Now that Casemiro has been recruited into the midfield to provide much-needed protection to Sergio Ramos and Pepe, the greatest structural weakness in Real Madrid’s play is their defending against width.
The team’s 4-3-3 shape, with Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale in the wide attacking positions, means full-backs Marcelo and Dani Carvajal (or Danilo) are often left exposed one on one against their opposition wingers.
Neither Ronaldo nor Bale particularly enjoy tracking back, and they aren’t even really expected to – especially Ronaldo. And with Luka Modric and Toni Kroos occupying narrow midfield positions, which make it difficult for them to get over quickly enough to assist Marcelo and Carvajal, attacking down the wings can be a richly rew-arding ploy against Los Blancos.
This weakness has been exposed time and time again, most recently by Rayo Vallecano on Saturday when Bebe was left unchallenged to saunter forward down the left wing and tee up his team’s opener.
Even Wolfsburg managed to score twice against Madrid with moves originating in wide positions in the quarter-final first leg, and there’s no doubt that an astute tactician like Manuel Pellegrini will have noted the havoc wreaked by the left winger Julian Draxler in the first half at the Volkswagen Arena.
The flipside of that same coin, however, is that Ronaldo and Bale’s propensity to hold upfield positions makes Madrid a formidably dangerous counter-attacking team, and City will have to be exceptionally careful not to overcommit themselves in attack. As soon as they lose the ball, City must continually remain aware that Madrid will be looking to release one of their speedsters as quickly as possible for a direct raid on goal.
When Bale and Ronaldo get started, they can be extremely difficult to stop – especially Bale in his current form – and City need to follow Atletico Madrid’s example by making sure they do not get exposed to 3v3 or 4v4 transitions. Madrid only need five seconds to turn defence into a goalscoring chance, and if they are given space they will score at least once.
It can be mentally difficult for home teams to adopt defensive tactics, especially in front of English crowds who have little tolerance for such strategic thinking. But 0-0 would be a better result for City than for Madrid, and the hosts should concentrate upon not all-owing themselves to get caught out at the back rather than going gung-ho in search of victory.
This lesson was ignored, at great cost, by Arsenal in their recent meeting with Barcelona. The Gunners contained Barca for an hour, but then allowed themselves to become too confident, committed too many men forward and were caught with a sucker punch as Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez combined to launch a rapid counter-attack for the opener.
Bale, Ronaldo and Karim Benzema (or Jese, Isco and Lucas Vazquez) can easily do the same, and a cautious, conservative approach – even though it may frustrate their own fans – would be City’s wisest choice.
Having said that, of course they should not just settle for a goalless draw, and City must attack with purpose when they have the chance – boosted by the knowledge that if you play primarily down the wings, you don’t need to commit many players forward to create opportunities against Real Madrid.