Zidane and Real Madrid fell into the traps set by Tuchel’s Chelsea. The Modrić problem.

Abdel Rahman El Beheri
7 min readMay 5, 2021
Picture 1: Kante vs Real Madrid Semi final 1st leg.

Real Madrid took on Chelsea in the Champions League semi final last Tuesday. The blues looked to be on top for the majority of the match until Zidane made the adjustments which lessened Chelsea’s control but didn’t add much to Madrid’s attack. It was a fascinating game from a tactical stand point but let’s see how Madrid struggled and what Chelsea did.

Chelsea out of possession

Chelsea did not press heavily out of possession and kept the front two of Pulisic and Werner close to their 2nd line in order to close off any passing angles to Kroos or Modrić and deny Madrid progression centrally.

Figure 1: Madrid Buildup and Chelsea pressing box.

Chelsea’s pressing box was very effective and it covered the center of the pitch well. Chelsea never looked to press the CBs of Madrid despite them spreading wide to get around the Chelsea pressing box. We’ll discuss why in a bit.

As you can see in figure 1, the Wing backs are covering wingbacks and a 3v3 up top as Modrić pushed further up than the other 2 midfielders. Modrić position was the tactical mistake committed by Zidane, which helped Chelsea control the match. We’ll see why further down.

Picture 2: Madrid’s CB stretch wide and a little deep.

Basically, Militão and Nacho were left by Chelsea as the free men, which encouraged them to spread extremely wide to progress the ball deep and around Chelsea’s pressing box. The reason Chelsea did this is because Militão and Nacho are not great on the ball. This was Madrid’s first weak point and they struggled.

Real Madrid — In possession

Due to Chelsea’s pressing box, Madrid had to get Kroos — their best passer — on the ball. So Kroos dropped deep as a 3rd CB and Nacho pushed up to WB. This was a problem!

If Madrid was playing their regular 4–3–3 this would have been okay. The problem was pushing Nacho higher up and forcing Marcelo to invert centrally, in normal circumstances, it would be Marcelo who would be push higher. Marcelo is their best attacking fullback and Nacho is not.

Figure 2: Nacho moving up and Marcelo inverting. Vinícius Jr. moves out wide.
Picture 3: Kroos as the 3rd CB and Nacho moving up.

Nacho doesn’t contribute much to the buildup due to his weakness on the ball and he also is not much of an offensive threat. Unfortunately for Nacho and Madrid, Chelsea knew this, as such he was the press target. You’ll notice that on the statistics sheets Nacho had the lowest pass accuracy of all Madrid players. This made Madrid significantly weak down the left side and it was where Chelsea hurt them the most. Marcelo inverting took away his threats and while he is good on the ball, he was not very comfortable and as effective if it was Kroos there.

The Modrić problem

Modrić positioning was causing Madrid problems both in possession and out of possession.

In possession:

Figure 3: Modrić moving wide to help buildup.

To help the buildup from the right hand side, Modrić moved wide right to get on the ball just like Kroos. The aim was to progress the ball and combine with Carvajal. On the left Vinícius can drift wide in space or inside on the left. When Modrić dropped and Vinícius occupied the left half space, Benzema moved wide right because Madrid didn’t have a right winger.

The problem here was the 2 best passers and progressors of the ball, Modrić and Kroos, were separated. This resulted in Madrid not being able to keep control of the ball better. If Madrid tried to progress the ball centrally, they only had Casemiro and Marcelo in midfield, who both are not press resistant — especially for Marcelo being in an uncomfortable position in midfield— and are outnumbered. This led to Madrid losing the ball frequently in midfield.

Figure 4: Kroos trying to progress the ball centrally.

Modrić becomes even a bigger problem when Madrid was out of possession, we’ll see that when we discuss Real Madrid out of possession next.

Real Madrid —Out of possession.

Out of possession, Madrid looked to press Chelsea high as they buildup. Vinícius, Benzema, and Modrić would press the Chelsea center backs man to man. The remainder of Madrid’s midfield pushed up to back the press. Casemiro and Kroos sat on Chelsea’s double pivot.

Picture 4: Modrić pushed up very high. Kroos and Casemiro followed the double pivots.
Figure 5: Illustration of Chelsea’s buildup and Madrid’s pressing.

From the two pictures above, you should notice 2 things:

  1. Marcelo is inverted.
  2. There’s no screening behind Madrid’s advanced midfield.

Real Madrid’s midfield had to push up high as Modrić pushed up to the front line. Marcelo’s inversion kept happening because of 2 things; one is, he covered Pulisic when he dropped, and two, because he was in midfield when Madrid where in the in-possession phase.

The biggest problem still was Modrić’s position. Madrid played into Chelsea’s hand by pressing deep in Chelsea’s third with a front 3. This took a midfielder (Modrić) out of possession and forced Casemiro and Kroos to push up very high, thus leaving a huge space in midfield with no screening. Refer to picture 4 & figure 5.

Chelsea — In possession.

Chelsea built their play deep using the CBs and because Madrid pushed very high, Chelsea was able to progress the ball down their right using Azpilicueta. Remember Marcelo’s position? It gave Azpilicueta space and time to work the ball up the field with Pulisic and Kanté. Kanté made several 3rd man runs behind Kroos, who was not able to keep up with Kanté’s mobility and speed.

Picture 5: Kanté made a third man run, which was found by Pulisic.
Picture 6: Kanté made a third man run, which was found by Pulisic.

In addition, Madrid didn’t have any screening as their entire midfield pushed up with Modrić. Thus, when Pulisic dropped deep to combine with Azpilicueta, Nacho dropped with him, which created a huge space in behind for Kanté to run onto. When Kanté got in he looked to play Mount or Werner — mainly Werner.

Figure 6: Chelsea’s front 3 dropping into 2–1 shape or a 1–2 shape.

Chelsea’s front 3 exploited the huge gap that Madrid’s midfield left by pushing up high in 2 ways:

  1. Pulisic and Mount dropping in space (2–1 shape).
  2. Pulisic dropping alone centrally (1–2 shape). (not Werner like in the figure, a mistake!)

If Chelsea couldn’t find Azpilicueta or progress through him, they still were able to progress centrally using chip balls to Mount or Pulisic, who were dropping to receive. Once they received, the front 3 combined and ran at Madrid’s back 3.

Picture 7: Mount and Pulisic dropping in midfield. Mount receiving a chipped ball.

The fluidity of Chelsea’s front 3 gave Madrid’s backline all sorts of problems. They exploited the gap in midfield made by Modrić’s positioning very well.

This also led to another pattern. Mount dropped in midfield, frequently, to form a midfield 3, this caused Carvajal to get dragged with Mount to stop him receiving, turning and running at the defense. Subsequently, this left Chilwell unmarked and in arcs of space. Refer to picture 7 above.

Picture 8: The left flank is empty for Chelsea. Chilwell was running freely as Carvajal marked Mount.

As you can see from Picture 8, Carvajal got drawn to Mount’s positioning and kept coming in field to cover him. Chilwell took advantage of that by receiving and making runs in behind.

Chelsea also exploited Madrid’s highline with runs in behind from Pulisic, Chilwell, and Azpilicueta.

Picture 9: Azpilicueta making a run in behind Madrid’s highline.

This how Chelsea’s first goal came about. Mount and Werner dropped slightly causing Varane and Militão to follow them, this led to Pulisic making a run in behind in the space vacated.

In the second half, Zidane adjusted the Modrić problem by abandoning the high press. Modrić dropped back in midfield in the spaces were Mount taking advantage of his earlier positioning. This made it difficult for Chelsea to find spaces to exploit and gave Madrid more control on the ball.

However, this led to both teams shutting each other down in the second half, with neither able to create any genuine chances after half time.

Final Remarks

Tuchel and his Chelsea really took advantages of Real Madrid’s weakness and made them play into their hands. However, Chelsea were not very clinical and that may cost them in the second leg. As for Real Madrid, in the second leg, they should revert back to their normal system (4–3–3), where Kroos can drop easily in the backline and Marcelo remains the attacking FB outlet that he is. In addition, the 4–3–3 will give them an extra forward in front so they won’t need to push Modrić high up — he was exploited badly in the first leg. Of course, all that depends on personnel available for Real Madrid.

Hope you enjoyed the analysis. Who do you think will progress to the final? :)

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