Chelsea left Spain with a crucial away goal on Tuesday night,
drawing 1-1 with Real Madrid in the first leg of their Champions
League semi-final tie. An early Christian Pulisic strike was
cancelled out later in the first half by Karim Benzema’s beautiful
volleyed equaliser. The performance and result is a positive one for
the Premier League side, though there is still a lot of work to do to
win this tie. Here, we at Tribal Football break down the game…
There was uncertainty over how Zinedine Zidane would line up
his Real Madrid side before this game. While his preferred
formation is a 4-3-3, he has also experimented with a back five in
recent weeks, and that’s how he set up for this game. Madrid were
in a 5-3-2 with Dani Carvajal and Marcelo on the flanks either side
of Eder Militao, Raphael Varane and Nacho. The usual midfield
three of Luka Modric, Casemiro and Toni Kroos remained, while
Benzema was joined up front by Vinicus Junior.
Thomas Tuchel chose the same approach that he has chosen for
previous big games: a back five with Mason Mount providing
flexibility as a third man in midfield or attack depending on the
situation. Cesar Azpilicueta started at right wing-back,
allowing Andreas Christensen to join Thiago Silva and Antonio
Rudiger in central defence. N’Golo Kante partnered Jorginho in
midfield, while Mount moved between them and the front two of
Pulisic and Timo Werner.
Chelsea started the game positively, testing Real Madrid’s defence
with long balls over the top of their back line. When teams aren’t
used to playing with three centre-backs there can be confusion
among the players, and Chelsea looked keen to explore this early
on against Madrid. They used their right-footers playing on the left
side (Rudiger, Jorginho or Mount) to open up and play diagonals
over the top for angled runs behind by Pulisic.
It took Chelsea precisely 30 seconds to try this ploy as Pulisic
nearly connected with a Jorginho pass.
About 14 minutes later,
Pulisic timed his run between the centre-backs perfectly, latched
onto a ball over the top by Rudiger, and rounded
goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois to score.
Real Madrid could have prevented this goal by pressing the ball
with greater intensity and not giving Rudiger the time to play his
pass. However, whenever they did try to press, they were
consistently opened up.
Zidane’s choice of formation appeared an attempt at mirroring the
opponent, allowing for natural match-ups and man-to-man
pressing. Modric stepped up to join Benzema and Vinicius in
pressing Chelsea’s back line 3-v-3, Casemiro and Kroos covered
Jorginho and Kante, while Carvajal and Marcelo pressed Chelsea’s
wing-backs. This left Madrid’s centre-backs in a dangerous 3-v-3
against Pulisic, Werner and Mount, though if the pressing
worked Chelsea wouldn’t be able to access it. Unfortunately for
Zidane, the man-to-man pressing did not work.
Time after time, Real Madrid lost their 1-v-1 battles. And when this
happened, Chelsea broke through into a huge amount of open
space. With Kante making clever runs from midfield to join in with
Mount, Pulisic and Werner, Chelsea streamed forward at speed. It
looked like they were counter-attacking, so vast were the gaps
available to them, but these moments sprung from their own build-
up from the back and Real Madrid’s failed attempts at pressing.
Having quick runners and talented dribblers constantly driving
directly at the last line is a sure-fire sign that things needed to
change for the home side, but Zidane didn’t alter his team’s shape.
Instead, Madrid came out for the second half with a more passive
Thanks to a stunning moment of quality from Benzema on a corner
kick, Real Madrid were level at 1-1 despite being largely out-played
in the first half. Aware of the risks of conceding a second away
goal, they sat off Chelsea more and pressed on passes into
midfield. Now Chelsea’s centre-backs had more time to play, but
there was less last-ditch, high-wire defending for the likes of
Varane, Militao and Nacho to do.
Another issue for Real Madrid in the first half was keeping hold of
possession. When building an attack, Modric and Kroos dropped
into the space outside of the centre-backs, allowing Carvajal and
Marcelo to move forward down the wings or come inside to
midfield. But these rotations had no effect on a zonal Chelsea side
who simply stuck to their 5-3-2 defensive shape.
All of this meant that, in the first half, Modric and Kroos would get
the ball in wider areas deep in their own half, come under some
pressure from, say, Mount or Kante, and then completely lacked
forward options. Benzema sometimes showed for the ball but
Vinicius wanted to stay high and get in behind, while Casemiro,
Marcelo and Carvajal were either blocked or surrounded by blue
Due to the positions of Modric and Kroos, as well as the lack of
options, Real Madrid found moving the ball forward a bit of a
struggle. However, in the second half their possession improved
significantly. They kept the ball for longer sequences and moved it
at a higher tempo. One of the reasons for this was Modric and
Kroos playing closer together. Instead of both taking up wider
positions, they came central more and could therefore combine
more easily with one another and their teammates.
The graphic below, courtesy of WhoScored, underlines this small
second-half adjustment. On the left we see the touches of Modric
and Kroos in the first half, when they were playing wider. And on
the right we see the second half, where they (particularly Modric)
played more centrally.
Chelsea looked set to blitz past Real Madrid in the first half of this
game and were unfortunate not to go into half-time one or two
goals up. In the second half, Zidane and his players found a more
balanced defensive approach, conceded fewer chances and kept
hold of the ball for longer – their possession share went up from
48% at half-time to 53% by full-time.
There are reasons for Tuchel and Chelsea to be optimistic going
into the second leg. The onus , after all, is on Real Madrid to score
an away goal. But this tie is finely poised, and a small error or
moment of brilliance can completely change the picture. Real
Madrid have gotten a handle on Chelsea’s game, and they have 90
more minutes to complete the turnaround.
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