In the 2002 documentary series History of Football, Real Madrid legend Francisco Gento remarks on the 1958 European Cup final he played against Milan in Brussels. When asked how his club managed to defeat a difficult defense organized by Giuseppe Viani, Gento responds, “We were Madrid, we broke down all systems.”
Gento played on a team with Alfredo di Stefano, a team that emphasized star power over any over-arching tactical system. That was more than 50 years ago, but on Wednesday, Marcelo and Cristiano Ronaldo gave us echoes of 1958.
Though Carlo Ancelotti is certainly as tactically adept as any manager in Europe, Real Madrid’s 2-0 away win over Schalke in the Champions League Round of 16 first leg match proved that teams can be undone by one or two isolated moments of technical brilliance from individually gifted stars.
In this match, despite going down 0-1 after some very poor defending on a Ronaldo header, Schalke defended admirably well while failing to do much of anything in attack. What did Ancelotti do to break down Schalke and get a second goal? Nothing tactical. He just trusted in the ability of his players to create something.
Here, in the 79th minute, Marcelo has picked up the ball shortly after a Schalke goal kick. Schalke look well-organized in tracking back to defend:
Marcelo passes out wide to Ronaldo, and there is little here to suggest a thrilling counterattack.
Atsuto Uchida is moving well to mark Ronaldo, Marco Höger is running to help him out, and the central defense has spotted Marcelo’s advance.
Yet here is the moment where everything changes. Ronaldo appears to be marked well enough to prevent a threatening cross …
... but in seconds, he uses some deft footwork to move the ball past both Uchida and Höger, taking them both out of the play. This isn’t a tactical maneuver to open up a stacked defense, but rather Ronaldo’s incredible technical ability (and a little luck).
Moreover, when Marcelo finally connects with the ball, he is fairly well marked, but his strike is good enough to beat the lot.
Performances and results are not merely the result of managerial intervention, particularly when you’re Madrid, a team that can afford the kind of player that “beats all systems.” Even on a bad day (or week or month), Ronaldo is always Ronaldo. Goals can happen in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye (or leg).