Real Madrid vs Paris Saint-Germain: Tactical Analysis
How Zidane's changes saw Real come from behind to beat PSG in the first leg of the Champions League Round of 16 tie
The biggest game of the season so far certainly lived up to its billing as Real Madrid came from behind to beat Paris Saint-Germain 3-1 at the Santiago Bernabeu in the first leg of their Round of 16 encounter.
Both coaches had named strong starting lineups but still had key players missing. Zinedine Zidane did not risk Gareth Bale while Dani Carvajal was suspended. For PSG, Unai Emery started with 21-year-old Giovani Lo Celso in midfield.
Real Madrid (4-3-1-2): Navas; Ramos, Varane, Nacho, Marcelo; Casemiro, Modric, Kroos, Isco; Ronaldo, Benzema.
PSG (4-3-3): Areola; Alves, Marquinhos, Kimpembe, Berchiche; Verratti, Lo Celso, Rabiot; Mbappe, Neymar, Cavani.
Real Madrid start with high intensity before tapering off
As soon as the game kicked off, a wave of white shirts streamed into PSG's half to press the visitors into making errors. The trick worked as Real won a corner within 40 seconds while fans were still taking their seats.
Left-back Yuri was seen as a weak link and he was targeted by Real. He had the worst pass completion rate among the PSG defenders (until Alves changed his position later in the game).
For PSG, it was also a case of nerves but once Neymar got into his groove to provide an outlet from Real's relentless pressure, Zidane's side took their foot off the gas and played with a little more caution.
This proved to be Real's undoing in the first half as they were making headway - especially through Marcelo on the left flank. The Brazilian did give the Real faithful and his teammates a scare when it seemed like he had dislocated his elbow in a duel with compatriot Dani Alves but he was able to carry on.
Marcelo's constant runs forward also allowed him to get involved by drifting in on the odd occasion. One would think he would have had his hands full with Kylian Mbappe but the French youngster had parked himself on the half-line waiting for the opportune moment to counter-attack - a moment that rarely presented itself.
Mbappe was also guilty of allowing Marcelo the freedom to get forward. He did not track back as much as Neymar did on the opposite flank. Although he did do some damage with his dribbles to get forward, he only managed to make one good opportunity count - PSG's goal.
There were two goals in the first half but the highlight was arguably Marcelo's pass from the left flank that curled in behind PSG's defence to find Ronaldo on the right. However, the Portuguese forward would only see his effort well blocked by the goalkeeper.
PSG's versatile midfield clicks in the first half
With Marco Verratti, Adrien Rabiot, and Celso in the midfield three, PSG had a very versatile trio of players who could do it all in midfield. They could create chances from deep, sit back or go forward when required, play passes into the final third, and even dribble past players.
So when Mbappe managed to put a cross into the box, Real Madrid's defence thought they had Cavani and Neymar covered - which they did. However, both Isco and Luka Modric had failed to spot Rabiot's run into the box.
Another look at the replay shows that Rabiot picks the exact moment when both Real midfielders take their eye off him to make his run into the box.
The rest was PSG's attack in-synch with each other. Cavani played a dummy so Neymar could get the ball. The Brazilian had seen Rabiot's run and played a back-heel so Nacho (who was committed) could not recover from his tackle to block Rabiot - who took his shot calmly to find the back of the net and give PSG a precious away goal.
PSG should have held on till half-time but Celso's inexperience on the big stage was exposed when he carelessly hauled Kroos down in the box when Real played a quick short corner routine.
It was a stonewall penalty and Cristiano Ronaldo beat Alphonse Areola to score his 100th Champions League goal for Real Madrid - a first for any player at a single club.
Both managers switch formations in the second half
Midway through the second half, Cavani was withdrawn - possibly because he wasn't 100% fit. But instead of bringing on a forward, Emery pushed Dani Alves to a winger's role while Thomas Meunier came in at right-back.
The formation changed with Neymar and Mbappe now leading the line. As Zidane also made his substitutions, both teams eventually lined up in a 4-4-2 with Ronaldo and Gareth Bale leading the charge for Real Madrid.
Although Cavani had not made much of an impact (he had only one shot on goal and completed only 7 passes - two from kickoff), his runs and ability to find space in the box had helped Neymar get more involved in the final third.
After his withdrawal, PSG's gameplan was reliant solely on Neymar working his magic. The Brazilian could have been sent off for petulant fouls but the referee had opted to keep his cards in his pocket even though he had been booked in the first half.
No longer tasked with defending, Alves did help create a couple of good opportunities in and around the box but he was also guilty of being dispossessed as he ran into white shirts.
Marco Asensio changes the game for Real Madrid
With Casemiro and Isco (on a yellow card) failing to impose themselves, Zidane made a double change with 10 minutes to go. Both players were withdrawn with Marco Asensio and Lucas Vazquez coming on.
It was Asensio who eventually turned the game on its head with his pace and directness. The 22-year-old midfielder was too much for Meunier to handle on the flank and the Belgian right-back was even booked when he desperately tried to prevent Asensio from making what could have potentially been a devastating run.
But in those 10 minutes, Asensio made two crucial contributions. It was his cross that eventually allowed Ronaldo to put away his second goal and give Real the lead. He then meshed perfectly with Kroos and Marcelo in what was a neat display of traingle passing before eventually setting up the full-back for the third goal.
Also read: Real Madrid 3-1 PSG - 5 Talking Points