Tactical Analysis: Understanding Real Madrid’s defensive weaknesses

Real Madrid, Thibaut Courtois (Photo by Diego Souto/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)
Real Madrid, Thibaut Courtois (Photo by Diego Souto/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images) /

Carlo Ancelotti’s sides have always been about blitz and glamour. They have been about intense, fluid-attacking football rather than shapes, structures or rigid pattern based football. They have always been about defending on the front foot with aggression and outscoring the opposition. They have been influenced by expression as opposed to systematic play.

When Carlo Ancellotti was primed to take over a Real Madrid side that looked devoid of expression just a season before, there were a lot of question marks raised. However, as promised, Carlo Ancelotti has brought back free flowing attacking football to the Bernabeu.

Real have already scored 47 goals so far in just 22 games (2.14 per game), losing just twice in the process, but the manner in which they’re conceding chances at the other end almost seems like a tradeoff, despite the prowess in front of goal, which has raised a lot of concern amongst the supporters.

At the time of writing, Real Madrid haven’t played Granada yet and have been knocked out of the quarterfinals of the Copa Del Rey by Athletic Club after an 89th minute winner by Alex Berenguer. It wasn’t just because of the loss that there was a lot of discourse on social media, but rather the manner in which Real lost. Marcelino’s men pressed Madrid off the park and took the game to them. It felt like they had an answer to whatever Real tried to throw at them.

It felt like Marcelino outclassed Ancelotti tactically in all phases of play regardless of the result. It felt like Deju Vu; an eerie feeling that we had seen this before, but this time Real were on the receiving end. The overperformance and the goals had papered over the cracks and masked everything, but it felt like it was weeks in the making. It felt like everyone had expected it to happen at some point.

Real Madrid remain on top of the table and have qualified top of their group in the Champions League, so you’d think there is no real concern, but regular viewers of the team often discuss about the team being underwhelming despite winning games late on or in transitions.

So far, in LaLiga, Real Madrid have outperformed both their xG and xGA: they have outscored their xG by 7.0 (47 goals from 40.0 xG, meaning that they have scored 7 goals more than they should have), while overperforming their xGA by 4.1 (20 goals conceded from 24.1 xGA), meaning that they have conceded 4 goals less than they actually should have, largely thanks to the heroics of Thibaut Courtois. While Real Madrid top the stack in xG, they remain 8 places off the top in xG against, with rivals Atletico Madrid topping the chart in that department.

Real Madrid have conceded an average of 10.73 shots per match, in comparison to 9.16 last season. Real Madrid have also conceded 37 big chances, so far, in just 22 games, something that shouldn’t be happening for a club that is vying for the title.

However, the issue at hand is that these weren’t chances that were conceded due to opposition quality directly or game states, but rather, were due to structural issues that were being overshadowed by overperformance for a long time.

In this article, we’ll analyze in detail at some of the underlying factors that have contributed to Real Madrid’s defensive issues.

Carlo Ancelotti sides, in recent years, have all been seen a huge spike in attacking numbers in the first couple of months due to his intensity-based style of play. The functions of the entire system are built on intensity & aggression and is entirely dependent on expression in the final third to create chances as opposed to patterns of play.

Winning the ball back, progression, defending, settled press, creating chances, everything depends on the aggression from the team from minute one. So Ancelotti teams are often on a huge boom at the start of the season. The trouble starts when the intensity of his teams decreases due to a variety different reasons, be it squad depth, fatigue due to schedule conflicts, squad profiles etc.

There is a lot of emphasis of intensity in this setup because of the nature of the system and style of play. The games are often transition vs transition and this creates better attacking numbers as players constantly find themselves operating in acres of spaces — which has brought out the best of youngster Vinicius Junior as it highlights his 1vs1 and ball carrying ability, however it also has a trade off — defensive solidity.

Carlo Ancelotti has prioritized attacking fluidity as opposed to control. A lot of Real Madrid’s defensive issues stem from the team’s inability to sustain pressure on the ball for long periods of time. Real have been rushing play in order to attack more, leading to more ball dispossessions and therefore compromising total control on the game. To put it in a more simple way, the more you keep the ball, the less you have to defend. If you’re running at teams at 50kmph, you need to expect to get hit back at the same speed when you lose the ball.

Real Madrid’s defensive issues can be diversified into three categories, all of which you’ll see scattered through in this article. I haven’t divided them into separate categories to showcase it as all of them are interconnected to each other in the bigger picture.

  1. Counter-pressing.
  2. Lack of pressure on the ball while defending.
  3. Narrow 433/451 shape/block.
Real Madrid, Carlo Ancelotti
Real Madrid, Carlo Ancelotti (Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images) /

What are the ‘three phases’?

Before we begin, it’s important that you understand how Real Madrid play in phase III/with the ball in the final third so that you understand the root causes behind all the defensive issues.

If you are unfamiliar with the three phases of play/football pitch, the first phase is often referred to as the build-up phase, the second phase is the middle of the pitch where the transition to attack takes place and the third phase is simply known as the attacking zone or the final third.

It’s more important to understand that attack and defense are not two separate variables, but are one and the same because a team’s shape in possession is the team’s shape in transition at the exact moment the ball is lost. Ever noticed how Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City have players in close proximity to each other in the middle of the pitch at all times? That’s because Pep places importance on the spacing between the players in the center of the pitch to stop transitions and also one of the reasons why City’s counter-press is so good.

Lesser the distances to cover = better the press.

"“Fundamentally, it’s about our shape when we are in possession, and that we are well-equipped to deal with losing possession” Julian Nagelsmann"

Real Madrid
Real Madrid (Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images) /

How Real Madrid are structured under Carlo Ancelotti

Carlo Ancelotti used a 442 and seems to have permanently shifted to the 433 after Toni Kroos’ return. Ancelotti’s 442 and 433 are almost similar in the sense that even though the formations are different on paper, both the variants follow similar principles on the ball – Vinicius plays on the touchline, the right winger tucks inside (Asensio, Rodyrgo..), the right-back pushes high to provide width while the midfield two of Kroos and Modric also move high up to support ball retention. The outside midfielder in the 442 acts as the right winger making both the formations almost similar in shape/structure or in terms of player roles.

Carlo had opted for a four man frontline at the start of the season. The 442 would morph into a 424 in settled possession — a midfielder (mainly the RCM) would act as the advanced eight and would join the attacking line to create an overload. Teams would drop deep to defend against the numerical superiority in the final third, while the fullbacks would push up to provide width as well. This saw Real’s attacking numbers spike tremendously as teams would automatically drop deep due to the reason mentioned above, giving more time and space in the middle of the pitch to work on the ball.

However, due to the overall lack of control of the game caused by the end-to-end style of play, the downside to this was that Real found themselves conceding chances time after time as Casemiro had to push high to support the ball (in the 424/442 shape) and gaps would constantly open up in the center of the pitch between the midfield and the defensive line.

Once Toni Kroos was back from injury, Carlo Ancelotti reverted to the 433 and got rid of the four-man attacking shape. Casemiro was shifted to his usual destroyer role to provide balance to the side —tasked with defending the central zones, while the other roles remained the same.

In the 433, the fullbacks stay very high and provide the width to the side in possession, the Right Winger tucks inside, while the two midfielders push high to support the ball with the holding midfielder as the only cover.

With the fullbacks very high and wide, a team that deploys this shape (ex: PSG)  will always be prone to transitions if they do not maintain sustained pressure on the ball for long periods or have a method to win the ball back as soon as they lose it. Even though the issues were visible back then, Zidane’s side weren’t prone to so many transitions in comparison due to the style of play – Real under Zidane were an extremely possession oriented side whose main aim was to assert control on the ball.

"“If you play on possession, you don’t have to defend, because there is only one ball” – Johan Cryuff."

Real Madrid, Carlo Ancelotti
Real Madrid, Carlo Ancelotti (Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images) /

Under Carlo Ancelotti, Real Madrid are constantly defending in transition

However, Ancelotti’s style of football contradicts this. The games are mostly transitions vs transition, meaning that there is a lot of attacking and a lot of passive defending due to the open spaces. The spacing between the players at Real, in possession, are too much due to the high levels of freedom given to the players and as a result, when they lose the ball, they are not able to counter-press effectively because there is too much space to cover for a single player as soon as the ball is lost.

Counter-pressing means applying pressure on the ball immediately by compressing the field to win the ball back after your team just lost it.

Due to the lack of control on the ball, they keep finding themselves defending transitional situations a lot more than necessary.

When the opposition has the ball, they have been defending on the front foot with aggression rather than an actual counter-press — the player closest to the ball presses the opposition player on the ball as opposed to everybody congesting the field by moving inwards, which is allowing the opposition to easily get past the pressure applied as they are able to find open spaces between two lines (space between defense & midfield) because the midfield two pushes high to support the press.

The team largely depends on aggression to win the ball back from the opposition rather than a pattern of counter-press to close spaces immediately. So in an open situation, once the first wave of aggression is bypassed, there is a lot of passive defending against open space making the game look entirely end-to-end.

The clips below show the differences between the way Real Madrid counter-press now vs an effective counter-press.

In Phase I/opposition build-up, the frontline acts as a trigger to the press. The wingers trigger the press when the ball is moved into wider areas and Benzema acts as the trigger in the centre. If the frontline does not trigger the press (which is more often than not), the team settles into a block deeper into the pitch.

Real usually defend in a 433 shape comprised of a very narrow back four shape, in which the fullback on the opposite side of the ball tucks in while the wingers are tasked with pressing the player on the ball whilst also covering passing angles to the wide man (winger/wide midfielder)

Real find it fairly easy to defend against teams that deploy traditional wingers (wingers who provide width to the side) since the fullbacks can stay tight against the opposition wingers while Vinicius/Asensio can marks the opposition fullbacks.

Athletic Bilbao, Marcelino
Athletic Bilbao, Marcelino (Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images) /

Real Madrid are struggling to control better opponents

However, against teams that have wingers with good movement or who drift inside, the fullbacks do not engage/press high or wide while the ball is moved centrally.

The narrow shape provides central compactness and gives a sense of security as it compresses all available spaces in the central lanes, but this shape is extremely flawed to an extent as Real do not put enough pressure on the ball and teams are finding it easy to keep the ball and shift it wide via rotations.

As stated above, despite being a side that has been pressing aggressively under Ancellotti, statistics tell a different story regarding the team’s counter-press and the settled press.

In La Liga, Real are positioned amongst the bottom five, in 15th, in PPDA (passes allowed per defensive action) alongside Alaves, Elche. Espanyol and Cadiz and rank 13th in successful pressures (percentage of time the squad gained possession within five seconds of applying pressure) according to fbref.com

From the statistics alone, it can be clearly seen where some of the team’s defensive issues root from.

Against higher quality opposition or teams which retain possession well, Real are forced to defend deep due to the lack of pressure on the ball. The 433 shape morphs into a 4141/451 with the wingers deeper than usual, but the intent of the block remains the same.

The 4141/451 shape provides security in the defensive third as it forms a flat midfield line, but teams find it easy to keep the ball at the base considering the first line of press is literally non-existent. When the wide players decide to engage, it opens up passing lanes to the wide areas due to the lack of cohesion in the press.

Despite using cover shadows effectively at times, the lack of general aggressiveness to immediately press the ball from the frontline, fullbacks, the outside midfielders or the wingers has allowed teams more territory into the final third as they are easily accessing the channels/flanks with time + space on the ball. The fullback on the ball side is isolated as a result of this (as he is tucked in often to form the narrow shape), and is put in 2vs1 situations when he moves to engage on the ball, often leading to crossing situations for the opposition.

One of the most important aspects of the narrow back-four shape is to provide central compactness, to compress space in the middle, as stated above, but without aggressiveness from the frontline, fullbacks or the outside midfielders to engage on the ball, teams will always find it easy to keep the ball, switch play from left to right, find runners or the wide men from the center of the pitch. Without pressure on the ball, the entire shape is rendered ineffective, which has been the case so far.

More territory allowed = higher chances created out of the same

Ferland Mendy massively improves the side in this regard as he is very proficient in defending 1vs1s, tackling, tracking off-ball-runs, etc., but the issues still remain the same due to the aforementioned issues (narrow shape + pressure on the ball)

As mentioned multiple times, the dynamics of the side hugely relies on intensity on and off-the-ball. Real start the game pretty well (pressing-wise) but as time goes on, the aggression in the side dies down due to the intense style of play and they aren’t able to control games by exerting enough pressure on the ball, allowing teams to control the ball and thereby the game. Real have an xGA (expected goals against) of 10.3 from minute 1-45 and have an xGA of 14.87 from minute 46-90, according to understat.

Real Madrid, Carlo Ancelotti
Real Madrid, Carlo Ancelotti (Photo by Burak Akbulut/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images) /

Carlo Ancelotti has made some beneficial tweaks

However, on a more positive note, Carlo Ancelotti has been tweaking the system constantly in an attempt to find solutions to these defensive problems. First, at the start of October he got rid of the four man-attacking shape to have more numbers behind the ball, albeit bringing the attacking numbers a little in the process.

In December, he’s instructed the fullbacks, to stay deep in build-up in Phase II/the center of the pitch and only overlap in the final third as compared to completely providing width in the final third, which means the fullbacks aren’t completely caught out of position and they can get back quicker in case of transitions.

As the saying goes, “slow progress is any day better than no progress”.

The defensive issues have largely been papered over by the attacking numbers, thanks to Vinicius Junior and Karim Benzema’s red hot form, who have been overperforming their expected goals as well, but it something that might need a second thought, especially since the side/system entirely relies on individual expression in the final-third.

Carlo Ancelotti's 3 biggest flaws. dark. Next

Rotations will be key, especially considering that this is side that relies on intensity, and a lot could go wrong if the attack-line hits bad form or if injuries come calling, especially since we’re entering the business end of the season and Real Madrid still have two trophies to fight for.