Tactical Analysis: Decoding Real Madrid’s defensive flaws

PARIS, FRANCE - MAY 28: Eder Militao and David Alaba of Real Madrid look on during the line up prior to the UEFA Champions League final match between Liverpool FC and Real Madrid at Stade de France on May 28, 2022 in Paris, France. (Photo by Jonathan Moscrop/Getty Images)
PARIS, FRANCE - MAY 28: Eder Militao and David Alaba of Real Madrid look on during the line up prior to the UEFA Champions League final match between Liverpool FC and Real Madrid at Stade de France on May 28, 2022 in Paris, France. (Photo by Jonathan Moscrop/Getty Images) /
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Real Madrid’s streak of undefeated games in LaLiga came to a sloppy end against Rayo Vallecano last night. At the centre of discussion this time out weren’t things like shrewd opposition tactics, time-wasting or refereeing controversies but rather just Madrid’s own incompetence and their failure to play to a certain standard they’ve set for themselves.

Now, the players being in a fatigued and worn out state points to the cause of the dip in intensity but it far from justifies a problem the team has found themselves facing since the very beginning of the season (when things were flowing rather smoothly). Sure, Carlo Ancelotti’s fingers may point towards the packed schedule and the cluster of fixtures but his side’s inability to keep clean sheets is something we’ve been witnessing for quite sometime now and certainly not for the first time for a Real Madrid side under the Italian boss.

Acknowledging a problem

On one extreme you’ll find Madridistas that were highly critical of Ancelotti’s high risk-high reward strategies even throughout the run of fixtures last season. And on the other there are those who turn their heads away from the team’s leakiness at the back even to this day. By now you’ll probably have understood that there lies a grey area in between wherein you can acknowledge a problem without being overly critical or looking away from it entirely.

The reason I’ve put that into perspective is because the way the mindset of the fans cheering on from home and the players performing out there works can be oddly similar. Say the body language of the players in last season’s Champions League tie against Manchester City (over the course of two legs). It was almost like a given for opposition sides that Madrid would concede and not just once. Concede they did, but not without hitting back almost instantly.

Compare that to the way the team reacts to opposition goals these days and there’s a massive gulf in attitude. It’s not that the players or the coach don’t realize their fallacies but simply that it hid behind their attacking firepower in the past which without Karim Benzema in the side is difficult to foresee happening now. The bridge in that attitude will shift only when they either clean up the mess they’ve created or start scoring goals for fun again.

But WHY do Real Madrid concede so often?

1. All of the back-line fallacies have come to the fore all at once since Casemiro

The duo of David Alaba and Eder Militao were far from faultless in Real Madrid’s pursuit of five trophies last season, but it became increasingly clear that the two complement each other’s skill sets. Militao being the quicker and more physical of the two and Alaba demanding a more authoritative, calm presence with the ball.

The addition of Antonio Rudiger over the summer meant things stirred up a little with Ancelotti playing the ex-Chelsea man alongside Alaba for most Champions League games and the odd league game. With Militao and Rudiger deemed too similar to each other Ancelotti still prefers to preserve the compatibility either shifting Alaba or Rudiger out on the left when the three occasionally do find themselves playing together.

The problems arise when Ancelotti is forced to switch his centre-back pairing every other game, as this can lead to an awkward instability. Sure, having two world-class defenders on the pitch and one on the bench helps in every possible way but Alaba and Militao don’t seem to be as protected this season with the departure of a stalwart in defensive midfield like Casemiro. Now, take nothing away from Aurelien Tchouameni who’s done brilliantly so far but the absence of a vital last-line of defence like Casemiro isn’t forgotten too easily.

Like evident in Madrid’s most recent league defeat – Alaba is starting to feel the effects of age and isn’t the quickest player out there. His physicality and heading ability can come to the fore too, with another aerially weak player in Ferland Mendy on his side of the pitch. This often brings the best out of teams who like to run down the left and cross to the far post. Clearly the two aren’t most competitive in the air but that’s where physical monsters like Militao and Rudiger come into play.

Militao’s game can get extremely frustrating to watch on days when those around him aren’t covering for his flaws on the ball. What was an extremely capable stopper who has the odd mistake in him last season is now more an above average defender who is prone to errors and gaps in communication.

The difference in communication, fluidity in build-up and consistency in the ball clearing the first third of the pitch is on a greater level when Alaba and the technically able Rudiger play together. But obviously that isn’t too often because of Militao’s status as Alaba’s most well-fitting partner in the centre of defence.

The full-backs too find themselves on the sharp end of criticism from Madridistas come the end of most games these days. Ferland Mendy’s defensive acumen makes a case for his consistent presence in the team but his output going forward is far from ideal for a left-back at this club. On the other flank Dani Carvajal’s place in the team would be a great deal more under jeopardy if Ancelotti had another right-back nearly half as able sitting on the bench. Sadly that is not the case with both Mendy and Carvajal and the two will continue to be his untouchable first choices for the foreseeable future.