Real Madrid have struggled early in this Champions League season. After losing 3-0 to Paris Saint-Germain in round one of the group stage, they conceded twice at home to Club Brugge in a surprising draw. The Spanish club finally won their first match of this campaign on Tuesday at Türk Telekom Stadium, though yet again it was not without fault. This tactical analysis will examine Real Madrid’s 0-1 victory over Galatasaray and explain the tactics involved.
The hosts lined up in a back five formation. Manager Fatih Terim deployed the same starting eleven that began Galatasaray’s previous group stage match against Paris Saint-Germain, with the lone change being Florin Andone up top replacing the injured Radamel Falcao. Despite currently sitting at sixth in the Süper Lig, Terim has created a stingy defence at the Turkish club by utilising the wing-backs in multiple phases of the game.
Zinédine Zidane also sent out a strong starting lineup. In front of a paramount back four, the French manager placed Federico Valverde alongside Casemiro and Toni Kroos in midfield. Additionally, he handed 18-year-old Rodrygo his first start for Real Madrid on the right wing of the front three next to Karim Benzema and Eden Hazard.
Galatasaray’s back five formation, which they played in for a majority of the match, was overall effective against Real Madrid’s initial attacks. The five defensive players formed a solid back line, with Steven Nzonzi acting as a sweeper in the central and half-space areas of the pitch behind the other two midfielders.
Galatasaray’s back line was able to stay in front of Madrid’s front three. So even when Real Madrid were able to possess the ball in the wide areas, there were few options for further ball advancement. This was additionally assisted by the wing-backs, who helped limit the space available in said wide areas before assisting in Galatasaray’s attacking transitions.
The wing-backs Mariano and Yuto Nagatomo were disciplined in both dropping back to defend and pushing forward in attack.
In Nagatomo’s and Mariano’s heat maps above, we can see they maintained their width up and down the pitch. Nagatomo was especially impressive: the Japanese international led Galatasaray with eight successful defensive duels out of nine (89%). Using the advantage a back five formation is often considered for, these two defenders turned into attackers when Galatasaray moved into possession off of defending Madrid’s attacks. Galatasaray systematically moved from a 5-3-2 out of possession to a 3-5-2 in possession.
This example above of a Galatasaray attack shows the successful use of width from the wing-back Nagatomo. His positioning in possession and his pass into the half-space shifts Madrid’s defending players towards that area. After a quick switch of play to the now open space in the central and right areas, Andone pulls off a shot on target merely ten seconds later.
The early success of Galatasaray’s defensive block and transition tactics quickly led Zidane to change Real Madrid’s thought process.
Defend and Counter
After the first twelve minutes or so, Madrid began taking defensive positions farther back into their own half. This change allowed Galatasaray possession farther forward, thereby forcing the Turkish club to stretch their depth along the vertical axis on the pitch.
Real Madrid were excellent defensively this match. Their positional rotations in defence were impeccable. In the above example, a pass to the wing-back Mariano triggers Marcelo to press. Captain Sergio Ramos rotates wide to cover Marcelo’s previous position, and defensive midfielder Casemiro drops into the back line to cover the space left by Ramos. Real Madrid have only conceded the tied-fourth fewest goals in La Liga this season, and these defensive tactical disciplines are reasons why.
The expanded positioning of Galatasaray in possession created more space between the player passing a ball and the one receiving it, as well as more gaps around and behind the back two lines. These consequences influenced Madrid’s defensive deep press and counter-attack. The first and only goal of the match was scored in this scenario.
Off a long pass, multiple Madrid players press the ball, forcing a long ball backwards to the opposite side of the pitch. Hazard then presses this pass which, due to the pressure upon the execution of it, is intercepted by the Belgian.
Hazard dribbles down the left side into Galatasaray’s box. Their lack of organisation defensively against the quick attack allows Hazard to find Kroos in open space at the top of the box. The German scored on his 100th Champions League appearance, and was also superb in buildup throughout with four key passes, second-most in the match only behind Benzema (5).
In addition to Kroos and the defence, right-winger Rodrygo also had an encouraging performance. The Brazilian led Madrid with 15 offensive duel attempts, and a majority (62%) of the team’s xG rate of 2.36 came from positional attacks from the right side.
Galatasaray were at times able to successfully retreat in time defensively, but most commonly Madrid’s only setback after this major tactical shift was poor finishing.
Press and attack
Into the second half, Terim subbed off Ryan Donk, a centre-back, for the attack-minded Sofiane Feghouli. Feghouli positioned himself in the forward areas of the right half-space, and thus Galatasaray’s formation transformed into a back four.
The primary advantage of this is that Galatasaray now have an additional option in attack. The disadvantage, however, is that it can allow more space to open up defensively. Zidane and Los Blancos understood this and attempted to exploit it via a more aggressive front line press in the second half.
In the image above, two Madrid players execute the basics of a press. Benzema drops deep to block the passing outlet, while Kroos moves forward and directly presses the ball. With no outlet available and no time to think of what to do with the ball, Kroos takes the ball away. The press is successful and begins a counter-attack.
Another example of an aggressive Madrid press can be seen here. In the transition from attack to defence, the ball-near Madrid players press the opposing possession to slow down the attack. In this specific scenario, Rodrygo successfully intercepts the pass by cutting between the ball and the receiving player.
From these situations, Madrid were able to regain possession and attack Galatasaray’s back four.
Shown here is one method with which Madrid attacked Galatasaray’s new formation. Benzema drops into midfield to receive the ball. This, along with Hazard moving inside and a few short passes, lure Galatasaray’s midfield towards that side. As the home side did earlier in the match, the ball was cycled wide however, and the attacking players then were able to exploit the space past the bunched midfield and between the centre-backs.
Despite this highly-effective mode of attack, the poor finishing continued. Real Madrid eventually situated into a deeper block towards the waning minutes to see out the match with a single goal.
Ultimately, both sides left with unease. Galatasaray barely lost a home Champions League match. The tactics implemented by both clubs this match gave Real Madrid space in the attacking phase, but their consistent struggle to finish led to a rather unconfident victory. That said, there were still positive moments for the away side, such as Zidane’s tactical logic and analysis, organised rotations in defence, and Rodrygo’s strong Champions League debut. Regardless of the questionable Champions League performances, Real Madrid are currently second in La Liga and until this past weekend, were one of only four teams in the top five leagues with an undefeated league record (along with Liverpool, Juventus, and Wolfsburg).
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