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In the Zone: How Madrid nullified Man City

UEFA's Technical Observer panel analyse Real Madrid's nerve-shredding quarter-final second leg against Manchester City.

Toni Kroos and Lucas Vázquez celebrate Madrid's progression
Toni Kroos and Lucas Vázquez celebrate Madrid's progression AFP via Getty Images

This season's UEFA Champions League quarter-finals produced a record total of 32 goals between them. Yet on the final night of the last eight, it was a defensive masterclass which grabbed the attention with Real Madrid frustrating Manchester City before eliminating them in a penalty shoot-out.

The holders had scored three goals in each of their previous nine matches in this campaign yet managed just the one, despite 33 shots, in a 1-1 draw as their reign as European champions came to an end.

In this article brought to you by FedEx, the UEFA analysis unit, working with the technical observer at the stadium, assess the defensive display of the two teams, Madrid in particular, during a gripping second-leg contest.

Team formations


Manchester City's high defensive line

In the Zone: Man City's high defensive line

As is their way, City played with a high defensive line despite the risk this entailed against opponents with the attacking speed of Madrid. The first clip of the video above highlights just how high they were – on average 55 metres from their own goal.

By contrast, the visitors were ever deeper and Madrid midfielder Jude Bellingham touched on the reason why in a post-match interview with TNT Sports, saying: "It is so difficult because they are continuously probing with the ball, they move you around and they take you into positions that sometimes you don't want to go, but you have to follow man for man otherwise they can punish you and they did for the goal."

From a City perspective, the back four of Kyle Walker, Rúben Dias, Manuel Akanji and Joško Gvardiol were superbly well coordinated in their work, with manager Pep Guardiola observing: "We defended the transitions really well with our physicality, with Manu, with Joško, with Kyle. Everyone was at a high level."

And yet, as well as City did, Madrid got behind that high line to score the 12th-minute opening goal through Rodrygo. "They were prepared to go longer under pressure and had an obvious threat with their pace in behind," said the UEFA match observer of the Spanish league leaders, and this is illustrated in the sequence that led to Rodrygo's strike, which we see in the second clip. With Walker deeper, there is no offside as Vinícius Júnior collects from Fede Valverde and crosses for Rodrygo to find the net at the second attempt. It would be Madrid's last shot on target of the entire game but it was crucial.

Real Madrid's compact defence

In the Zone: Madrid's compact defence

"We are not used to defending like this but we were really focused, [with] good positions. We defended well, really concentrated." This was Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti's post-match reflection and the focus of this second video is the visitors' impressively compact defensive shape against opponents who had a 67.2% share of possession.

The UEFA technical observer praised their work in a mid-block in the first half and we see an example of this in clip one, with clip two then showing them in a low block. As is highlighted by this second clip, all ten outfield players manage to stay close together within a strip of pitch just 30.1m wide by 11.1m high. And they are able to maintain this compact shape as they shift across the pitch, forcing City to play around them.

According to the observer, one of the key reasons why Madrid ended up in a compact defensive shape was the fact City were building their attack in a 3-2-2-3 formation against the visitors' 4-4-2 (or 4-2-2-2): "Akanji stepped into midfield and formed a double pivot with Rodri pulling Vinícius Júnior and Bellingham deeper, while Kevin De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva were constantly searching for space behind Toni Kroos and Eduardo Camavinga. On several occasions, Akanji moved higher up, becoming a spare man which caused problems for Madrid."

That said, the shift put in by Madrid's more attacking players did not go unrewarded. "The angles of the wide players and covering of City's 8s was generally excellent," said the observer. According to Valverde, for players used to dominating the ball often in matches, this was no small feat. "As well as tiring you physically it hurts your head too, [all that] chasing after the ball," he said.

As a result of the blanket of dark shirts thrown over the central area, City rarely managed to play through their guests. As the match observer noted, they sought answers from the runs of De Bruyne between the centre-back and full-back as well as one v ones from Jack Grealish and later substitute Jérémy Doku. There was also the aerial threat of Erling Haaland. Yet Madrid stuck to their task and – as Thierry Henry said on CBS Sports – they showed that a team can achieve a measure of control in a football match through good defensive play.

Madrid defending inside and around the box

In the Zone: Madrid defending their box

The focus now switches to Madrid's deeper defensive work, which was especially evident in the second half last night as Ancelotti's men dropped back and packed their penalty box with bodies. "There were some moments of excellent low-block defending by Madrid when City were circulating the ball and they were able to apply pressure without committing fouls or allowing long-range shots," said the match observer.

In the first sequence of this third video, as Grealish reaches the visitors' penalty area on the left, we see all ten Madrid outfield players inside their box. They shift across, following the movement of the ball yet also have the positional awareness demonstrated by Dani Carvajal, who recognises the presence and movement of Bernardo Silva and gets into the right place to nod away the cross.

City attempted 31 crosses from open play last night – a total surpassed in this knockout stage only by Club Atlético de Madrid in their round of 16 home game against Inter – yet Madrid stood firm. Overall, the visitors' defensive statistics made impressive reading on a night they produced 11 interceptions (five of them by Antonio Rüdiger) and blocked 11 shots – the joint-highest total in any UEFA Champions League game this term, matched only by Union Berlin and Copenhagen in group-stage fixtures. They also registered 44 clearances, the joint-highest figure in the knockout stage alongside Inter at Atlético.

We see more of Madrid's defensive qualities in the second clip which offers an example of their absolute composure and concentration as City seek a way through in the second period. For any watching coaches, here is a lesson to pass on to defenders about the requirements – and rewards – of their role.

As Thierry Henry added in the abovementioned CBS Sports debrief: "The way Real Madrid defended throughout the whole game was just outstanding. They prevented City creating many critical chances. In an era where we talk a lot of tactics in possession we have to remember defending, and defending deep at times, still is very important. You can also control a game defending well, this is what Real Madrid did in this game."

To underline Madrid's achievement, City had scored at least two goals in their previous 11 at home in this competition. The last team to concede just once at City in the UEFA Champions League were Diego Simeone's Atlético in 2022. Even Guardiola acknowledged the excellence of their defensive work when he said: "I have to congratulate Madrid for their capacity to resist, to defend very well till the end. They did it fantastically well and we weren't capable with the last pass, the last shot, those little details, to get the [second] goal."

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