Carlo Ancelotti returns, but did Real Madrid hire the right coach? – tactical analysis
When Zinedine Zidane announced he was leaving Real Madrid for the second time in three years, the inevitable rumour mill found momentum. Would it be Massimiliano Allegri, Antonio Conte or Mauricio Pochettino replacing the Frenchman? Could Real Madrid hand the job to another club legend, such as Raúl or Xabi Alonso?
As the rumours picked up, it was an unexpected candidate who ultimately received the job. Reenter Carlo Ancelotti. The Italian last coached Real Madrid from 2013 to 2015 before leaving for Bayern Munich. You’ll recall Rafael Benítez temporarily replaced him before making way for Zidane’s conquest of Europe.
Though he’s very familiar with many of the players and the club, even calling the move a homecoming, there are questions as to whether Ancelotti was the right higher for this particular squad. Was he the right man or word dreams of La Décima clouding the board’s decision?
In this tactical analysis, we’ll take a look at Ancelotti previous season with Everton, showing how it rates and comparison to Real Madrid’s season. We’ll also take a look at the common qualities he and Zidane share, as well as the tactical transition Madridistas can expect.
Like for like?
Truth be told, Ancelotti is one of Zidane’s coaching influences. As two former world-class players, each with a typically cerebral manner on the touchline, both managers know what it’s like to play for football royalty. Further, they both understand the benefits of a more fluid philosophy. As players, they enjoyed freedom on the pitch, which is something they like to pass on to their top tier players.
Even though the two managers share a more fluid footballing philosophy, their tactical acumen is what sets them apart. Though they are not heralded to the degree of more philosophically rigid coaches, their understanding of the game, ability to quickly process matches and make the necessary adjustments have helped them secure four UEFA Champions League titles for the club in the past seven seasons.
An additional benefit is that Ancelotti is well acquainted with the team’s personnel. Some of the veterans, such as Gareth Bale, Marcelo and Isco will have to earn their share of minutes, proving that they can bring more to the table than in the past couple of seasons, but they’ll certainly benefit from the familiarity with Ancelotti. The one danger here is that the Italian comes into the season with a view of these players as they were six years ago. If he can properly assess the squad, seeing which of the veterans fit with the core group, as well as which youngsters deserve time in the squad, the transition should be seamless.
There will of course be some concern that this hiring delays what many consider a necessary rebuild. Additionally, Ancelotti hasn’t been with a European powerhouse since leaving Bayern Munich. Returning to the Spanish capital off the backs of spells with the EPL’s Everton and Napoli of Serie A, the Italian will certainly experience an increased pressure for results. Last season was an underwhelming one for Everton. Coming into the season with hopes of a top-six finish, they disappointingly finished 10th in the table. Injuries played their part, but so did inconsistent form and poor defensive work.
From an attacking perspective, Everton did reasonably well in the goals category, but when you compare the attack and construction statistics against other clubs in the UEFA top five leagues, analysis shows they were rather poor. In our dashboard below, Everton is represented with a large blue dot, whereas Real Madrid’s 2020/21 statistics are demarcated with the large yellow dot.
Speaking of goals, the second image shows goals, xG, goals conceded and xGA. In each of those categories, you’ll see an additional visualization with the word “Rank” at the end. Those four indicators place the category statistics within a percentile rank. One note is that for the defensive categories, the lower the percentile rank the better. So, for example, Real Madrid’s xGA Rank is listed in the 13th percentile. Know that really means Real Madrid is ranked 13th across the UEFA Big 5 leagues. Reversing the listed rating for the defensive percentile categories puts their xGA rank in the 87th percentile for the previous campaign.
Between the two images, it’s clear that Everton was a long way off from Real Madrid, even in a season that saw the La Liga side face extreme adversity with regards to the number of injuries they suffered. Given the patchwork starting XI’s that Zidane was dealing with, scoring even 67 goals was quite the accomplishment. If he had healthy bodies for the entirety of the season, that would have been a severely disappointing total, so the pressure is on Ancelotti to help his stars stay healthy and leave the team to significantly more goal celebrations next season.
As mentioned earlier, Ancelotti has a very fluid approach to the game, making him a tactical chameleon. His sides routinely adjust their approach to the specific demands of each matchup. When he’s coaching dominant sides, such as his previous Real Madrid and Bayern Munich teams, he understands that he must take the initiative in matches. Even his Napoli side predominantly took the attacking initiative. However, at Everton, we saw Ancelotti adapt to the talent he had at his disposal, striking a balance between attacking teams in the bottom half of the table and imposing through defence when facing the EPL’s best sides.
Upon returning to Real Madrid, there will be an expectation of attacking dominance. Ancelotti will happily return to a more aggressive, attacking approach. Even while taking the attacking initiative, look for Ancelotti to use this tactical acumen to his advantage.
At Everton, we saw Ancelotti use several different tactical setups throughout the season. Part of that was due to the injury issues his side suffered, but he also made adjustments based on matchups and in-form players. The image below offers a comparison between Everton’s tactical setups (left) and Real Madrid’s formation usage (right).
Even though Zidane adapted his starting formation more frequently and we’ve seen in the past, he still showed a steady reliance on the 4-3-3. Compared to Ancelotti’s approach at Everton, there was certainly more stability in the Frenchman’s setup. Ancelotti mixed and matched his formations throughout the season as it means of best positioning his starting XI for their matchup.
One other interesting difference between the two sides is in the match tempo. Looking specifically at PPDA (passes per defensive action) both for and against, Real Madrid rated in the 76th percentile in both categories. Meanwhile, Everton’s PPDA rated in the 12% tile while their PPDA against was in the 58th.
Translating those stats to match tempo, Ancelotti’s Everton team were typically very patient with their defending, preferring to get numbers behind the ball before placing pressure on the first attacker. Opponents also tended to give them more time and space when in possession. For Real Madrid, Zidane’s side was sharp in the counterpress and frequently encountered clubs that dropped off defensively, much like Everton. Ultimately, each team played in low tempo matches with Everton initiating that tempo while Real Madrid responded to it.
Ancelotti’s principles of play
Ancelotti has stated himself that he doesn’t believe any single footballing philosophy is the “right way” to play. When a team is tied to a single identity, he knows that they can only play football one way. Rather than stressing one mode of play, his ultimate objective is to help the players feel comfortable on the pitch, giving them the best opportunity to claim a result. With a side like Everton, that was frequently required to play more defensively, they made use of the counterattack to create opportunities on goal. With Real Madrid, he returns to a side that enters each match with an expectation of attacking dominance, especially in La Liga.
In that regard, analysis of his tactics at Everton is a waste of time. Those specific tactics are what he chose for those specific players in specific matchups. The concrete objects, the players and the opponents won’t carry over to this new role.
Even though Ancelotti’s system is moulded to the players at his disposal and the obstacles they’ll encounter in matches, some of the ideas he executed with Everton will transition into this Real Madrid side.
The first principle will be intelligently seeking opportunities for the high press. Real Madrid often defended in a high press under Zidane’s charge, so there’s very little difference here. One thing we’ll see is a well-drilled side that looks for pressing triggers, such as a negative pass, poor body orientation of the first attacker or a deep opponent facing goal with only risky options at his disposal. In the instance below, we see Everton eliminating the pass to the goalkeeper while heavily pressuring Victor Lindelöf of Manchester United. Additionally, they’ve eliminated his nearby options.
On the attacking side of the ball, Ancelotti’s teams have always shown a strong ability to produce scoring opportunities from the wide areas of the pitch. Granted, he’ll no longer have the box presence of Cristiano Ronaldo as he did in his first tenure at the club, but he does have Karim Benzema. Look for Real Madrid to use a combination of high and wide overloads with clever runs into the box, especially from the wide forwards and more advanced midfielders. The image below offers an example of Everton executing this tactic. Secondary scoring was a major issue for Real Madrid, a tactical conundrum Ancelotti must fix early in the season.
One of the benefits of coaching Real Madrid is that there’s no lack of superstars. Even in a tumultuous season like 2020/21, there were stars all over the pitch, though each with his own distinct skill set. One of the issues is that the skill sets of the available players didn’t always leave many options for Zidane. There was always mixing and matching, fielding players together even though their cohesion with their surrounding teammates was still needing development.
Should Real Madrid experience better health in the 2021/22 season, which should be helped by the return of renowned fitness coach Antonio Pintus, this Real Madrid attack should produce far more goals than they did last season. Turning back the clock to Ancelotti’s first tenure, we routinely saw his superstars produce in situations of numerical equality. Additionally, as you see in the image below, his stars were incredibly aggressive in making plays happen. In this instance, Bale pins the Real Sociedad defence centrally, allowing Benzema to find room to receive in the half space. The sequence leads to the game-winning goal. Out of seemingly nothing, the stars produce, which is both a credit to their ability and Ancelotti’s willingness to trust them to deliver.
Staying with that Real Sociedad game, there was an understanding that Real Madrid would have to counterpress aggressively to deny the counterattacking of Antoine Griezmann and Carlos Vela. In order to achieve that, Ancelotti’s men routinely built up in the wings, overloading near the ball. As Real Sociedad became unbalanced near the ball, the Madrid players received their cue to initiate the attack on goal. Xabi Alonso plays out of pressure into the feet of Benzema, who drives forward and hammers a shot off the crossbar. One thing to note in this sequence is the chemistry of Bale and Benzema. Bale initially looks to make a run behind the defence, but the combination of his defender running with him and Benzema running at his defender in a 1v1 situation led to Bale peeling wide to create space for the Frenchman’s shot.
Finally, in transitional attacks, look for Ancelotti’s Real Madrid side to continue counterattacking through the wingers. The club is known for its dynamic dribblers in the #7 and #11 roles. That will continue under Ancelotti. Counterattacking opportunities don’t come off in for Real Madrid, but you can be sure that Ancelotti will look to make some improvements in this area.
Overall, there’s very little departure from Zidane’s tactical principles. Rather than approaching the game as an ideologue, having just one way of playing, Ancelotti will prepare his men to adapt to the opponents in match conditions. Tactics are ultimately rooted in the concrete, so it’s the likes of Ancelotti and Zidane who showed the greatest tactical understanding. They process information and adapt accordingly, giving their side the best chance of success. The tactician knows his opponent and the appropriate response. Real Madrid move from one great tactician to another with the rehiring of Ancelotti.
Though Everton’s season was a disappointing one, they experienced similar issues to Real Madrid. Injuries and player availability took a toll, preventing the Toffees from clinching a European spot.
Everton and Real Madrid are very different teams with wildly different expectations. Even though Everton slightly underperformed during the 2020/21 campaign, Ancelotti’s tactical fluidity, man management and understanding of the Real Madrid culture should lead to a successful season.
But the squad needs a few more pieces before reclaiming the Champions League crown, provided UEFA allows them to play in the competition. Ancelotti’s return should help the side to a successful La Liga campaign. Of UEFA’s Big 5, it’s the only league title he’s yet to win. He’ll look at the upcoming season as a prime example to unseat Atlético Madrid and fend off a rebuilding Barcelona side.
Nevertheless, Ancelotti is loved by Madridistas for delivering La Décima. The club and fans will give him every opportunity to succeed and the players will fight for a manager who handles the squad so well.
At some point or another, there will be a mass exodus among the veteran players. However, with the Ancelotti signing, there’s an indication that the club wants to get one or two more years out of their veterans. There’s also the possibility that these players with low transfer values but astronomical wages are simply unmovable and that the squad needs someone to skillfully navigate the financial crisis. In either situation, Ancelotti was a better option than any of the coaches linked with Real Madrid. The club will expect a domestic crown this season, plus he’ll help them transition to the next generation of Galácticos. For the time being, it seems like a smart hire.