How 5ft 8in Dani Carvajal outjumped everyone to win Real Madrid the Champions League

It’s the same old movie you have seen before.

Real Madrid being second best in a Champions League knockout match for the majority of the game, their opponent misses chances, Thibaut Courtois saves some, Madrid score and it’s “Asi, asi, asi, gana El Madrid” — ‘Like this, like this, Madrid win like this’.


While that film was rolling with Carlo Ancelotti winning his fifth Champions League trophy as a manager, and Toni Kroos, Luka Modric, Nacho and Dani Carvajal making it six titles, there was another movie in the background that featured the Spain right-back.

After scrapping through the first half without conceding, Ancelotti’s half-time adjustments improved Madrid defensively, but it was Carvajal’s header from a corner that changed the momentum of the game before Ian Maatsen’s sloppy pass gifted Madrid their second goal.

At 5ft 8in (173cm) Carvajal is one of Real Madrid’s shortest players and, on the surface of it, an unlikely scorer of a vital headed goal. But that crucial moment, 17 minutes from the end, had been a long time coming and owed its success to a series of strategies.

This is how it all came together.

Winding back, Carvajal’s near-post runs on corners featured heavily in Madrid’s out-swingers and in-swingers. Against Borussia Dortmund’s defensive approach of six man-markers and four zonal defenders (yellow) — only two of which were in positions to defend the cross — Carvajal’s cleverness and well-timed runs towards the near post proved effective.

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On Madrid’s first corner, the right-back isn’t part of the attacking pack inside the penalty area and is positioned by the edge of the box to defend against the counter-attack. Meanwhile, Federico Valverde is positioned towards the back post and marked by Maatsen.

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But when Kroos starts his run-up to take the corner, Carvajal makes a late run into the penalty area, while Valverde drops to do the right-back’s initial job, which bamboozles Maatsen who doesn’t know if he should follow the Uruguay midfielder or maintain his position.

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Kroos targets the near post, which is occupied by most of the Madrid players, and where Carvajal is making his untracked run. The only player moving away from that zone is Jude Bellingham, who is looking to attack the back post.

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Despite the corner leading to nothing after Julian Brandt heads the ball away, Carvajal is free and in a threatening position towards the near post. At the other post, Bellingham is in a one-versus-one situation and waiting for a flick-on.

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Due to Dortmund’s defensive organisation, manipulating one of the man-markers or beating him to the ball puts the Madrid player at a considerable advantage because only two zonal players are defending the cross in Mats Hummels and Niclas Fullkrug.

In another example, Dortmund’s six man-markers are close to their Madrid counterparts…

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… and when Kroos crosses the ball, Carvajal beats Maatsen to the near post…

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… which puts him in a threatening position, because the only Dortmund player in that zone is Brandt who is completely focused on marking Eduardo Camavinga. Kroos’ out-swinger is too heavy though, and falls perfectly for Hummels who clears it away.

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On in-swingers, Dortmund maintained their defensive setup with six man-markers and four zonal defenders (yellow).

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As for Madrid, they tried to win their individual duels towards the near post, while Bellingham attacked the back post.

The idea was to put the England midfielder in a one-versus-one situation as the other Madrid players overloaded the near post. The dilemma for Dortmund was they either had to use one of their best headers (Emre Can) to man-mark Bellingham, creating a disadvantage towards the near post where Madrid were trying to create an overload, or station their best headers there, which meant leaving Bellingham in a potentially advantageous one-v-one.

In this example, Antonio Rudiger starts at the back post with Carvajal and Bellingham in front of the six-yard area.

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When Kroos is readying to take the corner, Rudiger moves towards the near post and Carvajal uses his hand to distance himself from Maatsen…

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… which gives him a head start when he runs to attack the cross.

The separation Carvajal creates allows him a free run at the ball, and the distance he covers while running (black arrow) gives him momentum that helps him leap higher compared to a jump from a standing position. Carvajal connects with the cross, but his header just misses the target.

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In the one-versus-one battle against Maatsen, Carvajal had the left-back’s number.

On another corner, he fakes a move towards the back post — notice how his body weight is on his right leg — before springing quickly to make a run towards the near post…

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… separating himself from Maatsen in the process.

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Eventually, all of the above led to Madrid’s opener.

Here, they only have five players attacking the penalty area because Vinicius Junior is next to Kroos as a short option. His man-marker, Marcel Sabitzer, switches roles with Jadon Sancho and both position themselves towards the far edge of the penalty area. This leaves Dortmund with the same setup when they are defending the cross: five man-markers, and Fullkrug and Hummels zonally defending the six-yard area.

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As Kroos prepares to take the corner, Carvajal puts his right arm in between himself and Maatsen to create a separation…

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… and then uses his right hand to distance himself from the Dortmund left-back, which allows him a free run at the ball.

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Rudiger vacating the back-post zone for Bellingham’s run provides Ancelotti’s side with a double threat at the back post and the near one, with the England midfielder in position to attack any flick-ons.

But it’s Carvajal’s near-post movement that proves effective on this corner. Again, the right-back’s mini-run gives him momentum that empowers his jump and allows him to leap higher than everyone in the penalty area, before heading the ball into the far corner to give Madrid the lead.

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“It’s not all about height,” said Carvajal, after winning his sixth Champions League title. “You need to be there, jump for the ball, and show determination. Sometimes the shortest players can score headers too.”

Height is an advantage on set pieces, but knowing how to free yourself from your man-marker is an essential tool for attacking corners. In addition, Madrid’s corner routine put Dortmund in a situation in which Can was removed from the near post, where Kroos targeted his crosses.

Carvajal’s near-post runs on corners were a recurring scene throughout the game. It was a fitting ending to both movies that finished with Madrid being crowned champions of Europe for the 15th time.


(Top image: Ina Fassbender/AFP via Getty Images)

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