After Real Madrid finished off its 5-0 aggregate drubbing of Bayern Munich in the Champions League semifinals, Carlo Ancelotti called his team’s performance “perfect,” and it’s difficult to argue otherwise. Real Madrid tweaked its usual system against Bayern Munich, stifling Pep Guardiola's powerhouse en route to the final.
Like most teams around the world, Real usually employs a variation on the 4-3-3 formation, but Ancelotti switched to a 4-4-2 in both games against Bayern. The 4-4-2 makes defending easier because it allows a team to hold two blocks of four defenders.
Real’s game consisted of patient defending and sealing off the middle, leaving space on the wings for Bayern to try to penetrate. When Madrid won the ball, it went forward at pace with its athletic attackers.
Bayern couldn’t muster much of a response, resigning itself to the wing play Real allowed and pumping balls into the box repeatedly, only to be rebuked by Pepe and Sergio Ramos. The biggest talking point statistically was where Guardiola’s teams dominate: possession.
Although Bayern held the ball for over 60 percent of the time over both matches, Madrid recorded an astounding victory.
Suffocate the central channel
Right from the first whistle, Ancelotti’s team dropped into its deep starting position, allowing Bayern to keep the ball anywhere but the dangerous zone between Real’s center backs and central midfielders.
The two blocks of players collapsed until they crowded out the penalty area and the space on top of it. The wingers also tracked back to cover with the outside backs, preventing any isolation opportunities for Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry out wide.
As a result, Bayern could not penetrate through the middle. It also couldn’t win anything in the box through such a thick crowd, completing just 12 of 40 crosses in the first leg and five of 34 in the second.
Newfound appreciation for the counterattack
Bayern players pressed forward, making the penalty area even more crowded. As a result, it left space in behind for the counterattack multiple times, which Madrid expertly exploited after winning the ball in its defensive third.
Ancelotti isn’t shy about publicizing his tactical philosophy. He maintains his own website, where he has written on multiple topics. (Steve Amoia frequently translates Ancelotti’s posts on his own site.)
The Italian manager has also written a couple books, the most recent of which was particularly extensive and illuminative: Il Mio Albero di Natale, or My Christmas Tree, an obvious ode to the 4-3-2-1 formation.
In it, he dedicates a short section to the art of the counterattack:
“At a recent meeting in Geneva in which colleagues from all over Europe participated, we found that the counterattack has returned to frequent tactical use as a match strategy. … An organized counterattack permits us, upon recovering the ball, to use to our advantage that which should be a moment of pressure from opponents. This strategy consists of attacking (with speed) the space in behind them with a direct pass to a teammate who runs in behind. It is a tactical solution that permits the optimal use of the numerical superiority that it creates, and to employ it as well as possible, it’s necessary to understand that it is only really effective with certain collective movements.”
Ancelotti goes on to spell out those movements and provides the following diagram:
Real followed his prescription perfectly on a couple of counterattacking goals against Bayern, including the third goal of the second leg.
Referring to the drawing and graphic above, Ancelotti’s ideal counterattack works like this:
• A: The first attacker on the ball engages the nearest defender by dribbling at him, as Karim Benzema does after receiving a long pass from Gareth Bale.
• B: That opens space for an overlapping run, which might be present on this play, but the camera never pans far enough over to know for sure. Since Bale, the winger on that side, is charging down the middle of the field, it likely would come from fullback Daniel Carvajal.
• C: A central player runs in behind his defender, as Bale does behind a backtracking Toni Kroos.
• D: The fourth attacker provides width on the opposite flank. One benefit of attacker “C” running behind his defender is that it might draw defender “3” in to deal with him, or it could at least provide a distraction that allows “D” to find space. Indeed, Dante slides over, which is why Cristiano Ronaldo is so open.
From there, it’s just a matter of the man on the ball picking the correct pass at any given moment. If the four attackers move in the way Ancelotti prescribes, it opens numerous options in any exact scenario.
Real Madrid is a possession-based team
Despite what it may have shown in the last two games, Real is a team built on possession. At times on Tuesday — when the result was already secure — it knocked the ball around Bayern like Bayern usually does to other teams.
The foundation of every top-class team these days is possession. They are all capable of keeping the ball for long periods and dictating the game, which is why they become top teams. However, tactical flexibility is a necessity to separate one top team from another.
Perhaps Ancelotti learned from losing twice to Barcelona in La Liga that trying to match tiki-taka head-on isn’t the best option for his team, especially when its athleticism lends itself nicely to a counterattacking style. It’s much easier to make mistakes with the ball than without it, as Bayern did in giving the ball away while committing numbers forward, allowing for the deadly counter.
Real’s possession numbers in the series against Bayern were easily the lowest it has had all season, save for its most recent league performance against Barcelona, where it employed a similar counterattacking strategy but narrowly lost.
Different means for control
Ancelotti himself said after Tuesday’s match that he did not kill tiki-taka. The notion that maintaining possession is meaningless is as inaccurate as the idea that “parking the bus” or sitting and counterattacking is anti-football.
It takes an incredible amount of skill to play Guardiola’s tiki-taka style. It takes a similar level of skill and preparation to correctly stifle an opponent and counterattack. As Ancelotti wrote in My Christmas Tree, “Football is also a laboratory permanently open to those coaches who are always attentive to capturing its novelties and interesting changes.”
The end goal of any successful team is to have control of the game. At the highest levels, that control can only be achieved by deliberate tactical preparation and execution, for which the exact methodology in each unique situation is choreographed and rehearsed extensively in training, overseen by a capable manager.
It’s more than just drawing something on a board and hoping it works; it’s about putting players in the best position to succeed individually. It’s about anticipating what an opponent will do and figuring out the perfect way to counteract it collectively.