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Siyang Xu writes a comprehensive tactical analysis about the Champions League quarter-final that finished Bayern Munich 1-2 Real Madrid.
Real Madrid completed a second half turnaround against Bayern Munich through two Cristiano Ronaldo goals to put themselves in a commanding position at the halfway stage of this blockbuster quarter-final tie. Bayern had the better of the first half and deservedly took the lead through Arturo Vidal, but will undoubtedly look at Vidal’s penalty miss late in the first half and Javi Martinez’s sending off early in the second as the key turning points of the match.
Bayern were able to dominate the first half, constantly creating situations in which they could attack the Real Madrid defensive line to try and create a clear shot at goal. Much of Bayern’s control over the game was down to their excellent positional play and intelligent movement in possession. As you would expect, Bayern tried to build play from the back, passing out to the centre backs wherever possible. Real Madrid generally looked to press in a 4-4-2 shape in this situation, with Luka Modric stepping out of midfield to join Karim Benzema on the first line.
Bayern used their double pivot to progress play forwards from their centre backs, with both Vidal and Xabi Alonso dropping deep to show for the ball. This created a 4vs2 overload against Real’s first line, enabling easier circulation of possession.
To support this, Bayern frequently looked to create a further overload on Real Madrid’s midfield line, giving the four deeper players plenty of options for a forward pass to progress the ball. To do this, Frank Ribery would come inside into the left half space whilst David Alaba would push on out wide, but remain deep enough that Dani Carvajal felt he could not step out to mark him. Thiago and Thomas Muller frequently made blindside movements behind Real Madrid’s midfield line, often looking to switch and rotate to make themselves more difficult to track, whilst Phillip Lahm kept the width on the far side. This excellent positional play enabled Bayern to have a passing option in all five vertical channels of the pitch, making it very difficult for the four Real Madrid midfielders to effectively cover them.
After advancing the ball through midfield, Bayern would predominately look to attack Real Madrid from their right side. Ancelotti’s side sought to utilise Arjen Robben’s individual brilliance by creating situations in which he could directly attack the Real Madrid defensive line. Lahm and Thiago often moved over to support Robben, either offering themselves as passing options that Robben could look to play one-twos or set up third man runs with, or by making decoy runs in behind to create space inside for Robben. By making a run in behind, Marcelo would often be tempted to shift his body towards the touchline in order to close down potential passing angles behind him, but in doing so, he left more room for Robben to cut inside in his trademark move. This is a common movement pattern for Bayern and it worked nicely on several occasions on the day.
Bayern’s occupation of the half spaces whilst trying to break down Real Madrid’s defensive block helped them to create better attacking situations and re-circulate possession better. As mentioned earlier, the presence of Thiago and Lahm in the right half space helped Robben thrive in his individual battles against Marcelo. This trio generally tried to maintain connections on the right flank by keeping two players in the half space and one out wide at all times. This enabled them to make rotations to throw off Real defenders whilst still maintaining positional superiority and control over space. The strong presence in the half space also prevented Robben from getting isolated out wide.
The right half space was also frequently used by Bayern to get the ball to Robben in the first place. Cristiano Ronaldo is never particularly inclined to do his defensive duties, and attacking his wing was a clear intention of Bayern Munich’s. As mentioned earlier, it was Modric who joined Benzema to form a 4-4-2 when Real Madrid looked to press high. However, in deeper positions, Ronaldo would stay forward with Benzema whilst Modric dropped back into midfield. In these transitional moments, Ronaldo would stay forward before the Madrid midfield had adequately reset themselves, resulting in a loss of compactness and leaving gaps for Bayern to penetrate. Thiago would look to move into the right half space from a central position with a blindside run, whilst Lahm’s wide positioning supported this by taking away Kroos’ attention, who knew Ronaldo would not bother tracking him. This meant that Kroos would often move too far towards the wing, before the rest of the midfield had shifted over, in an attempt to stop the pass to Lahm, leaving the passing lane to Thiago open who could then connect with Robben. If Kroos did not shift far enough over, Lahm would be left open and Bayern could progress to ball to Robben by going around Real Madrid anyway.
Ribery’s inside positioning in the left half space on the other side also gave Bayern good access to both sides of the pitch when attacking. This enabled them to recycle possession quickly and effectively and change the point of attack regularly, especially when Real Madrid had shifted over quite far to their left to try and stop the threat of Robben, allowing them to build up a constant stream of pressure on Real’s goal.
Bayern Munich were generally able to control Real Madrid’s build up in the first half with smart high pressing in a generally man-orientated fashion. The actions of Vidal in blocking Modric with his cover shadow were especially crucial, as the Croatian would often look to take up advanced positions in the right half space unmarked.
However, in the second half, Bayern noticeably dropped off in the consistency of their pressing, probably a planned move by Ancelotti to take into account the effects of fatigue, allowing Real Madrid to build the ball towards midfield more successfully. This, coupled with the momentum of a goal just two minutes in the second half, gave Madrid a much stronger foothold in the game.
Following the sending off of Javi Martinez in the 61st minute for a second bookable offence, the game swung completely in Real Madrid’s favour. Bayern Munich switched to a 4-4-1 defensive block, which struggled to give them adequate defensive cover. Due to naturally tiring legs, as well as the numerical disadvantage on the pitch, Bayern were unable to maintain access to press the ball, enabling Real Madrid to dominate possession and launch wave after wave of attacks.
Whilst this is not in itself a problem, the fact that the passive Bayern defensive block could not adjust to the ball position was. With no pressure on the ball, and no defensive adjustments to close down players situated inside the block, Real Madrid were able to repeatedly cut through Bayern Munich and find players in dangerous positions. It became easy for Real Madrid to find players in between the lines, especially in the half spaces, before they would generally look to create goalscoring opportunities through crosses, one of which was eventually converted by Cristiano Ronaldo. Manuel Neuer made several key saves to keep the scoreline respectable and arguably kept Bayern in the tie as Real looked to kill the tie off before they even went back to the Bernabeu.
After winning the first leg away from home, Real Madrid are in an incredibly strong position to see themselves through to the last four. Zinedine Zidane’s side produced an efficient performance in which they were clinical and capitalised on the situation they found themselves in, namely successfully using the extra man to their advantage. Ancelotti will still hold hope, however, as his Bayern side managed to produce an encouraging first 45 minutes in which his team were able to circulate the ball very well. Vidal, despite scoring Bayern’s only goal, will surely look back at his missed penalty to put Bayern 2-0 up as the key moment in this match, or maybe indeed the whole tie.
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