Seeing as they managed to avoid Bayern Munich and the two other Spanish teams left in the competition, Real Madrid being given a tie against Wolfsburg in the quarter-finals of the Champions League was considered a pretty damn favourable draw for them at the time. Die Wölfe have been no pushovers in the tournament so far though, and despite currently being eighth in the Bundesliga they went on to prove themselves with a very convincing display in the first leg – leaving Zinedine Zidane’s side with it all to do ahead of the return game at the Santiago Bernabéu.
It all looked to start so well for Los Blancos, too, when Cristiano Ronaldo put the ball into the back of the net in just the second minute. The goal was ruled out for an extremely tight offside however, Wolfsburg narrowly avoiding that setback, and afterwards they were quick to establish the solid defensive shape that proved to be the base upon which their victory was built.
Set-up in a 4-3-3 in possession, their time off the ball was spent in a 4-1-4-1 structure. The two wide players (Julian Draxler and Bruno Henrique) dropped deep, filling in either side of Max Arnold and Josuha Guilavogui in the midfield, while Luiz Gustavo sat one line behind as the furthest back midfielder. That left André Schürrle as the most advanced player, though sometimes he also moved back himself and made the shape resemble something more like a 4-1-5-0.
There was a strong element of man-orientation about the home side’s shape, a quite common feature of Dieter Hecking’s tactical approach, and it was the central core of Arnold, Guilavogui and Schürrle that proved key in achieving that. Schürrle stuck close to Casemiro, the other two regularly stepping out to pressure Toni Kroos and Luka Modrić upon their receiving of the ball in the build-up phase. This made it difficult for the three of them to get time or space in possession, slowing their circulation and limiting Real Madrid’s ability to progress the ball up the field into more dangerous areas.
Because of the five players that they had across the pitch, those three and the two wingers, who also took up quite man-orientated roles on the opposing full-backs, Wolfsburg had good access to both the wide and central zones. They weren’t actually that compact in a horizontal manner though, and there were occasions when Arnold and Guilavogui pushing forward to press left lots of space behind them (and either side of Gustavo, who was more zone-orientated) in the middle; scenarios which Real Madrid too often failed to exploit. Part of that failure was down to Wolfsburg’s pressing usually being timed well, but a lot of it can also be attributed to the away side’s structural issues in attack which have been evident for quite some time.
While there was some decent rotation between Casemiro, Kroos and Modrić, a lack of good spacing and their inability to get behind the Wolfsburg midfield meant that most of Real Madrid’s possession in their 4-3-3 shape was in pretty harmless areas – and with none of their front three (Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Ronaldo) dropping sufficiently deep enough to counter that there was a huge disconnect between midfield and attack. There were almost two completely different parts of the team, something which meant that even when the ball did get through to the attackers they were quite isolated, and that allowed Wolfsburg to get away with their aggressive midfield play.
Where Real Madrid had problems attacking down the middle however, Wolfsburg did not. Their main outlet was actually out wide though, saying that, with Draxler and Henrique both being good dribblers who could retain the ball well under pressure. That was particularly useful in transitions, when the Spanish team were slow to switch into their defensive shape, and then in normal phases of offensive play the pair were also supported effectively by their respective full-backs, Ricardo Rodriguez and Vierinha.
The combination of Draxler and Rodriguez was particularly effective, the Swiss left-back’s forays forward often giving Draxler space to cut inside onto his stronger foot and dribble diagonally towards Real Madrid’s goal. Arnold and (to a slightly lesser extent) Guilavogui also made runs up the pitch from midfield to support these attacks, which ended up being very fruitful in the first-half especially.
The first goal controversially came from the penalty spot, a very disputable decision and one which Real Madrid could understandably feel aggrieved about, though the play to win the spot-kick was good from Wolfsburg. Vierinha’s long switch of play after making one of his attacking runs to carry the ball forward from right-back found Draxler, enabling the German to get into a one-on-one against Danilo. He then drove towards the by-line, showing some nice control and quick footwork before cutting the ball back into the path of Schürrle inside the box – who was then brought down from behind by Casemiro.
As mentioned it was quite harsh on Real Madrid, despite the clumsy play from the defensive midfielder, but Rodriguez showed no mercy from 12 yards as he sent Keylor Navas the wrong way. That made it 1-0 in the 18th minute, the penalty coming from their combination of effective wing play and runs from deep, and it was a similarly created chance that allowed them to double their lead very soon afterwards.
With Rodríguez high on the left, Draxler drove inside and was met by little, passive resistance from the Real Madrid midfield. He kept going, biding his time with the ball tight to his feet, and though the central options were covered effectively the narrow positioning of Marcelo (and Bale not getting back fully) meant that Henrique was left unmarked on the corner of the box. Draxler seized his chance, playing the ball through, and after delaying a little the eventual low cross from Henrique found Arnold for a simple finish. Being 2-0 down after 25 minutes was definitely not the future that was envisioned for Real Madrid when this draw was made.
Real Madrid did create a couple of chances in the first-half, most notably that offside Ronaldo goal and also one where Casemiro played Benzema through to have a left-footed effort saved by Diego Benaglio, but it wasn’t too much and the opportunities mostly came through individual talent rather than genuinely good team attacking play. Bale was the main contributor to that, the Welshman proving particularly effective when playing on the left side, whereas Ronaldo was very quiet for the most part.
Neither side made a change at half-time, though Real Madrid were forced into one just beforehand; the injured Benzema coming off for Jesé Rodriguez. He stayed in the middle most of the time, and Ronaldo adopted an even narrower role, but crucially, much like in the first-half, the midfield and defenders still struggled to feed the ball through to them. Casemiro continued to do very little in the build-up phase, getting in the way of the others more than anything else, while Kroos and Modrić stayed too close together and were largely unadventurous with their movement.
That meant Wolfsburg could afford to keep pressing them during the build-up phase without fear of the spaces behind them being exposed, and the 4-1-4-1 / 4-1-5-0 defensive shape thus retained its success for a large portion of the second-half. It took until the 64th minute for Zidane to finally make a change in an attempt to remedy this significant issue, Modrić being brought off after an unusually poor game from him for Isco. And the Spaniard quickly settled into the game, acting as the vertical threat between the lines which Real Madrid had been crying out for since the first whistle.
Whether an intentional reaction to that or simply a fatigue thing, Wolfsburg soon started to adopt a deeper shape with less emphasis on man-orientation. Schürrle sat much more consistently in the midfield line, and the pair of Arnold and Guilavogui rarely pushed up to pressure Casemiro or Kroos anymore. Them being closer to both Gustavo and the defence (made up by Dante and Naldo) helped to reduce the space that Isco was getting, and though he was still having some success regardless of that it was an important change to make in order to try and recreate the disconnect between the away side’s midfield and attack again (although with them deeper and Real Madrid pushed high up the field, that was now tougher).
Isco created the best chance of the second-half for Zidane’s team when he played a wonderfully delicate ball behind the defence for Ronaldo with the outside of his foot, but the forward was denied a potentially very important away goal by Benaglio. Wolfsburg meanwhile had a couple of notable scoring opportunities themselves, both from counter-attacks out wide – first through Schürrle, then Henrique a little afterwards. Neither team did score again though, and after a few fairly standard substitutions it finished 2-0 to the home side in the end; their two goals in quick succession proving enough to give them a big advantage ahead of the second leg.
Ruling out Real Madrid at this point would be foolish, given their capacity to blow teams away with their attacking prowess, but if they’re going to get through then they’ll either need to attack much more effectively or just hope for some big individual performances back in Spain. As for Wolfsburg, well, they’ll travel with a lot of optimism after such a good result at home. It’s going to be tough for them, especially given their poor away record this season so far, but if they can defend and counter-attack as well as they did in the first leg then they’ll most likely end up in the semi-finals. And what an achievement that would be for Hecking’s team.