Gegenpressing: Pressing its way from Dortmund to Liverpool.

-Pgs and Ishan.

“No playmaker in the world can be as good as a good counter-pressing situation” – Jurgen Klopp.

Klopp 1

What is a counter press? As the name quite literally suggests, a “counter-press” is pressing the counter itself. Unlike common belief, a counter-press is not pressing a side that presses, but rather, pressing against a possible counter-attack. Gegenpressing is simply a version of a counter-press, and it developed in Germany in the late 2000’s, and the prime proponent of the development of the Gegenpress in modern football was Jurgen Klopp. However, one thing to note is that Klopp was not the inventor, or so to say, of the Gegenpress, but rather an advocate of it who developed it to a different level. Pep Guardiola, in his treble winning Barcelona side, had already started using a form of counter-pressing. The main difference between the sides managed by the aforementioned two was the intent of the counter-press. For Guardiola, the main purpose of the counter-press was to maintain his control over the game. For his sides, a counter-press was done simply to win the ball back and begin their cycle of possession all over again. For Klopp, the purpose of his counter-press was to start attacks. For him, the counter-press was his biggest tool to create opportunities to score, and unlike Guardiola, wasn’t to regain the ball and hold on to it, but rather to hit the opponent as fast as possible. 

klopp y pep

 For most teams, when a player loses a ball, his reaction is to close down the opponent he lost out to, on his own, as his teammates fallback, or fallback with his teammates and create a defensive line.

 A Gegenpress, in essence, is to press the opponent immediately after losing the ball, regardless of how high the play is. In a Gegenpress, after losing the ball, the player who lost the ball presses the player he lost out to immediately, while his closest teammates react accordingly and close down the best passing lanes, usually the three easiest ones. The key factor in making this system has always been awareness. The player who lost out and his closest teammates need to be aware of where they need to be once possession is lost, and must react in a split-second, and this reaction can create a pressing trap (a concept that will be explained later), and force their opposition into a certain area or action. 

The benefits of a Gegenpress are numerous. The main benefit, which turns the Gegenpress into a “playmaker”, as Jurgen Klopp so eloquently put it, is that it gives the pressing team an opportunity to win the ball back very high up the pitch. This makes it so that the distance between the pressing team and the opposition goal decreases, and leaves the opposition little to no time to fall back into a defensive block. Another benefit, and a reason that Klopp started to use this method, is that it does not require players of incredible skill to implement, and can be done with any crop of players, such as Klopp’s Mainz squad, or his early Dortmund team. 

The place where Klopp properly implemented the Gegenpress, and took it to new heights, was his Dortmund side. However, it must be noted that he has since made numerous alterations on his Gegenpress, and his current style at Liverpool is far different than what it was at Dortmund. Regardless, the purest form of Gegenpress was at his two title-winning seasons at Dortmund. 

 At Dortmund, Klopp’s go-to formation was the 4-2-3-1, with a back four of Schmelzer, Hummels, Subotic, Pizscek, a midfield two of Sven Bender and Nuri Sahin in his first title win, and Kehl and Gundogan during his second. The 3 behind the striker were any three of Kevin Großkreutz Goetze, Kagawa and Jakub Błaszczykowski. Contrary to popular belief, Marco Reus was not a part of the title winning teams. The lone striker in first season was Milan Barios, who was quite poor in terms of goalscoring, but epitomised the perfect “Klopp striker”. In his second season he upgraded to a certain pole known as Robert Lewandowski. 

bvb players

With two physically dominant center backs, who, despite being slow, had excellent reading of the game, Klopp could afford to play a high line, an absolute need for his Gegenpress.  Klopp’s fullbacks would move high, but not in the way of today’s fullbacks. The reasoning for his high fullbacks were to press, and not to overlap as current fullbacks do. Moreover, Dortmund had two adept wide players who didn’t perform invertedly, and thus the fullbacks were not required to maintain width. Klopp also used a proper no.10, with some positional restrictions, and more often than not, his no.10 was Shinji Kagawa. Kagawa was excellent in this system, in part due to his ability to release the ball quickly and his quick feet, and this was perfect for this system as he operated in high intensity situations which afforded little time to linger on the ball. In front, Lewandowski was highly crucial to this system as he could occupy opposition defenders and give his wingers space to operate in. Of the double pivot, Sahin was the one responsible to step up from midfield to either spread passes or help the press, and Bender screened the CB’s. In his second season, the same roles were carried out by Kehl and Gundogan, with Gundogan operating in the Sahin role, and Kehl taking over from Bender. Gundogan was an upgrade on Sahin, as he was a better passer. However, we cannot undermine Sahin, who was the 10/11 Kicker Bundesliga player of the season. 

sahin

 The case of Kehl is one to note, as it clearly showed Klopp’s preferences in players. Kehl had already crossed 30 when he became a starter for the team. The reason for Klopp trusting such an aged player was because of Kehl’s characteristics; a strong work ethic. Even Klopp’s usage of Kevin Großkreutz and Jakub Błaszczykowski, two wingers who weren’t typical skilful wingers showed what he wants from his players. For comparison, the wingers of Dortmund’s biggest rivals were the incredible duo of Robben and Ribery, two of the finest wingers to ever play in Germany. 

As mentioned before, this Dortmund side were the side that used the Gegenpress in its purest, rawest form. They pressed very high up, with very high intensity, were super fast and used counters to full effect. They attacked with a 4-2-4, and with their press they forced the opposition to the touchline, and forced the ball out, forced the opposition to go long, or won the ball. Kagawa was super crucial to this style of play as he helped create numerical superiority while pressing, and to act as an outlet who redistributed play once the ball was won back. 

The only player who could be classified as a “genius”, or someone who could make something out of nothing was Mario Goetze. Although Lewandowski was the perfect striker, who could score with anything, his influence was in and around the box only. Goetze on the other hand, was once described as “more dangerous than Messi”, which is false, but goes to show how good he was. 

goetze

 Klopp’s side won two titles, and followed the wins with a UCL final appearance. However, the cracks in his system started to show. His side failed to break down sides that refused to hold on to possession and let Klopp’s team act of the front foot, rather than reactively as before. Opposition teams almost let Dortmund have the ball and challenge them to do something with it, and sat deep and soaked up pressure. Another weakness, that has formed in every single side that has pressed like this in history, was burnout. His team failed to maintain the same levels of intensity as players slowly succumbed to the physical demands of the system. In addition to this, Bayern started to steal players such as Goetze, and became far stronger with the emergence of Kroos, Boateng and Alaba. The Dortmund players also began to decline, and without their physical prowess, their lack of individual ability became more and more apparent. 

 Klopp eventually left after two disappointing campaigns, and what he did later changed the face of European football, from a tactical standpoint at least, forever. 

 Klopp joined a weak Liverpool, a side destroyed mentally by their title slip-up in 13/14, and a humiliating 14/15 campaign. This was despite interest in Klopp from Bayern. His first Liverpool side were a mixture of bad transfer decisions and mediocrity. How he transformed this into one of the best footballing sides in Europe is story in itself. The current Liverpool side are on a 38-match unbeaten run (at the time of writing) in the Premier league and is more or less the best team in Europe right now.

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 So how did this happen? Klopp simply learned from his mistakes in Dortmund. However, this did not happen immediately, but rather after multiple set-backs, such as two European final losses.

 The early Klopp Liverpool sides resembled his Dortmund sides quite a bit. Coutinho took up the mantle as the primary creator, even from the wings, and the fullbacks were mostly used to press, rather than to create. His sides were meant to outscore the opponent, mainly because of the fact that they couldn’t defend, and for a while it looked as though Klopp would not find success with his methods in England.

The team began a metamorphosis with the addition of signings such as Mane and Salah, two players who operated invertedly, and had individual talent, and were insanely fast. Even though he didn’t sign him, Klopp turned Firmino into the most crucial cog of his attack, and the deployment of Firmino as a false-9 became the symbol of the new Gegenpress. Firmino became the second most successful False-9, and would have been the best had the role not been operated in by Messi in Pep’s famous Barcelona sides.

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Klopp’s Liverpool went through two distinct phases in regard to their pressing. The changing of the phases or so came after the 17/18 UCL final loss to Real Madrid, a game in which Trent Alexander-Arnold described Real Madrid as “toying with us, and never lost the ball”. Before this final, Liverpool focused on the original components of Gegenpressing; winning the ball very high, pressing with intensity and maintaining a very high line. This led to them being open at the back, and teams with highly press resistant players exploited this easily. They also lacked midfield personnel to dictate the tempo of games, and could not maintain a defensive high line due to the likes of Lovren being poor positionally and not being very good on the ball as well.

The turning point came from both tactics and personnel. Liverpool, in the 17/18 winter window, signed Virgil Van Dijk from Southampton for a record breaking 75 million pounds. They went on to sell Coutinho for 142 million pounds, much to the sadness of Liverpool fans, and used this to buy Allison for 67 million and Fabinho for around 40 million pounds. This had a huge impact on this squad both from a tactical point of view and psychologically.

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 The primary impact of the signing was that the Liverpool center backs had someone to look up to and they had to up their game to make sure they are selected in the XI regularly. They also had Allison behind them, someone who could command the box much better than the player he was replacing. Both of them had an immediate psychological impact on a team already capable of reaching a Champions league final.

The tactical changes came with it. The first thing Klopp had to learn was to break down teams that sat deep while also making his side play against teams that pressed them. This led to him playing a 4-3-3 in most of his games and a 4-2-3-1 against teams that sat deep. This side had Allison in goal, who could distribute play to highly dangerous areas, which helped Liverpool’s counter attacks, and also helped bypass their midfield, an area that was bereft of creativity. The backline had one of the best CB’s in the game currently, and he could make sure Liverpool could maintain a highline because of his superb recovery speed and physical dominance.

The biggest change between Klopp’s two sides were his usage of fullbacks. As mentioned before, BVB’s fullbacks were largely defensive, and were used to press, while his fullbacks at Liverpool are his main source of creativity, especially TAA. Klopp mainly uses his new fullbacks in two ways; firstly, to cross, and as a result create via wide areas, and secondly to beat pressing teams by progressing the ball via the wings, and to switch play quickly from one side to another, which exposes pressing teams on the side that their players are not clustered in.

TAA and robertson

Another change came in the usage of Fabinho as number 6. Normally no.6’s are the deepest of the midfield 3, but Fabinho did not operate in this way. Fabinho stepped out to press the opposition and mostly played as a roaming destroyer rather than a traditional DM. The other 2, usually Wijnaldum and Henderson, are another reason TAA and Robertson could move forward. During attacks, they played as “false full-backs” who mostly covered the flanks while the 2 fullbacks pushed forward. As a result, the midfield looks like a midfield with 3 work-horses rather than 3 players with different skillsets.

So how does Klopp compensate for this lack of creativity in midfield? For this he has to thank the man he replaced for signing Roberto Firmino. Klopp didn’t have to look any further to find the man he could play as a number 9. Firmino wasn’t the archetypical no.9, but was a “false-9”, who dropped deep to press and to act as an outlet. What Firmino allowed Klopp to do was to combine the roles of a striker and AM in one player, allowing him to field an extra midfielder. Firmino has the output of a decent no.9, while doing the work of a no.10. Moreover, he is excellent technically and pretty good aerially, making him the complete forward.

 The use of Firmino also allowed space to be opened up for arguably the best wing duo in the world; Salah and Mane. This duo is in stark contrast to his Dortmund duo, as they have high levels of individual ability. Both can go 1v1 and beat their man, while also having massive output. This is clearly highlighted by their joint golden boot in 18/19, and Salah having the best goal scoring season in PL history with 32 in 17/18. The compatibility of the front three allowed Klopp to field a midfield entirely composed of workhorses, and thus did not need midfield creators.

 This team pressed only when needed, or against certain opposition, and did not press as rampantly as the Dortmund side. This made them less exposed defensively, and prevented them from burning out in the latter stages of the season. This is highlighted by their wins mostly coming during the last minutes of games, something that comes with incredible amounts of focus and stamina. Klopp also trained his sides to win where the odds weren’t in their favor by building training routines where 5 attacking players would play against an entire XI in training. Klopp also made the players comprising the 5 man team start the game 3 goals down, in an effort to fortify their mental resilience and make sure they don’t falter when they concede and lose intensity.

Another unique aspect of this side was that in a era where most of the football is focused on building centrally, Klopp took his buildup out wide and exploited the space left by teams getting narrower and narrower into the middle of the pitch.

Roberto.Firmino-

 Klopp again used his incredible man management skills to turn players like Robertson, TAA and Wijnaldum into world class players. He created a team spirit which was second to none and instilled a never say die attitude, which has given them incredible mental fortitude. This is one thing that does not come from tactics or personnel and rather from the ability of Klopp’s coaching.

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The evolution of Klopp as a manager is reflected in his use of the Gegenpress. Overtime, the tactic has been perfected with a tweak here or there, and now is in it’s most refined, most effective phase, a phase which just might end up making this Liverpool side the best in PL history, and Klopp the coach who led such a side. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Isco role; A floating midfielder like no other.

-Pgs

Deportivo Alaves v Real Madrid - La Liga Santander

If there was ever a player who would fit the description as “magisterially talented yet painfully inconsistent”, that player would be Fransisco Roman Alarcon Suarez, or Isco for short. A technical genius, even by Spanish standards, Isco is an enigma, with the ability to glide past players on the pitch with the grace akin to Zidane, yet with the consistency level of players like Theo Walcott or Hatem Ben Arfa. On his day, Isco is one of the very best midfielders in the world, but when “his day” will come is anyone’s guess.

In his initial days at Real Madrid, he was used primarily as an attacking midfielder or central midfielder, with the former being his position of chose and the latter being a role in which he thrives because of his technical expertise. However, with the primary formations used by his first Madrid manager; Carlo Ancelotti, being a 4-3-3 or a 4-4-2, the attacking midfielder role did not exist, and with the likes of Toni Kroos, Luka Modric, Xabi Alonso and Casemiro taking up the slots in the middle of the pitch, Isco never managed to find a permanent home in the Real Madrid 11.

However, that seemed to have changed with the arrival of one of the greatest players of all time, and a long time advocate of Isco; Zinedine Zidane, as Real Madrid coach. In the first few games under his charge, Isco found a home in the Real Madrid 11, but after a loss to Atletico Madrid in the league, Isco found himself in and out of the team yet again.

The 16/17 season started in the same vein, but that was until Gareth Bale picked up an injury that would rule him out for the next 3 months. That is when Isco’s fortunes really changed under Zidane, and he would come to be an integral cog of the team that won the league title and the next two UCL titles.

zizou y isco

Zidane changed the teams primary line up from a 4-3-3 to a 4-3-1-2 diamond, with Isco in the hole behind Ronaldo and Benzema, and this change provided dividends, for both Isco and the team.

Although, at first glance, it would seem that Isco would be playing in a role similar to the ones any no.10 played in; a floating creative midfielder. However, this was far from reality. Although he was able to operate as such, his role would be far more complex, and much different from the typical no.10 role.

Zidane turned Isco into the ultimate “link-man”, a player who popped up wherever he needed to, in order to act as an outlet to his teammates, and obtain numerical superiority in any and every area of the pitch. It was Isco’s job to become a ubiquitous presence and help out wherever his teammates needed him to help. One prime example of this is in build up. Of the midfield four of Kroos, Modric, Isco and Casemiro, the weak link technically is Casemiro, and he became a target of opposition presses. To counteract this, Zidane opted to station Casemiro high up the pitch during build up, and it was Isco who dropped deep to collect the balls from the center backs. This had a number of benefits as the player most prone to losing the ball while being pressed was no longer exposed, Kroos and Modric did not need to leave their positions to collect the ball, the attack still had a considerable presence as Ronaldo and Benzema still remained high up the pitch, and the center backs had a genuine outlet who they could give the ball to with no fear of him losing it due to being pressed. disco

Another massive benefit of Isco being used in this role turned out to be that, with his free role, he was able to pop up anywhere to help create numerical superiority. This happened especially on the left, as Marcelo stayed wide, Kroos operated in the half space and Benzema drifted out from his striker position. Usually, in such cases, a 3v3 would form as the opposition full back, right winger, and a CM or DM would arrive to defend. However, with Isco’s role, he would create a 4v3, and help to hold on to position, or create an attack.

A further benefit was that opposition presses had absolutely no clue how to deal with Isco in this role. His propensity to drop deep, be in line with the CM’s, drift wide, etc., would make it impossible to implement a man oriented or a zonal pressing system. He operated in every zone, and having a player track him around would also be dangerous as it would lead to space being created for others to exploit. Moreover, with Isco’s technical ability in tight spaces being second to none, with him averaging over 3 completed take ons a game, taking the ball off of him was also difficult for opponents. His combination play with Modric, Kroos, Marcelo and Benzema lead to Real becoming the most press resistant team of the 2010’s.

His creativity also shone through, as he was able to move anywhere to create. Although his numbers have never been spectacular, he remains one of Madrid’s key men it comes to breaking down tight defenses.

disco 2

Another thing that really came to the fore when he became a starter was how good he was in big games. His exceptional performances against the likes of Atletico (multiple times), Barcelona, PSG, Bayern and Liverpool all showed how incredible of a player he was, especially in the role Zidane used him in.

From a defensive standpoint, defending in a diamond would be foolish, as it would leave the wings exposed. Thus, while defending, the team morphed to a 4-4-2 or a 4-1-4-1, with Isco either acting as the left winger or slotting in the middle, depending on where Kroos and Benzema stationed themselves (as Modric was always the right winger while defending).

The Isco role, or so to say, is one of the most unique roles in modern football, played by a genius of a player, and a role which helped cement the modern Real Madrid side as one of the greatest to ever play the beautiful game. A syzygy of tactical and technical brilliance. zizou and iscu

 

 

Real Madrid vs PSG 2019/20 UCL group stage 2-2 tactical analysis.

-Pgs.

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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.

Image result for gueye vs real madrid" 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.

Image result for real madrid vs psg 2-2

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.

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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.

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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.

Image result for real madrid vs psg 2-2"

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.

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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.

The engine and the artist; the industrious genius that is Luka Modric.

-Pgs

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In the storied history of Real Madrid, all the different types of players that have played at the club, the superstars with their glitz and glamour, the cult heroes who the socios won’t ever forget, the workhorses whose contributions are often overlooked, all of them follow the footsteps of one man who played in the1950’s. A player who, if you delve into just a little bit, will become clear as the vanguard of Real Madrid’s success’, the man who lead the team to the European accomplishments that came to define the very club. That man was Alfredo di Stefano. And what was this player like? If you are to trust the words of those who saw him play and played alongside him, he can be described as the “total footballer”, a player who contributed to every phase of the game, helping out the defense, creating chances from midfield and finishing them off as well. As hyperbolic as it may sound, this was what Di Stefano was like.

Now one may argue that it was possible for Di Stefano to play the way he did because football was a different game back then, that it wasn’t as fast and demanding as it is today, and that in the modern game, no one player can be the blend of genius and workhorse that Di Stefano was. And those arguments may very well be true, all of them beside the last one. Some forty seven years after the el saeta rubia, or the blonde arrow, retired, his reincarnation was brought to Real Madrid by Jose Mourinho.

A player deemed as the worst signing of the season in his first year at the club, he would go on to define another European dynasty, just as Di Stefano did in the 1950’s. A player whose legacy at the club has far surpassed any of the original galacticos, a player who will be looked at later as maybe the best midfielder to ever wear the royal white. Arguably the most important player of the “4 in 5” era, that player was Luka Modric.

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So what has Modric done to warrant the title of the reincarnation of the great Alfredo Di Stefano? He isn’t even as one tenth as prolific as Di Stefano was, nor does he have the superstar image that Di Stefano has in the hearts and minds of Real Madrid fans. Rather, he has a much more prosaic image, a diminutive man who very rarely, if ever, does any of the things that one would associate with one of the very best players in the world. His numbers hardly flatter, with under 10 goals and 10 assists per season being the norm throughout his career. However, anyone who has watched Real Madrid from the 13/14 season on wards will know what Modric is; an absolute genius with the work rate of a political prisoner in a Stalin era gulag. And by watched Real Madrid, I do not mean just the finals or the glamour ties against the European big boys, I mean really watch Real Madrid, the games against the minnows in the league, all rounds of the Champions league, heck, even the Copa del Rey ties against teams you couldn’t name with a gun to your head.

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From a strictly technical and artistic point of view, Modric is brilliant. Combining the deftness of touch and unflappability under pressure that one would associate with Spanish midfielders alongside the passing range and vision of the registas of old, Modric put simply, is a genius. His ability to evade pressure by dribbling past opposition players or combining with his teammates is easily the very best in the world. Alongside this, he can spray passes all over the pitch, and when he does it with his trademark trivelas, it is a sight to behold. In all but one of his seasons at Real Madrid, Modric has averaged over 2 key passes a game, and completed between 2 and 2.5 dribbles per game. Moreover, his passes per game have always been over 55 and his success rate has never dipped below 85%. In addition to this, Modric is the second best ball progressor at the club through passing, behind only Kroos, and if progressions through dribbling are also added, then he ranks first.

His passes have also been quite spectacular. His assist for Gareth Bale against Basel in 2014/15 season is a thing of absolute beauty. His assists to Di Maria, Ronaldo and Benzema in the 12/13 season and Ronaldo in 17/18 are other examples of his passing brilliance. Alongside this, it was him who took the corner that eventually became 92:48 (which, for you non-madridistas is the Ramos goal against atleti in the 2014 final).  Other than his playmaking genius, he has scored a fair few golazos as well.

However, to narrow down Modric, to confine all he is, to only a playmaker, albeit a brilliant one, would be a gross injustice. Modric is not solely an artist. In every single game, not only the blockbuster ties in Europe or Madrid derbies or el clasico’s, no, in every single game, Modric is running with fervor and energy of someone hopped up on enough coke to make scarface blush. Whatever the team needs him to do, whether or not it was a part of the original game plan, Modric will do, and has done. In the ties against Bayern, in which Zidane was forced to play Vazquez as a RB, Modric acted as an auxiliary RB. Without his defensive efforts, Vazquez would’ve been decimated, torn down to his last atom, and Real would’ve lost. But thankfully, Real had a player like Modric. Before this, whenever Danilo played, with is complete ineptitude towards defending, Modric was there to make up for him. Whenever Casemiro went on his forays into attack, to play as a 10, who was there to protect the space he left? Modric. Whenever Zidane put out a lineup that had no wingers and the fullbacks were incredibly isolated when defending, who was there to help them out? Modric.

In all but one of his seasons, his tackles and interceptions have always been over 3 per 90, a number that is common for defensive midfielders of top teams, not central midfielders. The dribbled past per 90 statistic has always hovered around the 0.9 mark. Of all the Madrid midfielders, only Casemiro has had better defensive numbers than Modric since the 14/15 season, and in the whole team, only Casemiro and the fullbacks have had better tackle and interception numbers.

Moreover, while doing all this, Modric was still able to carry out his normal duties as a CM; to help set the tempo, progress the ball, and create. Even while plugging the gaps in the system and compensating for some his teammates’ deficiencies, he was still one of the best players in the world on the ball. At the same time, he was an artistic midfielder while also being a tireless workhorse.

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Contributing in every phase of play, Modric, in the glorious European dominance of the 2010’s, was Madrid’s all-rounder, just as Di Stefano was in the 50’s. This is the reason why Modric should not be considered anything other than as one of the top 5 best midfielders to ever play the game. He had the artistic genius that all the other midfield greats had, but with a work ethic and defensive output that none of the other greats had. An engine and an artist.

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Karim Benzema; the unsung hero of modern day Real Madrid.

-Pgs.

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As it is with all great stories, there are some characters who simply do not get the amount of credit they warrant. Always overshadowed by their more glamorous compatriots, these characters, and their contribution to the narrative, take a back seat in re-tellings of the stories, and become little more than side characters as time and ignorance fade people’s memories. And, more often than not, these characters do not deserve such a massive injustice to befall them, rather, they deserve to be given the same plaudits as their counterparts, but due to some reason, or a plethora of reasons, they do not.

In the epic that is modern day Real Madrid, the side character who has been sidelined, alongside his contributions, is Karim Benzema. Often derided for some misses, and a shaky scoring record, Karim Benzema, in the eyes of many, has been nothing but a stowaway in the the Real Madrid team. Always thought of as a player who more or less is carried by his teammates, Benzema has been given a reputation that he has done nothing to deserve. Those who have followed Real Madrid regularly since the moment Benzema arrived at the club will know that he has been an integral part of all the successes from that point onward.

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If you were to take any one of the original galactico’s, and compare their legacy to Benzema’s legacy at the club, no-one would come close to Benzema. The only way to argue that one of the original galactico’s has a better legacy at the club, and in football as a whole, would be by including all that Zidane has achieved as a manager and as a player for France in your argument. Other than that, Benzema is far and away in terms of success and legacy than all of them. A winner of four champions league trophies, a scorer in a final and multiple semi finals, two league titles, amongst many others trophies, the fourth all time top scorer in the Champions league, and in the top ten of all time highest scorers for Madrid, Benzema is a bigger legend for the club than any one of the original galactico’s, yet he is not even celebrated as even as half as much as all the others are.

The reasons for such a lack of recognition are simple; the nature of the player, and the repeated publishing of ignorant analyses and jokes about the player. Karim Benzema is a victim of his own selflessness and the inability of the majority of people to think critically about what they see and read.

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As a player, Benzema is probably one of the most unselfish to ever play the game. When playing with Cristiano Ronaldo, there is no way a player will ever be the main man at their team, but the extent to which Benzema went to to help Ronaldo be the best Ronaldo he could be was incredible. In the initial phases of their stay at Madrid, Benzema operated as a sort of link man in the counter-attacking system implemented by Mourinho. Holding up play and bringing others into the game, Benzema allowed Ronaldo and others to use their pace to end teams on the counter. Later on, when the team became a bit more possession oriented and Ronaldo became more and more of a striker, Benzema again sacrificed his game for the benefit of others. He started operating more and more as a false 9, drifting into the space on the left that Ronaldo vacated to help link play with the likes of Marcelo and Isco to create chances for Ronaldo in the box. When the BBC came to the fore, Benzema acted as a link man once again, but this time to the two wingers either side of him, connecting play and creating for them. He often dropped deep to help circulate play, occupied whatever space was vacated by his wingers, even if it meant leaving the box, and did whatever was necessary to help the likes of Bale and Ronaldo thrive, even if it meant sacrificing his own game. There is no better way to describe Benzema than how he described himself; “a nine with the soul of a ten”.

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All the while, he still maintained a goal ratio of around 20 a season, and still remained one of the top assist providers for the team.

However, all of this still hasn’t gotten him the reputation he deserves; as one of the best players in modern football and one of the most unique players ever. Mainly due to highly biased and ignorant analyses regarding what he does as a player, and the constant hammering of these opinions on social media, coupled with the rounds some his misses make on the internet, Benzema is seen as a striker with poor finishing who doesn’t deserve the success he has. But one thing people fail to think is, why hasn’t he been displaced by any one of the numerous strikers who have played at Real Madrid during his stay at the club? Or, why has the club not opted to sign a replacement? Why has a club with unlimited resources and quite possibly the strongest pull in football not opted to sign a replacement for such a poor player? The inability of people to entertain such questions has lead to the cultivation of the idea that Benzema is at best a good player, when in actuality, he is one of the very best to play football in this era.

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There are very few strikers, if any, who do all of the things Benzema does, and at the level he does. What Benzema is, is a hybrid of a striker and a number 10. One of the best dribblers of all top strikers, Benzema can operate in the tightest of spaces, can attack down the wing and can operate in spaces in and around the box. His link up play is also one of the best around, while he also manages to do what is generally expected from a number 9. With over a 180 goals for the club, he has one of the best scoring records around. Even in Real Madrid’s worst season this century, he managed to score 21 in the league, a tally bettered only by the top scorers of the top 5 leagues in Europe and 30 in all competitions.

Those who have watched him regularly know that there was no player who was a better fit for the Madrid teams he played in. Madridistas all around know what he is capable of doing, and has done for the club. The archetypal modern striker, Benzema deserves to be pulled out of the shadow and start being appreciated for what he is; an all time great, for Real Madrid, and for football as a whole.

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The embodiment of club and culture; the parallels between Zidane and Pep Guardiola.

-Pgs

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Anybody who has a passing interest in football knows who Zinedine Zidane and Pep Guardiola are. Two titans of the game, one as one of the best players ever and one of the most successful coaches of the most successful team of all time, and the other as an excellent player and arguably the greatest tactician of all time. Besides this incredible success in football, and a severe lack of hair follicles, these two men share another trait; both are embodiments of the institutions that they have become most attributed with, FC Barcelona and Real Madrid C.F.

To fully grasp how two men could be the physical representations of the spirits of two of the biggest sporting institutions in the world, one needs to trace the history of the clubs and the men. The footballing version of the USSR vs USA, the Madrid vs Barca is the most enthralling rivalry in the history of the sport. The two biggest clubs in Spain, two of the most successful teams in the world, and the two teams that had the pleasure of experiencing the peaks of the two greatest players of all time. Real Madrid vs Barcelona is a match up like no other.

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So how are these two men the manifestations of these gargantuan clubs? Even more so than the two men in the picture above? To answer that, one has to pick up apart the cultures of the clubs individually, and the part that they play in the history of their clubs.

Barcelona are synonymous with one ideology. The radicals of the sport, operating under an overarching umbrella of one ideology, one ideology that guides their playing style from the starting 11 to the under-9’s. First exposed to the world by the enigmatic duo of Cruyff and Michels, Barcelona adopted total football as their own. Soon, they became moulded by it, changing the very face of the club, and the face of the sport as a whole. This ethos of playing beautifully and winning by doing so has become the very crux of the Barcelona story. From the Cruyff led side of the 70’s, to the Pep Guardiola led team of the late 2000’s. So where does Pep Guardiola fit into all this?

As a player, Pep is considered to be an excellent one, albeit not one of the best to ever play the game. Climbing through the ranks of the famed La Masia academy, that aims to instill the ideology of the club into its students from the youngest age possible, Pep broke into the first team. The La Masia aspect of his DNA is also very important, and we’ll come back to that soon. What would’ve been a largely normal career was changed by the influence of one man; Johan Cruyff. Made a vital cog of Cruyff’s dream team of the early 90’s, Pep received his footballing education from one of the greatest minds the footballing world had ever seen. Winning multiple league titles on the bounce and one UCL under the tutelage of Cruyff, Pep Guardiola learned what would later become his niche as a coach. The Cruyff-ian philosophy, or so to say, had been instilled in Pep.

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On the other sphere of the El Clasico rivalry, a few years down the line, a magical combination was about to happen. Possibly the best player in the world at that time, the player who lead his nation to a World cup and Euros triumph, the player who Sir Alex Ferguson boldly claimed was all he needed alongside 10 pieces of wood to win the UCL, was about to join the most successful team in the world. Zinedine Yazid Zidane, in what was at the time the most expensive transfer in history, had joined Real Madrid. The second signing of the infamous Galacticos era, Zidane was the centerpiece of Florentino Perez’s dream of a team containing all the best players in the world. Zidane, who cannot be described as anything other than a mercurial genius, was a perfect fit for the club, and it’s ethos. Football’s answer to the Bolshoi ballet, as said by Michel Platini, Zidane wasn’t a player who would provide bucket loads of goals or assists, but he was the player who could alter any game in one swift act of inexplicable genius.

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A player like this was perfect for a club like Real Madrid. A club who were not dogmatic about anything other than the fact that they had to win. To win everything. Whereas Barcelona were unequivocal in their belief that winning has to be done in a certain way, and preferably with their own youth products, all Real Madrid care about is to win attractively. Attractively is a very vague term, as it can mean picking apart your opponents like Barcelona, or by obliterating them on the counter or by bombarding them with a deluge of shots till one or more go in. They did not care whether the players were homegrown or not as well. Although the fans have always displayed a liking towards homegrown players, they have also always knackered for marquee signings, the big names, the ones who bring with them the glitz and the glamour. And in the early 2000’s, there were very few who were as glamorous as the Frenchman. Very few will argue that there is a club that embraces the larger than life nature of the sport more than Real Madrid, and Zidane, even though he does not have such a personality, aligned in a way akin to a syzygy.

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As players, both ticked the boxes for their clubs, but their connection to the clubs go deeper than just players. As coaches, both have experienced even more success than they had as players, and more importantly, both have continued with their clubs way of thinking.

Pep Guardiola’s stint as coach was fraught with success. Playing a brand of possession oriented football, Pep Guardiola created what is arguably the greatest team to ever play. Moreover, the core of that team, Messi, Xavi, Pedro, Puyol, Iniesta, Busquets, Pique and Valdes were all homegrown. Pep, a member of the dream team of the early nineties, had usurped the achievements of his master, and did so in a way that Barcelona fans craved. Pep brought to Barcelona the culmination of a love affair that started over three decades ago, winning a treble, three league titles and a Champions League.

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On the other side of the El Clasico divide, 4 years after Pep’s departure, Zinedine Zidane was appointed at the helm of Real Madrid. In the following 2.5 years, he managed to do what no manager had ever done before, win the Champions league, retain it, and retain it again. While doing that, he also managed to snag a league title. And he did this in a way that no club other than Real Madrid could even dream of pulling off. With the greatest squad of all time, that had the likes of James Rodriguez, Gareth Bale, Pepe, Kovacic on the bench, and a playing style that followed the motto “we have better players than you, and that’s how we’ll beat you”, Zidane created the second best European dynasty of all time, after the 50’s Madrid team of course. Superstar players, a gung ho approach to attacking, a never say die attitude fostered by Zidane, Ramos and Ronaldo, and an air of arrogance that comes with no club other than Real, Zidane breathed life into the Real Madrid dream. The greatest Galactico of the first era showed why Real Madrid are Real Madrid. A man indoctrinated with club values during his stint as a player, he brought those same values to the fore when he was made manager 15 years after his signing.

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As players and managers, both men have encapsulated what their clubs were. Be it through a dogmatic approach to football, or through a cavalier way focused solely on winning. The idealist and the the superstar, as players and coaches. The very spirits of their club given a physical form.

Until now, these two bald greats have not met as coaches. However, since Zidane has returned to the helm of Real Madrid, and Pep Guardiola is showing no signs of taking a hiatus, it probably won’t be long before these two meet. With the tactical brilliance of one and the inexplicable ability of other to win games through the most simplistic of methods, there is no telling who will come out on top. The only thing that is sure is that the match will be incredible.

Real Madrid vs Bayern Munich 16/17 Champions league QF second leg tactical analysis.

-Pgs

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Quite possibly the most entertaining game that I have ever watched, the second leg between the reigning UCL champions Real Madrid and Bayern Munich in the Santiago Bernebeu was a match like no other. Real, who came into the match with a 2-1 aggregate lead after a Ronaldo brace in the Allianz arena, were trying to reach their sixth consecutive semi-final, and retain their crown.

On the night, Madrid lined up in a 4-4-2 diamond, with Navas in goal, Ramos and Nacho as the center backs, Carvajal and Marcelo as the fullbacks, Casemiro as the DM, Modric and Kroos in central midfield, Isco as a roaming attacking midfielder and a front two of Ronaldo and Benzema.

Bayern on the other hand lined up in a 4-3-3 with Neuer in goal, a center back pairing of Hummels and Boateng, Lahm and Alaba as the fullbacks, Xabi Alonso as the lone pivot, with Vidal and Thiago ahead of him. The front three was made up of Robben, Ribery and Lewandowski.

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One very important thing to note is that this match was one with one of the worst refereeing performances by referee Viktor Kassai and his assistants. In fact, the refereeing was so poor, Real were given two offside goals, Bayern given one offside goal, Arturo Vidal was not sent off for two challenges that warranted a straight red, but for one that should have been a yellow, while the penalty Robben won was also via one of his usual hysterical dives. All in all, only two of the six goals that were scored should’ve stood, and the match should never have gone to extra time.

Another thing to note is that although it was Ronaldo who scored a hat-trick, the standout performance of the match was of his chief partner in crime; Marcelo. With quite possibly the greatest fullback performance in the history of the UCL, Marcelo tore Bayern to shreds. On the night, he completed 9, yes 9 dribbles, sent in 13 crosses, while also making two on the line clearances, one incredible assist, and one piece of skill that made Robben fall down to his knees as if he were praying.RealMadridVBayernMunich18April17_large

Trailing the match with two away goals, Bayern started to attack from the get go, and their game plan was clear. They attempted to exploit the glaring weakness of Zidane’s diamond; the lack of personnel on the wings. The only two wide players in the formation were the fullbacks. Due to this, Bayern could overload the wings and easily create chance after chance from the wings.

In the middle of the park, the talent levels were almost obscene. Very few midfields can match Xabi Alonso and Thiago on a technical level, but the Madrid midfield three of Kroos, Isco and Modric were more than up to the task. The combative presence of Vidal for Bayern and Casemiro for Real was also intriguing, as they provided a sort of grit that their counterparts did not.

Bayerns attacks off the wing very nearly bore fruit in the first ten minutes, with Ribery and Alaba doubling up on Carvajal and sending in a cross that was met my Thiago and would’ve been a sure goal had it not been for a sliding block by Marcelo. A few minutes later, with Marcelo having gone on one of his marauding runs, Lewandowski was free on the left wing, but was dealt with well by Ramos.

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Alongside attacking via the wings, another characteristic of Bayern’s play was their pressing. They attempted to stem the flow to Madrid’s attacking players through a high press that was led by Lewandowski and Thaigo. The prime target for their pressing was Casemiro, as he was the least technically sound player of Madrid’s midfield 4. Vidal often harried Casemiro as soon as he got the ball, while Lewandowski let the Madrid center backs have as little time as possible on the ball.

However, this pressing wasn’t as effective as Bayern had hoped it would be. A defining characteristic of Zidane’s Madrid was their ease at beating even the most structured of presses. This was down to mainly three reasons; the individual talent of Isco, Modric and Kroos, the fluidity of their play and the movement of Benzema and Marcelo to aid them.

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Kroos, Modric and Isco’s unflappability in midfield was remarkable as they constantly beat Bayern’s press with a series of passing combinations or dribbles. Bayern’s midfield found it increasingly difficult to mark them was they very rarely stayed in the same zones. Kroos was more inclined to stay in the left half-space and Modric on the right, but they could and often times did switch areas or overload one side. Isco was also a roaming presence, popping up wherever there was the ball to present himself as a passing option. Their movement broke the Bayern pressing structure and rendered any attempts at man-marking void. Moreover, Marcelo’s constant forays into attack helped Madrid dominate the ball on the left wing as Isco, Kroos, Marcelo combined with Benzema to hold the ball.

Despite this, Bayern still had slightly more of the ball, which was due to Madrid’s lack of pressing. Madrid were content to soak up pressure and try to destroy Bayern in transition. A key to this was Ramos, who was tasked with putting a stop to all Bayern crosses as his usual partner in defence; Varane, was out with injury and Nacho is weak in the air. Thankfully, Ramos was immense on the night heading out everything. He won 3 aerial duels in the box in the first 20 minutes alone.

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To defend against Bayern’s constant attacks down the wings, Madrid reverted to a flat  4-4-2 while defending, with Isco helping out Marcelo on the left wing and Modric helping out Carvajal on the right, with Casemiro and Kroos screening the center backs.

Despite playing in such a narrow formation, Madrid’s main avenue of attack was also down the wings, the left wing in particular. Marcelo absolutely dominated that flank, with his overlapping runs and dribbles causing mayhem for Lahm and Robben. He often had Isco or Benzema for help, but was a massive threat on his own. I have never seen Lahm be as utterly dominated by an opposing fullback as he was vs Marcelo that night.

Another common sight was the typical switch of play. With Madrid overloading the left side, Bayern were naturally drawn to that side, leaving the right wing vulnerable. The play was switched to the right, to Carvajal a number of times, in order to create better attacking opportunities.

The second half started in the same vein, and Robben nearly scored via an Alaba cross, had it not been for another goal saving clearance by Marcelo.

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Both of Marcelo’s goal saving blocks/clearances.

Both teams had numerous attacks, with Madrid nearly scoring via a Ramos shot which was cleared spectacularly off the line by Vidal. The first goal however, took till the 53rd minute to come, when a trademark dive by Robben earned Bayern a penalty, which was put away by Lewandowski.

The Madrid reply came in the 73rd minute, when Ronaldo headed in a Casemiro ball over the top of Bayern’s defense. This was one of the two goals that should have stood.

Four minutes later, Lewandowski received the ball in an offside position and his attempt to pass it back to Muller was accidentally turned in by Ramos. The scoreline needed to force the game to extra time was achieved.

The game eased up a bit after that, with both teams visibly tired. Madrid attacked a bit more than Bayern. Madrid also made two offensive changes, with Asensio and Vazquez replacing Benzema and Isco, which made Madrid revert to a 4-3-3. This was done for two reasons; to negate Bayern’s threat down the wings, and to increase Madrid’s offensive threat down the wings.

The 83rd minute was one of importance, as Vidal finally got the red card he deserved that match, albeit over 60 minutes late.

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Extra time was a different story altogether. A man down and tired, Bayern were run rampant by Madrid, especially Marcelo, as they conceded three goals in extra time. Moreover, they should have received a penalty as well for a foul on Casemiro.

Due to fatigue and being a man down, Bayern started leaving huge spaces in between the lines. These gaps were exploited over and over again by Madrid, with two of the Madrid goals coming as a direct result of this. Marcelo simply burst through the middle of the pitch, beating three players while doing and laid it on a plate for Ronaldo, while Asensio beat a weary Hummels twice before scoring.

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Overall, the game wasn’t a tactical masterclass by either side, but more of a game with subtle tactical tweaks and an intriguing midfield battle. Madrid went on to dispatch Atletico in the semis and thrash Juventus in the final to become the first ever team to retain the UCL, while Bayern reached the semi-finals of the next year’s edition of the UCL, only to be beaten by Madrid again, who would secure a third straight UCL win under Zidane.

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