The most important game of the season to date lies before Bayern Munich on Wednesday evening, when Real Madrid comes to Munich for the first leg of their Champions League semifinal tie at the Allianz Arena. It may be only the first of two legs, but it is a must-win game for the Bavarians. Coach Jupp Heynckes must decide what lineup to field against Bayern’s most dreaded rivals in the past several season.
But what awaits Jupp in return? Here we take a brief look at Real Madrid’s likely Champions League lineup.
Zinedine Zidane has fielded nearly the same lineup in all of Real Madrid’s most recent big games—in particular the round-of-16 matches against Paris Saint-Germain and most recently the dramatic quarterfinal tie with Juventus Turin. It is based on an unconventional system 4-3-1-2 system that features a prominent “diamond” in the midfield. Here is how it looks in practice:
Ahead of Real Madrid’s starting back four—Marcelo, Sergio Ramos, Raphaël Varane, and Daniel Carvajal—Casemiro plays as the anchor of the diamond as Real’s central defensive midfielder. His role for Madrid resembles that typically played by Javi Martinez for Bayern. He enjoys considerably less possession than Toni Kroos and Luka Modric to his left and right, and Isco also frequently holds the ball more. Casemiro’s primary role is defensive; he frequently is among the team’s strongest tacklers, but is also vulnerable to be dispossessed when put under pressure.
Toni Kroos and Luka Modric make up the sides of the diamond, but this diamond leans heavily to the left. Kroos is the real heart of Real Madrid: he is their primary distributor, passing the ball far more than anyone else on the team and with lethal accuracy. Kroos creates offensive chances for Real from the midfield with his pinpoint accurate passing, set pieces, and through-balls.
Kroos’s home is on the left inside the path of his overlapping left-back, Marcelo—roughly where Thiago Alcantara typically plays for Bayern. It will fall to Javi and his partner in the midfield—quite likely Thiago himself—to neutralize Kroos. Modric plays the same part on the right side of the field, but he sees much less of the ball, and there have been questions about his form this season, although he remains a serious play-making threat.
The head of the diamond consists of Isco. In an alternate universe, James Rodriguez would be playing in his place, but Zidane thought otherwise. In La Liga, Isco is a legitimate scoring threat, with 6 goals and 6 assists, but his contributions in the Champions League have been far more limited: merely 2 assists. Isco roams relatively freely, but he tends to veer left in the diamond formation, overlapping with Kroos. Although not as dangerous as Kroos, his passing is still an offensive threat.
The head of the beast: Cristiano Ronaldo. We love to hate him, and he loves to score goals against us. That says it all: Bayern Munich absolutely must take Ronaldo out of the game. There is no way around it. Whatever lineup and system Heynckes fields, this principle is non-negotiable.
It is non-negotiable not because Ronaldo has scored nine goals (three braces and a hat-trick) against Bayern; it is non-negotiable because Ronaldo virtually is Real Madrid’s offense. Across competitions, Ronaldo has scored 42 goals for Real. The next highest is Gareth Bale with just 14. In La Liga, it’s 24 and 11 respectively. In the Champions League? Ronaldo has scored a whopping 15 of Real’s 26 goals. The next highest goal-scorers are Marcelo and Benzema, each with 2.
To slay the beast, you must cut off its head: the right side of Bayern’s defense in particular—Joshua Kimmich and Jerome Boateng—must ensure that the ball does not reach Ronaldo. He cannot be played onside (or even slightly offside!) to receive a pass. As he has aged, Ronaldo now often foregoes dribbling entirely. He plays like a hybrid of the striking power of Robert Lewandowski and the spatial awareness of Thomas Müller: he penetrates into space and needs no more than a single touch to shoot.
In big games, Ronaldo is assisted usually by Karim Benzema playing as a second striker, but Benzema looks increasingly like a shadow of the player he was. In La Liga, Benzema has 5 goals and 10 assists to his name, but he has wilted in the Champions League. He also happens to be the one player whose status as a starter is open to serious debate.
Zidane opted for Gareth Bale in the second leg against Juventus Turin. It is possible he does the same against Bayern Munich. Bale plays more as a right-winger, running down the sideline and delivering crosses. If he starts, we can expect a tense duel between him and David Alaba. But as with Benzema and the rest of Ronaldo’s supporting cast, the primary objective would be to prevent Bale from delivering an assist to Ronaldo.
Cracking the defense
If Bayern succeed in starving Ronaldo of the ball, that is half the battle. They then must crack Real Madrid’s defense. Perennial bogeyman Ramos was suspended in the second match against Juventus, and it cost Real dearly. UEFA declined to suspend Ramos for the first leg against Bayern, despite his appearance
on slightly below the pitch while serving a suspension. He is as infuriating as ever.
Ramos’s partner Varane is solid, but Real's fullbacks are a weak point. Marcelo can be caught out of position (much like our own Alaba), and Carvajal’s defense on the right flank has been very inconsistent. If Bayern’s own defense holds firm, they could grind Real’s back line down with creative play-making from the central midfield or runs down the flanks. This time around Lewandowski is fit and in incredible form; James Rodriguez is arguably Bayern's best attacking midfielder—and he is itching to beat the club and coach that rejected him. Thiago likewise has been masterful deeper in the midfield, and Müller is Müller again. Even Franck Ribery has defied all expectations on the left wing after Kingsley Coman's devastating injury.
The ingredients of victory are there. We will see how Bayern executes Heynckes’s game plan to beat Real on Wednesday.