Ancelotti rather unusually sets up Real Madrid in a 1-4-3-3 formation using a high-positioned offensive four as a protection against counter-attacks. This gives the rest of the team time to get back into defensive shape.
Real sets up a fairly deep square in the middle to prevent penetration through the centre and delay the opponent’s direct attack. This defence allow to aggressively press already on the first rivals defender and force passes into the side sectors with the task of slowing down the opponent’s action even more.
If the opponent manages to get into Real Madrid’s half, they move to a low block, but always keeping one or two players in higher positions and creating space for the midfielders to potentially use if the ball is recovered.
Adopting a planned defensive 1-4-5-1 shape the midfielders position themselves around the half line. As opponents reach this area they increase the pressing and therefore the distance from their own goal. This forces the rivals to engage their defenders in playmaking which effectively pulls them out of their own defensive third. The extra space created in this way is particularly beneficial for Real’s wingers (Vinicius, Asensio) who have a fast tempo of play and can react instantly by jumping into the empty half-spaces left by the rival. Their first instinct after recovering the ball is therefore to look for a direct entry into the penalty area rather than a pass.
The key elements for Real’s offensive are the speed of transition into the offensive third, the number of support players and those entering the penalty area. This is their recipe for success on any counter-attack which is one of the reasons why Real Madrid are scoring goals with impressive efficiency this season. The progression in their attack is almost textbook. Continuing their long wing runs up the pitch, they try to create a 2-on-1 advantage situation either against a side defender or by going down to half-space against one of the wide central defenders.
By playing more patiently they keep their offensive players higher up in the central zone. Benzema and Vinicius mostly remain in the highest positions, but it is not uncommon for the second winger (Asensio, Rodrygo) to do the same on the right.
This season Los Blancos are relying less on crosses in favor of taking better and higher positions in their rivals’ half which leads to shorter distances between players, better communication in the field and, finally, improved finishing of actions. This more direct approach is best seen not only in the way Real attack, but also in the transition phase – how they move into attack and, above all, how they create opportunities.
Ancelotti’s seemingly defensive tactics create more opportunities for attacks. In doing so, four patterns of behaviour stand out, which are repeated in almost every match. First: they minimise risk at the back, so if they come under heavy pressure from an opponent and have no passing options in their own half, they allow the goalkeeper (Courtois) to play a long ball to get out from under pressure and look for a second ball. Paradoxically, although Courtois is one of the most used goalkeepers in La Liga, the accuracy percentage of his long passes is one of the worst (sic!). Secondly, by not putting very high pressure on their opponents, they focus on defending, denying their rivals the opportunity to play more directly and allow them to get going by waiting in their own half. Thirdly, when Real Madrid decide to engage in offensive action, they do so from a position of overloading in a particular area, which not only increases the chances of a successful attack, but also increases the probability of fast recovering an accidentally lost ball. And finally, fourth: they maintain a compact and tight formation in the final phase of the offensive action, even at the cost of leaving free space elsewhere, which provides them with better communication between players to facilitate key passes and create an advantage.
Although this behaviour in transition is producing excellent results and most of their ball possession involves open attacks, they continue to strike a balance between open attacks that connect lines, counter-attacks and a direct passing style. In doing so they do not give up on building up play from the back. A typical example of this ball possession pattern is to build action from the back to unbalance the opponent vertically (between the lines) and then make a quick, direct move towards goal.