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ANALYSIS: How Real Madrid Femenino Can Best Incorporate Their New Signings

What formation would work best? The 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3, 3-4-1-2, or something else entirely?

Levante UD v Athletic Club - Primera Iberdrola Photo by Manuel Queimadelos/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

Real Madrid Femenino finished second in the Primera Iberdrola behind Barcelona in their first season as Las Blancas. The All Whites had the second best attack and the second best defense in the entire league over the course of 34 games, but that’s all in the past now. As a club, Real Madrid always wants more and this desire translates to the women’s side as well.

There have been changes to the squad in order to build towards this vision of improving on the past. Talents like Sofia Jakobsson, Jessica Martínez, and Thaisa have all left the team and Real Madrid have brought in some great replacements: Nahikari García, Lucía Rodríguez, Rocío Gálvez, and Athenea del Castillo. The league’s second top scorer Esther González and Claudia Zornoza have also arrived, adding steel to attack and midfield. On top of this, Real Madrid have extended the contract of coach David Aznar.

With all the changes comes questions. How will these players fit into the game plan? How will Real Madrid play next season? What will be our formation. Who will play and who will be benched? In this article, we will try to look at and make sense of these signings and how Aznar could set up his team in the 2021/22 season.

Squad Structure

Let’s look at how the squad looks in terms of depth in different positions and the team’s age profile.

In the visualization below, we have the age of the players plotted against a random variable to get an idea of the average age of the squad and its distribution.

We can see that the average age of the squad comes out to 25.4 years. There are plenty of players who are still 23 or under, such as the likes of Maite Oroz, Teresa Abelleira, Misa, and Olga Carmona, all of whom were an important part of the side last season. Top performers Marta Cardona and team captain Ivana Andrés still have their best years to come. The team has a good mix of seasoned veterans in the form of Aurélie Kaci, Kenti Robles, and Kosovare Asllani.

Real Madrid have added to this blend by signing players who have their prime years in front of them and some seasoned veterans and players who are at their peak. Players like Nahikari, Athenea, and Lucía are all 24 or less, while Zornoza and Méline Gerárd will bring experience to this youthful side.

The side seems to be in good shape, having a healthy amount of talented starlets who could form the core of the team coupled with seasoned veterans.

Let’s look a little closer at the profiles of the players in the squad and the age category they fall into.

Focusing on defenders first, the problem area is clear — the lack of a natural left back. While Olga did a fabulous job there, it isn’t her preferred position and limits her attacking explosiveness. Madrid did manage to get hold of Lucía, who can play at LB, but is naturally a right back. There isn’t a straightforward solution to this problem and would likely mean that Olga continues in her LB role this season as well.

As we move to the midfield section, another problem turns up in the form of lack of a defensive midfielder. While Maite played as the deepest midfielder, her natural tendencies are of an attacking nature. Incoming signing Zornoza isn’t a defensive midfielder and in her time at Levante was paired with Maitane (now at Atlético Madrid) or Sandie Toletti (who is an incredible two way threat).

At first look, the attack seems great. We have Cardona who was brilliant the entire last season as a right-winger and Madrid have brought in Athenea, an exciting prospect, who can play on either flank.

It isn’t until we look at the #9 position that some questions start to arise. Incoming replacements for Jessica both prefer to be at the tip of the attack. Now, having two good strikers isn’t a bad thing but will this lead to making some tough choices in terms of the lineup? It looks very likely. Esther and Nahikari play best when operating through the middle and incorporating both would mean that Asllani, who was the team’s top scorer last season and who has been performing exceptionally for Sweden at the Olympics, would have to take a back seat (fun fact: Asllani is only one of five players who remain from the Tacón days).

While we can’t answer all these selection queries immediately and we will have a better idea as the season goes on, we can brainstorm and look at what possible formation/s would make the best use of the talent at hand. Furthermore, we can gain some insight by looking at Madrid’s go-to approach in games last season and figure out a way to improve on that with the current crop of signings.

So let’s dive into it with some possible solutions. We will look at some starting XI choices, build-up patterns, and defensive organization for each formation.

4-2-3-1

Let’s first look at what might be the best way to use the talent at our disposal: the 4-2-3-1.

Starting from the base of the formation, it seems reasonable to consider Misa as the starting goalkeeper, but Méline will be gunning for a starting spot. Gerárd is a solid backup and her goals-conceded figure from last season might not be a good indicator of what she is capable of.

The back line would more of less remains the same, with Ivana leading the side. Kenti will probably retain her starting role based on her solid all-round performances, though she has really exciting and dangerous competition in Lucia. My first guess would be that Olga would continue in the LB role and Lucia won’t be forced to play there, but in some games this wouldn’t be an outrageous choice in order to push Olga up the pitch.

The double pivot is where things may vary depending on how we want to approach the-game. Maite would probably be the mainstay given her solid performances as the deep lying playmaker last season. She could be paired with Zornoza, who is a naturally left-footed central midfielder who loves to join the attack. We could also go with Teresa, who offers greater control in possession. Additionally, Kaci can be deployed here depending on the opponent and game-state, adding steel to the midfield.

Build-up & Attacking Phases

This formation offers a great solution when building out from the back. In Ivana, we have a good ball-playing center-back, who can carry the ball up the pitch. Zornoza, Teresa, and Maite are all incredibly comfortable on the ball.

The main advantage comes in the form of options available at any time for the player in possession. There are at least three routes a player can choose from whenever passing the ball out. The formation results in the creation of small triangles all across the pitch, which helps in moving the ball out.

The fullbacks can then push high up and one of the two pivot players can shuttle ball-side to offer support. With bombarding fullbacks, this formation offers a lot of width, helping the team to stretch the opposition and attempt crosses to feed the team’s striker and attacking midfielder.

This width can also be exploited by asking one of the two midfielders to make a late arriving run into the box, creating an option for cutbacks and shots from range.

The strain on fullbacks in this formation is quite a lot but, with the work-rate of Kenti & Olga and Lucía as a rotation option, this does seem to be a plausible approach.

Off-ball Shape

This is how the off-ball shape would look like: two compact banks of four, with Asllani pairing up with Nahikari and Esther up top. The compact shape would require discipline, but, if pulled off, it’d make central progression difficult, forcing opponents wide where Real Madrid could look to fashion numerical overloads by using Asllani to win the ball back near the touchline.

Another reason this formation seems like the best option is due to the springboard-kind of nature offered in attacking transitions. With players like Cardona, Olga, Kenti, and Athenea, Real Madrid have plenty of pace to attack teams on the counter if they manage to win it deep. Having an outlet forwards in the form of Nahikari/Esther would help in these transitions, with Asllani always floating as support.

Limitations

The lack of a more defensive-minded midfielder does become detrimental to the ceiling of this formation. Lack of discipline or defensive awareness from any of the pivot players could leave the backline vulnerable to attacks, with the fullbacks pushed high up the pitch.

However, the 4-2-3-1 offers great flexibility and rotation options and seems like the best choice given the profiles we have in the team.

4-3-3

This 4-3-3 became a go-to formation for David Aznar as the season progressed, with Asllani as the striker and Jakobsson and Cardona as the wingers. The midfield saw the trio of Maite-Tere-Kaci.

Things are slightly different now and Asllani no longer needs to fill the #9 role thanks to the influx of Nahikari and Esther. This formation makes use of two wingers, which fits well with the talent at disposal at Madrid.

This formation can have multiple variations depending on the instructions given to the midfielders. We can have two attacking 8’s who flood forward in the halfspaces or one conservative CM paired with one attacking midfielder. Depending on what is chosen, the attacking patterns can vary.

Build-up & Attacking Phases

Building out from the back using this formation would normally see the CB’s splitting wide and the deepest midfielder dropping deep to offer a passing option. The FB’s would be positioned high and wide and would be crucial for progressing the ball up the field. This fits well with the ball carrying abilities of our fullbacks. New signing Lucía is great at this aspect, too and Misa is fairly comfortable with the ball at her feet.

This formation offers a great number of players in attack, with as many as seven figures charging towards goal. Real Madrid have relied on crossing a lot as their primary offensive option, which could be an important weapon in this system due to the options in the box and the potential to win second balls off of inaccurate or blocked deliveries.

Off-ball Shape

The ball being lost high up the pitch opens the door for counter-pressing opponents and regaining possession immediately. This does require good scheming, but hounding the opposition after the ball is lost and recovering possession early could also lead to easy transition opportunities.

Without the ball, Madrid can drop into a 4-1-4-1 or 4-5-1 sort of shape. This packs the central areas of the pitch and forces the opponent to go wide, where the wingers and the fullbacks can win the ball back. This offers a compact solution but also requires a lot of discipline from the players, especially those out wide and the deepest midfielder.

Limitations

Once again, the lack of a true defensive midfielder could prove costly, here, as the pressure to provide the screening presence for the backline falls on one individual, with the FB’s and other midfielders pushed up, making the team susceptible in defensive transition. Lack of defensive support and poor work-rate from the wingers could make the wide areas susceptible to numerical overloads, making it easy for the opposition to attack.

Another thing that might limit this is wanting to incorporate both Esther and Nahikari, players who excel when playing centrally. This might see Nahikari pushed out wide, as has been the case at times at Real Sociedad. This reduces the effectiveness and impact of Nahikari significantly.

3-4-1-2

This seems like an outrageous solution at first look but let’s try and understand what this formation would look like and what it’d offer on the field.

With good ball-playing CB’s in Ivana, Rocío, and Claudia and the work-rate of Olga and Kenti as wing-backs, the back three isn’t a bad option. This opens the door to incorporating all three of Nahikari, Esther, and Asllani into the same lineup, something none of the other formations directly offer.

Build-up & Attacking Phase

The CB’s would help bring the ball out from the GK, as one of the options is most likely available to play it short. If the opponents decide to commit three bodies forward, that would open up room for midfielders to receive. The wide areas are where most of the ball progression would occur. The attacking midfielder can provide the wing-backs with support alongside one of the front two shuttling across to act as an outlet.

In the build-up phases, the two midfielders would play an extremely important role. While one of the CM’s would generally be deployed in a more defensive role, the other midfielder would float all across the pitch to create numerical overloads and offer support wherever required.

The attacking midfielder can frequently rotate positions with one of the front two players, making the attack dynamic and introducing doubt in the mind of the opposition defenders in regard to which player needs marking. Additionally, the #10 can make a late-arriving run into the box to get on the end of a cross while the strikers make a decoy run to open up space.

It isn’t a very attacking approach but it helps the team in defensive situations. Generating open play chances might be hard with the lack of bodies and would require great support from the #8 and #10 at all times.

Off-ball Shape

Defensive solidity is what this formation is primed for, with as many as seven bodies back defending; the wing-backs would fall back to form a line of five, with the additional cover of two central midfielders in front of them.

This formation blocks central progression like the other shapes, given that the double pivot would form a box-like structure, forcing the opponents to go wide or long. After pushing play to the touchline, one of the two forwards can drift out and create a numerical advantage near the touchline, helping regain possession.

Limitations

This formation would under-utilize the wingers in the team or demand a different role from them. Players like Cardona or Athenea, who are so good in 1v1 situations, would be asked to play in a supporting-striker role, which not only requires great discipline to pull off but also doesn’t make full use of their skillsets.

The lack of a real #6 is another point of worry and the #8 or second midfielder needs to have an impressive work-rate and good awareness to shuttle across and provide support in wide areas, or else the wing-backs might be at a numerical disadvantage.

Conclusion

Aznar has the players to be flexible with the formations he uses while also lacking some profiles that may put a limit on Real Madrid’s ceiling. At the end of the day, on-field instruction would matter a lot more than on-paper formations, which are subject to change during the game depending on who has the ball and game-state. among other things. A lot of these formations might morph into each other as the game goes on, though it’s still a healthy exercise to look at various possible solutions.

It’ll be interesting to see how Aznar sets up the team in the upcoming season as Real Madrid Femenino look to establish themselves as a top side in Europe.