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Ancelotti’s three-at-the-back experiment at Everton and how it might look at Real Madrid

Carlo Ancelotti’s Everton played 10 league games with three center-backs in the 2020-21 season. We discuss here, what to expect if Carlo decides to repeat the experiment at Real Madrid.

Everton FC v Liverpool FC - Premier League Photo by Peter Powell/Pool via Getty Images

With Antonio Rudiger’s arrival, one of the common questions has been: Can Real Madrid switch to a three-man backline and give up their proven 4-3-3 setup? The blatant and most logical response to that is, no, it’s unlikely that Real Madrid will switch to a three-man backline given the success and continuity this team has had with four at the back. However, if there is a slim chance that Ancelotti might want to look at the experimental option of three center-backs, we have a sample size of 10 Premier League games where Carlo’s former team, Everton, had a mixed bag of results playing in various three-man backline formations.

In the 10 games in question, Everton managed four wins, including a famous 2-0 victory over Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, four draws, and two defeats at the hands of Chelsea and Leeds United. Michael Keane (left), Yerry Mina (center), and Ben Godfrey (right) were his first-choice picks at the three center-back positions. The fullback positions revolved around Lucas Digne and Fabian Delph on the left; Seamus Coleman, and Alex Iwobi on the right. This Everton team would mostly line up in a 3-4-3 formation when going with three at the back. The only other variation Ancelotti tried was the 3-5-2 formation which was more synonymous with his countryman Antonio Conte.

That Everton team's touch map suggests they had the most touches (outside of their box) in the vertical channels associated with the three center-backs. Now, if we hypothetically want to project this onto Real Madrid, Carlo has two of the best center-backs in the world in terms of on-ball ability in David Alaba and Antonio Rudiger. Although their appearance in a back-three is unlikely, a prospective back-three of Alaba, Militao, and Rudiger is made in the heavens.

Alaba, Militao, and Rudiger can be a back-three with diverse profiles. For ball progression, you have Alaba and Rudiger; for stepping out to a surging opponent, all three are great; for aerial dominance, you have Militao and Rudiger. Real Madrid currently has an enviable defensive core for a team that historically is all about playing flamboyant, offensive football.

Everton’s top three passing clusters when they played with back-three formations are all in the flanks. That’s actually not exclusive to Everton. All Carlo Ancelotti teams like to overload and switch flanks to create space. The same approach already exists at Real Madrid.

It appears while playing with a back-three, Ancelotti’s Everton played a lot of long balls from their own half and with relatively good efficiency. This is where Real Madrid can possibly be more adventurous given that players like Alaba, Rudiger, Kroos, Tchouameni, and even Casemiro all have a good long ball in their arsenal. Madrid doesn’t use it often but with a back-three, it could be vital.

My hypothetical Real Madrid XI in a back-three would probably look like the following. This can easily morph between 3-4-3 and 3-5-2 with small adjustments in how high Fede Valverde is deployed. Real Madrid’s current midfield roster is so well equipped that any given combination would be interesting to observe.

What would be your ideal Real Madrid XI be in a back-three formation?

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