Real Madrid 3-0 Wolfsburg - A Tactical Analysis

Despite being clear favourites for the tie beforehand, Real Madrid’s poor performance and even worse result away from home at Wolfsburg left them in a precarious position. Though incredibly talented on an individual basis, meaning the 2-0 deficit was still well within reach, they demonstrated a real absence of fluidity in the first leg and failed badly at breaking down their opposition; the German side defending with nice structure and holding them off with relative ease. Putting in another performance like that at home simply wasn’t an option for Zinedine Zidane’s team if they wanted to progress.

Perhaps a little bit surprisingly, then, Real Madrid only made one personnel change from their home leg. That saw Dani Carvajal come in at right-back for the pretty hapless (in that game anyway) Danilo, and they stuck with the 4-3-3 that they played in before. Wolfsburg meanwhile, understandably after a strong showing, didn’t make any changes at all – also sticking with their own 4-3-3 shape when in possession. Not that they had the ball too often in the opening periods for that to become particularly evident though, and for the most part of the first 45 minutes they were locked into their 4-1-4-1 / 4-1-5-0 defensive structure.

Wolfsburg regularly adopted a deeper variant of their 4-1-4-1 / 4-1-5-0 defensive structure due to the pressure that Real Madrid were putting on them.

Wolfsburg regularly adopted a deeper variant of their 4-1-4-1 / 4-1-5-0 defensive structure due to the pressure that Real Madrid were putting on them.

Much like in the first leg, the system involved man-orientations from André Schürrle and the two players directly behind him, Max Arnold and Josuha Guilavogui, pushing up to press Real Madrid’s midfielders in their build-up phase. The wingers, Julian Draxler and Bruno Henrique, also often moved very wide in an attempt to keep the runs of Carvajal and Marcelo from full-back under control. That width and the players regularly stepping out from midfield once again meant that it wasn’t an extremely compact shape or anything, and though it worked favourably for them at home the difference between the two games was that Real Madrid began to find the gaps within that set-up here.

There were a few reasons that link nicely together for why that was. From a Wolfsburg perspective, the timing and intensity of their pressing in central areas was, at best, quite average. It was mostly some little tweaks from Real Madrid themselves though that enabled them to exploit it – with their midfield and attacking lines showing considerably better movement, threat and distribution which in turn enabled them to connect much more effectively (even if their attacking play was still somewhat individualistic).

Starting with the midfield, Toni Kroos and Luka Modrić both put in strong performances and regularly managed to find space and break lines. The excellent technique and vision which they have was evident throughout, showing their ability to effectively distribute the ball in the areas between the Wolfsburg midfield, while Modrić also showed himself to be one of the best ball-carrying midfielders in the world by driving forward with the ball on a number of occasions. His starting position was a little higher than before too, and rather than just playing in front of the opposition he gave them more to think about.

Real Madrid were more effective at getting players to move between the lines in this leg, Kroos and Modrić reliably finding them in most instances, with good movement from the front three giving the midfielders options.

Real Madrid were more effective at getting players to move between the lines in this leg, Kroos and Modrić reliably finding them in most instances, with good movement from the front three giving the midfielders options.

Casemiro on the other hand was much less involved in the build-up than his counterparts, but his positioning as the highest midfielder when they’re in possession was better, and despite his small personal contribution that gave Kroos and Modrić (the two centre-backs, Pepe and Sergio Ramos, also benefitted from this) more space to work with. The front three similarly exhibited an enhanced ability to take up useful attacking positions, with Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo all taking turns to drop deeper and make themselves more accessible for the midfield.

Bale mostly stuck to the right side when doing this, although Ronaldo often moved further inside from his flank to be more central (a movement accommodated by Benzema drifting to the left in response). This also led to Luiz Gustavo being dragged around a little bit and created more of a gap in front of the defence at times that they could look to expose, even if the absence of Isco and James Rodríguez from the line-up meant that they didn't do so quite as much as they should've.

Wolfsburg found it fairly tough to properly cope with this in the midfield for significant periods of the game, regardless of them not conceding too many clear chances, and while their general shape didn’t really change they were forced into adopting a deeper block every so often as they were under pressure for so long. It took them quite some time from the first whistle to break from that, establish an outlet and have a good spell of possession too, around 25 minutes or so – and by that point they were already 2-0 down.

The ability of Modrić to run forward with the ball at his feet is a big asset when it comes to progressing play and dragging opposition midfielders away from their original positions.

The ability of Modrić to run forward with the ball at his feet is a big asset when it comes to progressing play and dragging opposition midfielders away from their original positions.

Those two goals, both scored by Ronaldo, didn’t directly come from any of the changes that Real Madrid had made; they were more results of the sustained pressure that they managed to put on because of them. His first was supplied by Carvajal, the Spanish full-back driving forwards towards the right after picking up a loose ball in the midfield. A failed pass into Bale rebounded straight to him, before Carvajal then got a little lucky again with a deflection on his subsequent cross which allowed it to fall neatly for Ronaldo just a few yards out from goal. And just as fortunately for Real Madrid, he simply doesn’t miss from there.

That came in the 15th minute, and the Portuguese forward only had to wait until the 17th minute to get his second – this time a header from a corner which Modrić's brilliant passing range and Carvajal’s run up the right helped to win. Conceding twice in quick succession was obviously a significant blow to Wolfsburg, especially when it came quite so early in the match, and they had to endure another setback when Draxler was taken off injured for Max Kruse later in that first-half. As mentioned they did at least grow into the game properly soon after that second goal however, Dieter Hecking’s team once again exhibiting their very wide shape in possession.

Draxler’s ability in one-on-ones was missed on the left (Schürrle moved there when Kruse was brought on up top but the individual roles of players in the system remained intact) when he went off though and despite the team retaining possession quite well from then onwards their threat on the counter-attack was significantly lower than it was in the first leg. So other than a few shots from range and a great chance in the first-half which Henrique took too long to shoot from, they ultimately didn’t really create much throughout the course of the match. The home side’s improved quality of pressing, even if it still wasn’t that synchronised as a unit, also contributed to that.

Though they weren't as effective on the break in this game, Wolfsburg's main threat still came from the flanks - Henrique doing well here to cut the ball back to Gustavo (whose late runs often found him space). He then went on to the switch the ball to the far side, although Schürrle's resulting shot missed the target).

Though they weren't as effective on the break in this game, Wolfsburg's main threat still came from the flanks - Henrique doing well here to cut the ball back to Gustavo (whose late runs often found him space). He then went on to the switch the ball to the far side, although Schürrle's resulting shot missed the target).

Real Madrid similarly didn’t have too many great opportunities for a while themselves despite the flow of the game being in their favour for most of both halves. There were a couple of half-chances, and Ramos was incredibly unfortunate not to score a header from a corner which hit the post, but the control that Kroos and in particular Modrić continued to offer in the midfield was to no avail on the scoresheet until late on when Ronaldo completed his hat-trick. 

And it was another goal from a set-piece on the night, this time a direct free-kick on the edge of the box that was fittingly won by Modrić when he intercepted a Gustavo pass high up the field – the Croatian then being brought down by Gustavo’s desperate attempt at a challenge. Ronaldo’s effort snuck in through the gap that Guilavogui and Naldo left between them in the wall when jumping, and that piece of individual quality, in the 77th minute, ended up being enough for Real Madrid to take the aggregate lead and go through.

There were a vast number of tactical similarities in this game to the one which was played in Germany, which did take away from the game from an analysis point of view, the only real difference being that the quality of execution of the two sides’ plans was switched around in the second leg. On the balance of things Real Madrid probably did deserve to qualify in the end, though Wolfsburg gave a good account of themselves in a tie where they were given little hope of progressing. If Real Madrid are to go beyond the semi-finals, though, then they’ll definitely need to play significantly better against whoever they draw.