. The deep central square is maintained, the outside-backs provide width and the four highest players coordinate their movements, in this case with an asymmetric shape shifted towards the left.
Even though Zidane will have a plan for his middle block approach, it’s that high press that will cause issues for City. Over the course of the season, Zidane has shown us that the high press and counterpress has two objectives. The first is simple, recover the ball. However, that comes with nuance. The attempted recovery should never come with the high, even moderate, risk of the opposition’s progression. With that in mind, the second objective is to force the opposition backwards if the attempt at recovery is too risky.
We saw these principles at play in the first leg too. The image below is the start of a sequence. City has an open possession and is looking to break lines, but those more advanced targets are unavailable.
Rather than forcing a poor pass forward, City played negative and conceded some ground. Then, with more space between the lines, De Bruyne made his checking run. Ramos was right behind him, forcing De Bruyne to play negative. City tried to play forward but dropping as many players back as they did to simply keep possession made it impossible to connect with higher targets.
The example below shows what that man-marking in the high press looks like when the keeper is in possession. As you can see, all short and intermediate options are accounted for, leading to one of many unsuccessful long distributions from Ederson. With the shorter City forwards engaging in aerial duels with Real Madrid’s backline, there are no bonus points for guessing the favourite in those duels. Notice the depth of his positioning.
The one area of concern is covering depth if the Manchester City defenders are the ones playing forward. As you see in the image below, one of City’s best opportunities came when they played over Ramos onto the foot of Mahrez.
Addressing the elephant in the room, Ramos will watch from the stands, replaced by Militão. While the Brazilian doesn’t have the knack to step into the midfield and contest balls played between the lines, he should excel in these types of situations due to his more cautious approach and freakish athleticism. Losing Ramos is a big knock to controlling the space between the lines, a vital part of this matchup, but the combination of high press and low block defending will suit Militão well, especially when lined up with an intelligent cover defender like Varane.
Deny entry to and final passes from the half space
Speaking of the low block, let’s finish the article with that topic. When defending against City, they frequently look for wide superiorities that lead into final passes from the half spaces. As the top attacking side in all of Europe, they’ll incredibly dangerous when they gain access to the half space regions of the box. If it’s De Bruyne on the ball, say your prayers because you’re at his mercy.
Within that double pivot system, City will frequently enter the final third with the forwards and De Bruyne attacking the half spaces in pairs while the outside-backs patrol the wings.
To some extent, Los Blancos should play into that tactic. Real Madrid must deny space centrally, forcing City to play in the wings. Once the ball arrives, Manchester City will often look for numerical equality. If they have a 3v3, they will look to play one of those three players behind the line and into the half space.
Even though he’s dangerous wherever he has the ball, limiting KDB’s options is easier on the wings than from the central channel. In the first leg, Real Madrid nearly conceded mid-way through the first half when De Bruyne split Varane and Carvajal. If not for a poor strike and quality save from Courtois, Madrid would have gifted a goal early.
So, while pushing the City attack into the wings is preferred, Madrid must show better pressure, tackling and patience to block crosses. You’ll recall the defence on the tying goal was absolutely dreadful. Three players surrounded KDB, two others offered coverage, Mendy misread the cross and Ramos was outjumped by Jesus.
Among the many issues on the play, it’s the horrendous pressure, really the total lack of it despite numbers near the ball, that led to the goal. Real Madrid can’t afford this type of mental lapse in the match. Though they can definitely put a couple of goals past City, their leeway in this match is minimal. They can allow one goal and still make it to extra time, but two City goals will require four from Madrid for them to advance.
Having Militão’s heading ability and length will help as the side defends in the low block, but a proactive approach that denies those entries into the half spaces in the box is key.
With the heavy favourite tag comes the heavy burden of closing out the tie. City and Pep have long struggled against Europe’s elite in the knockout stages. The psychological weight on the City players is massive. If Real Madrid can grab a first-half goal and head into halftime with a lead, Manchester City’s mettle will really be tested in the second half. Seeing as this isn’t a team with much UEFA Champions League success, that despite the record-breaking spending sprees, it’s the La Liga champions who have the mental edge.
To be fair, Real Madrid still have it all to do. While the draw is not beyond them, they will have to suffer for a minimum of 90 minutes. Despite the odds stacked heavily against them, City’s Champions League history, Zidane’s ability to get the best out of his side and the champion’s mindset he brings to his squads make Madrid an alluring pick. We’ve seen crazier comebacks in the Champions League, so I’m going to predict that Pep over-thinks it with his lineup and tactical tinkering while Zidane’s side plays freely to a 3-1 win in the match, 4-3 win in the tie.