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Are the fullbacks the main reason behind Real Madrid's latest success?

We analyze the role of Marcelo and Carvajal in Real Madrid's victory over Athletic Club de Bilbao.

Denis Doyle

A few weeks ago, Carlo Ancelotti insisted on the importance that the deployment of Real Madrid's fullbacks have for the team to be balanced. Last night, our editor-in-chief Lucas Navarrete asked him to comment on the excellent performance that Carvajal and Marcelo had displayed against Athletic de Bilbao:

Despite his mistake covering the far post in the corner kick that led to Ludogorets's goal last Wednesday, Arbeloa was doing a good job in the right wing. However, it is undeniable that the entrance of Carvajal in the lineup improved Real Madrid's offensive options in that area, as we could see early in the first minute. His understanding with Bale has been more than remarkable since last season, and this was the key to Real Madrid's first goal:

On the opposite wing, I still think that Marcelo is a defensive liability compared to Coentrao. However, I understand that wasting a player with his creativity (far bigger than that of any other fullback in Real Madrid, in my humble opinion) would be unforgivable and, just like Mourinho did a couple years ago, Ancelotti seems to be finding a way to deal with this issue. We are already used to the fact that Ramos will cover Marcelo's back, but last night we saw an interesting modification on Real Madrid's way to play the ball out of the defence.

The previous approach: the Lavolpian style

RM - Football tactics and formations

We are all very familiar with this scheme, since we've been seeing for more than a season, so I will just focus on one of its weak points that has made Real Madrid suffer a few times: a well-organized pressure on the DM (Kroos) and a centerback must normally be solved with the aid of the fullback of the same side, who would have to step down a little to receive the ball in his own field and looking to his own goal. If this one is well covered when he gets it, he will have trouble to turn around and build the attack, and losing the ball there could be dramatic, since we'd be seeing a 3 vs 3 in that area.

Carletto's modification

RM - Football tactics and formations

To overcome this difficulty, last night Real Madrid mixed the lavolpian style with a new one that relies on the great control of the ball that our centerbacks have. The square formed by Ramos, Pepe, Kroos and Modric, who constantly excahnged their positions, served to go through Athletic's first line of pressure without the aid of the fullbacks, who would be waiting for the ball at the three-quarter line. In the only ocassion that the work of those four did not suffice, it was James the one who went down to create a superiority.

This way, Marcelo and Carvajal were able to shine in offensive situations. Since they were not needed to build the possession, they could always give their partners an extra passing alternative in Athletic's side of the field. The 2 vs 2 or even 3 vs 2 situations were really easy to create and this, together with the fact that Athletic's fullbacks are not exactly the best in the Liga BBVA, was the key to Real Madrid's stream of goal ocassions last night. In the following image, via Squawka, you can see how their passes were evenly distributed among Real Madrid's defensive and offensive sides.

Marcelo and Carvajal Passing Diagram

For sure this approach has its drawbacks, but it seems to me that they are harder to exploit. It is up to you guys to disect Carletto's new scheme in the comment section and try to find the way to beat it. Or perhaps it would be a wise idea not to give Luis Enrique, who I am sure that has Managing Madrid among his bookmarks, any hint for his preparation to El Clásico.