Real Madrid: Tactical analysis, takeaways from the loss to Manchester City before next season

Real Madrid, Zinedine Zidane (Photo by ANP Sport via Getty Images)
Real Madrid, Zinedine Zidane (Photo by ANP Sport via Getty Images) /

Here’s what Real Madrid must take away from their loss to Manchester City as they head into 2020-2021.

In a tournament that saw last-minute comebacks, goalkeeping heroics, individual performances, underdogs progressing, and the top contenders getting kicked out, the UEFA Champions League once again didn’t fail to amaze. Bayern Munich were the victors over Thomas Tuchel’s star-studded PSG and took home the illustrious champions league trophy.

The tournament had its fair share of twists, turns, and upsets as well, especially in the knock-out stages.

Lyon knocked out Italian giants Juventus, PSG scored two injury-time goals to comeback vs Atalanta, Julian Naglesmann’s RB Leipzig knocked out Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid and Bayern Munich battered FC Barcelona 8-2 in 90 minutes.

While Hansi Flick’s men danced their way to Germany with the Champions League trophy, Real Madrid fans were left to wonder what could have been if it wasn’t for Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City.

Real Madrid’s brilliant season came to an end against Manchester City

Zinedine Zidane completely revitalised the squad and seems to have given the Blancos a new life after a rather horrendous season. They won both the Spanish Supercup and the La Liga title this season. The work has been nothing short of spectacular from the Frenchman. Real were in blazing form coming into the game at the Etihad, Zidane played his cards right, yet was made to leave Manchester as second best.

Real Madrid are always the big dogs in European competitions regardless of their league form. They’ve won the competition outright three times in a row despite having a tough run of games in the league. They know better than anyone what it takes to win this, they have the European pedigree. They’ve walked this path not only once, but for three consecutive years against the tide under Zinedine Zidane himself.

However, things were different this time around. Despite a brilliant season, Real were left to leave the Etihad with a bitter taste in their mouths. Pep Guardiola became the first manager in over 4 years to stop Zinedine Zidane from progressing to the next round and put an end to Zidane’s exemplary 100% Champions League trophy win record.

Of course, it was always going to be tough, but It wasn’t because of the loss that the supporters were left feeling a bit vague, it was because it looked like Pep Guardiola had outclassed Zidane’s side. For a neutral fan, it looked like City wanted that win more than Madrid did. It looked like Pep Guardiola had an answer to everything Zinedine Zidane threw at him. Everything Real Madrid did, City knew how to counter it.

Real Madrid vs. Manchester City was a tactical battle

This game was a tactical battle of the highest order. Pep’s teams only sit back or play conservatively against teams that are superior to his. Pep Guardiola chose to play his cards close to the chest. Known for ‘overthinking’ in big games, he shocked the world as he went with a very conservative approach and allowed Madrid to dominate.

Here we take a look at the key factors which changed the course of the tie.

Zidane set his team up the way Madrid always line up.

Zidane has always played to his strengths, even during the 3-peat. He doesn’t set his team up to the opposition, he asks them to play his game. He always likes asking questions to the opposition rather than taking a conservative approach and taking a gamble. That is what defined Zidane’s 3-peat era and that is what he chose to do.

How Pep Guardiola set up against Real Madrid

City are most vulnerable from the flanks and Real Madrid, most dangerous from the channels.
Pep had his wingers track back and stay compact when Real were in possession so that the FBs Mendy/Carvajal don’t overlap. With the fullbacks being marked Madrid had to either overload the sides and work through or play through the middle; both of which could prove fatal if they lost the ball in the centre of the pitch. (And it did)

City shadowed a press in the Madrid build-up covering passing lanes to the FBs (which also led to the first goal), meaning they had to find a way to play out the middle. Mahrez/Foden were always on Mendy’s heels while Sterling/Jesus always tracked Carvajal.

In Phase 2, City allowed little chance for Madrid to overload the midfield or the wings with their intense pressing. Madrid had to re-circulate the ball in order to not lose possession and to not force turnovers.

Ball-winning areas for Real Madrid

The most important cog in Madrid’s midfield, Casemiro was double-teamed and was made to look like a confused kid in the crowd.

Casemiro went upfront in Phase 1, like Madrid usually do, allowing the FBs & the midfield duo to progress the ball.

The City shadow press allowed to cut passing lanes between the fullbacks – centrebacks and with their press, they often made Madrid go back to the goalkeeper or won the ball in areas of the pitch Casemiro could have no influence on.

City interchanged beautiful, executed quick 1-2s and were already on the counter before any of the Madrid midfield three could track back.

Arguably the best defensive midfielder in the world right now, Casemiro didn’t just have a bad game, he was forced to be out of the game and was forced to look shabby.

Real Madrid’s Gameplay

Madrid are most vulnerable in buildup; when they are high up the pitch and when the fullbacks settle into the wingback role.

Real Madrid are almost impossible to penetrate through the centre of the pitch in the final third. Everything in Pep’s plan was based on the wing.

City approached this like any other mid-table LaLiga team would: Settle in a compact shape, press intensely, let Madrid do the work, and exploit the space left behind on the counter.

Pep put Gabriel Jesus on the left and Sterling in a false 9 role, who moved to the flanks whenever Mahrez/Foden tracked back. Kevin De Bruyne moved centrally when this happened. Jesus and Sterling often interchanged positions making runs in behind.

This changed the shape Varane and Militao stood in whenever the fullbacks progressed. The False 9 and the wingers interchanged frequently changing shape.

This is where they exploited, numerous times.

Everything from Zidane from a tactical standpoint was perfect, the only distinction was that Pep chose to approach this game the way nobody thought he would.

With captain Sergio Ramos out of the tie, this was a game for Varane to step up. Even though he’s been a top=three center in the world this season, Varane had to command this game; he had two unforced errors which gifted City the goals to go through.

Dodging the press

The best way out of an intense press is to get out of the first and second lines of the press by interchanging combinations and quick ball movements. Moving the ball to the channels and overloading the wings also help in getting out of a high press.
Another way to get out of an intense press is to play route 1 football.

A high pressing compact team will always have a high line, or else you wouldn’t be able to execute it. (Bayern Munich, RB Leipzig, Manchester City..etc)

Long balls allow you to get past the first and second line of press and gets the ball directly into the final third. Liverpool and Spurs both did it and beat Manchester City en route to their Champions League final last season.

Two brilliant managers, Two brilliant squads. This was a game of fine margins.

The defeat was a bit uneasy to digest for the Real Madrid supporters especially after Lyon knocked out Manchester City 3-1 in the quarter-finals. Fans had hoped for a spark in the Champions League, nevertheless, a brilliant season came to an end.

Final takeaways from Real Madrid’s loss

Real Madrid have lost two times in the Round of 16 in the Champions League consecutively – both to high pressing teams. Even though the game looked in control, the end result was them getting knocked out of the tournament.

Madrid’s inability to move the ball against top quality high pressing teams have cost them dearly.
On paper, it wouldn’t be a problem with both Toni Kroos and Luka Modric in the side. Both are press-resistant midfielders. But it is an issue that needs to be addressed, especially because of the lack of runners up front. Without movement from the frontline, a high-pressing team will always win the ball in midfield.

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This is something Zidane will have to work on in the coming season.

A lot of concerns need answering, but I trust the Frenchman to be up for the task – as always.