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Ancelotti, Zidane and the story of asymmetrical formations

A deep look into Real Madrid’s asymmetrical structures that have been successful under both Ancelotti and Zidane.

Real Madrid v Paris Saint-Germain FC - Pre Season Friendly Photo by Martin Rose/Getty Images

Carlo Ancelotti’s influence in Zinedine Zidane’s managerial career is substantial. Zizou, Real Madrid legend as both player and coach, worked under Carlo at Juventus as the heart of that team and got his first lessons in top-level management as the Italian’s assistant in the 2013-14 season.

Real Madrid have dominated the 2010s under these two heavyweight managers, winning four out of the 10 Champions League titles in the decade. Carlo is a man-manager of the highest order, so is Zidane. Their relationship with players and diplomacy in front of the press is something they have in common — and the list of similarities go on.

FBL-FRA-FRIENDLY-LYON-REAL MADRID Photo credit should read PHILIPPE DESMAZES/AFP via Getty Images

On the pitch, there are significant similarities too, at least structurally. Both Zidane and Ancelotti, in their first stints as Real Madrid managers had the same idea offensive ideologies. Real Madrid tried to play their football in the opponent’s half as much as possible. One key idea was to overload one flank, vacate the other flank, and put in crosses for pouncing forwards who were true craftsmen of heading the ball into the back of the net.

Zidane had to take a step back and focus on defensive structure more than ever in his second stint where he won the league title in 2019-20 and was one goal away from defending the title in 2020-21. Ancelotti has adopted a counter-attacking system to take advantage of Vinicius Jr’s skills in 2021-22. Throughout all this, one thing hardly ever changed: Real Madrid would always attack with an asymmetrical structure under Zidane and they continue to do so in Carlo’s 2nd stint.

Asymmetrical formations can be asymmetrical due to multiple players or a single player playing out of his designated position (deliberately). In Carlo and Zidane’s case, it’s mostly being devised with one player / position. At the start of the 2013-14 season, Ancelotti used to say the word ‘balance’ in every single press conference. But the balance was eluding him until he started to field an XI with Xabi Alonso, Luka Modric, and Angel Di Maria in the midfield. Until that point, Di Maria had played at Real Madrid strictly as a winger under Jose Mourinho. He was primarily a right-winger with ample skill to play on the left. Ancelotti decided to try him the midfield, and the rest is history.

Di Maria’s positional reference in 2013-14.

Zidane did not have to resort to asymmetry until Gareth Bale’s fitness started to fail beyond sustainability. Zidane incorporated Isco into the starting XI in a formation that was a 4-4-2 diamond on paper. In reality, Isco would not play as a central-attacking-midfielder (CAM) but rather a left-sided attacking midfielder. Toni Kroos, Marcelo, Isco, and sometimes, Benzema would overload the left flank to create space for Cristiano Ronaldo, running in, through the middle. Coincidentally, both Di Maria and Isco wore the number 22 shirt.

Isco’s positional reference in 2016-17.

The asymmetry is heavily present in the ongoing season as well. Here are all the passing networks of Real Madrid in the UCL and LaLiga this season. Toni Kroos is the team’s primary passing funnel and Vini Jr being the left-winger, the team naturally shifts to the left. As per whoscored.com, 43% of Real Madrid’s attacks are from the left.

Real Madrid’s passing networks this season.

Real Madrid have been successful with their tendency to shift to the left under Zidane and Ancelotti because it allowed them to exploit the strengths of the roster. However, it has also proven to be too predictable at times, and various opponents have frustrated Real Madrid due to the predictability of this approach. With the squad Ancelotti has at his disposal right now, it would not make much sense to change this proven approach. But Ancelotti has to upgrade this into a system where the predictability is minimal. That is the next step — the next challenge.