Real Madrid 2-0 Dortmund: Modric finds his role and Real’s Plan B increases the pressure

May 1, 2013

The line-ups after Gotze's early departure

Real Madrid created enough chances to get back in the tie, but Dortmund progress to the final.

Jose Mourinho left out Sami Khedira to field a very technical midfield trio, while Angel Di Maria and Michael Essien returned, and Sergio Ramos was back in the centre of defence.

Jurgen Klopp unsurprisingly named an unchanged starting XI from the first leg, although was forced to replace the injured Mario Gotze with Kevin Grosskreutz early on, with Marco Reus moving to a central role.

Real’s starting shape resulted in an early spell of pressure – and their Plan B caused problems too.

Modric in

To return to a familiar theme, Modric was purchased for occasions like this, so it wasn’t a surprise to see Mourinho stick with him despite the Croatian’s underwhelming first leg performance. The format to the midfield was completely different, of course, and it was a brave but logical decision for Mourinho to exclude Khedira – Real had been battered by force and heavy running in the first leg, so omitting the one midfielder who offers that quality took guts, but they needed creativity.

It created an exciting midfield trio. Klopp’s primary task was to stop Alonso. Our plan was to take Xabi out of the game, because if Alonso can play as he wants it is impossible to defend against Madrid,” he said earlier in the season. “If you block Xabi, you make it so Pepe always has the ball. That is a big difference.”

But here, Real had a second deep-lying playmaker, in Modric. He (rather than Pepe, or Khedira) was the man who now had freedom on the ball, and Real were much more forward-thinking and incisive  - they had someone who could skip around Dortmund tackles (which Alonso isn’t capable of) and someone who could connect defence and attack through guile, rather than Khedira’s pure energy.

When Modric was in deep positions, Dortmund weren’t entirely sure how to nullify both he and Alonso (which gave Alonso space) – but Modric’s real value was that he moved forward into advanced positions too, in roughly the type of role Bastian Schweinsteiger plays for Bayern. His passes were positive and he was crucial in Real’s early dominance.

Balls in behind

Ozil’s end product was often disappointing, but he thrived in his central role. It was interesting to see him come short into the midfield zone to offer a passing option, but also sprint in behind the defence. Of course, he also overloaded the flanks and positioned himself intelligently to receive forward passes from the midfield zone (before being moved to the right).

Dortmund started high up the pitch, and there was a running battle between Real’s forwards and the Dortmund offside line. Both Cristiano Ronaldo and Gonzalo Higuain were flagged offside, and Real’s best two first half chances – Ronaldo’s chest-and-volley that was saved by Roman Weidenfeller, and Ozil’s dragged shot wide, both came from simple runs in behind the defence. Even Higuain’s early chance was a reasonably similar example, albeit from a shorter pass.

Dortmund strategy

Dortmund tried to press in the first 15 minutes, but seemed overwhelmed by Real’s new-look midfield triangle, who played around them and found gaps between the lines. They eventually found their feet when retreating into a deeper defensive system, with two banks of four behind the ball – and after around 25 minutes, they enjoyed a few decent spells of possession to calm the game – the funny thing, of course, was that this was a role reversal from the previous match, when Dortmund thrived at a high tempo.

Their counter-attacking wasn’t as swift as in the first leg. Gotze’s absence was an obvious factor, especially because this pushed Marco Reus into a central position, rather than the ‘drifting’ role he’d played excellently in the first leg. He got away from Alonso with ease once in the first half, but overall wasn’t entirely effective at his advanced midfield role, partly because he’d been preparing for a very different job, of course.


Dortmund eventually got joy down the flanks, especially when the full-backs overlapped – neither Kevin Grosskreutz nor Jakub Blaszczykowski showed many signs of winning their individual duels against the Real full-backs. Both full-backs got into promising positions, although their delivery was inconsistent.

Robert Lewandowski wasn’t anywhere near as clinical as last week, and although Sergio Ramos had a couple of nervous moments, overall their running battle meant the Polish striker’s influence on the game was minimal.

Mourinho Plan B

Real's Plan B

Mourinho always has a back-up plan, and here he turned to his alternative formation after only 57 minutes. Karim Benzema replaced Higuain upfront, but the key change was Kaka on for the cautioned Fabio Coentrao, which obviously meant a significant change in shape.

Mourinho turned to his semi-three-man-defence, a Plan B he’s often used when chasing games over the past couple of seasons. This was slightly different, though – often he sacrifices a right-back (because he doesn’t have a good attacking option there) and asks Khedira to cover that side of the pitch. With Coentrao removed, Mourinho had to shift Di Maria to the left side to track back a little – Ronaldo was never going to do that job, and instead became a second striker. Ozil moved right, Kaka became the central playmaker.

Clearly, this was an attack-minded gamble Mourinho needed to take. It left spaces at the back, particularly towards the side Ramos was now covering, and Dortmund had a couple of fine chances – Ilkay Gundogan’s miss (or rather, Diego Lopez’s excellent save) being an obvious example of when a goal would have killed the tie.

Final stages

Real’s Plan B was effective at putting Dortmund under considerable pressure. Khedira replaced Alonso in the holding role to guard against the away side’s counter-attacks, but Modric continued to create from deep, Kaka had some decent moments in the hole, and the semi-front four spread across the pitch, trying to stretch the Dortmund defence.

Dortmund defended well in central positions, but sometimes found themselves exposed in wider areas – with so many Real central attacking options, Dortmund stayed narrow and were reluctant to be drawn out of shape. A couple of times Real tried to switch the play unsuccessfully (one misplaced Modric pass sticks in the memory) but that was the right idea – working Dortmund from side to side. Real’s delivery from wide wasn’t always great, however, and Ronaldo had a surprisingly quiet game – unable to become a genuine goalscoring threat despite playing as a second striker.

Part of Real’s problem was the fact they don’t really want to be dominating possession and forcing the opposition back (although the situation, of course, necessitated them playing in the opposition half). They prefer playing on the counter-attack and having space to break forward into. Their consistent pressure meant Dortmund could pack the penalty box, get men behind the ball and organise their defence – Mats Hummels and Neven Subotic looked more comfortable heading away hopeful crosses, than they did when playing high up the pitch in the first half.

Real’s first goal came from a direct attack – Diego Lopez had the ball, ten seconds later it was in the net, through Benzema. They also caused problems when Sergio Ramos became an emergency centre-forward in the final minutes – and it was surprising Klopp didn’t introduce Felipe Santana as an extra aerial presence, until Sven Bender’s injury forced him into a change in stoppage time.

It was also obvious that Dortmund had no planned strategy to kill the game, and they kept handing possession back to Real. Were they slowing the game through ball retention? Going for goal? Running to the corner flag? Hitting long balls to Lewandowski? Whatever they tried, they failed – their own defence became dragged higher up the pitch, only for Real to launch yet another attack.

In the end, Dortmund held on for the aggregate victory – but better finishing from Real, and it would have been a different result.


Clearly, Dortmund won this tie with their first leg display, and only Mats Hummels’ inexplicable error there allowed Real some kind of hope.

Tonight Mourinho got things right – his starting XI resulted in an early spell of pressure, his Plan B was a risky but well-judged strategy to introduce an extra attacking player. Towards the end of this game, neither side were really sure of what they were doing, with Real lofting the ball into the box hopefully when unable to counter-attack, and Dortmund’s poor possession play putting their defence under continuous pressure.

Ultimately, the tie came down to finishing – Real created better opportunities tonight than the half-chances Lewandowski managed to convert in Germany last week, but were wasteful in front of goal.

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