UEFA Champions League 2020/21: Borussia Monchengladbach vs Real Madrid- tactical preview
This year’s tightly scheduled UEFA Champions League gets back underway on Tuesday night, with Borussia Monchengladbach taking on a Real Madrid side fresh off an El Clásico victory at the weekend. Borussia Mönchengladbach sit fifth in the Bundesliga table at the time of writing, and have made probably a below expectations start to their season so far, with disappointing results against Union Berlin and Wolfsburg meaning they have registered eight points from five games. They did, however, get off to a solid start in the Champions League, picking up a point away to Inter Milan, while Real Madrid got off to a horrible start with a 3-2 home defeat against Shakhtar Donetsk. This tactical analysis will look to preview the game between Gladbach and Real Madrid, looking at the build-up tactics of both sides and how Gladbach could put another dent in Madrid’s qualification hopes with some intelligent pressing and build-up play.
Real Madrid’s build-up
Real Madrid are expected to line up in their 4-3-3 formation as they have in recent fixtures, but regardless of their formation they do have set principles and ideas that seem to overshadow the formation they play in. Within their 4-3-3, as most offensive-minded teams do, they will move their full-backs higher and wider into advanced areas to provide width, while the inside forwards within the 4-3-3 will operate within the half-space. Central striker Luka Jović is tasked with keeping that centrality in the team, meaning he can offer height in the team by attempting to run in behind, as well as offering that natural central pinning that strikers offer.
We can see an example of this below against Shaktar, with Marco Asensio in the half-space while Ferland Mendy looks to create width. Mendy will frequently provide width while also looking to get in behind, and these runs from depth can be useful when breaking down teams with good occupation of the half-space. Ideally, Jović would be in a more central position, as here following a switch in play he hasn’t quite adjusted position in order to provide that centrality.
We can see an example here where Real Madrid’s offensive structure is poor, with the attack again fairly lopsided following a switch in play. Because of this, it becomes the responsibility of Ferland Mendy to offer a penetrative option, which he does well with a pacey run from depth in behind. Occupation of the half-space is vital for Real Madrid in these kinds of situations, as the Betis full-back here only has Mendy to think about, and so, in theory, should be able to just track back with him. Having a player in the half-space in front of this full-back creates a decisional crisis for the full-back as they are occupied in front and behind, and so as a result at least one player can be found freely.
We can see a better example of this below with Real Madrid now settling into their offensive structure. Lucas Vázquez offers himself in the half-space and is able to occupy a very narrow full-back to press forward. As a result, Madrid’s full-back pushes on into the space created in behind, while Karim Benzema is offering that centrality and height well for a ball in behind.
Underpinning this higher occupation of the half-space, as well as their principles of centrality/height and width, is the creation of a back three using a central midfielder. The idea behind this is to not only create numerical superiority in the first phase, but to also allowing for greater width in the back line. The three man back line can stretch across the pitch more effectively, meaning that wide centre backs can often occupy the half-space and have a direct vertical option in the half-space. As a result of the lack of pressure generally seen against a wide centre back in a back three, the opposition’s second line can often be triggered to press, which helps to open the half-space further.
We can see an example here where Raphaël Varane is able to carry the ball deep in the half-space, and has the vertical option of Marco Asensio in the half-space. Ferland Mendy provides width, Jović provides centrality, while Valverde looks to act as a plus one in the half-space. If Madrid circulate the ball quick enough, they can access a Varane who has no pressure, and so he can drive forward to trigger a press from the opposition, which usually helps to open the half-space. Here though, Shaktar’s striker is able to maintain pressure on the ball despite being outnumbered 3v1, and so Shaktar’s second line is uncompromised.
This example from Vélez Sarsfield shows the intentions behind dropping a central midfielder into a back three. The two man first line press is stretched and overcome by the back three, and the wide centre back has time to drive forward, occupying a central midfielder in the second line. The central midfielder moves out to press, which opens up the half-space which is well occupied. Again notice how the wide player is occupied by a player off screen, so cannot protect the half space.
Real Madrid will look to create situations like this, but Gladbach will be well drilled in terms of their triggers for pressing and their coverage of the half-space.
Gladbach are extremely tactically flexible side, and so writing tactical previews about them is always interesting and challenging, especially in terms of their pressing. Gladbach’s most common pressing strategy is the 4-2-3-1, and I would expect this to be used again here. We can see here the potential pressing dynamics between the two sides, with Gladbach in black pressing against Real Madrid’s shape. A 4-2-3-1 allows for Real Madrid’s three-man midfield to be matched up, and for any potential overloads to be nullified if executed correctly. We can see an example of a potential 4-2-3-1 press below, where one striker presses the two centre backs, the wingers press the full-backs, and the pressing ten presses the ball near central midfielder/pivot. If possible, it may be optimal to have the striker press the centre backs while keeping the central pivot in his cover shadow, as this allows for the two holding midfielders to maintain cover in front of the back four. This press could be used within a mid-block or a high press.
From here, Gladbach could continue with their usual pressing scheme, or they could execute some kind of pressing trap such as the one below. The ball is forced into the full-back, where the winger can then press while cutting the lane down the line off. The pressing ten can press the ball near midfielder to prevent him from receiving, and the ball can be forced back to the right centre back. The striker sits slightly deeper to allow this pass back to happen, and when it does, this acts as a trigger for an arced run to cut off the left side of the pitch. As a result, when the centre back receives the ball, all the ball near options can be cut off, and Gladbach even have a plus one in their left-sided holding midfielder, who can provide cover for the defence in case of a long ball.
When pressing in order to cover the pivot, it is vital that after switches in play Gladbach are still able to maintain pressure on the pivot. We can see an example here where Madrid drop into a back three with Casemiro acting as a pivot, and following a switch in play Casemiro is able to be create separation from his marker in order to receive the ball. The Betis striker’s pressing angle doesn’t cut the lane to the pivot, and so Madrid can break the first line of pressure.
We can see a theoretical situation here below where the ball is switched across, with Real Madrid now operating in a double pivot. Due to the switch, the pressing ten cannot cover the opposite pivot in time, and so the responsibility could fall down to the pressing striker to cut this lane into the pivot as quickly as possible, in order to nullify that threat. The holding midfielders can also be tasked with situationally pressing higher against one of the pivots, but this is ideally done in more balanced situations where such a direct overload cannot be accessed. The nearby holding midfielder could allow the pivot to receive before then pressing in quickly, but this would have to be a managed risk.
If Real Madrid fall into a back three, they naturally reduce their numbers in central midfield. As a result, at times Gladbach could show Madrid into the middle of the pitch to create higher quality turnovers, and also to nullify the wing-back who is now in a higher position.
We can see they do this by having their right winger now press at a diagonal and leave the wing-back in his cover shadow. The pressing ten can mark the pivot, while the holding midfielders are matched up 2v1 against a more advanced midfielder. Even if Madrid drop to create a double pivot here, they then have very little options higher up the pitch, and so Gladbach would still be able to press with an extra player shielding the back line.
I was also planning on preparing some kind of an idea of an asymmetrical press in order to force Madrid to play down the right into the left-footed Ferland Mendy, who started as a right-back against Shakhtar. However, it seems as though Lucas Vázquez will start the game at right-back so I haven’t included it.
Real Madrid’s vulnerable pressing
If Real Madrid line up in their 4-3-3, we are likely to see them utilise their man-oriented 451 pressing scheme, which had disastrous effects against an intelligent Shakhtar Donetsk side.
We can see an example of their 451 man-oriented press in a high press here, with the roles of each player seen clearly. Real Madrid’s central midfielders are often tasked with pressing the wide centre backs, while the striker presses either another centre back or stands passively close to a very deep pivot or central centre back as they do here. We see here Valverde pushes higher to form a 4-4-2 for Madrid, as he gets into a position to press his centre back who is deeper. Modrić stands ahead of a central midfielder as he anticipates making a pressing run forward to Shakhtar’s right-sided centre back.
The ball is played into this player, and as a result Modrić moves higher to press. Madrid’s wingers stay deep often and look to mark the opposition full-backs and prevent them from receiving. In situations where both central midfielders are engaged then, Madrid are often left with only one central midfielder, and so teams will drop players into this area to create overloads. As a result, Madrid’s centre backs are very man-oriented and will follow players into the midfield in an attempt to nullify said overloads. This of course opens up space in behind, which we will talk about.
We can see another example here where Modrić moves higher to press a wide centre back, while Casemiro covers one midfielder and Marco Asensio does enough to cut the lane to the other midfielder. Again the centre back is dragged upwards to deal with a midfielder potentially receiving the ball unmarked, and so the space in behind him opens up. Shakhtar could be better spaced here, but especially in the first half were superb in their build-up to get in behind.
Real Madrid used this same shape at the weekend against Barcelona, but instead opted to press slightly deeper. We can see again though, that centre backs were pressed by central midfielders while wingers remained deep, and so centre backs, or in this case full-backs, had to become man oriented to prevent central progressions. As a result, opportunities opened up for midfield overloads as well as for opportunities to get in behind.
Key ideas for Gladbach in the build-up
For Gladbach to build past this type of Real Madrid press, the following ideas are vital:
- Overloading Casemiro
- To draw in a centre back
- Overload and pin the centre back
- Use opposite movements to penetrate in behind
- Engage central midfielders and switch play
The first, fundamental idea that needs to be achieved is some kind of midfield overload, which is usually done on the middle central midfielder as he does not press higher. We can see an example here where Modrić moves higher to press the wide centre back, and so Casemiro now drops slightly deeper to cover. Shakhtar here already create an overload around Casemiro, as the player behind the pressing Modrić now becomes free. Casemiro wants to drop to mark this player, but also has to worry about the deeper player he is currently marking. As a result, this midfield overload forces a centre back or full-back to move higher to mark the free player.
You may have seen this example on my Twitter this morning, and it shows this overload being created by Shakhtar again. Again, Madrid move into a situational 4-4-2 as midfielder Valverde jumps higher to press. Shakhtar drop into a 4-3-3 with a deep central pivot, and so a 3v2 is created, with a 2v1 on Casemiro. Casemiro gives a confused look and gestures to Asensio to help, but in reality, Asensio doesn’t want to move too narrow or they open themselves up to the switch in play.
Gladbach have shown that they are very capable of both creating and overloads and penetrating in behind, and we can see an example of them creating overloads against Bayern below. Florian Neuhaus did an excellent job of dropping deep and centrally to cause decisional crises for midfielders, and we can see an overall 4v2 is created on the midfield here, and a 3v1 on Joshua Kimmich.
To create these overloads even more effectively, quick switches in play are vital, as we can see below. We see Shakhtar work the ball to their left centre back and engage the press, with Valverde pushing higher to press. Because of Valverde’s press, Casemiro has to cover the forward in behind him. After engaging that press, Shakhtar can then switch play to the opposite centre back, where Modrić has to move in to press the ball. Casemiro has been engaged on the other side, and so he can’t provide cover for Modrić’s man meaning the overload is created easily. If you don’t switch the ball effectively Real can remain slightly more balanced and the full-back can help to nullify overloads with the help of Casemiro, but effective switches make Madrid very vulnerable.
The same can be said of longer passes to switch play, which is an idea I had while again watching Shakhtar’s build-up. Here again they work the ball from left to right, engaging the press on both sides before then going back to the goalkeeper who can play the ball wide. As a result, we see Casemiro is overloaded and not close to the ball, and so the space for Shakhtar’s dropping players to work in is very large. Furthermore, from a personnel standpoint, Gladbach could opt for Marcus Thuram as a left winger, who matches up well aerially to anyone on Madrid’s wings.
Opposite movements are then key in order to actually progress past a man-oriented centre back, and we can see a few examples below of this being used. Here for example. following the creation of an overload, a player makes a movement from wide in behind the engaged centre back. Shakhtar get through on goal but miss the one on one.
Again here, in what I labelled in my notes as “horrible pressing”, Madrid actually have both of their centre backs engaged and in the opposition’s half. Casemiro ends up applying pressure on the ball, and so both centre backs step up to cover players, meaning a player can simply run in behind and get through on goal.
We can see in this example taken from Sam Leveridge’s El Clasico analysis that even when Madrid operate in a deep block, they still tend to become man oriented and susceptible to plays in behind.
Going over Madrid is not the only option when using opposite movements, and feinted movements in behind can engage centre backs to go backwards, which then opens up space in front of the centre backs. Alternatively, dribbling can be a useful mechanism for allowing passes to be played along the ground, as we can see below. The centre back is occupied again, and the winger is able to dribble inwards and then play a through ball.
Gladbach have the personnel and tactical nous to be able to do Madrid some real damage, and as this analysis has shown, a large part of this game will depend on how Real Madrid press against Gladbach and if they make the necessary adjustments to prevent overloads being so easily attainable. I expect and hope that Gladbach take a brave approach in and out of possession, particularly early in the game, and believe that if they do they have more than a good chance of picking up a good result. Either way, it is sure to be an interesting tactical battle and it is good to see a manager like Marco Rose involved in the Champions League.