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Talkin’ tactics: Looking at what Real Madrid could bring to the table against Juventus

Round two between Massimiliano Allegri and Zinedine Zidane

Juventus v Real Madrid - UEFA Champions League Quarter Final Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images

For Juventus, no one makes a better opponent than Real Madrid. You have all the ingredients — pain, lesson, revenge and growth. Now Juventus just need to beat them.

Zinedine Zidane has made changes and Real Madrid have more weapons, but also more weaknesses.

Real Madrid are a Swiss-army knife

Zidane’s side can play multiple formations with different characteristics but similar potencies.

Real Madrid play better in a 4-3-1-2/4-3-3 hybrid with Isco as a false-10 (or a free-10). They transform into a 2-3-5 when they attack with Marcelo and Dani Carvajal pushing up as the wingers. Luka Modric and Toni Kroos stay in front of the center backs like rocket launchers. Real Madrid can utilize the width because of their accurate long passes. Most of the players have great techniques, so they can move in any area to attack

Isco creates a lot of confusion for the opponents with his unrestricted movement and he can exchange positions with anyone up front. Zidane uses him to create an overload in the half-space. Even if they can’t penetrate there, the overload lures the defenders and creates space on the other side:

They are the most dangerous when Isco and Cristiano Ronaldo occupy the opposite flanks. Ronaldo thrives in a 1-on-1 situation. Another dangerous play is when he moves into the box to catch the cross from a surging fullback.

When Gareth Bale replaces Isco, Real Madrid play a traditional 4-3-3. Bale plays like a winger, or an inverted one, so Ronaldo will have more participation in the build-up. They develop fewer asymmetrical plays and rely on the combination between the wingers, fullbacks and the midfielders to attack.

Real Madrid can also use a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-4-2, depending on whether they play with two strikers or not. Marco Asensio and Lucas Vazquez play as the wingers. When they have only two central midfielders, they prefer to pair Mateo Kovacic with Casemiro. Kovacic is more defensive than Modric and Kroos, so Real Madrid can defend better and play faster. They look to penetrate instead of keeping the possession. They can play a counter-attack game.

Zidane has strengthened the pressing/counter-pressing game that destroyed Juventus in Cardiff:

The player’s immediate reaction to a lost possession is to retrieve it. They prevent you from transitioning into the offensive phase. You can’t lose the ball in the transition. Real Madrid are too good to not killing off the opponent in that situation.

Real Madrid’s creation of space

Real Madrid master the creation of space.

Ronaldo, Kroos, Modric, Marcelo and Isco can replace each other when they build up, so they can exchange the positions with each other and create a lot of confusion for the opponent. Ronaldo, Bale and Karim Benzema can all finish the chances in the box (in different degrees). When any of them moves into the box, the defender has to follow him. This way, he lures the defender away and creates an opportunity for his teammates to penetrate. Those diagonal through passes from Kroos are dangerous because they are difficult for the defenders to gauge.

Real Madrid’s offense didn’t feature Casemiro last season because his main purpose was defending the midfield. He still hasn’t had a lot of touches in the offensive phase this season, and most of his passes aim backward, but Zidane has been using him to helps his teammates to attack:

He always moves away from the ball to create space for the other midfielders to receive it. His forward movement in the midfield also triggers Real Madrid’s transition into the attacking phase where the fullbacks push up and the other midfielders move back. He sometimes even moves to the first line as a decoy to occupy the defenders and freed his teammates. He isn’t dangerous when he has the ball, but his off-the-ball movement creates enough confusion for his teammates to exploit. Even when he doesn’t participate in the attack, he guards the space behind the ball and acts as the immediate defensive resistance for the loose ball. His importance for Real Madrid’s offensive phase is underappreciated.

Kovacic is another wild card. He is a top playmaker:

His dribble and ball-protection are excellent. When he carries the possession and tempts you to attack him, he forges a passing lane by moving you out of the defensive position. Real Madrid can play a proper counter-attack game when they play Kovacic in the midfield with Casemiro. Their build-up and pass pattern change when he plays.

Real Madrid’s manipulation of space makes them unpredictable and dangerous. You can’t play Ping-Pong with them. Juventus need to sit back to control the territory and hit them with the counter-attack.

Real Madrid’s weaknesses that Juventus can exploit

Real Madrid have several glaring weaknesses.

First, they can’t defend the set pieces. They have conceded 0.38 goals per game — the third highest in La Liga — from the set pieces, a staggering 200 percent increase from last season (0.13 goals per game, the lowest in the league). The set pieces now constitute one-third of the goals they concede.

Their defense hasn’t deteriorated this season; they have only conceded 0.06 more goals per game than last term, so they haven’t lost the defensive focus. The problem may be due to their loss of athletic ability; they have always been loose in the marking. They used to compensate for the problem by reacting faster or jumping higher, but age has caught up. For example, Sergio Ramos, their best player in the set pieces, has attempted 50 percent fewer shots from those situations this season. He has scored 66 percent fewer goals from those chances. He is not jumping as high or reacting as fast as he once was.

Their problem in defending the set pieces can decide this tie.

Real Madrid also do not have a solid defensive structure. They focus on the ball, not the players and space. Juventus will create enough chances if they are able to bypass Real Madrid’s first wave of pressing.

But Juventus have problems passing out from the defense. Real Madrid exploited it last year. Tottenham Hotspur exposed it again a month ago. They often lose the ball during the transition. When the opponent pressure Juventus’ build-up, they tend to pass the ball horizontally because the center backs don’t take any risk. As the ball reaches closer to the flank, the ball handler has less time and passing lane, and has to send an aimless long ball. They need to change that habit. Consider using a zigzag vertical pass like this:

Real Madrid’s players will chase the ball. They are obsessed with it. The more you change its trajectory, the more you disorganize them. Juventus’ center backs can’t make that kind of forward pass, but they can pass back to the keeper and let him launch a long ball to the left flank. Mario Mandzukic’s as a target wing is foolproof. Overload that area with Blaise Matuidi or even Douglas Costa — who will probably start on the right flank — and Juventus will get their chances.

Juventus also need to play more long balls to stretch Real Madrid. Starting Isco has fundamentally changed how Real Madrid operate; they are now obsessed with the possession. They have controlled 5 percent more possession than last season. Their players cluster around it so they can retrieve it as soon as they lose it. Juventus need to avoid being trapped in those situations. Playing longer and wider not only gets them out of these traps, but also creates chaos for Real Madrid. Alex Sandro, Costa or Mandukic can’t navigate Real Madrid’s high pressing structure in a tight area, but they will power past the defenders with 15 yards of space in front of them. Most of the long balls won’t work, but Juventus only need a handful of chances.

Real Madrid are strong, but they are beatable. Juventus can go to the semi-final if they can prevent Real Madrid from exposing their weaknesses again.