Real Madrid’s pressing scheme was the talk of the tactical town at the beginning of the season. Carlo Ancelotti’s gung-ho approach to press as high and aggressively as possible paid for its efficiency and for its sins, respectively. With time, Ancelotti had to dial down on the press. High and aggressive pressing is not always efficient and Real Madrid found it out the hard way in a few games this season.
The 0-0 draw against Villarreal at home comes to mind - the game was so bad from a pressing point-of-view that it almost felt like a 0-3 defeat. Apart from the pressing scheme, the Madrid structure was a mess of its own. Madrid had quite a few games like that this season where poor pressing spiraled the team into positions catered for poor counter-pressing which led to multiple iterations of this vicious cycle.
Real Madrid tried to press really high in some games and in other matches they have conceived an approach to sit-back and played only on the transition. The team’s true self and most effective version lie somewhere within — the identification of which started with dialing down on the high press.
Real Madrid’s extreme dependency on Toni Kroos and Vinicius Junior to progress the ball is old news. Kroos is the player with the most progressive passes in all of Spain and Vinicius has the most progressive carries in all of Europe’s top five leagues. Vinicius has 35 carries more than Bernardo Silva, who is 2nd on this list. Kroos and Vinicius both play on the left side of the pitch. It was imperative for Real Madrid to come up with a plan to win the ball in areas from where they can launch counter-attacks in high volume. This prompted Ancelotti’s men to spread the press to their wings.
If we observe the origins and the destinations of the passes that Real Madrid’s opponents could not complete throughout LaLiga and the Champions League season so far, it’s evident: Real Madrid have given them a hard time in circulating the ball from the flanks.
If we flip this on Real Madrid’s own defensive actions, similar patterns would appear. The map is torched with clearances deep inside the box of course. But apart from that, Madrid’s defensive actions are almost uniformly distributed in two parts. Horizontally — between their two flanks — and vertically — between their defensive-third and mid-third. Real Madrid has gradually given up their high press. There are 73 other teams in Europe’s top 5 leagues who have more pressing sequences in the attacking third than Real Madrid. However, regarding allowing the opponents to play through their pressing, Madrid has been much better. Only 10 other teams in Europe allow opponents to attempt fewer passes under the press than Real Madrid.
Despite its gradual straightening-out, Real Madrid’s pressing has not been top-notch overall. There are a lot of areas to improve. The consistency, the intensity, and the overall scouting of opponents to apply a specific pressing scheme — these have not been up to the mark in so many games. Madrid has to plan better and keep grinding to improve their press to be a more cohesive defensive unit. This is pivotal for any potential success in the league and in the Champions League this season.