Real Madrid’s win at Chelsea was the result of four key tactical themes
“Even by football’s crazy standards, (Real) Madrid are in a class of their own,” wrote Carlo Ancelotti in his autobiography ‘Quiet Leadership’.
In beating Chelsea over both legs, the man who led Madrid to ‘La Decima’ (their 10th European Cup title) in 2014, has now taken them to an 11th Champions League semi-final in 13 seasons. In that time, they have won the trophy on five occasions and could retain it for a third time in June.
There were four key tactical themes to their win on Tuesday night:
From early in the game, it was evident that right-wing-back Reece James was not concerned with Vinicius Jr’s positioning. This felt risky, especially following the first leg in Madrid, where Chelsea interim manager Frank Lampard explained the Brazilian was “partly the reason” for playing a back five, as “one-v-one, (he is) a big problem for any team, so we wanted to create two-v-one on that side of the pitch”.
Instead, James pressed left-back Eduardo Camavinganominally a central midfielder but a left-footer who Ancelotti has frequently played in that role — it is something the France international “doesn’t like” but “playing as a full-back now will make him learn some defensive things that will help him in the future,” said Ancelotti.
This required right centre-back Fofana (6ft 1in; 186cm) to track Vinicius Jr, who would routinely drop deep to pull the Chelsea player high and then look to sprint into the space behind.
Madrid’s first-half build-up was not perfect but, importantly, they made few errors.
As Chelsea looked to stop Madrid’s left-sided build-up at source, the visitors switched play to the right. Here, Camavinga finds right-back Dani Carvajalwho almost dribbles to the halfway line before Conor Gallagher fouls him.
To find Vinicius Jr, Real played more diagonals from deep, with right centre-back Eder Militao often going over James.
Here, the wing-back recovers but does not decelerate in time and Vinicius Jr skips past him…
… but overhits the back-post cross.
These diagonals continued throughout the first half, but Vincius Jr’s final ball lacked quality.
Madrid’s biggest strength is how varied an attacking team they are, even if they (wrongly) aren’t rated as Europe’s most tactically nuanced side.
The positioning — or lack of — of right-winger Rodrygo proved pivotal. He frequently hugged the touchline to stretch the play but would also go across to the left wing and combine with Benzema and Vinicius Jr.
Here, he starts centrally (out of shot) as Luke Modric’s position draws Gallagher’s press…
… dropping into the space to receive and set to Carvajal.
The dominoes fall because Chelsea wing-back Marc Cucurella then has to jump up to press Carvajal, and matthew kovacic goes tight to Rodrygo, allowing Modric to make a third-man run and receive to slide Rodrygo through — but his cross ends up being cleared.
Without possession, Real had some issues defending against Chelsea’s box midfield.
Kante and Gallagher were Chelsea’s No 10s, playing ahead of defensive midfielders Enzo Fernandez and Kovacic (all in yellow dots below), a midfield that Lampard called “big energy; big organisation”.
Kante frequently looked to run between Camavinga and david praises (left centre-back). Gallagher made these runs too, but Carvajal defended them better.
Here Kante’s cross is overhit — just five of Chelsea’s 28 crosses were touched first by a team-mate — and Real manage to break, with Vinicius Jr finding Modric’s forward run.
“I think we suffered (because of) the position of Kante; Camavinga was used to put pressure on James and we had difficulty controlling Kante,” said Ancelotti.
“In the second half, I put Valverde on the left to control the position and we were much better there.”
Valverde’s first action of the second half is to intercept Cucurella’s pass inside to Kante. Look at Gallagher’s run, too.
Real’s two goals neatly encapsulated these tactical themes.
For the first, they play left to right from a throw-in, with Benzema deep, and pressed by James, passing back to Militao.
Though for all of their first-half work in manipulating Chelsea’s right side to find Vinicius Jr on the left, the goal ironically comes down the right. Cucurella presses Militao, and the Brazilian passes round him to Rodrygo…
… with the issue clearer from this tactical camera. That leaves Trevoh Chalobah as the closest defender — he is in the centre circle as the pass is played.
The 23-year-old shows incredible speed to get across but is milliseconds too late with his challenge, and Rodrygo skips away.
Rodrygo’s cutback goes all the way through to Vinicius Jr — Benzema threw himself at it but couldn’t quite reach — and he returns it for a tap-in. Real have only three onside players in Chelsea’s box, against six defenders, and show composure as Lampard’s men panic.
Benzema should have doubled the lead less than 10 minutes later, again deep at the start of the move.
Valverde’s slight movement inside opens the pass from Toni Kroos to Rodrygo.
Rodrygo, Valverde and Benzema then combine excellently. Valverde’s run inside Cucurella is supplied by Rodrygo, who gets the ball back via Benzema’s deft backheel.
Rodrygo switches to Vinicius Jr and then decides to overlap him…
… and after Vinicius Jr dribbles his way into the box, he is tackled. Rodrygo plays a cutback to Benzema, but he shoots straight at Kepa Arrizabalaga.
Then Real did make it 2-0 — a 27-pass move lasting 72 seconds. Ancelotti described both goals as “a fantastic combination”.
There have been only two longer goals in the Champions League this season, one of which was Eden Hazard’s for Madrid at Celtic in the group stages (33 passes; 97 seconds).
Again Rodrygo is over on the left after combining with Vinicius Jr. Centre-back Thiago Silva has stepped out to mark Rodrygo, vacating space in behind, which former Chelsea centre-back Antonio Rudiger (on as a substitute for Alaba) exploits.
The pass looks intended for Daniel Ceballosa second-half substitute for Kroos, making another of those forward central midfielder runs. But he lets it run for Vinicius Jr, who has got in behind a tired Fofana.
And he pulls it back for the unmarked Valverde, who dribbles past Mykhailo Mudryk and Silva, leaving the former on the floor, before squaring it to Rodrygo.
There is a consensus that Real are never really playing at full throttle — underpinned by the seniority of some of their core players, maybe — but perhaps they do not need to. They silently and cleverly adapt in games to control opponents.
“We try,” was Ancelotti’s response on his club going for a 15th European title.
The competition’s most decorated team and most decorated manager are doing what they do best.
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