Oh! The pain!
Football is a cruel sport. For most of the game between Borussia Monchengladbach and Real Madrid, the German team looked tactically superior. They were astute in their pressing ways and it looked like they would take a famous 3 points from Los Blancos, but it was not to be. The individual quality in Madrid’s ranks was too much. In the 86th minute, Karim “The good teammate” Benzema got one back and you knew the inevitable end to this story. Casemiro turned into a goal-scorer from the provider to snatch a point from Die Fohlen.
Calm as a Cucumber
Monchengladbach never looked fazed by the team in front of them. They maintained their structure, using a 4-4-2 flat shape to press Madrid. They were transitioning with a 4-3-1-2 shape to maim Real on the counter. Rose’s side is rigid in their press, unilateral movements, and the quick vertical transitions. Playing out of the back, they were smart and cultured, Yann Sommer on the night was poor with his long passing, even though his short passing was good. With the ball, Stefan Laimer, Mathias Ginter, Nico Elvedi, and Ramy Bensebaini pinged the ball off the midfield tringle of Jonas Hoffman, Florian Neuhaus, and former Real Madrid target Christoph Kramer before finding Marcus Thuram who drifts into the left-hand channel or Lars Stindl on the right, or Alassane Plea through the middle.
This dynamic movement opens up the center and/or the far side for other Gladbach players to attack. This use of a compact triangle in the middle as a trampoline to shoot up to the top of the pitch is in Rene Maric’s latest blog post analyzing Borussia Dortmund (with a different application). Maric is the 27-year-old assistant coach of Monchengladbach who is famous for his blog posts analyzing Bundesliga and the other Bundesliga.
Alassane Plea in his false 9 role is one of the most underrated players around. He can link up play with Thuram as the first goal shows. Plea can drift into unusual spaces and he is strong & technical enough to withstand/evade pressure to set up the team. For long periods of the game, Lainer and Bensebaini were flawless. They were withstanding the flank assault of Vinicius Junior and Marco Asensio. Gladbach did not force the press, they were standing off and goading Madrid to get to the center with the ball. Marcus Thuram, Neuhaus, Kramer, and Hoffman flattened to a 4 without the ball with Plea and Stindl leading the press from the front.
The first 15 minutes of the game was all Madrid as they asserted themselves on the game, albeit without the goal to show for it. Marco Asensio and Vinicius Junior started out wide with Karim Benzema through the middle. Toni Kroos, Federico Valverde, and Casemiro held the center down. Lucas Vazquez always overcomes the odds to get a place under Zinedine Zidane. In the absence of Dani Carvajal, he has nailed down a spot at right-back beside, the usual pairing of Sergio Ramos & Raphael Varane. Ferland Mendy and Thibaut Courtois complete a very rounded Madrid side with players like Eden Hazard, Isco, Rodrygo, Luka Modric, and Marcelo on the bench. This is a side replete with quality. They were forced to shoot from outside the box due to Gladbach’s organized press. Kroos let fly on 28 with Sommer palming it away.
Be Sure of Your Game
Gladbach became assured of their game despite initial pressure. Their passing became more confident, their transitions more precise and they struck in the 33rd minute of the game. A terrific pass from Plea found Thuram who side-footed the ball into the back of the net. Asensio fired into Sommer from a tight angle and the German side continued to withstand pressure until the half-time break.
Madrid came out all over Gladbach with Asensio’s volley clanking the crossbar while Vinicius pulled a shot wide from a Valverde drive and cross. Gladbach absorbed the pressure and returned fire with aggressive transitions that pulled Madrid’s midfield and defense all over the place. In the 57th minute, Thuram led a counter against Madrid, feeding Lainer down the left channel. The overhead cross from the Austrian was volleyed towards goal by Plea. Courtois saved the shot, but Thuram tapped in the spill with Mendy playing him onside.
Quality Did the Talking
Zidane is mockingly referred to in the Spanish press as the “handclapping coach”. You can afford to clap your hands when you can bring on a Balon D’or winner in Luka Modric and a certain Eden Hazard. The game was swung Madrid’s way especially after Rose took off Thuram, Plea, and Stindl before the 80th minute. The combination of Plea and Thuram was keeping the Madrid backline honest. Breel Embolo, Hannes Wolf, and Patrick Hermann did not have the kind of connection that created the first two goals. They also did not press as smartly as the substituted players.
On the 86th minute, Casemiro headed a long cross back across for Benzema to acrobatically dispatch. Sommer is a great shot-stopper despite his height but this is why a lot of goalkeeping coaches fancy the taller keepers (this writer will know all about smallish goalkeepers as a Chelsea fan). The cross could have been smothered if Sommer was taller and more imposing. It was ominous. Sergio Ramos was hanging in the opposition box with Plea not around to threaten him, and he delivered a pass for Casemiro to stab home.
Rose and his side will feel that this UCL campaign is not for them. Romelu Lukaku denied them 3 points on 90 in the first group game against Inter Milan. Real Madrid did the same thing to them in this game. Rose will feel proud of the way his team has played despite the results. They do not have the financial capabilities of their first two opponents, but with the tactical organization and a structured pressing scheme under Rose, they are dining on the big-boy table.
Rose has not done his reputation any harm with these 2 draws, although they must leave a bitter taste in his mouth. His side must believe that they can steal a place in the top two of this group. If they play the way they played in the first 70 minutes, controlling the Spanish giants with industry, using counter-pressing with speed and verticality to attack, then they have a chance.
You do not win 3 Champion League titles in a row by giving up. Real Madrid kept their fire burning into the final moments. Zidane may not possess the tactical acumen that he is derided for but he knows how to use his squad. He knows its strengths and weaknesses. He allows freedom to reign and that freedom leads to situations like the equalizing goal that Ramos and Casemiro combined to score.