Real Madrid Fail to Capitalise on Strong Defensive Start against Dortmund

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Real Madrid played Borussia Dortmund on Wednesday, in a battle to decide top spot in Champions League Group F. That fight for the first place produced a match full of intensity and purpose, and early on, it was Real Madrid who made the running. Against Dortmund, a team who has established itself as a pressing machine in recent seasons, Madrid tried to press from the outset. In effect, they aimed to beat Dortmund at their own game, and for the first 45 minutes, everything went to plan.

The Spanish side looked to disrupt Dortmund’s ability to work the ball out from the back, something which isn’t easy to do. Thomas Tuchel arranged his players into his unique yet familiar hybrid formation, which starts out as a 4-4-2 in defence but morphs into a shape with three at the back in attack. Here, that meant Lukasz Piszczek, Sokratis and Marc Bartra operated as the central defenders when Dortmund tried to play out, and for Madrid, these were the men they had to stop.

Zinedine Zidane asked his two central attackers, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo, to push up onto two of those three Dortmund defenders, while the other would be picked up by one of Madrid’s wingers, either James Rodriguez or Lucas Vazquez. These guys were then supported by Luka Modric, who charged forward from central midfield in order to pick up either Julian Weigl or Gonzalo Castro. Modric’s partner in the middle, Casemiro, would then track another of Dortmund’s midfield unit, and in the case that Tuchel’s men looked likely to work the ball forward, Sergio Ramos would regularly step out from defence in order to cover Ousmane Dembele, Dortmund’s No. 10.

The approach was risky, especially given the high line that Madrid needed to employ to pull it off. But despite the threat of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s pace in behind, Madrid committed to the strategy and carried it out with aplomb. Their pressing provided the platform for an excellent first half performance, and a good example of this approach arrived on 23 minutes, when Dortmund played themselves into trouble.

Things started out fairly innocuously, with the German outfit just passing the ball around at the back, but they soon started to lose control. Piszczek found himself under pressure from Vazquez, and tried to move the ball on quickly because of it. The result was an overhit pass for Sokratis, and with the imposing Greek defender coming under heavy pressure from Benzema, he flung himself towards the ball in a state of panic. He got to it just in the nick of time, hurting himself in the process, before goalkeeper Roman Weidenfeller hoofed a clearance into midfield. Madrid were forcing Dortmund to rush, and even upon the restart, following a brief stoppage for the Dortmund staff to treat Sokratis, the Spanish giants pressed with the same kind of intensity. Again they regained possession after a hurried clearance, and they would open the scoring only a few minutes later through Benzema.

This defensive effort laid the foundation for Madrid to get their transition game going, and after James whipped in a precise cross for Benzema on 53 minutes, the Frenchman netted to make it 2-0. Then Los Blancos tried to get a little bit more defensive, chiefly as a means through which to hold onto the lead, and the wheels fell off. They stopped dominating the play, and by sitting off and handing Dortmund the ascendency, Madrid effectively allowed the game to become one of two halves.

Whereas Madrid’s high-octane mindset allowed them to pounce on Dortmund’s players so quickly that they completed 13 of their 15 first-half tackles successfully, their second half figures weren’t as impressive. They only completed nine tackles, and due to the fact that they were sitting back and giving the opposition time on the ball, it took 17 attempts to win those nine challenges. Things were even worse in the interceptions department, something which is shown by the graphic below.

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Madrid had 10 interceptions in the first half compared to 7 in the second, and even more importantly, they were winning the ball back much higher up the pitch in the first 45 minutes of the match. This trend is illustrated by the ball recovery numbers as well, which show that Madrid regularly won the ball back in their front half during the first period of play, only to struggle for any sort of traction in that regard after the break. Throw in the fact that Madrid had 36 ball recoveries in the first half to 15 in the second half, and it’s clear that they lost the defensive intensity that allowed them to thrive early on in proceedings.

This meant the game ended in a 2-2 draw, with Marco Reus scoring late on to level things, and Zidane wasn’t happy about it. “When you see how the second half went you get a bit angry. We had the game in our hands but this is football,” the manager lamented. “You need to carry on right until the end. We created a lot of chances to score the third goal. Instead, we allowed Dortmund back into the game.”

In a lot of ways, Zidane was right. His team worked hard to dominate in the early stages, but once they hit the two-goal lead, they dropped off a little too much. Granted the shift in approach wasn’t the only thing to cost the capital club, but it certainly contributed to their second-half collapse.

In that sense, Madrid started brightly before finishing with a fizzle, but that’s not to say they can’t take any positives from the encounter. They pressed well against a great pressing team for the first half, and although they didn’t collect the win necessary to secure top spot in Group F, they looked good nonetheless. Zidane might not have his team operating at their apex just yet, but they’re still playing well enough to remain unbeaten in both league and European competition, something which has enabled the club to equal its longest ever unbeaten run, on 34.

Madrid are therefore tracking nicely, and if they can continue to build upon the foundations they’ve already laid, there is every chance that they’ll be competing at the pointy end of the Champions League for yet another season.