These observations — where I look at Real Madrid’s history, its players on loan, Castilla, tactical tidbits, and other relevant thoughts — are now a regular thing. All previous editions can be found here.
We’ve seen Real Madrid roll out virtually the same tactical scheme and starting XI for a good chunk of the season now. Some games have been more fun than others. Some brilliant, some catastrophic.
For fun, an exercise to deviate from the 4-3-3, I look at eight relatively unrealistic lineups that Ancelotti doesn’t use.
The diamond: 4-3-1-2
Courtois; Carvajal, Militao, Alaba, Mendy; Casemiro, Kroos, Modric, Isco; Vinicius, Benzema
Real Madrid have not been getting consistent production from their right wing all season. Rodrygo comes and goes (no pun intended). It’s at a point now where trusting Marco Asensio in big games when the season is on the line is about as conducive to trusting me on the field. What’s there to lose trying something that gives you more control in midfield as oppose to throwing out a Hail Mary, highly variable right-winger on the flank?
You’ll lose width, but gain other things, in theory: More readily available passing outlets, better possession, and more combination play on the left side — and a way to perhaps even fit in Eden Hazard if you want to get him more touches. That, of course, is not a priority at this stage of Hazard’s Real Madrid career; though, it’s probably the best position available for Hazard. He’s not better than Vinicius as a left-winger, and struggles playing on the right. As a false 9, he’s an inferior finisher, presser, and presence in the box to Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale. He can’t play any deeper. The 10 in a diamond makes the most sense for him, but I opted for Isco instead because he’s better defensively than the Belgian.
The biggest sticking point the diamond had by 2017 - 2018 — a season after it had been implemented initially and the scouting report came out — was that it was highly variable off the ball and unpredictable defensively. Isco’s role was so free that, no one knew where he was defensively — it depended on where he was at the time Real Madrid lost the ball. That put a lot of pressure on everyone, especially: Luka Modric, Casemiro, Raphael Varane, and Sergio Ramos who had to scramble to cover with the wing-backs also high up the field.
Real Madrid have scored one goal in their last four games. That comes down to several factors, including fatigue and injuries. Vinicius has cooled (probably a direct result of things like, you know, playing in Spain two days after playing in Brazil) and Benzema is just returning. There is something else: Teams know what they have to do against a predictable Real Madrid team: Stop Vinicius from getting the ball in transition.
Sitting deep and feeding Vinicius works when it’s a shock to the system. It worked initially because it was a complete deviation from the initial gung-ho, aggressive press. The regression to the mean has already arrived. Mauricio Pochettino cut off the supply to Vinicius completely. As things stand, another shake-up is needed get out of the quicksand.
This is the blueprint to isolate Vinicius, Benzema, and whoever the third attacker is in the 4-3-3:
Going more direct routes, cutting out the middle men, was just as futile against PSG’s press:
What’s most frustrating is that Real Madrid have the talent to escape the press. The PSG defensive set-up was good, but it was breakable. To do it in the second leg, it will require more of Toni Kroos playing in the anchor role to help facilitate taking advantage of the off-ball movement to progress the ball up the field:
In the very first sequence, the front three are isolated. To get them the ball in a meaningful way where they can make a run behind the defensive line, you need to absorb the press and get the ball to Modric or Kroos so that they can make a quick switch to either Asensio or Vinicius. PSG knew the ball couldn’t go there directly from the defensive line (and if it did, they’d have plenty of time to rotate and recover). So they ensured Modric and Kroos couldn’t receive the ball at all, which in turn, cut off the supply to the attack.
Playing a diamond with an extra outlet in midfield could help combat that.
Courtois; Carvajal, Militao, Alaba, Mendy; Casemiro; Modric, Kroos, Bale, Vinicius; Benzema
This is an ode to one of my favourite Real Madrid performances in the past five years: a 0 - 3 away victory against Atletico Madrid in the Vicente Calderon, where Zinedine Zidane threw a curveball at Diego Simeone — soaked up pressure with Luka Modric as the linchpin in front of the defensive line while everyone worked to get the ball to Gareth Bale past a high Atletico line. Bale (then a Greek God), took a flamethrower to Juanfran and Saul before finding Cristiano Ronaldo in the box. The Portuguese scored a hat-trick and posed for the cameras. I enjoyed every bit of it.
I tend to forget a lot of run-of-the-mill games — often relying on my notes to remind me of things. Few games stand out in my memory as vividly as this one.
Though, my description is an oversimplification of a 3500 word column I wrote after that game. That formation could’ve been interpreted as a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1. Modric was the deepest midfielder, while Kovacic, mostly hedged to the left side, did a ton of defensive work. Isco was the third midfielder — roaming around as a 10 rather than being stationary. He was also at his peak. Varane that night had 12 clearances as he almost single-handedly combated Atletico’s crosses. On the right wing was Lucas Vazquez, who had a solid two-way game.
Everything flowed so perfectly — so smoothly in fact that I often wondered why Zidane didn’t go back to it more. To be fair, he won three European titles in a row, and found an even more offensively fluid scheme with Isco in a diamond.
The 4-1-4-1 gives you a nice balance: A shield in front of the defense, coverage everywhere, midfield control, and a presence on both wings, which helps defensively and also gives you options to link-up with a mobile striker. If Ancelotti aims to sit deeper and hit on the counter, which he has wanted to do since late Fall, this works.
It requires two-way wingers who can defend, bomb up and down, and play north-south like a pinball. That’s partly — about 50% — why I have Gareth Bale in there over Marco Asensio. The other 50% being purely for nostalgic reasons which may not actually be smart. Bale at this stage of his career might be best suited as a makeshift striker, where he had success with Tottenham last season. Rodrygo can obviously take that role too given he’s reliable defensively. I have little worry with Vinicius on the other side.
Another obvious choice is Fede Valverde, who gives you a guaranteed baseline, even if that’s not his best position. My favourite hipster choices? Peter Federico and Sergio Arribas. Peter is at this point higher than Arribas in the depth chart, but I like the ability in both to defend and carry the ball in transition. Peter has a natural, cut-throat ability to counter-press, and can punish wing-backs who give him space:
The 4-1-4-1 is often used by possession-heavy sides, but it works well with the way Ancelotti likes to plug holes and slingshot on counters.
Courtois; Militao, Nacho, Alaba; Carvajal, Casemiro, Modric, Kroos, Mendy; Vinicius, Benzema
Part of me is surprised we don’t see this more, given the fact that Carlo Ancelotti likes to sit deeper and hit Vinicius on the counter. Few schemes would be as airtight as having an extra defender slotted in as a shield without sacrificing any central midfielders and wingbacks. The Alaba / Mendy interchangeability (they’ve had perfect synergy in that this season) would work even better in this lineup, and Carvajal is built for a right-wingback role.
Another factor: Ancelotti hasn’t had consistent trust in a right winger yet. Two of the front three pick themselves — but the third slot hasn’t been locked down by anyone.
But getting rid of the width on the right side has its own challenges, and puts even more onus on Vinicius’s shoulders to create something. If opposing teams know they only have to worry about two players in transition, they can focus on those two. How it might work better is if you sacrificed one of the central midfielders for Fede Valverde. The Uruguayan can fly into a transition attack with lightning speed, giving some relief to the front two.
Another work-around: Use your full-backs more in attack. Part of the benefit of using a 3-5-2 (or 3-4-3, 5-3-2, 3-4-1-2, etc) is that you can launch your wing-backs up the field without much worry about covering the space behind them. Casemiro dropping into the back-three gives you, essentially, a back-four with lots of coverage. If Benzema and Vinicius have Mendy and Carvajal, soaring full flight, the transition attack gets oxygen.
The welfare of three at the back comes mostly in defensive security and proper coverage. The potency of its offense will rely on: 1) How high the opposing defensive line is; 2) Who helps the front two in attack. To point 1: If you’re facing a low block, playing a 3-5-2 almost becomes moot, because you sacrifice a creator / line-breaker for a defensive presence that will probably be superfluous.
These are the sequences where a player like Valverde could be of use in transition to get the ball up the field. Fede is one of the best ball-carriers in the team. This is a small clip from a game against Inter earlier this season, where Fede takes the ball off of Arturo Vidal, which ensues in a quick off-ball sprint up the wing and efficient ball-progression:
There are plenty more examples. Fede has traditionally carved Barcelona with movements like that, and most recently provided electrifying energy vs Granada off the bench. Modric can do that too, but maybe tasking him with that high-flying, two-way Angel Di Maria role now for 90 minutes is tough. Fede may also mask the fact that there wouldn’t be another right winger in the squad, because he can play narrow on defense and open up on the flank when the ball is won.
Courtois; Carvajal, Militao, Nacho, Alaba, Mendy; Casemiro Modric; Benzema, Asensio, Vinicius
As Ryan Reynolds once said: “But why?”
But believe it or not, we haven’t even started to get weird yet — this article is designed to get more funky and unrealistic as it progresses. The 5-2-3 is child’s play.
This one stems from simple, raw data: These 11 players have the highest +/- of anyone else in the squad. The most notable omission: Toni Kroos. Apart from that, the biggest difference between this and the aforementioned 3-5-2 is that you flip one of the central midfielders for an extra body in attack. Casemiro and Luka Modric form a double-pivot and hedge back some. The full-backs are still instrumental in the two-way stability of the team and to neutralize opposing star wingers. You can even get creative and throw Alaba in as an interchangeable third midfielder during build-up with a fluid role.
I don’t love +/- in football. In fact, I barely look at it at all as an indicator of anything. When I used to cover the NBA, it made more sense as a stat to include in my analysis. There are too many variables in football — too many players on the field to distinguish causation and correlation. Thibaut Courtois is #1 in ‘goals scored by team while on the pitch’. Of course, he’s also #1 in anything Real Madrid do or don’t while he’s on the pitch, simply because he plays the most minutes. And no one in their right mind would bench Toni Kroos by this metric. (The German just misses out, being +14. It means nothing.)
But I’m entertaining this idea with some intrigue. Even without the third central midfielder, this is a lineup that can be airtight defensively. It might chain Modric in a deeper role, but you also don’t need to send as many bodies forward on the counter if Asensio is providing help in transition to Benzema and Vinicius. If Modric wants to make a dive to the opposing box, he can do so with assurance and a head nod from Alaba.
An interesting caveat here: Mendy can hang back as much as anyone else to provide defensive security for more technically-gifted offensive players to bomb into the final third. Mendy is a nasty ball-carrier (83rd percentile among ball-carriers in players in his position) and a capable moving target (81st percentile in progressive passes received). But he’s so good defensively that you can sacrifice those attributes as a trade off to send Alaba forward. Last season, Zinedine Zidane experimented with Mendy in a left center-back role, and in the last 1.5 seasons, Mendy has shifted in and out of the inverted left-back role where he drifts centrally to help break a high press.
As I’ve written about numerous times this season, Mendy’s natural understanding to work these wrinkles into his game on the fly, coupled with his connected brain with Alaba on the field, makes it easy to make these formations more fluid than they appear on paper.
Defensively, Mendy and Alaba have the same good synergy. Telepathically, they step up at the right time and drop when the other needs help tracking a run:
That understanding is hard to teach. Mendy doesn’t have that same symbiosis with Vinicius yet — though his overlaps against tight defenses have improved when the Brazilian needs a decoy out wide so that he can cut inside and untangle opposing defenders.
This is more of a general point, though, and weird to write about after Mendy’s performance against PSG. It was rough seeing Mendy get dismantled — probably the worst he’s ever been taken apart in a Real Madrid shirt — against PSG. Perhaps he wasn’t fit. Almost everyone was bad against the Parisians in Paris. I guess we’ll never know how he would’ve done in the second leg with some more match fitness under his belt assuming he’d be healthy.
The problem with three at the back is that it’s too much of a deviation from what Real Madrid is used to. In theory, it’s sound, good, and useful for plenty of teams around Europe. In the past few years, when Zidane gave it a shot, it looked messy, disjointed — even confused. That’s in part because it needs to be engrained and downloaded into the collective nervous system over time. Throwing it in sporadically is not easy.
4-4-2: 90s style
Courtois; Carvajal, Militao, Alaba, Mendy; Rodrygo, Casemiro, Kroos, Vinicius; Benzema, Jovic
This is straight out of a classic Real Madrid Vicente del Bosque line-up. A destroyer (Claude Makelele), a more technical CM next to him (Ivan Helguera), two traditional pure wingers (Luis Figo and Steve McManaman), a shadow forward (Raul), and a striker (Fernando Morientes). How would this hold up in 2022?
We have little sample size of Benzema and Jovic together. It’s been messy in the tiny time we’ve seen it. But one underrated thing that worked when the two of them shared the field: Opposing defenders had a hard time dealing with their simultaneous runs in the box when met facing a cross or a low cut-back. They would create space for each other. One of them (usually Benzema) would get on the end of a cross. The replay would show Jovic was marked by one or two players, freeing up space for the French striker to get a good shot off. Too many times Real Madrid cross to one player heavily marked. A 4-4-2 with pure wingers and two strikers is designed to take advantage of scoring from crosses.
Jovic is also underrated as a link-up player who can drop deep; which means Benzema could play higher up the pitch on occasion to ensure Real Madrid always have a hold up target or presence in the box. A good example of this can be found in this clip of Jovic’s highlights vs AC Milan earlier in pre-season, where he did this over and over again to help Real Madrid escape their half:
I don’t think you can sling the 4-4-2 out regularly, and as always, the problem with changing the formation randomly is that it’s hard to re-shift habits. But I think it’s a possible solution to low-blocks. It’s not always pretty, but breaking down defensive and stubborn barricades (think Cadiz under former manager Alvaro Cervera, for example) often requires crosses in volume. But prolific crossing is futile if you don’t have adequate resources in the box to pounce.
The 4-4-2 is versatile enough that it could sit deeper too, but it requires lungs in center-midfield. I could see Modric and Kroos in that kind of scheme when they were younger and controlling games as box-to-box midfielders. Now it might need one of them to sit — and paired with a more dynamic player who can get back in transition lightning quick.
The bench mob: 4-3-1-2
Lunin; Santos, Vallejo, Nacho, Miguel; Blanco, Camavinga, Valverde; Isco; Bale, Jovic
This sounds like a death sentence, and it probably is — but I warned you about things getting weird, so welcome to the prophesied twilight zone. Far from Zidane’s gold-standard Team A / Team B blitz in 2016 - 2017 — this bench mob would likely take blow upon blow. There would be bloodshed.
But there is some fun involved, and dare I say, hope? How dynamic would a Blanco - Camavinga - Valverde lineup be if paired with a roaming Isco and a mobile Bale / Jovic to pick out in the final third? The answer is clear: We have no idea until we see it, and even then, we’d need to see it enough to form a proper opinion on it. But could it hold its own in a Copa del Rey round-of-32 game? A pre-season game? A meaningless Champions League game after the team has already qualified?
It means nothing, but kind of fun to know that Sergio Santos — an untested promising right-back — is +8.18 / 90 minutes while Antonio Blanco is +5.81 (both team highs). I’ve liked what I’ve seen from Santos in Castilla, and without getting too carried away, I’ve loved what’ I’ve seen from Blanco at the A-team level, particularly from his cameos under Zidane last season.
Where this team would likely suffer the most is defensively. Miguel is still raw on that end, and Vallejo has been a black hole for four years now. You need a ton of control from your front six to shield the back four with possession; and vertical compactness to prevent players like Vallejo getting tested more than they should be.
Let’s get out of hand
Munoz’ 3-2-2-3. Wonder how this would play out in today’s game. pic.twitter.com/z1tPd0nk2T— Xav Salazar (@XavsFutbol) February 12, 2022
The most important question: How many anti-ageing potions and steroid injections can we give Luka Modric here? He is the only one that can take the Alfredo di Stefano role: Play 10 positions at once. Di Stefano was listed as a central midfielder in the 1960 final, then proceeded to play DM, CB, ST, and winger. He was flying in for sliding tackles in our six-yard box, stopping counter-attacks, controlling possession, combining with Gento, Puskas, Canario, and del Sol in attack, and scored a hat-trick.
I guess then we’d have to label some others: Vinicius is Gento; Benzema is Puskas. There isn’t quite a Santamaria in this team, so we’d have to split him in two: Militao is the one saving the day defensively (half of Santamaria); and Alaba is the technical ball-progressor (the other half of Santamaria).
Unfortunately, this team would get cooked trying to play like the 50s dynastic powerhouse that possessed two of the top-three players in club history, and three of the top 10.
casemiro as striker. we don’t have another option— ATJ (@atjaved) February 12, 2022
We have reached the war crime section of the article. But for fun, we’ll entertain this. Casemiro as a makeshift striker works the same way that Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique do in the ‘break in case of emergency’ kamikaze mission in the 80th minute when the team needs a goal. It, um, also works in the same way that Zidane used Casemiro when the team needed something, someone, to add numerical superiority to attack crosses from deeper positions. Casemiro was fourth on the team in xG last season (4.8), and outperformed it (6). Yes, last season was just as horrifying as those numbers suggest.