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Real Madrid vs Man City preview: Will Pep stop Zidane's incredible UCL record?

Zinedine Zidane knows how to win the Champions League. The Frenchman won it three times during his first tenure as Real Madrid boss, and he'll be looking to add to his collection this season. In order to do that, he will have to lead his side beyond Pep Guardiola's Manchester City in a mouth-watering round of 16 clash.

This is Tribal Football's tactical preview of the tie.


Real Madrid have generally lined up in some version of the 4-3-3 system this season, with Zidane usually opting for natural wingers on either side of Karim Benzema up front. Rodrygo and Vinicius Junior have added pace and skill on the flanks, but Zidane will probably think defensively before deciding on a formation to face Manchester City. That might mean the young Brazilians – or the potentially returning Eden Hazard – don't feature from the start.

When Real faced Barcelona away last December, they lined up in a 4-3-1-2 shape with a diamond midfield. Isco was brought into the 10 role behind a front two of Benzema and Gareth Bale. It worked fairly well in stymying their hosts – Barca had just nine shots all game and only two of them were on target.

The reason behind the system's success on the day was it allowed for natural man-to-man pressing for Real. Their strikers could press Barca's centre-backs, Isco could cover their defensive midfielder, and the midfield three shifted between covering Barca's other midfielders and their full-backs.

Given Man City like to line up in a similar 4-3-3 setup, Zidane may be wise to go with the diamond again, preventing them from being able to build-up through their No.6, Rodri, and forcing them into the wider areas where pressing may begin near the touchline.

Real Madrid aren't a pressing machine by any means. According to Understat six La Liga teams allow the opposition to make fewer passes before a tackle, interception or pressure-forced turnover, on average, than Real's 8.7. However, Zidane is a pragmatic coach, and he will definitely be looking to nullify City's attacking game. The diamond, which he used throughout Real's 2018 Champions League-winning campaign, could help in this respect.


While they aren't a particularly aggressive pressing team, Real Madrid do step up on when the opportunity arises. One example is from opposition goal kicks. They did this against Barcelona, essentially going man-to-man when Marc-Andre ter Stegen looked to play out to his centre-backs. However, this left a gap in the middle of the pitch for the German goalkeeper to play a direct pass through to Luis Suarez. With one pass, seven Real players were taken out of the game and Suarez had a clear run at their last line.

Manchester City could look for similar openings from goal kicks, with Ederson possessing the accuracy and distance on his kicking to find teammates in advanced positions and Sergio Aguero being able to control and dribble at defenders.

Aguero will also be key to City's attacking from open play, where his movement away from the frontline can help to overload certain areas of the pitch. The Argentine is anything but static up front, often wandering to find pockets of space between opposition defence and midfield lines. He did this extremely well against Tottenham in a recent Premier League game.

Up against Tottenham's 4-4-2, Aguero dropped deep and helped to overload the opponent's midfield line. An example of this is seen below, where Spurs' central midfielder goes to press Rodri and Aguero takes up a position in the space vacated to receive a through ball. The centre-backs don't want to go with him because that opens up space behind for Raheem Sterling to sprint into, so Aguero is free to receive and turn.

Real Madrid, whether in a 4-3-3 or a 4-3-1-2, will have a similar dilemma regarding how to cope with Aguero's movements. If their No.6 Casemiro is responsible for tracking him, this could leave space elsewhere for Kevin De Bruyne to push on into. Guardiola is a master at manipulating opposition defensive lines to create dangerous situations for his own side to exploit, and Aguero will be integral to this against the Spanish giants.


Guardiola's City tend to press in a 4-4-1-1 or 4-4-2 formation, with Aguero supported by De Bruyne in pressing opposition centre-backs and the midfield four pushing up to support. Their defensive line will then sit around the halfway line, supporting the press and attempting to play offside on any long balls over the top.

Real Madrid don't really have a target man, and if they go with the diamond they won't have the pace of Rodrygo or Vinicius Junior to try and play directly in behind City's back line. Instead, they will have to build-up more gradually. Fortunately, they have the quality to do this.

Both Raphael Varane and Sergio Ramos are the type of centre-back that can find forward passes to take out lines of defence, or evade pressure. At full-back, Dani Carvajal and Ferland Mendy offer a solid out-ball to the touchline if things get too tight in the central areas. Casemiro can also drop between the centre-backs to form a 3v2 if necessary, as he so often does domestically, while Luka Modric has the dynamism and spatial awareness to essentially bypass pressure single-handedly.

Between their centre-backs' safe passing, their full-backs offering a wide option outside of the press, Casemiro's willingness to drop and create numerical advantages, and the individual skill of players like Modric, Real are a difficult side to press. City might not be able to stop them from playing out, and given how frail their defensive line has looked at times this season, that could prove decisive in this tie.

Blair Newman
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Blair Newman

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