Tactical analysis Real Madrid Manchester City 1-2 Champions League

Real Madrid – Manchester City: Raheem Sterling Sparks Comeback In Conservative Affair (1-2)

A conservative City was easily neutralized by a solid Real Madrid team in an encounter that saw both sides spar out until the home side’s fortunate goal triggered Guardiola’s reaction. With all guns out, Real Madrid were no match for City, slowly crumbling as the visitors rose to the top of the Bernabéu.

Tactical analysis and match report by Kareem Bianchi.

With Premier League hopes long gone, all that was left for Manchester City were their Champions League dreams. An opportunity for Pep Guardiola to redeem himself after what can be described as a transitional season, in a grander scheme of things that closed in on the manager to demand immediate European success ahead of a ban that may see City excluded from the next two editions of the competition.

Fresh from a win at Leicester City, Guardiola made two changes to his setup as Sergio Agüero and Fernandinho made way for Gabriel Jesus and Nicolás Otamendi.

While things have appeared to smooth out in the league for City, the same cannot be said about Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid. Their unbeaten streak had lasted since October, in a series of displays that breathed new life into a team once known for its defensive imbalance. However, a 4-3 loss to Real Sociedad in the Copa del Rey a few weeks back shook Zidane’s men, who went on to draw one and lose another in the following three games. 

So after their narrow 1-0 defeat at Levante, three changes in Real’s eleven saw Luka Modrić come into midfield for Toni Kroos, Ferlan Mendy displace Marcelo at left back and Vinícius Júnior replace the injured Eden Hazard.

City lay low

Although capable of retaining the ball when necessary due to the extraordinary technical prowess spread across the pitch, Zidane’s Real Madrid has never been renowned for its possession game. Fittingly, one of the situations City do not want to be forced into is deep defending, which is why they avoided it by all costs through ball mastery. 

However, early signs of a more cautious approach echoed from the start when City fell back into a 4-4-2 defensive shape with Kevin de Bruyne and Bernardo Silva as the two strikers when Real Madrid held possession. Both pressed the center-backs, in what was far from a sign of willingness to recover the ball high up the field.

Right from the first instances, whenever Casemiro was not immediately an option for the center-backs, Modrić often dropped into the defensive halfspace, If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the halfspaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have the freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace. in the area between Dani Carvajal and Raphael Varane, to move the ball forward. 

If the ball did reach Casemiro though, Rodrigo should have been the one to step out when the midfielder received the ball behind City’s attacking line, but frequently Modrić positioned himself ahead of the Spaniard, pinning him deep. In such situations it should have been Ilkay Gündoğan to take up his partner’s instructions, but Valverde’s pinning of the German ultimately deprived Guardiola’s men of cover on the holding midfielder, who could as a result quickly switch the play after receiving. 

On one hand, Real were quite able to outmaneuver City’s medium block A medium block refers to a team that retreats in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents some way into their own half. through the frequent dropping movements of Isco and Modric. On the other, when Casemiro could not be accessed, the visitors did not achieve the same success on the ball due to an efficient pressing system from Zidane’s men. Similarly to the pressing strategy employed against Barcelona, Real Madrid pressed in man-oriented 4-4-2 shape, with Benzema and Valverde on the center-backs, Isco and Vinícius pressing the fullbacks and Casemiro shifting across the field to cover the dropping attacking midfielders while Modrić marked the ball-near pivot.

Real Madrid’s man-oriented press.

With City being more bothered about covering spaces quite passively rather than actively involving the midfielders in pressing outings on the dropping players ahead of their second line, Real could easily circulate the ball in and around of their opponent’s shape. And although the midfield’s horizontal compactness was enough to steer Real’s possession away from the danger zones, the home side still found it relatively easy to progress the ball. If anything, it was their final pass which did not show much variance, as it was mainly focused on crosses as we have become accustomed to. 

Lack of dynamic movements slows City down

On the ball, City’s possession spells were few by choice, in that Guardiola’s strategy expected City to be able to hit Real on the counter, but whenever they got onto the ball their positioning resembled the asymmetrical shape they tested against Leicester in the league. 

Rodrigo and Gündoğan arranged ahead of the center-backs, with Bernardo Silva dropping in the left halfspace. Walker stayed wide, with Mahrez rotating between the halfspace and wing depending on the right back’s positioning. For example, when the fullback positioned himself inside, almost as a third midfielder, either Mahrez or Bernardo provided width, with the other tucked inside. Meanwhile, De Bruyne roamed between the lines. 

However, the slow rotations, only occasionally supported by underlaps Underlap means that the full-back joins the offensive play by playing on the inside of the winger he supports. This is the reverse of an overlap, where the full-back plays on the outside and the winger moves inside. from the fullbacks, and the lack of a striker due to the double false nine A striker that constantly drops deep and plays like a number ten. and Jesus’ wide position, rarely troubled Real Madrid’s 4-1-4-1 shape, carefully organized to screen passes into the ball near attacking midfielders with the winger.

Evidently, Guardiola wanted a more direct approach for his team, with De Bruyne receiving between the lines in space after Gabriel Jesus’ runs behind Carvajal had stretched Madrid’s lines vertically. This was a recurrent pattern throughout the half, which also led to the first chance of the game, a ball that landed on the Brazilian striker’s feet after a through ball from the Belgian picked him up in the box. Jesus then cut inside and shot at Thibaut Courtois, who easily parried the central shot away.

Ruthless Real 

It is worth noticing that the two attacking midfielders actively roamed through the zones between the lines to join the actions on the ball. During half-time, Guardiola inverted Bernardo’s and De Bruyne’s positions on the break, wanting to achieve access to the attacking midfielder from deep. City had been finding more space in the right halfspace compared to the left, where Isco was meticulous in covering passing lanes and even following the attacking midfielder deep. 

Another intention manifested since the start of the game was that to threaten Madrid’s backline with long balls in behind, which was only successful in the 55th minute when Mahrez was picked out. Unfortunately for City, his shot was saved by Courtois. 

As has happened so often before, Real Madrid suddenly woke up to punish their opponent’s mistakes. Ironically, in this very exact moment City seemed to have entered complete control – albeit a rather stale one. Nicolás Otamendi lost the ball just in front of the midfield line. City’s defense was left exposed, as Vinícius could run into space and pass the ball through a pocket of space that found Isco unmarked at the center of the penalty area to put the home side 1-0 up.

City now could be identified playing in a 3-2-4-1 formation with Walker deeper than ever to press loose balls and avoid scenarios similar to the conceded goal. Moreover, with City in need of a goal, the fullback’s position served as central cover for counterpressing After losing possession, a team immediately moves towards the ball as a unit to regain possession, or at least slow down the pace of the counterattack. actions. Walker only sprinted wide when the ball crossed the center, immediately overlapping When a wide player, most of the times a wing-back, runs outside to fill in the space left by a winger going inside with or without the ball, this is called overlapping. to threaten spaces out wide and widen the field.

City’s most decisive man

Following Madrid’s goal, City’s attacking menace had died down though, a predicament to which Guardiola reacted by substituting Bernardo for Raheem Sterling.

The English winger slotted in the left halfspace where the substituted man left off, differing however in movements with his actions consisting of runs down the channel rather than drop-ins to aid the buildup. In the meantime Zidane made a substitution of his own by replacing Vinícius with Gareth Bale. 

Manchester City’s possession shape with Sterling.

Manchester City’s possession shape with Sterling.

In the 77th minute, after Sterling finally carried the ball into depth, attracting Varane and Valverde, De Bruyne found himself free to receive in the halfspace. Surrounded by white shirts, he twisted and turned to cross with his right foot and assist Gabriel Jesus behind Sergio Ramos. A winning header from the striker finally restored the scoreline to a draw, almost finding a second goal minutes later when he cut in front of Varane to head the ball just over the bar. 

With a winger engaging with Carvajal via runs and dribbles, Jesus could finally focus on his activity inside the box. 

And just like in the first half Jesus had found the way to trouble Carvajal, Sterling won a penalty when the Spaniard timed his sliding tackle in the box poorly. Given City’s penalty record, the chance to take the lead was far from being certain, until De Bruyne stepped up to the spot and placed the ball in the bottom left corner. 

Things had gone from bad to worse for Real, and that was not even the end. In the 86th minute, a short back pass to Varane was intercepted by Jesus, who, alone on his way to goal, was knocked down by Sergio Ramos. Straight red card, as Real Madrid not only trailed but had their chances compromised for the return leg as well, not being able to rely on their infamous captain.


As the pressing height had been lowered, so were Real Madrid’s chances against City’s possession reduced. Guardiola’s men saw most of the ball in the second half but lacked the cutting edge to threaten Real Madrid’s defense. At least, that is, until Sterling was brought on, whose verticality and dynamic runs from wide not only galvanized the possession but also reduced Jesus’ offensive burden.

Perhaps, Guardiola planned to limit any possible irreversible damage ahead of the second leg with a rather conservative approach carried out for seventy minutes. However, this time the manager did not commit the same mistakes as in the past, solving City’s issues by bringing on the only player capable of restoring the dynamic movements his side lacked in a moment during which the ball control had long been achieved. 

Now it will be interesting to see how Zidane plans his approach for the return leg, and whether Guardiola will trust his full loadout, or will once again fall victim to his perennial doubts.

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