Carlo Ancelotti and his 4-3-3: Basically like bread and butter. It’s almost difficult to imagine the Italian playing a different system than the one which he deployed to start the BBC era, before remaining loyal to it at Napoli and Everton and then returning with the exact same tactical philosophy six years after he left the Spanish capital.
But now, Real Madrid’s squad management seems to be pointing him in a different direction: towards a 5-3-2 shape. The idea involves a system similar to that which was used by Atlético Madrid in their conquest of the league title in 2020/21, or even Antonio Conte’s famous teams at Inter Milan and Chelsea which deployed the same approach.
It involves a flat back three, with offensive wing-backs on either side. They will usually be protected by a holding midfield pivot, two central midfielders — one often being more offensive minded — and two forwards. Regularly, one of these forwards will have the role of drifting into a wider position:
It’s a shape that Zinedine Zidane experimented with briefly in 2019, but the Frenchman didn’t pursue it for long in competitive action. It was perhaps a little surprising that we did not see Ancelotti field the 5-3-2 shape in any of the three pre-season matches, as he stuck loyally to his 4-3-3 shape throughout all 270 minutes played against Barcelona, Club América and Juventus.
But why could Ancelotti consider a 5-3-2 shape this season? We’ll take a look into some of the reasons below.
The back three
How do you solve a problem like having three of the best central defenders in European football? Simple. You play all three.
Rotating players of the age and experience of Alaba or Rüdiger will be a test of even man-management extraordinaire Ancelotti, while Militão may become frustrated quickly if his development is becoming stalled by the two veterans he is competing with. That’s before even considering the likes of Nacho and Jesús Vallejo.
Rüdiger arrives already knowing the system well, having operated on the left of a back three under Thomas Tuchel at Chelsea. Alaba is certainly no stranger to it, as Bayern flirted with the switch at times before he left Bavaria.
The biggest challenge may come in how to distribute them across a back three. Rüdiger is a right-footed central defender who prefers to play on the left, but that is Alaba’s preferred position and he would have to decide more often between his marauding runs forward which would be difficult to continue from a central role and dictating play from a deeper position. That would almost certainly be the Austrian’s desired role, operating almost as a líbero.
The benefit for Real Madrid also comes in Casemiro. Frequently in the 4-3-3, we saw that Casemiro will drop in to almost form a central three with the Brazilian as a third man in the middle. As can be seen in the above example, Casemiro even played in this deeper role at times of intense Liverpool pressure in the Champions League final in May. Aurelién Tchouaméni may still need time to adapt that side of his game to fit into the Real Madrid approach.
Ancelotti has plenty of options, and several in reserve ready to step up too. It may become inevitable that he has to field all three of his leading defenders at once at some point this season, and this change of structure may be desirable to continuing the square peg in round hole solutions of Rüdiger that we have seen in pre-season.
Much of the debate around Rüdiger, Alaba or Militão has been linked to the debate over the future of Ferland Mendy. Many have been critical and expected Alaba to move across to the left, though in pre-season Ancelotti also experimented with Rüdiger in the left-back role of a flat back four.
Despite that, Ancelotti has removed any doubt when speaking publicly: “It’s clear that the starter is Mendy, but we have backups there for when he can’t play,” he said after the friendly encounter with Club América. “We could have a more attacking profile in David Alaba, or a more controlled one in Rüdiger.”
Such a show of faith in the Frenchman could also show that Ancelotti may be considering this switch more than it may seem. Rüdiger would almost certainly not fit the wing-back role, while Alaba could adapt but would take up a different profile to the modern wing-back. His methodical approach and vision, less about ball carrying, pace and direction, almost makes him operate like a wide pivot, rather than a defensive winger as many modern wing-backs are.
Mendy could be the fit. In fact, when we compare his stats to those of other European players, one of those most similar to him is Sevilla’s wing-back Gonzalo Montiel, while Manuel Lazzari of Lazio and Pol Lirola of Marseille also have similarities on the right in more advanced positions.
Mendy is often criticized for not being potent enough in attack, but if we look at the strengths of Mendy’s game, where he breaks into that elite top 25 percentile, the only areas in which we see this happening are in his passing and his offensive stats. With 6.72 progressive carries per 90, and 1.49 dribbles completed per 90, he stands out in particular for 2.76 carries into the final third every match, setting him in the top six percent of all full-backs.
Mendy is not as exciting or eye-catching as the likes of Roberto Carlos or Marcelo when bombing down the left flank, but he is certainly effective and has everything needed to suggest that he could be an option as a left-wing-back. Much like the Diego Simeone model of an asymmetrical 5-3-2 in which one side has a more offensive option than the other, Mendy could provide an intriguing proposition for Ancelotti.
Solving an offensive headache
The beauty of the 5-3-2 for Ancelotti could also come in attack. Not only is the problem of keeping three high-profile central defenders happy solved, but it also removes from the equation the position which is challenging Ancelotti most: the right side of attack.
In the 4-3-3 shape that Ancelotti usually tends to prefer, he has a clear choice of Vinícius Júnior on the left and Karim Benzema down the middle. On the right, he tends to rotate between Fede Valverde, Rodrygo Goes, Marco Asensio and possibly even Eden Hazard. Yet none of those four men seem to have fully convinced him.
The 5-3-2 shape would allow Ancelotti to instead have a clear front line with no doubts over who to put on the team-sheet.
There is no reason to think that it would not work either. Particularly with Valverde operating on the right towards the end of the season, we would see him tuck into a deeper, more central and midfield-like role, meaning that when Real Madrid broke on the counter it would often be driven by Vinícius’ pace, while Benzema would provide the target in the middle. That model is a tried and tested one.
Real Madrid fielded a front two for 401 minutes last season, scoring nine goals in the process. That 1.13 goals per 90 is slightly below the 2.05 average, but often the switch was made with games already won. Of those 401 minutes, only 47 saw Vini and Benzema play together as the front two, in the first half of a 2-1 away defeat to Espanyol. More often than not, it would see Luka Jović involved, and it is hard to truly judge the potential of a Vini-Benz pairing on these periods alone.
In a 5-3-2, Vini would be given more offensive freedom, something he would surely relish. Drifting to either flank, he would have to put in the leg work, but would have the advantage of a strong understanding with Benzema. It’s perhaps disappointing that we haven’t seen it trialled more in pre-season.
Valverde, the solution?
At 30 years of age, Dani Carvajal is most certainly not getting any younger, and he has only played more than 30 league games in the same season once since 2014/15. His age and struggles for fitness mean that he may be Real Madrid’s highest quality option at right-back, but he isn’t the long-term option.
Right-back is possibly the only spot other than centre forward where Real Madrid do not have a reliable back-up who is young and ready to step up. Lucas Vázquez has filled in admirably, but is 31. Nacho can play there also, but he is a central defender, and this pre-season we had a first glimpse at a raw Vinícius Tobias. Álvaro Odriozola, as of now, is also still in the squad.
But what a 5-3-2 could do is open the door to the possibility of Fede Valverde as a right-wing-back. There are many similarities in his game to fellow former-Madridista Marcos Llorente when he has operated in the position at Atlético Madrid.
Boosted by stamina, both players are ball progressors who get stuck in, but primarily higher up the pitch. They in fact have similar stats for players struggling to dribble past them (1.07 times per 90 for Fede, 0.99 for Marcos) and prioritize the turnover of possession from a high press and good reading of the game.
Valverde did play as a wing-back for around 20 minutes in the ill-fated Champions League semi-final against Chelsea in 2020/21, and showed moments of promise. This example below shows how he offered options out wide, receiving the ball from Militão and immediately looking for a one-two with Casemiro to exploit and get in behind the advancing Chelsea defence.
We can see signs that it could work from his displays towards the end of the season as a winger on the right flank. He ranked in the top two percentile for interceptions with 1.88 per 90, and was also in the top 16 percent of wingers for tackles (1.91 per 90) and clearances (0.92 per 90). It reflects a defensive work rate, a desire to press and a strength to his game which few other players have.
Will we see the 5-3-2 at Real Madrid?
Carlo Ancelotti is clearly not going to relinquish or change things up easily or rapidly at Real Madrid. He has a system he knows, his players are used to, and which is clearly a winning formula.
5-3-2 does seem a logical alternative, and when Ancelotti begins to experiment, whether that be because he can afford to against weaker sides or to match opposition systems in more challenging duels, it could be an intriguing choice.
For example, the 4-0 Clásico defeat may have been more easily defended with an extra man in the back line to deny Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Ousmane Dembélé so much space in behind. Yet, there’s a sense that Ancelotti’s stubborn nature could get the better of him.
Whatever happens, a defence of Rüdiger, Alaba and Militão means that there will be the 5-3-2 option for Real Madrid for years to come. The potential to exploit Mendy and Valverde on both flanks could also be one too tempting to ignore.