Real Madrid versus Paris Saint-Germain, battle of the stars, a final before its time. Every football fan was excited to see how two of the most exciting sides in European Football will square up at the Santiago Bernabeu for the first leg of the Round of 16.

It was expected that the match would witness goals due to the defensive deficiencies that both teams are suffering from in this season. However, let’s be reminded that this competition is the UEFA Champions League; Real Madrid’s favorite ladies and gentlemen.

Let’s dig down into the tactical details explaining how each team thought of canceling out its rival with Real Madrid being the victorious one in this fixture.

Squads

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Made using TacticalPad

Real Madrid (4-4-2 diamond) – Coach: Zinedine Zidane

Navas; Nacho, Varane, Ramos, Marcelo; Casemiro, Modric, Kroos, Isco; Benzema, Ronaldo.

PSG (4-3-3) – Coach: Unai Emery

Areola; Dani Alves, Marquinhos, Kimpembe, Berchiche; Lo Celso, Verratti, Rabiot; Mpabbe, Cavani, Neymar.

 

Zidane started with the formation that won him last season’s edition; the 4-4-2 diamond with the only change being Nacho for the suspended Carvajal. Nacho is somehow slower and more defensive minded than his fellow Spaniard, something that acted as a two-edged sword for Los Merengues which I’ll explain later.

For PSG, Emery stuck to the favored 4-3-3 to capitalize on the attacking talent of his front three. The changes were Kimpembe and Lo Celso instead of Thiago Silva and Thiago Motta. In theory, when adopting the 4-3-3, the wingers must be extremely diligent in carrying out their defensive duties, was that the case for PSG?

Real Madrid Press

Even though it wasn’t a perfectly coordinated press, Real Madrid managed to force PSG into errors while the Parisiens were trying to build up play from the back. The energy from Zidane’s men was apparent in this match, there was no backing down and no option but to win.

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That was from the first 30 seconds of the game. Madrid initiated their press from the very first whistle, aiming to create fear within PSG’s players, a clear case of taking the offensive, at least in the initial stages of the game, looking to press home their advantage of playing in the Bernabeu.

As seen in the image above, PSG were forced towards the sideline, which acted as a second defender for Madrid. Benzema did a good job in positioning himself between the two Paris players to prevent any switch of play. Casemiro going all the way upfield shows how fearless Zidane was in deploying the press. This was also beneficial for the home side as there was not much space in between the lines when the team moved up to press.

For Paris this would’ve been easily solved with Cavani dropping deep and acting as a fourth midfielder, but that’s not the way he plays, which made PSG’s night even worse.

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7 players from Real Madrid in PSG’s half, Champion’s personality written all over it, man-marking the whole of PSG’s midfield. Looking at Cavani again, if the Uruguayan had dropped a little bit deeper, he would’ve opened a passing lane to himself in order to rid his team from the high pressure. That’s why these fixtures are decided upon small details.

On the other hand, the home team succeeded in closing down space and prevent the ball to reach PSG’s front three so often. In addition to that, second balls were won also, making Emery’s night extremely tough.

PSG’s press

PSG sporadically pressed Real high up the pitch, but it was better off for them not to. Their press was extremely disjointed and not up to the level of such fixture.

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Let’s take a look at the picture above, is that how a brilliant team like Real Madrid, boasting one of the best midfield in Europe right now, should be pressed? Leaving their best player Luka Modric all alone with acres of space? Some might say that he’s far away from the ball and will not be accessible. That might be true, but not for a team of Real Madrid’s caliber, with their brilliant passing ability and press evasion.

Lo Celso should be the one covering Modric, since he’s the defensive midfielder. And the defensive midfielder’s job is to protect his back four.

Dealing with Neymar

There’s no doubt that Real would pay extra attention on Neymar’s side, we saw a defensive organization similar to that adopted against Robben last year.

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Whenever Neymar received the ball, Nacho would press him immediately, supported by Modric and Isco who cover Neymar’s potential path into the middle of the field. Not forgetting to mention Ronaldo who played a brilliant team game as we’ve seen him carrying out his defensive duties, tracking back into midfield with his teammates in the aim of supporting against Neymar.

This is not to say that Neymar couldn’t break free, he did and on several occasions too. But his final decision was extremely poor which allowed Real to grow back in the game at time when they were on the back foot. Despite boasting a number of successful take-ons, Neymar could not have much of an influence on the score line due to some diligent defending from the Madrid back line and poor decision making in other instances.

PSG’s counter leads to a goal

As seen against Bayern Munich at the early stages of the season, PSG were able to tear the Germans apart thanks to their electrifying counter attacks. As expected, PSG didn’t play a possession game against Los Blancos for two reasons:

To take advantage of Mbappe and Neymar’s pace on the counter behind Madrid’s attacking fullbacks.

To avoid getting into the midfield battle against Modric-Isco-Kroos-Casemiro; the brilliant quartet that dominated any team coming up against them.

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PSG’s first goal came after bad defensive coverage from Real’s midfield; acting as a reminder that Los Blancos’ defense still suffers when attacked. Casemiro was nowhere to be seen here forcing Isco and Modric to cover the space vacated by the Brazilian. Rabiot broke free in the most dangerous area, capitalizing on the second ball after Nacho’s clearance. This highlighted the advantage of a well-timed run into the box, made late. It is difficult to pick on the runner, who has the advantage of reacting faster, with the momentum on his side, which was exactly what Rabiot benefited from.

Marcelo and Kroos went 2vs1 against Mbappe and failed. This forced Ramos and Casemiro into covering the left side creating space in the middle. At times, Mbappe appeared the most dangerous of the attacking trio taking advantage of his pace and dribbling quality on the ball.

Madrid’s Resurgence

After the first goal, Madrid upped the pressure on their opponent and started focusing more on the wings due to the low defensive work rate for PSG’s Neymar and Mbappe. A common tactic was used again and again which gave Madrid the edge:

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The ball would be switched from one fullback to another, in this case Nacho. Nacho would then advance diagonally infield and his midfield partner Modric would move outside to take his place. This would leave the opposing fullback facing a 2v1 situation after Nacho passes the ball to Modric, the Croatian now has an option to cross or square it back to the fullback who is inside the box; and that’s what happened leading to a dangerous chance for Real Madrid.

This move looks similar to the one carried out against Juventus in last year’s final which lead them to score the first goal of that match. Ronaldo took the ball and cut inside giving it to the overlapping fullback who squared it back to the Portuguese, quick attacking wing play at its best.

Zidane’s substitutions swing it in Madrid’s favor:

After equalizing, Cavani was pulled out by Emery in what was considered the weirdest decision of the game. Cavani taken out meant that Mbappe played as the striker, with Dani Alves pushing up to take an attacking position. However, this freed up Marcelo and Zidane capitalized on that by including Lucas Vazquez and Asensio switching it to a flat 4-4-2.

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This lead to full-throttle mayhem on Paris’ wings adding to the fact that Neymar doesn’t defend and Alves is somehow slow. Attack after attack, Madrid scored two goals in succession to end the tie. Marcelo’s goal came from the same tactic mentioned above, Asensio taking the wing with overloads from Kroos and Bale gave Marcelo the chance to run into the box to receive the low cross and slot it home.

Zidane’s got guts and managed to lead his team into a brilliant performance against one of the most feared teams in attack. Emery should’ve known after last year’s 6-1 against Barcelona that Champions League is for the fearless and courageous. When the opportunity presents itself, the team should take advantage of it and go all in.

Conclusion

Real Madrid’s favorite competition, the Champions League. Sometimes the game does not entirely depend on tactics or strategies. It all goes down to psychology and fearlessness. When watching Real Madrid throughout all this season, the problem is surely mental and not physical.

Zidane still has the full support of his players as shown by Marcelo’s celebrations. This goes back to Zidane’s press conference where he ensured to the press and public that he has full trust in his players no matter what happens. Definitely this left the players in huge awe, when Madrid’s legend is fighting for you in front of everyone, you better repay his loyalty in the most suitable way possible; and that’s what was shown against PSG.

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Khaled Bou Mehdi

Passionate fan of the beautiful game. Avid reader of football articles with a special focus on possession-based teams. Loves Pep Guardiola.
Khaled Bou Mehdi