The return leg of the 2019/20 UEFA Champions league group stage game between Real Madrid and Paris Saint Germain was one of grave importance, for Real Madrid. The first leg, which was at the Parc des Princes, was one of the worst showings that Real Madrid have put up in recent memory. A 3-0 loss to a side without any one of their famed front three would’ve been bad enough, but the fact that it happened with the club failing to put up any sort of fight in the game made things so much worse. That game was an absolute disaster from a tactical standpoint, as it seemed that Real Madrid had forgotten the ABC’s of basic pressing and/or defending in a deep block.
To give some idea as to how bad that game was, some background regarding the aforementioned “ABC’s” of pressing and defending is needed. If a team is to use a high press, the lines need to be compact. Basically the distance between the attackers and defenders needs to be compressed, so that if the opposing team does break the first line of the press, the second line is ready to pounce. A low block, on the other hand, requires the defensive line to be stationed very deeply, i.e near its own box, with the midfield and attack providing a screen in front of the defense. However, during the first leg, the attack was positioned in a way akin to a high press, while the defense was stationed in a way akin to a deep block. Therefore the distance between the two lines was way to big for Real Madrid to obtain any sort of foothold in the game, and due to the positioning of the lines, the midfield and attack were also incredibly isolated, which allowed PSG to run riot in the game.
Thus, because of how badly the first leg was, the second leg was a shot at redemption for Zidane, to prove that he could compete with the very best on a tactical level.
However, before the game, it seemed as though Zidane had shot himself in the foot, as he picked an XI that had managed wonders in his first stint, but hadn’t been used at all during his second; the 4-3-1-2 diamond, with Isco in the hole behind Hazard and Benzema. The problem with this line up was that Isco hadn’t had any decent minutes prior to the game, and the midfield three on this occasion was not Kroos, Modric Casemiro, but Kroos, Fede, Casemiro, with Fede being just 21 and largely untested at an elite level.
PSG on the other hand started with a midfield three of Verrati, Gueye and Marquinhos, with an attack of Mbappe, Icardi and Di Maria, with Neymar on the bench.
However, from the off, it was clear that the game was going to be worlds apart from the one in Paris, and the main reason was going to be the line up. With one extra man in midfield, and with that man being Isco, Real found it much easier to control the game. Isco, in the usual Isco fashion, was a roaming presence, operating wherever the team needed a link man of sort. PSG had no answer to Isco’s constant movement as man-marking him would not be an option at all, because of his tendencies to drop very deep. Zonal marking was also out of the question as he never operated in any specific zones constantly. Becoming almost ubiquitous, Isco appeared anywhere the team needed a presence in between the lines.
Alongside Isco, Fede Valverde was another factor that allowed Madrid to have such a strong hold on the game. Very good technically, and with an incredible engine, Fede was the genuine two way presence that the club has lacked ever since Modric’s legs gave up. Making up for Kroos’ deficiencies athletically, Fede supported both Casemiro defensively and the others offensively.
Furthermore, his runs from deep in the right half space provided a constant threat to PSG as they couldn’t deal with them. These types of runs were also what eventually brought the first goal, as after some incredible Hazard magic near the halfway line, with him beating 3 opponents and the referee, Fede received the ball from Carvajal, who had gotten it from Hazard, during one of his runs into the box, and laid it off for Isco, whose shot hit the post but the ensuing rebound was turned in by Benzema.
Moreover, the fluid interplay, and positional switching done by Hazard, Marcelo, Isco, Kroos and Benzema proved too much for PSG to handle, and lead them to resort to parking most of their players in and around their box to cope with the onslaught. Hazard was his brilliant best, rotating positions with Benzema and being impervious to any sort of press, while Kroos did what he does so well; keep the ball and re-distribute it.
On the defensive side of things, the press worked perfectly. Opting for a high press, the team suffocated PSG, with Benzema and Hazard being the first line of pressure, while Isco roamed towards the ball. Kroos and Casemiro maintained the press in the midfield while Fede often pressed on the right hand side as Isco roamed towards the left more often than not. The back line was also positioned properly this time, even when PSG managed to break the first line of press, Casemiro and the back line were ready to mop up. Real forced PSG to either try to build from the wings, or go long. The game-plan had worked perfectly, but an inspired Navas had prevented Madrid from putting the game to bed.
The turning point of the game came not because of any improvements in PSG’s performance, but due to an injury. After Hazard was forced to be taken off after a tackle by Meunier. With the loss of Hazard, and the subsequent replacement; Bale, not contributing anything of note, Real Madrid weren’t as dominant as before. Still the club managed to snag a second, but that was when the game turned bad, for Madrid.
Two lapses of concentration, firstly by Courtois and Varane, and the second by the back-line as a whole allowed PSG to grab two late and undeserved goals. The best performance by Real Madrid since the RO16 games against the same opponent since the 2017/18 season ended up as a draw. A draw not because of any mistakes by the coach, or by any moments of brilliance by the opponents, but a draw because the defenders made mistakes.
Although the game ended poorly, the performance was one of the very best that the club have put up in recent memory. After a very very long time, things are finally looking up for Real Madrid again.