In the summer when Real Madrid sold Ozil to Arsenal, Ancelotti was asked the reason behind this transfer deal, considering Ozil is arguably the world’s best playmaker. Ancelotti explained his decision was solely tactical, he said: “I preferred Di Maria (instead of Ozil) for tactical reasons. it is better to keep Di Maria because he has the ability to play most positions on the field”, which gives Madrid more options and flexibility.
If one phrase can be used to describe Ancelotti’s time at Madrid it’s tactical flexibility.
Unlike most managers who are firm believers of a particular style and as a result impose such systems on players, Ancelotti is a reactive coach who makes the most of a particular situation. Arrigo Sacchi once said he was one of the best in the business because of his ability to react to situations. Evidence of this flexibility, came earlier in the season when Madrid played a variety of systems to find the right balance.
While title rivals Atletico and Barcelona took commanding leads at the start of the season, Madrid were playing catch up and still striving for the right tactical balance. Carlo Ancelotti in his post match conferences was often irritated by Madrid’s inability to keep it tight at the back, saying in his post match interview after the game vs Betis: “It was a problem of balance. There was a lot of space between our defense and midfield and Betis played very well in this area. Right now it is a normal problem, but they are generous players and we need to find the balance.” and again, this time in an angry tone “Equilibrio, equilibrio, equilibrio” translated “Balance Balance, Balance, we need to find the right balance in our game.”
He tried to find this ‘balance’ by trying a variety of systems and alas! Ancelotti coined a 4-3-3 system, after which he said: “With Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo, the best system is 4-3-3. The players are comfortable with the 4-3-3, not because I say so but because they say so themselves.” With this 433 shape, Madrid finally found the balance the Italian had been searching for so desperately. Modric and Alonso orchestrate in midfield, while providing a solid base for the attacking ‘BBC’ trio. Di Maria’s work rate in the box-to-box role also made up for Ronaldo’s mediocre defensive work.
In the absence of both Ronaldo/Bale in recent games, Ancelotti yet again showed his flexibility in the most crucial period of Madrid’s season. Coming up against teams like Barcelona and Bayern Munich who prioritize ball retention, Ancelotti deployed a very compact and narrow 442 system which offered more defensive solidarity and balance in defense and midfield. The Italian is an advocate of possession football however, his love-affair with counterattacking football has been made well known to the public.
“The counter-attack is the simplest way of creating a scoring opportunity. Clearly just using the counter means you don’t have an identity, but when there’s space for it with the strikers we’ve got, it becomes lethal.There is a certain demonization of the term in Spain and the word has to be used carefully. With players like Bale, Benzema and Cristiano it is more difficult to play possession football, we must look for spaces, and play the ball forward more quickly. Football is nice for that, as everyone has their own ideas.“
Normally Madrid play an asymmetric 433, with Ronaldo and Bale either side of Benzema in attack. Without Ronaldo, Carlo Ancelotti played a very narrow 442 in the defensive phase, a similar system Simeone used vs Barcelona just a couple of weeks earlier. Being a member of the Arrigo Sacchi Milan team that dominated European and Italian football with their compact 442 shape, Ancelotti has said before “He knew everything about the 4-4-2”
Di Maria and Isco played on the flanks while Modric and Alonso played as the central midfielders. Bale played as a shadow striker behind Benzema. It was the same versus Bayern Munich the following week, this time Madrid were without Bale, another key attacker and Isco again took his place in the Madrid side.
Though the Madrid manager tweaked the defensive organization and formation, Madrid still kept their attacking principles. When there’s a turnover in possession in Madrid’s favour, they transit into attack quickly and Di Maria who plays on the right flank in the 442 will join Benzema and Ronaldo up top making it a 433.“The 4-4-2 works when you try to defend. When we have the ball, we play like we always do, with a 4-3-3. The first 4-4-2 allows us to protect ourselves between the lines, without giving up key spaces, and that’s what we accomplished tonight” – Ancelotti said after the Bayern game. (via managingmadrid.com)
One of Madrid’s problems in their games against Atleti at the Calderon and the 4-3 defeat to Barcelona in midfield was Alonso who was unable to break play as the single pivot. Both teams overloaded the center and dominated the middle battle in these games however, with the compact 442 shape, Modric provided much needed support to Alonso in midfield and together combated opposition threats. What impressed me most was their lateral movement and pressing to create overloads against Robben and Ribery in the Bayern game. For example when Robben gets the ball in the wide areas(With Lahm/Rafinha overlapping), the midfielders will move laterally to give protection to Coentrao and Isco creating a 3v2 overload.With Madrid sitting in this deep 442 shape, space between the lines for the likes of Fabregas and Iniesta in the Copa Del Rey final and Schweinsteiger and Kroos were non-existent. The compactness in this defensive shape led to many lateral passes among the opposition players without any penetration in the final third.
All in all, Ancelotti won his first trophy as Real Madrid head coach and beat European champions Bayern Munich convincingly. Much of the credit must go to Ancelotti who once again proved his flexibility and tactical competence by manoeuvering a system to make up for individual losses. Although Barcelona and Bayern both enjoyed a lion’s share of the ball possession, Los Blancos had by far the most clearcut opportunities and deserved to win both ties. Hala Madrid!