Real Madrid are the undoubted kings of the Champions League and reigning champions of the tournament, and they returned to knock-out action with a visit to Dutch champions Ajax.
It was a shaky first half which saw Nicolas Tagliafico’s effort ruled out by VAR, with Karim Benzema opening the scoring to give Real Madrid the lead. Hakim Ziyech pulled one back but in the end it was Marco Asensio’s late goal which was the winner as he tapped in from close range to seal a 2-1 win.
Our tactical analysis will use statistics to identify what key points Real Madrid’s Santiago Solari can take from the game.
Benzema and Vinicius have formed a partnership
Benzema and Vinicius Junior have become two of the first names on the teamsheet in recent weeks, with only two games in 2019 not having featured the duo starting alongside each other. The relationship between them is flourishing and Solari’s side are beginning to reap the rewards, as their link-up play against Ajax looked the strongest yet. There was no clearer demonstration than with the movement between them for Real Madrid’s opening goal.
Sergio Reguilon played a chipped pass over the top to exploit Vinicius’ pace down the flank, cutting inside. Benzema was quick to spot Vinicius’ move inside and tracked back, making room for him to continue his run without blocking off his path. Vinicius spotted it and looked to play him in, teeing him up perfectly to rocket the ball into the back of the net.
Wednesday evening was far from either forward’s strongest display in recent weeks, but it did show how their connection can make the difference. Lacking the one, individual superstar to win games single-handedly as Cristiano Ronaldo did in the past, Real Madrid may finally have found the alternative. What few people saw coming was not who it would be, rather that it would be a combination of two excellent players. Even on off days when neither is at their deadly best, they have enough about them to break the deadlock in difficult circumstances.
Sloppy mistakes are all too common
For only the second time in 2019, Real Madrid were outscored on xG and it could easily be said that Ajax can feel hard done by with the final result. Not only was one goal controversially ruled out by VAR, but the likes of Dusan Tadic and Ziyech himself may feel that they should have done better with their own chances. Whilst that was partly down to the intensity of Ajax’s attacking play, that intensity also forced some rather basic errors from the Real Madrid defence.
For Ziyech’s goal, Real Madrid were caught out as Lucas Vazquez lost possession in the middle. Sergio Reguilon and the entire midfield were caught too high up the field. That forced Sergio Ramos to track Ziyech, though he did a poor job of it. Ramos looked to block the cross, expecting a deeper pass, but lost track of Ziyech drifting in behind him and holding back his run. Reguilon could not make it back to cover him either, leaving the Ajax man space to convert.
Such errors, much like the fumble from Thibaut Courtois that almost gifted Ajax the lead in the first half, are factors which a team with the quality of Real Madrid should be avoiding. In recent weeks, they have looked defensively stable, but individual errors coming in to play could easily be a sign of fatigue setting in to some weary legs having faced the likes of Atletico Madrid and Barcelona over the past week.
Asensio the super sub
Given only 21 minutes, Asensio was introduced with Santiago Solari looking for a matchwinner. Having not started since December and with only 74 minutes of action since across three appearances, it was a big ask for a player without a goal against top flight opposition since September. Yet, right from the off, he looked a completely different player, brimming with confidence rather than looking like the lost puppy that he has at times this season.
Introduced on the left, he often found himself moving central and occupying the space left by Mariano Diaz as he came deep to collect the ball. That allowed him to get his shots away from distance, managing five efforts in total, four of them from outside the box. The one that really mattered came in the closing stages as Asensio spotted Dani Carvajal break on the counter and immediately looked to get past Donny van de Beek, accelerating at lightning speed which the defender simply could not keep up with.
Asensio beat his man and found himself in enough space to tap in Carvajal’s perfectly delivered cross. It was a justified and deserved reward for the Spaniard and many will hope that it is the start of a revival. Given the expectations for him at the start of the campaign, it is time that he upped his performance levels. The 20 minutes he played against Ajax were more like the kind of difference that he has been expected to make.
Another wasted opportunity for Bale
Having come as an impact substitute at the Wanda Metropolitano at the weekend, he offered little but got on the scoresheet. Selected to start in Amsterdam, this was his big opportunity to show what he could contribute from the right, starting ahead of Vazquez. He failed to grasp it, registering just three touches inside the box and failing with his only attempted cross.
What was more concerning was how he struggled, more than anyone else, to match Ajax’s intensity. As they pressed high, Bale was pushed back and found it near impossible to get out of his own half at times. In fact, so little was his contribution that he would drift centrally or even over towards the left to try to find an escape route but found no luck. He did gain more possession, with 18 received passes compared to just 10 for Vinicius, who remained more advanced in his positioning, but did little with it.
To some extent, it may have been expected given that it was only his second start of the calendar year. Following the news that he may face suspension for his celebration against Atletico, it was not a good day for Bale and it was yet another chance to prove a point wasted. With Asensio making an impact, the Welshman may soon find himself falling even further down the pecking order.
Real Madrid not being at their best and winning in Europe is nothing new. It was surprising on this occasion, given the ease with which Los Blancos have floated through some complicated fixtures in recent weeks, overcoming Sevilla, beating Atletico Madrid and drawing with Barcelona at Camp Nou. Confidence seemed to be sky high, but on Wednesday the Real Madrid of old, conceding 2.36xG, made a return. The result is what mattered, but this must be a blip rather than a return to old.
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