Real Madrid – PSG: An analysis of Madrid defensive animation

Real Madrid is full of doubts, as they face offensive powerhouse PSG. With the BBC back, Isco and the 442 seem to be putted aside by Zidane, and French coach should rather go 4-1-4-1. Madrid’s defensive balance has often been precarious in this organisation.


Ramos’ joy, as he qualifies Madrid in Napoli after a difficult night for Los Blancos

Double crown European Champions Real Madrid has often at the edge, on the way to this historical achievement. In Naples, when Mertens hit the post at 2-3 aggregate. In Munich when Vidal sends his penalty in the stars, as the score was 1-0 in the first half of the first tie. Even in the 2016 final, Madrid didn’t resist Atletico’s positional play, as they conceded a penalty by Pepe, then a goal by Carrasco on open play.

It’s Madrid’s DNA: With so much creative talent on the pitch, defensive balance is often precarious.

Middle-High Block : Responsible center backs / questionable alignment

When Madrid lines up in 4141 with the BBC, it’s rare to see them very high and aggressive when the opposition play out from the back. Whether in Naples or in Munich during last year campaign, Madridistas have let opposition create conditions for numerical superiority on the first pass.

Against Valencia, Kroos was defending a bit higher than Modric to help Benzema handle Parejo and the center backs. It was also the case against Napoli’s 4-3-3 last year, with Modric being closer to Hamsik, preventing him from facing the play. It wouln’t be a surprise to see Kroos that agressive against Verratti.

Against Bayern, danger would come from both sides. Madrid played deeper; Benzema was standing in front of a passive Los Blancos block against Xabi Alonso and the two CBs.

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The most important feature about Madrid’s defensive animation is the attitude of the center backs and Casemiro.

In most of the team lining up a back4, defenders are the last link in the chain. They remain compact and they are supposed to be protected by the rest of the team, constantly looking forward to face the ball holder and remain behind the ball.

In this Madrid unit, it is not rare to see Ramos or Varane go out on an opponent placed between the lines. Just like it would the case in a 5men backline. The difference is that mutual cover would exist more naturally in this type of defensive system.

1214 d,5

Ramos follow Muller as he drops back. This movement destroys Madrid’s alignment, as Javi Martinez can play forward. On the wing, Robben in a 1v1 situation with Marcelo, who is playing offside trap on the edge.

1338 B 4

Parejo is free as he faces the play. Rodrigo drops back, Varane comes out to mark him. The alignment is affected by the Frenchman’s move. Nacho and Carvajal have to control the depth without a numerical superiority

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Can PSG use their quality, width and depth to make the most of Madrid’s defensive issues, mostly alignment ?

When Varane or Ramos go up, alignment is naturally affected. Fullback’s horizontal compactness becomes a core issue for Real Madrid. With a center backs going up on opposition’s player between the lines, they are the ones supposed to drop back to control the depth, almost as “libero-fullbacks”.

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Zidane, during the 2016 half time in Milan: (him = Griezmann). (from the documentary « In the heart of la Undecima » – Real Madrid TV)

This compactness was obvious during the second leg in Napoli. Moreover, it’s a mistake by Carvajal (attracted on the wing by Ghoulam) who offers Mertens the possibility to be in front in San Paulo, as Casemiro uncovered the Belgium man.

2331 B

Carvajal is driven away by Ghoulam and forgets Insigne. Italian winger receives the ball as Casemiro is too late to prevent him facing the play.

Theoretically, Casemiro is supposed to be “the libero” of the midfield and cover everybody. If you bring him far from his bases (on the goal kick?), then you have a major chance to create chaos.

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Casemiro cuts a pass which would have led to a 4v4 situation against Levante’s attack

Low Block: Casemiro the resin

Once the opponent has secured ball possession in Madrid’s side, Real move to a sort of back5. Casemiro fills all of the “holes” created by the opposition’s positional play and width.

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Zidane, during the 2016 final’s half time.

The Brazilian is often standing is the ball-side halfspace. He would often turn into a 5th defender to help Varane and Ramos control the depth, if the opponent is about to look for a cross or a forward pass in the center of the pitch.

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The weakness of the second curtain (filled with Bale – Modric – Kroos and (sometimes) Ronaldo) is allowing opposition to work Madrid on the width with a certain security.

With center backs likely to go out and destroy the alignment, holes are created in Madrid’s defence if Casemiro is not here to cover. For example, after a switching play. Against Napoli, Allan reached Mertens in the right half-space, as Casemiro was not there to cover. His shot hit the post, as it would have put Napoli it front. Against Bayern, Lahm finds Muller in the same conditions, in Sergio Ramos’ back, as Muller was onside.

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Against PSG, another question will be asked: who would handle Neymar when PSG attacked in opposition side ? At this moment, the Brazilian star is no longer a winger, and looks forward to face the play to create danger by shooting or passing. It will probably be Modric’s job. If a ball leaves Neymar’s foot toward Mbappe or Cavani, Madrid are in huge danger.

The controversy of PSG’s 2nd goal in Lille highlights PSG’s ability to viciously make the most of passive offside position. It’s a systematic circuit, and it’s not a matter of fact that Neymar is Ligue 1 top assister.

Also, in this case, a simple switching play could take Ramos out of the backline, in a zone where Mbappe and Cavani are ready to finish. The French youngster loves the “Callejon call” and he would be lethal if Verratti or Neymar are free enough to find him in the back of the defence.

madrid psg repli

Unlikely, however not totally pointless: Zidane could solve this problem by lining up a (real, this time) back5. With the likes of Nacho – Varane and Ramos in the center, Casemiro could face Neymar when Madrid sets back. The center backs would be able to go out on players between the lines with a better cover. This schema would also offer Madrid possibilities to press high and “full-pitch”, as they did in El Clasico. And as Barça did during la Remontada.

Madrid back against the wall

The main stakes of a good defensive animation are always the same:

  • Control the ball holder
  • Limit the influence of the most creative players
  • Control the depth

With their alignment issues and the lack of defensive activity of their offensive players, Madrid are often in trouble to achieve this purpose. The multiplicity of PSG’s creative players (to play out from the back, as to create danger in opposition side) as well as the quality of Cavani and Mbappe’s runs, are putting Real Madrid in front of a big defensive challenge.

With 2 teams void of defensive certainties, the game will probably be decided on the psychological side. The team more able to dictate play will surely qualify. This is why the first half of the first leg in Madrid will be so decisive, in order to take the lead, and control the game…





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