These observations — where I look at Real Madrid’s history, its players on loan, Castilla, tactical tidbits, and other relevant thoughts — are now a regular thing. All previous editions can be found here.
Pep vs Real Madrid. It’s been too long. This eternal rivalry will never get old.
The timing of this particular matchup is interesting. Manchester City are done and dusted in the Premier League. The Champions League — Guardiola’s bogey since 2011 — may not be attainable in the next two seasons if their ban from UEFA holds firm and City lose their appeal. They have nothing to play for but this. This may be the last swan song in the Champions League for some of Manchester City’s core players who may bolt at the thought of not playing on the world’s biggest stage for the next two years.
Do all of these factors make Manchester City more dangerous to play against?
This will be fascinating. Beyond all of the psychological tug-of-war that comes with a two-legged clash like this, there are so many tactical wrinkles to consider: Manchester City’s vulnerable high line and their offensive armageddon; the battle in midfield among some of the best central midfielders on earth; Zidane’s tactical dartboard; the strength from both teams on the flanks. Above all, this game is almost dead even if you take in the average of everyone’s hot expectations: The bookies have Manchester City as the favourite to win the Champions League, but Guardiola’s men haven’t met expectations this season, and Real Madrid went through a run of three months of good football. Zidane will play his best XI in both legs — eliminating some of the nagging kinks that come with rotations in La Liga in games where he’s dropped points. City have found their form again, and Real Madrid have gone through a three-game slump. Both teams are capable of jabbing each other before one of them lands the uppercut. Let’s rumble.
As always, two legs with Zidane involved means something juicy is bound to happen. Rarely has he steamrolled his way over two legs unscathed. (Think: the near-collapse against Juve after going up 0 – 3 in the first leg; bloodbaths against Bayern in extra time; the Wolfsburg comeback; edging out Manchester City in 2016 by one goal; going down two goals at the Calderon against Atleti after blitzing them 3 – 0 in the first leg.) Guardiola has a tendency to reinvent the wheel in the Champions League with wonky schemes — all to his downfall. Zidane’s surprises tend to work in big games.
City don’t want Real Madrid to get into their half — let alone their defensive third. They are woeful defending balls that test their high line. The best way Guardiola can limit opposition attacks is to stop their build-up high up the pitch. They will press aggressively at kick-off, and then counter-press relentlessly. If they have to defend deep, they prefer to do it against a slow-paced build-up rather than a blitz in transition. (City’s transition defense has actually been good this season, but if they don’t recover quickly enough, they’re toast. There is risk playing that way.) When the opposition’s offense decelerates, they can get good coverage from Raheem Sterling and Riyad Mahrez on the flanks. Real Madrid need press-resistancy and quick transition on both ends. Death by a thousand passes may end up similar to the game in the Camp Nou — safe, in (relative) control, but offensively defanged.
City may also just sneer at people writing them off for their defense, especially with Aymeric Laporte back now. They score more goals than any other team in the major leagues other than PSG. They are a chance-generating machine, and have an xG of 71.94 — an absolutely absurd number, more than any team in the top leagues. They are lethal, and have scored 68 goals in the Premier League — nearly matching their entire chance output. Kevin de Bruyne slings more assists than anyone in Europe.
Maybe over the course of the league campaign, City’s defense isn’t (and hasn’t been) good enough to win the league — especially against this Liverpool apocalypse. But over two legs, the ability to outscore your opponent goes a long way. Away goals can throw these ties into a tornado.
But any semi-competent defensive team with a good counter-attack has given Manchester City problems. They have trouble breaking down organized sides. Real Madrid have had one of the best defensive lines in Europe this season. They are essentially built for such an opponent in the Champions League — it’s why they have four European titles in the past six years.
Zidane has options to throw at Pep — each with its perils and upside. A 4-3-3 gives him pace on both flanks — something you want trying to catch City’s high line napping. It also gives you stability covering for Mendy and Carvajal against Sterling and Mahrez or Silva. Everyone assumes Bale will be cast aside in a game like this, but perhaps didn’t pay attention to his performance in the Camp Nou not long ago where he was one of Real Madrid’s best players, and gave Ernesto Valverde’s men so many problems with his quick passing into the final third, and his own runs in behind Jordi Alba. He is engineered for games like this.
Bale can also cover for Carvajal against a City side that has such a great two-way presence on both flanks, and if Zidane can get Bale the ball quickly in transition, the Welshman will have space to run in behind Benjamin Mendy. These big games offer Bale room to go on a blitz, when low blocks in La Liga offer less open water to navigate through.
But you have a better chance of knowing when aliens will arrive than knowing which version of Bale will show up. He is too variable in his output. Other wingers — Vinicius, Rodrygo, Vazquez — have a lower ceiling but a higher floor. Vinicius is not efficient in front of goal yet, but he is a line-breaking fireball and dynamos of chaos. You get guaranteed effort from those three aforementioned players. With Hazard out, there may yet still be room for both Vinicius and Bale on the flanks.
But the 4-3-3 may sacrifice control, and you may not need two wingers to catch City’s defensive line. Hazard on his own could’ve bent City’s defensive structure on the counter, and Benzema floats deep enough to get him the ball in transition. With the Belgian out, that onus could lie on Vinicius’s shoulders. An extra midfielder, Isco, can give you a nice balance of possession, press-resistancy, and key passes. Valverde is an underrated offensive weapon and good ball-carrier. All of that extra midfield girth can make up for playing without a right winger. Zidane can soak up possession on the left and allow Dani Carvajal to own the right flank offensively — making runs in behind Mendy while City uncomfortably shift over to the weak side. That scheme worked against PSG, but the most recent example of it against Levante was laborious, and ended in a loss. Part of that had to do with Real Madrid’s bad decision-making and finishing at the final hurdle.
(Worth nothing: In my chat with Manchester City fan and journalist Nico Morales on the Manchester City preview episode of the Managing Madrid Podcast, Nico was most terrified of Hazard and Bale — hoping that Zidane would try to control the game rather than blitz their shaky defensive line on the counter with a 4-3-3.)
City’s press typically is at its most aggressive to start the game. They tend to make adjustments as the game goes on. Maybe that changes on Wednesday. Against Wolves earlier this season, their line was suicidal. At half-time, Guardiola dialled it back, and the team started the second half in a deep defensive block. The damage had already been done. They were getting exploited regularly. Sometimes City are just brutally asleep defensively, neither pressing nor watching their defensive line:
But Wolves were comfortable playing long balls over City’s high line over and over again from deep. Zidane may not want to spend an entire half using Ramos and Varane as catapults to get the ball over the press and into the path of the attackers. His midfielders are too brainy to not be used as a funnel to overpower City’s midfield — especially with the injury to Hazard. But those balls are a tool to be used sporadically when Guardiola hedges the team high up the pitch.
Raphael Varane’s passing has been hit or miss this season. His long balls have been underwhelming, but he is ultimately a good distributor, and both he and Ramos can hit those long dinks — as can any of Kroos, Modric, or Casemiro if they drop in between the center-backs.
(Varane misplaces 3.5 of his 7.8 long balls per game. For comparison, the cyborg Kroos misplaces 1.1 of his 8.5 long balls, and Ramos and Casemiro both misplace 2.5 of their 8.65 long balls.)
City have tendencies to switch off defensively, and even when they don’t, a couple smart movements and passes can bypass their press, where someone like Vinicius can lick his lips if they can get him the ball in transition. But offensively, City are a tsunami, and Real Madrid’s defense will be tested over these two legs in ways they probably haven’t been tested yet this season.
If the passing and movement aren’t on point, you will surrender second and third waves of attacks at the hands of their counter-press:
Real Madrid have to set the tone early, sending a message that they will pass their way out of any City press — advancing the ball quickly towards Ederson who would be facing an attack without his shield. Blitz them early and efficiently, and make Guardiola second-guess whether he should be gambling his team so high up the pitch.
You can’t do it without at least one pacy attacking midfielder in the mould of Vinicius or Bale. In four of Manchester City’s big-game losses: Manchester United had Martial and Lingard; Tottenham had Son, Alli, and Lucas Moura; Wolves had Diogo Jota (as well as Adama Traore and Johnny Castro ploughing through on overloads); and we know what Liverpool have. Playing with just Benzema up top in front of a 4-5-1 would decimate your chances of exploiting City on the counter.
Tottenham did it ugly, and there is a certain sex-appeal for Zidane to not play like Mourinho did. He was never one to send his team into a bunker. He believes Real Madrid are always better than their opponent. He was the same way as a player. The Liverpool blueprint — a blend of pressing, suffocating defense on the flanks, overloads from full-backs, cross-field switching, and good spells of possession — may allure Zidane more.
The best option might be to just revisit the Clasico line-up: Casemiro, Valverde, Kroos, Isco, Bale, and Benzema. If I had a gun to my head and had to guess, that’s what we’ll see. It’s a blend of everything that Zidane wants with the players that he has available. He’ll get control, defensive stability, press-resistancy, and offensive build-up. What he may not get is goals. But he’ll run into that problem anyway regardless of his line-up — and sometimes you just need a prayer that one Real Madrid player — seriously, please, anyone — will show up and bail the team out by taking his chances in front of goal. They had everything in the Camp Nou apart from a goal.
The alternative version of that lineup features Vinicius instead of Bale, which makes the team even more asymmetrical, given the Brazilian’s natural role has him on the left, and Bale is a veteran right winger. But that scenario is not completely out of the question. Zidane does not mind asymmetry.
On the podcast, Nico felt it would be senseless for Zidane to try to control the game against City with possession, noting that few can do it, and that the most successful schemes against Pep have almost all been focused on counter-attacking. Take that for what you will. Real Madrid average 56% possession this season — 11th most in Europe. City sit at fourth with 61.5%. It’s their way of masking their defense. They also use that possession almost as efficiently as anyone in Europe.
Again, the Liverpool version of what you can do to Manchester City tells us something different. Just because you’re not counter-attacking away at Guardiola’s soul, doesn’t mean you can’t break his team down with calculated possession:
This is build-up in its purest form. It starts with the goalkeeper, and is filled with cross-field switching followed by vertical passing and off-ball movement. City are serenaded into shifting their defensive line with each switch, ungluing their players in the middle. They are all over the place. Again, at times they are compact, and would prefer to defend this way than on the counter if their press is taken out. But there is also this version of them, which evaporates into thin air with some good passing and movement.
That possession allows you to counter-press too. Real Madrid annoyed Barcelona in the Camp Nou with their press — stifling them into bad giveaways. That’s on the table if Zidane fights fire with fire — something he’s never afraid to do.
I don’t have a prediction going into this, but I lean towards the same hunch I had when the draw was made: 51% in favour of Real Madrid. I’m not ready to be phased by this three-game slump, yet. This team has a higher ceiling in big games. They’ve earned that recognition under Zidane in Europe. The remaining 49% is plenty of room for some bad things to happen over two legs.
Reminder: Live Managing Madrid Post-game Podcast for the Manchester City game in Madrid. Details here.