Ryan Tank provides a detailed tactical analysis about the Champions League group stage match that ended Tottenham Hotspur 3-1 Real Madrid
Tottenham Hotspur: Lloris; Alderweireld, Sanchez, Vertonghen; Trippier, Davies; Dier, Eriksen, Winks; Kane Alli.
Real Madrid: Casilla; Hakimi, Nacho, Ramos, Marcelo; Casemiro, Modric, Kroos, Isco; Ronaldo, Benzema.
Tottenham’s defensive orientation
Pochettino looked to take a secure approach of press as Tottenham didn’t always insist on disturbing the early phase of Real’s build-up. Tottenham assigned the pressing work based on a 5-3-2-ish shape, with Christian Eriksen slightly higher than the other two central midfielders. The Dane pressed Casemiro while Harry Kane and Delle Alli kept an eye on Real’s both center halves. The other defensive duty for Tottenham’s 8 was that they also had to maintained good access to Kroos and Modric. An example was identified in the 1st minute of the game, Eriksen stepped up to press Kroos in Real’s early third. But when the ball was switched to the right half space, Harry Winks stayed in the middle third as he engaged with Luka Modric. At times, the ball side 8 had to also drop deep and press towards the touchline to isolate Real’s full back on the wing.
Depending on Real’s attacking overload in the wide area, Alli, from the attacking line, would get involved in the touchline press. This occurred particularly during Tottenham’s middle press. When Real attacked the wing in the middle third and Tottenham’s horizontal shift managed to hold the progression followed by Real developing their attacking overload, Alli would drop into the midfield line to help the midfield trio in containing Real’s possession dynamic.
Here, Tottenham were bit more likely to use a position-oriented and space-oriented press. Man-oriented would only be implemented if it was really necessary. The intensity in the wide press was moderately-tuned since the wide press was not supposed to push the ball carrier deeper into their own ground.
In passive situations (a defensive equilibrium) Tottenham were able to organize themselves to cut off any direct access into the center in the ball sector. Also with the moderate intensity during the touchline press, Tottenham were able to keep the defensive block stable as they didn’t have to move out of their own block (thus ruining the equilibrium point) and expose the central area of their own block.
The graphic above shows the way Tottenham used the near central midfoelder to make an onward press. As the alternative of their touchline press, Tottenham used the ball side full back to press Real’s ball side ball-carrying wing back. Such a press was possible when the ball side wing back (Tripper, for instance) wasn’t occupied by any opposition player.
Also worth mentioning was that despite a focus on a fairly low block, in possession and when it came for them to attack the final third, Tottenham’s mdifield trio and both wing backs kept maintaining the spatial occupation, both in wide area and around the center. In theory, this was paramount given the need for the attack to secure the zone 14 and zone 11 in case any counter attack occurred. In this regard and when the ball got into the penalty area, Winks and Dier would move up and occupy any space in the final third outside of the box while Eriksen moved across the 10 to support the possession. In the wide corridors, both wing backs established a maximum width as the ball side wing back stayed wide and as high as possible while the far one stayed slightly deeper but had to be ready for any deep runs in the upper final third.
Both central midfielders would adjust and dropped slightly deeper if Tottenham made a backward pass to the outside of the opponent’s box. The midfield duo needed to do so because they had to provide more passing angles for the need of stable possession.
The midfield 4 and Marcelo the free man
In Real’s attack, Kroos and Modric alternately dropped into the deeper half space beside of each central defender with Kroos seemingly deeper. The German dropped into the half space to help advance the ball as well as to invite Eriksen to move up which made it easier for Real to access Marcelo on the left wing.
Isco was often found to occupy the higher ground. He shifted across the midfield line to support the possession on both sides of the field. Casemiro was the nominal 6, but, sometimes, the Brazilian pushed higher up the pitch, staying in the same line as Ronaldo and Benzema. Real’s midfield 4, as always, continuously kept swapping positions to keep the opponent guessing all the time.
One of the positive points of fielding a diamond against the midfield three is that there is a high possibility for the diamond to outnumber the opponent’s trio as well as generate a positional superiority in the key area of the midfield. This fact and added by the support from their 9 player, enabled Real to regain possession and release quick counter attacks using the strong connections among the midfield 4. As shown in the 7th minute of the match when Kroos managed to intercept a pass and made a short pass to Casemiro, followed by a quick vertical pass to Benzema which suddenly put Real in a promising counter attacking situation.
The other important principle in Real’s attack was they used Marcelo as the free man. One method of how Real created free man on the wide area (ie. Marcelo) can be seen in the graphic below.
Initially, the free man was possibly generated as Tottenham’s pressing block shifted towards a certain side to isolate Real’s possession. The visitors often managed to loosen the press using the superiority of their midfield diamond. At times, the individual capability of Modric, with his explosive dribble, was how they manipulated the press as well as found the free man on the far flank. Modric also made some surprising progressions as the Croatian released some long ground passes into the last line. The access was particularly generated after a switch from the opposite field or, sometimes, Modric did it after receiving a lateral pass from the near flank followed by an aggressive one touch pass to Ronaldo in the last line.
This was one of Real’s patterns of attack in the first half. The presence of Isco or any other player in the ball side half space – as shown above – was crucial because it fixed Tottenham’s ball side wing back as well as created a vertical passing lane for Marcelo to access the onrushing 9 (Benzema in the picture). On other occasions, with Isco in the near half space, the Spaniard was able to act as the outlet for Marcelo should Marcelo be under a heavy touchline press.
Mid-block stabilized Tottenham’s defense
One of the most striking features in Real Madrid’s possession has been their secure-approach possession. Initially, Real established a very secure build up as they put 6-7 players in the first two lines. Tottenham didn’t come up with a high press to deal with it, instead, as mentioned above, the hosts opted to invite Real to come out using a middle block.
Also, Pochettino’s boys never seemed to insist on maintaining the high press all the time. Tottenham looked to take control by preferring to drop into a middle block as well as allowing spaces for the visitors to overload their own early third. This in turn, allowed a lot of spaces for Real to make a fast progression into the middle third. But, again, when the progression approached the middle-third, Tottenham’s press was able to slow down the speed and contain it into a less strategic location. On the other hand, the configuration of Real’s diamond also often was the case of why Tottenham’s midfielders seemed reluctant to make an intense and immediate press to the ball carrier on a regular basis. Tottenham opted to collectively drop off and establish a more secure block in middle third.
With this middle press set up and support from the first line of press, Tottenham often able to secure the central area as they managed to block the central access. Alli provided a lot of cover to the space in front of Tottenham’s midfield line. This, in turn, not only triggered Real to play deep passes right to the last line (to Ronaldo or Benzema) but also encouraged Real to switch the play from side to side. Sometimes, as mentioned above, Real switched to the far half space (to Modric, for example) then continued the progression by playing a flat long ground pass to the onrushing striker in the last line. A diagonal run by Real’s 8 (Modric, for instance) towards the ball side flank or half space often dragged Alli into Tottenham’s middle third (deeper area). As a result, with a simple diagonal backward pass from Modric to any Real player in the vacated space, the visitors managed to gain room to play a switch ball to the other flank.
The vertical compactness within Tottenham’s block was also provided by the back line. The central trio managed to keep their access to the second line. Onward pressing into the 6 space could properly be covered by the backward movement of the near midfielder as well as the horizontal support by the center half.
Real’s pressing issue
One of the issues in Real’s press was that it was hard for the visitors to secure the space behind their first line of press. For example, in a high press, Ronaldo, Benzema, and Kroos stepped high up the pitch and put a press to Tottenham’s first line. With proper timing and intensity, this should have made it hard for Tottenham to progress, but, practically, it became problematic since the cover behind the first line of press was weak. At times, there was even no cover at all. The following issue arose when the deeper midfielder stepped up to cover the vacated space. Such a cover was often done without proper coordination. As a result, it opened up the intermediate space in front of Real’s last line. This was a crucial tactical situation. Why? Because, in Tottenham’s possession and progression there would be at least one player occupying the space in front of Real’s defense. Alli, Eriksen, or Kane were the players with such a role. Without proper cover to the said space, the back line would be easily exposed. Such a similar issue was not only found in a high press, but it could also be identified in Real’s low block, particularly when the defense transitioned from a middle one into a low block.
In the second half Real Madrid kept suffering from such an issue. Weak pressing reference weakened the coordination of press and consequently weakened the cover at 6 space which enabled Alli to be free and comfortably receive a flat ground pass from Eric Dier. This scene ended up with Alli slotting the second goal after taking on Casemiro.
One of Tottenham’s penetration patterns into the box was that they tried to make use of the flank to open up access in the center and exploit the said space using a diagonal-like structure. One of the patterns they used was circulating the ball wide followed by a backward diagonal pass to the midfielders in the same wing and near half space followed by a diagonal onward pass to the center or, at times, they played an aerial diagonal ball to the far side wing back.
Tottenham’s first goal was started from a similar situation. An attack from the wide area was shifted toward the center before Winks released an aerial ball to the onrushing Trippier which ended up with Alli opening the scoring.
Real changed to a three at back
In the second half, Zidane made a structural adjustment as he shifted from a 4-4-2 diamond to a 3-1-4-2 one. Nacho and Ramos flanked Casemiro as the center halves; Kroos was the nominal 6; Modric and Isco at 8 had the freedom to move across the pitch; Hakimi and Marcelo were the wing backs;. Benzema-Ronaldo formed the duo in the last line.
One of the advantages of Real’s back three was that it invited more pressure from both of Tottenham’s central-8. As the consequence, the space behind the said central-8 was opened up as well as created access for Real to progress.
Defensively, this back three also provided more secure cover for Real at their own 6. This can be identified when Tottenham circulated the ball in order to invite Real to come out and they managed to find passing room for any progression into the intermediate-defense of Real’s block. With three presences in the last line, if one of the defenders stepped up, Real still had enough cover for their last line as there were two players to cover the back line. Weirdly, at times, Real lost their pressing coordination which again allowed the same issue to occur.
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