Real Madrid vs. Chelsea: A tactical analysis of the first leg of the semifinals

Real Madrid, Chelsea (Photo by Visionhaus/Getty Images)
Real Madrid, Chelsea (Photo by Visionhaus/Getty Images) /

Real Madrid vs. Chelsea. Zinedine Zidane vs. Thomas Tuchel. A blockbuster fixture that did not fail to live up to expectations.

Christian Pulisic gave the visitors the lead in the 14th minute, while Karim Benzema pulled one back for the hosts in the 29th minute as the game ultimately ended 1-1.

Chelsea took a valuable away goal into the second leg that puts them in the driving seat in the tie and set the stage for an enthralling 90 minutes at Stamford Bridge next week.

An intriguing tactical battle ensued throughout the game, but both sides had to settle for a draw at the Alfredo Di Stefano Stadium.

In this analysis, we will take a deeper look at some of the concepts and tactics employed by both managers and how the game played out in the first leg of the Champions League semi-final.

Chelsea lined up in Tuchel’s preferred 3-4-3 system of play. Andreas Christensen, Thiago Silva, and Antonio Rudiger started in defense. N’Golo Kante and Jorginho started in a double pivot in midfield with Mason Mount, Timo Werner, and Christian Pulisic up top.

Zinedine Zidane switched from his usual 4-3-3 to a 3-5-2. Real’s shift to a 3-5-2 system was unexpected, but the French manager has played this system semi-regularly this season, adapting to the different injuries that seemed to occur on a weekly basis.

Marcelo and Dani Carvajal were employed as the wing-backs. Raphael Varane, Eder Militao, and Nacho Fernandez completed the back three with a midfield comprised of Toni Kroos, Luka Modric, and Casemiro, as usual. Vinicius Junior started alongside Karim Benzema up front.

Zidane’s initial approaches, in the Champions League Knockout ties, have been a major factor in Real’s incredible run. A key factor/tactical decision/theme was how he matched the oppositions’ shape (Atalanta/Liverpool), which laid out the platform for his side’s technical quality (players’ ability on the ball) to take over.

It could be argued that matching an opponents’ system of play gives Zidane’s side the best possible chance to excel by their technical ability on the ball. When you completely match the opposition shape, every player needs to perform his role for the side to work as a unit, while individual mistakes can be absolutely fatal — which could disrupt the entire shape/structure of the team making it easy to exploit.

In the build-up stage, Toni Kroos would drop deeper into the center-back position to distribute and Nacho moved wider near the touchline to provide width while Marcelo pushed high and moved inside to facilitate 1vs1 situations for Vinicius Junior. Madrid pushed Casemiro high up the pitch because Chelsea could easily exploit his weaknesses on the ball.

If Kroos adopted a different position outside of Real’s back three in the build-up stage, Nacho remained in his initial position and Marcelo resisted moving to the inside.

Chelsea, on the other hand, started the game pressing with aggression and with purpose. Chelsea pressed in a 3-5-2 shape with Mason Mount acting as the link man between the attack line and midfield (playing in the front three while in possession and dropping into midfield while defending) which essentially made it a three-man midfield while the wing-backs were tasked with marking the Real Madrid fullbacks.

When Madrid had the ball in central areas, Werner and Pulisic would push up against Madrid’s 3-2 build-up and Mason Mount would drop into midfield to provide numbers off the ball (acting as the link-man).

By marking all options in midfield, the Chelsea press was structured to force Madrid to shift the ball wide and then win the ball by aggressively pushing up the ball-sided wing-back. When the ball was moved into the wider areas as part of their plan, the Chelsea forward nearby would stick to the 3rd center-back (Pulisic on Kroos here) giving the fullback on the ball no option for a pass. Without any passing options nearby, the fullback was forced to play out long or try risky passes which would often result in Chelsea winning back the ball again.

Even though Vinícius retained his wide position, he was particularly isolated for to the very same reason. He got just 22 touches in the match, was dispossessed twice, and only completed one dribble without managing a single shot as well.

Analyzing the first half of Real Madrid vs. Chelsea

The first half was horrible from a Real Madrid point of view. Despite boasting of the best technicians in the world, the technical level for the first half-hour was completely shocking — Tuchel Tuchel exploited the systematic issue, yes, but even more so because Madrid were asleep for over 20-30 minutes.

Thomas Tuchel had done his homework. He set up his side perfectly to counter and exploit Real Madrid’s shape. Real got hounded by the Chelsea press on the ball and started giving away the ball cheaply while also being forced to run around in transition.

Real Madrid pressed in a 3-4-3 shape with Luka Modric joining Karim Benzema and Vinícius Júnior in the first line of press to press Chelsea’s three central defenders, while Casemiro and Toni Kroos tightly marked the double pivot of Jorginho and Kanté, essentially making it a 3 vs 3 in the Chelsea build-up and 4 vs 4 in midfield. While this pressing approach worked extremely well vs Atalanta, it was something close to a disaster vs Chelsea.

To counter this, Chelsea created wide overloads and moved the ball into the wider areas (to the fullbacks), targeting mainly the right-flank (Real’s left flank) due to the absence of Ferland Mendy. Kante moved deeper, pulling Kroos along with him and so did Azpilicueta, attracting Marcelo to press.

With Marcelo and Kroos caught high up the pitch and Casemiro in the center marking Jorginho, Real Madrid did not have a screening man in case the press was beaten and that led to numerous 4 vs 4 counter-attacking situations in the first half for the visitors. Chelsea would draw the midfield line deeper and wider into the pitch, dragging the midfielder and the fullback out of position and then exploit the space left vacant in behind by one-touch combinations.

With the wing-backs on each side of the pitch occupying one another, Chelsea’s had a different approach or gameplan when the ball was moved into the central zones. The Chelsea forwards were tasked with moving away from Madrid’s defensive line and would drop deep to receive between the lines to pull or draw Real’s three central defenders/respective markers out of position.

Despite its drawbacks, this 3-4-3 pressing shape from Real Madrid congests central progression from the opposition. With the center-backs drawn out of their positions, it would leave spaces in behind which could be exploited with a good run from the Chelsea forwards. Hence, the inclusion of Timo Werner and Christian Pulisic from Tuchel were completely justified because Chelsea needed outlets in case they could not build or progress the ball.

It was the runs made in behind by their attacking players, that led to Chelsea taking the lead. With the forwards dropping deep, the Real defenders moved higher, got disorganized, and contributed to Pulisic making a run in behind for the opening goal.

As good as Real Madrid’s settled press in their defensive shape (5-4-1/5-3-2) is, their counter-press (pressing the opposition to win the ball back right after losing possession or in transitions) is comparatively poor due to the mix of coaching and an aging core. Whenever Real are allowed to settle into their defensive shape, they are extremely hard to break down (The 2nd leg vs Liverpool for example).

Tuchel noted that Madrid lack energy and pace at the moment and strategized to take advantage of this.

Once the ball got into the opposition half, Chelsea were extremely direct.

Mason Mount and Christian Pulisic were taking on opponents 1vs1 comparatively more than we are used to seeing (Six fouls drawn and five dribbles created by Pulisic) while N’Golo Kante provided forward runs to turn the ball from midfield into attack.

N’Golo Kanté contested more duels (21) (17 ground duels), provided two key passes, and completed more take-ons (6) than any other player on the pitch during the game. It was a big reason why Kanté was awarded man of the match but his biggest and most beneficial asset in this game was his work rate and the energy by which he limited Toni Kroos’ influence in the game severely.

With Real being hounded by pressure in the build-up and not being able to keep the ball, Luka Modric would drift back deeper to provide an extra number in build-up against the Chelsea press. While this offered a sense of security in the build-up, the two pillars of control and ball progression – Toni Kroos and Luka Modric – were further apart than before.

With both Kroos and Modric on two different sides of the pitch, Real could not maintain possession for long periods or assert their usual control into the game. Real Madrid had just 48% of ball possession and had 276 passes compared to Chelsea’s 287 in the first half. (Real have an average of 56% ball possession in the Champions League)

How did Zinedine Zidane change Real Madrid’s second-half approach?

The tie demanded improvisation from the French manager. Zinedine Zidane had to change something, be it the tactics, approach, or the players, to get his side back in the tie. Despite going level into half-time thanks to Karim Benzema’s solitary effort, the situation suggested that the rain would pour down on his men and there would be nothing to take back into the second leg.

And as he has done all season, adapt he did.

In the second half, Toni Kroos would drop in-between the two center-backs in the build-up stage, rather than dropping in the left-hand channel as he did in the first. Nacho positioned himself wide(in the left-back position) while Marcelo and Carvajal pushed higher than they did in the first half. Casemiro moved further upfront, almost in the number 10 position, while Modric stayed central to Kroos.

With the Real Madrid players pushing high, their markers were forced deep into the Chelsea half as well, giving more space and time for Kroos and Modric on the ball.  (Toni Kroos managed more touches than any other player on the pitch (113), the most passes (92), and completed more progressive passes than any of his teammates according to Sofascore)

Zidane changed Real’s pressing approach/shape from a 3-4-3 to 3-5-2 in the second half, with Luka Modric no longer acting in the first line of press. Modric dropped back into the midfield three, while Kroos marked Kante and Casemiro acted in his usual role, providing security to the duo in case of a turnover.

The central midfielders worked to limit the spaces between the lines to Chelsea’s front three, while Vinicius Junior and Karim Benzema led the press by screening the double pivot of Jorginho and Kante, preventing ball reception. Real’s compactness frustrated Chelsea meaning that they could no longer find spaces to penetrate as they did in the first half.

Zidane introduced Eden Hazard in the 66th minute, for a change in dynamic, as he came on for the struggling Vinicius Junior. With Real seemingly in control of the game now, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric would form a double pivot with Casemiro further up the pitch, pulling his marker Jorginho even deeper.

Eden Hazard moved to the inside channels which created space for Marcelo to occupy, which he did as he and Carvajal took up advanced positions in the opponents’ half, pushing high and wide. This forced Chelsea into deeper positions and slowly grew into their 5-3-2 defensive shape while Real looked to created an opening by controlling the ball.

Real grew into the game and took control of the proceedings due to the change in dynamic and the statistics show for it: Real Madrid had 53% ball possession (48% in the first half), 306 passes (276 in the first half), completed 71% of their long balls ( 50% in the first-half) and attempted 6 shots (3 in the first half) in the second half.

Tuchel made a triple substitution and brought on Ziyech, Havertz, and Reece James for Werner, Pulisic, and Azpilicueta. It was bizarre to me at that time as Tuchel had removed his two outlets on the pitch which meant Chelsea had little transitional threat or outlet meaning they would have to depend on their technical ability to play through the press. But it looked as though they were brought on for fresh legs and to help block space while defending.

Zidane on the other hand, brought on Odriozola and Asensio for Carvajal and Marcelo respectively, because Chelsea could attack wide areas and take advantage of the tired legs on his fullbacks.

The game eventually turned into more of a stalemate than it was in the first half as both sides became content with the current result and became more cautious.

Next. The 5 players Real Madrid should have never sold. dark

Having scored the away goal, Chelsea are in the driving seat to reach their first Champions League final since 2012. Chelsea missed a number of chances against a below-par Real Madrid side who will surely be better as plenty of the regulars are reportedly set to return ahead of next week’s return leg at the Stamford Bridge.

To put it lightly, expect another blockbuster of 90 minutes of football. Quoting Zinedine Zidane’s new favorite catchphrase, expect ‘another final’.