Carlo Ancelotti – Real Madrid – Tactical Analysis

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Carlo Ancelotti has long been a legend of the game. But despite managing for over 20 years, now at the age of 62, Ancelotti has continued to update his tactics and methodologies to serve the modern era. That has now transferred into a fourth UEFA Champions League title for the manager himself, his second at Real Madrid. Los Blancos have been exceptional this season under the influence of Ancelotti, winning La Liga by thirteen points, and beating both of England’s top two clubs en route to a Champions League triumph. With that, we take a tactical glance at how Carlo Ancelotti achieved miracles in 2021-22.

SYSTEM OF PLAY: 4-3-3

In terms of over-arching system of play and personnel, Carlo Ancelotti hasn’t changed an awful lot from his predecessors. Real Madrid have continued in their favoured 4-3-3 (although Ancelotti’s tactics at times become more lopsided), and they’ve continued to deploy some of the older heads that defined Madrid’s success in the 2010s. Most notably would be the spine of the team, from Thibaut Courtois in goal right up to Karim Benzema up top. Courtois has had a remarkable season, boasting 16 clean sheets in 36 matches, along with a 76.7% save percentage and 4.9 goals prevented (PSXG+/-). Benzema meanwhile has been a shining light and often the key clutch in scraping his team back from the dead, scoring 42 goals in 44 appearances in the UEFA Champions League and La Liga combined this season. That puts the Frenchman right up there with the likes of Lewandowski, Salah and Haaland, and a genuine Ballon d’Or contender having now won the Champions League.

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Then when it comes to the spine of the team, there is no denying the role of Real’s illustrious midfield three of Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Casemiro. In their heyday, all three were the best in their position and role, and have continued on their sustained success under the influence of Ancelotti this season. Federico Valverde has made a claim to be part of the future of that Real Madrid midfield, but for now has had to bide his time from the bench or play out of position on the right wing, where Ancelotti changes his tactics to create more of a lopsided structure. When Valverde hasn’t been favoured on the right wing, Marco Asensio’s played an important part – even scoring 10 goals in the league this season. Rodrygo’s also found his own moments of magic, going so far as to haunt the nightmares of City’s dreams in the Champions League semi-final. But the true star of the show has been Vinicius Junior, one of Europe’s brightest young talents. The 21-year-old Brazilian has been a staple of the team for a few years now, and this season kicked his efforts and relationship with Benzema into high gear, scoring 17 goals with 10 assists in 35 league appearances.

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At the back, Real Madrid may have lost two of their previous decade-defining defenders in Raphael Varane and Sergio Ramos, but they’ve been fortunate to replace them with such clear exceptionalities in Eder Militao and David Alaba. Militao’s grown into the role over the past two seasons, and now looks like one of the most accomplished defenders in La Liga, whilst David Alaba has long been a world beater – in a number of different positions. At right-back, Ancelotti had the privilege of working with two exceptional Spaniards who can make the difference and provide the attacking threat he requires down the right wing – Lucas Vazquez and Dani Carvajal. The left has been even more clear-cut, with Ferland Mendy continuing to hold down his place ahead of club legend Marcelo.

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All and all, you can see why Real Madrid have managed to sustain their success, even when favouring players that are slowly winding their careers down. They continue to boast one of the most impressive squads in Europe, backed up by one of the world’s best young players, one of the world’s best older heads, and one of the world’s best keepers. When you combine that with a midfield three that has been afforded years to chemically develop together as one of the best trios around, and a proven winner in David Alaba, you get a guaranteed recipe for success. Nevertheless, Ancelotti’s accomplishments still remain remarkable, as Real Madrid were not outright favourites in any regard. They failed to win La Liga last season, and crashed out of the 2020-21 UEFA Champions League semi-finals to eventual winners Chelsea. Looking back, Ancelotti had more of a mountainous task to climb in creating magic with a team aging out of the game than most would have recognized, and achieving the double in his first season back remains a formidable achievement.

BUILD-UP

Real Madrid build out from the back via two central midfielders hanging low, and one operating higher, looking to receive in between the lines. Toni Kroos almost always remains one of the two to stay behind, due to his exceptional passing range and vision. But the tactic remains fluid to allow any of the three to float higher at various moments, rotating the opposition in and out of position.

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The full-backs meanwhile will start low on initial builds, and may progress higher up the pitch one at a time as the ball is progressed. Their ability to maintain width becomes key, as all three central midfielders may move to the side of the ball to facilitate short passing against a high press. Throughout their build-up to progression, Real Madrid never shy away from playing long, extravagant passes across the field or over the top, even despite their favouritism toward short passing bravado. Kroos attempted 23.4 long passes per 90 in 2021-22 according to FBRef, the most of any outfield player in La Liga by a significant distance. But unlike the slim amount of goalkeepers ahead of him, he did so with a far greater success – completing 18.6 per 90 (79.4%) – more than any other player. He also completed the most switches of play (6.88), progressive passes (8.89), and passes into the final third (11.5) in La Liga this season on a per 90 basis, remaining a key cog in Madrid’s build-up to unlocking opposition defenses.

With brilliance bursting through Kroos’ boots, Real Madrid can then use his playmaking abilities in two ways. Vinicius Junior will often hold the width on the left side, with Karim Benzema floating toward the young Brazilian. A player like Kroos or Alaba could then play a ball over the top toward either player, where they can link up in close proximity. But they could also utilize width on the other side, such as in deploying a natural right winger like Marco Asensio or Rodrygo, where the ball finds its way toward Vinicius and Benzema later on. When Federico Valverde is utilized instead off the right wing, the Uruguayan maestro may drift into central spaces to create a box-like build-up of 2+2 in central channels. In theory, this also allows space for a player like Dani Carvajal or Lucas Vazquez to overlap down the right, where both have the quality to deliver and cross with pace and precision.

ATTACKING PRINCIPLES

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In attack, many of Madrid’s build-up patterns and ideologies remain in place. Kroos will typically hold back and operate in a deeper position, wonderfully helping the team to change the point of attack. In fact, no player in Europe’s top five leagues completed more switches of play than Kroos’ 6.88 per 90, constantly allowing Real to break down the opposition’s attempts to narrow the field. Utilizing overlapping fullbacks became a particularly imperative mechanism in which Kroos’ switches of play could take center-stage. As the right-winger inverted into central areas, a right-back like Lucas Vazquez or Dani Carvajal could then gallop up the right wing to deliver. But the same could also be said for the left-side, where Ferland Mendy occasionally played his part in joining the attack and allowing Vinicius to pick up dangerous pockets of space closer to goal.

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But like most deep-lying play-makers, Kroos was rarely ever the one directly providing for the goal-scorer. Luka Modric was more likely to be that man, using the magic of his outside of the boot precision to put on a show. With a right winger operating like a fourth central midfielder, Vinicius and Benzema could then link up with each other to work their magic in the final third, often down the left. The two players contributed to a total of 27 and 39 goals respectively, totaling an outrageous 66 goal contributions between them. We must add – that’s in the league alone.

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In working their wide overloads, Vini Jr. often looked to use his trickery and skill to isolate players 1v1, where he danced his way in between both happy, feet and then delivered into the penalty area for Benzema to finish. Never knowing which way Vinicius will turn, the Brazilian netted 5 goals with his left-foot, 10 with his right-foot, and 2 with his head this season. Loving to cut onto that right-foot in particular, Vinicius often knew exactly how to create space by faking with his left, before cutting back onto his favoured foot and releasing for someone else. Vinicius and Benzema were often the men Real Madrid turned to in attack, and were particularly imperative in breaking away during moments of attacking transition.

The Frenchman himself happens to be a fantastic back-to-goal striker, fully capable of linking up with others and providing the killer pass on his own. Exceptional in finding tiny gaps in between opposition centre-backs to exploit the space and receive progressive passes, Benzema then possesses the quality in finishing ability and timing few pros in the world can match. In fact, that’s backed up by his incredible 0.43 goals per shot on target, with 1.63 shots on target per 90 – the most in La Liga. He outperformed his xG of 23.5 by almost four goals, winning the Golden Boot by nine goals more than second-place Iago Aspas.

DEFENSIVE PRINCIPLES

Ancelotti is often known for his defensive astuteness, and Real Madrid lived up to that promise in 2021-22. Los Blancos often blocked in a 4-2-2-2-esque shape high up the pitch, where the wingers would hold slightly reserved positions off the front-line, and Luka Modric would join Benzema in blocking or pressing from the front. Whilst they could show moments of pressing intensity, Madrid were far more likely to shuffle with the play, and allow their opposition the ease in circulating the ball. This approach and their stern defensive organization in behind limited their opposing teams to 53 long passes per game, the lowest amount allowed in La Liga.

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From that 4-4-2 to 4-2-2-2 high-block, their mid-block then shifted into a 4-1-4-1 to 4-3-3 as the ball circulated around, with Modric falling back into a midfield role. Even their high-block could look more like that initial 4-3-3 or 4-1-2-3 shape, particularly on static play when the opposition attempted to play out from the back off goal kicks.

In their defensive third, Ancelotti’s men would then fall back into more of a 4-5-1, but with Vinicius often less involved. This allowed the Brazilian to be used as a natural outlet in transition, in combination and in close proximity to Karim Benzema. Within that defensive structure, Casemiro almost always held the deepest role, screening the opposition’s striker as the ball shifted side to side. With 2.5 tackles per game, he also remained one of the team’s most important ball winners, constantly breaking up the play and allowing Los Blancos to maintain control.

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Casemiro and Kroos played an important role in Madrid’s rest-defense, holding a 2+2 structure that could adapt to greater numbers depending on the level of adventurousness from Ancelotti and co. Ferland Mendy usually held a slightly more reserved role than the right-sided full-back, giving Los Blancos greater protection in numbers.

Against stronger teams, Ancelotti’s team even played slightly more defensive football than what we’ve become accustomed to from Real Madrid. Often sitting deep and then playing on the break proved to be the perfect strategy on several occasions to get the best out of Vinicius and Benzema, where their defensive organization and resolute goalkeeping could do the hard work in stopping the opposition from gaining the upper hand.

CONCLUSION

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Real Madrid surprised many in 2021-22. What started as a year of transition turned out to be a season to remember for Los Blancos once more, winning the double in Ancelotti’s first season back at the club. In truth, Carlo Ancelotti may have been hired as a short-term option, as the likes of Kroos, Modric and Marcelo make their way out of the side. But after winning the UEFA Champions League with sound principles of play in place, Ancelotti may be long for this world after all. The Italian achieved miracles in 2021-22, and deserves immense credit for bringing the best out of both Vinicius Junior and Karim Benzema – ensuring both would have quite possibly the best season of their entire careers thus far.


So there it is! A tactical analysis of Carlo Ancelotti’s Real Madrid. Be sure to check out some of our analyses listed below, and follow on social @mastermindsite. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

-> Liverpool 0-1 Real Madrid – Champions League Final – Tactical Analysis
-> Zinedine Zidane – Real Madrid – Tactical Analysis (2020-21 Edition)

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