Chelsea vs. Real Madrid: A tactical preview of the second leg

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

Following a rain-soaked first leg in the Spanish capital, Chelsea welcome Real Madrid to London as they host Los Blancos for the second leg of their Champions League tie at the Stamford Bridge. The first leg did not fail to live up to expectations after a 1-1 draw in a fierce tactical battle between the two European giants.

Both Chelsea and Real Madrid enjoyed 2-0 victories in the league at the weekend, as the Blues overcame Fulham while Los Blancos defeated Osasuna.

Chelsea have only conceded five goals at home in the 11 games Tuchel has overseen in the capital, all of which came in a 5-2 loss to West Brom early in April and are yet to concede more than one goal in a single game in the current Champions League season (keeping seven clean sheets in the process), while Real Madrid have conceded just two goals in their last seven away matches and are unbeaten on the road in nine.

Real Madrid haven’t lost a game in any competition since a shock 2-1 home defeat to Levante three months ago – Taking off on a remarkable 19-game unbeaten run since then. Los Blancos have also shipped just nine goals in their 19-game unbeaten run – a statistic that becomes more impressive considering the notable absences of Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane – and no team has managed to breach Zidane’s defense more than once in a match since Levante’s surprise win that goes back to the 30th of January.

Chelsea vs. Real Madrid Probable Lineups

For Chelsea, Cesar Azpilicueta was given the day off against Fulham and should displace Reece James at right-wing back, while Jorginho and N’Golo Kante are expected to start in the middle of the pitch with Mateo Kovacic ruled out for the tie.

Tuchel has a big decision to make when it comes to choosing who spearheads the attack. Even with a man-of-the-match display at the weekend from Havertz. Pulisic, Mount, and Werner are more likely to start because Chelsea need outlets to get out of Real Madrid’s press while Mount acts as the link-man between midfield and attack for Tuchel’s side. Unlikely, but if Tuchel decides to opt for Havertz instead of Werner, then Chelsea would have to rely on their technical ability on the ball to play through Real’s press in every phase of the pitch (because of the lack of outlets).

It is still unknown as to what system Zinedine Zidane will use, but I think he will opt for the 4-3-3 rather than the 3 at the back system again because it allows his side to get their natural passing game going and assert more control into the game. As for Chelsea, I don’t see any changes from Tuchel and they’ll probably work with their usual 3-4-3 formation

As I always say, Zinedine Zidane’s teams are – and have been – one of the most control-assertive team teams on the planet, especially on the big stage.

Real need to have control of the ball and the momentum in their swing in order to get their offensive output high. When they aren’t able to dominate on the ball due to the opposition press, they are likely to be in trouble and are likely to concede high-level chances (Liverpool 2nd leg for example). This is simply because of the personnel in the squad and the way the system has been designed.

To put this statement into context, take the first leg against Chelsea for example – Real were forced cheap giveaways and were at the end on numerous counter attacking situations. However, when they managed to take a lot of possession on the ball due to certain tactical tweaks by Zidane in the second half, they simply looked like the better side, increasing both their defensive and offensive game in the process.

Real have key figures such as captain Sergio Ramos, Ferland Mendy and Fede Valverde back in the squad and both Toni Kroos and Luka Modric will return after being rested at the weekend.

There have been injuries and fitness concerns in the Real camp, but if Zidane feels everybody is fit for the tie, I can assure you that it will be a 4-3-3 formation tonight. I say this because the 4-3-3 allows ZIdane’s side to get their natural game going and thereby, the control of the game.

Courtois; Nacho, Militao, Ramos, Mendy; Casemiro, Kroos, Modric, Valverde; Hazard, Benzema would be the best possible line-up according to me.

How Real Madrid can counter Chelsea’s 3-4-3 shape and pressing structure.

If you haven’t read the analysis of the tactical concepts and principles used by both managers in the first leg, you can check it out here.

The tie is extremely intriguing because now that Zidane knows where Real could be exploited (first leg) and how Tuchel achieved it, this could become an even more perplexing tactical battle than it already was.

The key factor of the game for Real Madrid will be how they keep the ball or control the game. If they manage to keep losing the ball to the Chelsea press frequently, the game could go sideways in both departments. That is why I think Eden Hazard would be the better choice for this tie. By taking away Vinicius, you away your only outlet in the side and have to rely on technical quality to get out, but with Eden Hazard, Real get a degree of control that enables them to create much better chances in offense whilst also maintaining the momentum of the game.

Chelsea, in the build-up stage, progress the ball through the flanks by an overload created on the channels as coached by Tuchel.

To combat that, reverting to a front 3 might be the solution. With a three-man first line of press in Chelsea’s build-up stage, Luka Modric no longer would have to act in the first line of press meaning Casemiro could drop back as the cover (Casemiro had to mark Jorginho because Modric stayed high, which left Real with no screening man in case the press was beaten and this exactly led to numerous transition based situations for Chelsea in the first-leg.

As we saw in the last Clasico, with Fede’s engine and work rate, it allows Zidane to have a man up front in the press in the 4-3-3, while also having an extra number in midfield in possession, allowing Real to create overloads on the right-hand side to exploit Chelsea’s left channel, while also having security in defense. With Fede Valverde, Zidane fills two holes in one

Even if Valverde isn’t included or doesn’t start, one of Asensio or Rodrygo could slot into that position and perform that role.

This setup won’t prevent Madrid’s consolidating block from being overloaded on each flank, however, it will stop Chelsea from running away in transitions because you always have a screening man in Casemiro in case the press is beaten or broken on the flank.

This also makes the opposition position themselves deeper into the pitch while Real are on the ball (Mount also moving into midfield in Chelsea’s 5-3-2 defensive shape), as the full backs provide the width in the side (in the 4-3-3).

In the CFC 3-4-3/3-5-2 vs Real 3-5-2 setup, the Chelsea wing-backs pressed against the Madrid fullbacks while the three Chelsea midfielders pressed the Real midfielders on the ball, making life difficult for them. Vinicius is a touchline winger meaning his natural instinct is to stay wide when in possession, whereas Eden Hazard likes to drift inside. While the winger moves inside, his marker too will follow him, which in turn will create space for the fullback and could be to used to position to provide width to the side.

The 3 man frontline allows one wing-back to withdraw deeper which would allow a full-back free on the flank, allowing switches of play for Madrid to attack from the flanks.

However, the four-man backline does have its downside when compared to the 3-5-2.  Zidane’s team will have to shuttle across the pitch while defending in a block because the 5 defenders spread the width of the entire backline in a 3-5-2 as opposed to four in a 4-4-2. But this could be neutralized with the wingers dropping deep in their regular 4-1-4-1/4-5-1 defensive shape, which I expect them to do. In transition, it could create a 3 vs 2 against Real Madrid if Casemiro is beaten in the middle of the park but I expect Real to avoid those situations by tactical fouls.

Even if Zidane opts for the two-man frontline in a 4-4-2 or a 3-5-2, I expect Modric to not press high this time around, as seen in the first leg, while the pressing trap could be pinned to the flanks. With Modric not pressing high, this gives protection in the middle of the pitch because Real will always have an extra man in midfield (mainly Casemiro) to sweep things in case they get overrun.

"“I’m not sure if they’ll play again in a 5-3-2, or switch to their more familiar 4-3-3. It depends maybe on the last tests for for Ferland Mendy and Sergio Ramos. From this decision, things change because every formation has its strengths and weaknesses. As I’m not sure what formation they will use, we will fully focus on us and our performance.‘It’s always a little tactical, but for me in these big games, it’s about the little decisions, the individual tactical behavior, the tactical behavior within groups and combinations.‘Can we maybe isolate Real Madrid in a two against two, a two against one? And how do we solve these situations? And can we avoid being isolated in these little situations?‘In the end, in a semi-final in the Champions League, it’s not about formation or what we play. It’s about how we play, the intensity we have, the belief we have, are we brave enough and do we play on our top level within the formation.’ — Thomas Tuchel in his pre-match press conference"

Defense may be the best form of attack for Tuchel given that his side cannot afford to lose out on the precious away goal that they have. Chelsea might look to simply hold on to what they and can afford to slow the game down to hit Real Madrid on the counter-attack, but knowing Tuchel, they will come out with the same approach as they did in the first leg — try to suffocate Madrid in the build-up by pressing with intensity and by playing at a very high pace/going direct.

"‘We want to bring a lot of energy, we can’t let them breathe too much. We try to be smart about it so we don’t run ourselves out of energy at the top level. As soon as we get the ball we either take it calm or we take a quick decision to play direct.Against teams that are used to having the ball a lot, we might need to herd them, if that makes sense, and when we have the ball they might not like to run, so we need to use that. So we are always thinking about what we can do to help ourselves and there’s a lot of details to it.’ — Andreas Christensen in his pre-match press conference"

Lots of arguments could be made regarding the differences on the 3-5-2 and the 4-3-3, but ultimately it will matter on the personnel chosen and the roles on the pitch to help Madrid maintain composure on the ball.

On paper, Real Madrid do not have a reliable goal-scorer apart from Benzema, and it’s hard to see how the goals flow for the visitors. But like we’ve seen for over a season and two, these players are elite and they always find a way.

The previous three times that Zidane has been in charge In a Champions League semi-final, his side have progressed on all three occasions, completing the historic champions League 3-peat in the same.

For Chelsea, Tuchel will need to field outlets to punish Madrid in the transition while also looking to suffocate spaces for the midfield to work on the ball. For Madrid, Zidane will be looking to push Chelsea back by positional play which will allow his team to take control of the game. With both managers and sides set up to the highest level tactically, I expect an incredibly tight affair where the game will ultimately boil down to the chances taken and the mistakes made.

As always, it’s important to consider the game state because it can completely change the dynamic of the game. If Real score first, then Chelsea are likely to take a different approach looking to pull one back and Real could look to control the game and play on it, but if Chelsea score first, Real could have their work cut out for them for the night.

Next. Why Antonio Blanco is the future of Real Madrid's midfield. dark

As it has always happened in a big game under Zidane, I expect his men to turn up and do their business.

90 minutes of football is all it takes. Game of the season for Los Blancos.