Real Madrid’s defensive adaptability slices Chelsea’s shooting cake

Ahmed Walid
6 min readApr 7, 2022

A simple scroll through football Twitter after any match nowadays, always has one constant. xG shot maps.

“Winning on xG” is a common term for the team that lost despite creating the better chances. But what were these chances? What’s the context of these chances inside the game? What’s the current game state?

When Graham Potter was asked whether xG means anything to him, he answered “Not really. Well, yes and no. It’s a piece of performance data that can tell you something. But you have to be careful as well. It doesn’t tell the whole story. It’s not the truth. It’s just a piece of information.”

Last night, Chelsea were thrashed by Real Madrid at Stamford Bridge. 3–1 was the score-line, the xG? Chelsea 1.4 Real Madrid 1.8 according to Opta, and Chelsea 1.1 Real Madrid 1.8 according to FBref.

Chelsea’s single goal does add up to the numbers, but the 1.4 or the 1.1 was an accumulation of the goal from Kai Havertz, Romelu Lukaku’s free header after a deflected cross and bunch of medium to low quality chances. The type of chances that don’t hurt as much when faced with elite box defending and a goal keeper of Thibaut Courtois’ level.

Real Madrid’s defensive adaptability minimized the quality of Chelsea’s chances and forced them into many shots from low quality positions. From the start, Carlo Ancelotti’s ideas were clear. Toni Kroos and Luka Modric were mainly tasked with marking N’Golo Kante and Jorginho respectively, with Federico Valverde dropping to form a back five when Chelsea were in possession.

Modric and Kroos focused on pressing Jorginho and Kante especially when the ball was near the central area of the pitch, making sure Jorginho can’t control the game comfortably or get out of the marking by using Kante.

Then once Chelsea moved up the pitch using the wider areas a familiar run appeared, Kante moving up the field to make an untracked run. In the previous meetings last season between these sides Kante’s runs and positioning caused multiple problems for Real Madrid across the two legs. This time, Real Madrid were prepared.

When Kante tried sneaking past Toni Kroos and made a run in behind the German, Casemiro picked him up. Leaving Kroos to focus on defending the ball and what’s in-front of him rather than who’s running behind him.

This was a common theme throughout the first half. Chelsea wanting to build up using Jorginho and Kante, but they are forced wide…..

…..and couldn’t combine to find Kante’s movement in the space because of Casemiro.

Or in other instances couldn’t use Kante to play combinational passes and progress through the wing area, because again Casemiro was breathing down his neck.

The pressing from Kroos and Modric, and Casemiro picking up Kante slowed down Chelsea’s progression of the ball. Providing the Real Madrid defensive line time to react when any of Chelsea’s front three wanted to drop to provide a passing options in between the lines.

And even when Kante’s runs were higher up the pitch, Casemiro was alert. tracking him so he can allow David Alaba to defend the half space and support Ferland Mendy.

In this attack, Casemiro’s alertness to Kante allows Alaba to track Mason Mount’s run and prevents Reece James from slipping in a pass down Mendy’s outside. James however decided to put in a low cross through the Real Madrid defence….

…..and because of Casemiro’s initial position he managed to intercept the cross, denying Kante a goal scoring opportunity.

At half time, Thomas Tuchel needed to react and brought on Hakim Ziyech and Mateo Kovacic in place of Andreas Christensen and Kante, moving into a 4–3–3 shape.

An error from Edouard Mendy gifted Real Madrid and Karim Benzema a third on the evening before anything unfurled in the second half. Yet Real Madrid reacted well to Chelsea’s change in shape by moving Vinicius Junior inside the pitch to mark Mount.

The consequence of that move from Real Madrid is that Kroos and Modric could exclusively press Jorginho and Kovacic with Mount tracked. Chelsea were forced into using one type of progression and that was only through the full backs which allowed Real Madrid’s block time to shift horizontally.

An example here explains Chelsea’s problems when trying to progress through Jorginho or use Jorginho to free another midfielder. As Cesar Azpilicueta is playing the ball into Jorginho, Kroos moves up to press him knowing that there’s cover behind….

…… so when Jorginho resets to Antonio Rudiger and the defender tries to find Mount….

…..Vinicius is nearby to close down Mount and force Chelsea into a scrap, after which they lose the ball.

Real Madrid adapted excellently to Chelsea’s changes and after 10 minutes from when Tuchel introduced Lukaku and Ruben Lofus-Cheek and moved to a 4–2–3–1, they moved to a fixed back five with Casemiro dropping in-between Alaba and Nacho Fernandez….

….which turns into a back six with Valverde continuing his role of dropping to neutralize Azpilicueta’s runs.

It would be unfair to say that Real Madrid completely neutralized Chelsea, but what they did is that they slowed down their attacks by limiting Chelsea’s options in terms of progression of the ball and forced Chelsea into shooting from positions where Courtois would have time to react, and the defence time to block.

Apart from two dangerous chances throughout the ninety minutes, Chelsea’s chances were chopped down into small, low quality, chances that the Real Madrid defensive block can devour easily.

Eating a whole cake in one mouth might kill you, but cutting it into many tiny pieces makes it delicious.

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