Real Madrid rode their luck to a 1-0 win over Paris Saint Germain at the Santiago Bernabeu despite being outplayed. Here are three thoughts from the Champions League match.
PSG dominant in defeat
This contest highlighted how strange football results can be. If this had been a higher scoring sport like basketball PSG's dominance would have been reflected in a comfortable win. Instead they go home with nothing against a Real Madrid side whose performance was hardly deserving of even a draw.
Perhaps Laurent Blanc's side could be accused of not being sharp enough in the final third- they had just 3 shots on target to Real Madrid's 8 despite having 60% possession- but this was largely down to poor luck and on another day they could have scored three or four. Adrien Rabiot, on after Marco Verratti went off injured in the 17th minute, struck the post with a wonderful volley. In the 45th minute left back Maxwell provided a teasing cross across the six yard box that fell inches in front of the outstretched legs of both Edinson Cavani and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Moments later, deep in first half injury time, Angel Di Maria played Cavani through on goal with a brilliantly weighted through ball. Cavani had just enough time to get a soft touch over Keylor Navas who had done well to close the angle quickly but Raphael Varane was able to clear before the ball crossed the goal line. Twice in the first half Ibrahimovc shot inches wide of Navas's right post, once from the left side of the box and once from a free kick.
In contrast, Madrid's goal came when Tony Kroos's speculative effort was deflected by Thiago Silva into the path of the left back Nacho. He appeared to attempt to play a one time pass out of the air across the face of goal but PSG goalkeeper Kevin Trapp was caught in no man's land and the ball managed to trickle directly into the far corner. It was the one bright spot in otherwise poor performance from Rafa Benitez's side.
Ibrahimovic dropping deep allows PSG to control midfield
Both sides lined up up in matching 4-3-3 formations. Casemiro played at the base of midfield for Madrid with Luka Modric to his right and Tony Kroos playing a slightly freer role when the side were in possession. For PSG Thiago Motta occupied his normal role at the base of midfield with Rabiot to his right and Blaise Matuidi to his left.
In Modric and Kroos Madrid have two of the world's best midfielders at dictating the tempo of a game and keeping possession. It was strange then to see Benitez's side cede the possession battle to PSG so overwhelmingly- the away side ended with 60% possession. A large part of PSG winning the possession battle was the positioning of Ibrahimovic.
The Swedish striker dropped into deep positions in midfield to get on the ball, playing almost as a false 9 and thereby giving PSG a 4 v. 3 advantage in the central midfield zone. With a spare man always available, they comfortably circulated possession around Madrid's midfield three. The graphic below shows the positions where Ibrahimovic received passes, the bulk of which are over 25 yards away from the Madrid goal.
For some sides, having their striker drop so deep to get on the ball would be problematic. If the wide players are more creative, ball-playing types that like to move towards the ball (for instance a Juan Mata or Isc) a side may not have anyone making penetrative runs in behind that will stretch the defense. For example this was a problem Arsenal had early in the season, particularly when playing Olivier Giroud at striker. Giroud would drop deep and use his strength to hold up the ball but Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez- all players that want to get on the ball- were also taking up deeper positions and no one was making those vertical runs behind the defense. When this happens everything occurs in front of the opposition defenders and makes their life relatively easy.
However, in Cavani PSG have a player operating on the left whose main position is a center forward and therefore has the instincts to make those vertical runs behind the defense.
Ibrahimovic's positioning posed a number of tactical dilemmas for Madrid. Benitez's side dealt with him dropping deep by simply allowing him to do so and ceding control of the midfield to PSG. With his side being overrun in the middle of the pitch, Isco began to tuck inside from the right to help even the numbers in that zone. But as a result, PSG's left back Maxwell was free to advance down that channel in loads of space. The warning signs were there early for Madrid. In the 28th minute Di Maria could have played Maxwell through on goal down the left but he failed to spot the pass. Di Maria ended up winning a free kick on the player but you could see several of him teammates' frustrated reactions that he had failed to find the pass. The image below is a screen grab of that incident. Isco is tucked inside tracking the run of Matuidi. Danilo has strangely tracked the run of Cavani all the way to the middle of the pitch rather than passing him off to Varane leaving the entire right side of Madrid's defense exposed.
Later Maxwellcollected the ball in space and played a near perfect whipped cross in that Cavani probably should have managed to get a foot to and equalize. He provided 6 crosses over the course of the game and offered a consistent threat down that channel.
Madrid could have elected to deal with Ibrahimovic's positioning by having Varane step out and track his runs into midfield. This could have evened the numbers in the center midfield zone and prevented PSG from constantly having the extra man available for a pass. However, doing so would have also left a gaping, dangerous gap between the left sided center back Sergio Ramos and the right back Danilo that Cavani would have certainly looked to make lateral runs into. A manager like Pep Guardiola that insists on his side dominating the ball and will therefore take chances to ensure his side are in positions to recover possession quickly would almost certainly have had Varane stepping tight to Ibrahimovic. Benitez however insists on a more rigid, compact defensive system.
Benzema sorely missed, would have helped Madrid play on counter
With PSG controlling possession, Madrid needed to pose a threat on the counter but they were hurt in this regard by the absences through injury of Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale. Benzema has the strength to receive outlet passes and hold up play to allow his attackers the time to sprint forward. There are also few if any classic #9's better at providing a final pass. His inclusion would have allowed Ronaldo to make darting vertical runs behind the defense on the counter rather than being the one to receive the first outlet pass and hold up play. With Bale and Ronaldo operating as the wide forwards in a 4-3-3 there is blistering pace and directness to operate on the counter. That would have been a real threat today given how high PSGs fullbacks were playing up the pitch.