Real Madrid went through some huge changes this summer, from Jose Mourinho leaving to breaking the world transfer record when they bought Gareth Bale. Replacing Jose Mourinho was always going to be difficult and Carlo Ancelotti was the man Florentino Perez chose for the job. When a new manager comes in there are always changes but the difference between the Madrid team of last season and this current season is huge. Jose Mourinho is known for his attention to detail and organization, and so far this season Real Madrid has lacked both.
I think that Madrid’s defense this season has been one of their main problems and the same problems are occurring week after week. I am going to look the match from last Saturday, El Clasico, and anaylse their problems both defensively and offensively.
The main surprise for most people was when the teams for the Barcelona match was announced that Sergio Ramos was going to play in midfield as a defensive midfielder. This isn’t the first time that Real Madrid have used a defender in that position against Barcelona, Pepe had been used there against Barcelona a couple of times in the past, but Sergio Ramos had never been asked to fill this position. The first question of many people was why do they need to put a player behind the two central midfielders, Modric and Khederia? Well, Xabi Alonso, who usually sits a little deeper, has been missing this season and many teams have exploited the space between the Madrid defense and midfield lines, and against Barcelona, I’m sure Ancelotti wanted to make sure that didn’t happen again.
It was also a surprise to many that Gareth Bale started the match, not only because he was rumoured to be on the bench, but also because he still isn’t 100% fit and has been struggling for form.
The need for a defensive midfielder
This is an example from the first match of the season against Real Betis.
The Betis player has received the ball from his goalkeeper and is now looking to play forward. The two central midfielders for Real Madrid are Luka Modric and Sami Khedira. From the first pass from the goalkeeper the two central midfielders are out of position, leaving lots of space in midfield. There are two Betis players in behind the Madrid midfield and the player behind Modric is pulling wide to create even more space in the middle for his teammate, the striker, to drop into with no Madrid defender going with him. On this occasion the defender passed wide and the space wasn’t exploited but should have served as a warning for what was to happen in a couple of minutes.
Just over a minute later the same defender was on the ball and this time both Modric and Khedira are drawn to the ball, leaving lots of space in behind. This time the defender passes between the two central midfielders, taking them out of the game. The Betis player receives the ball and runs at the Madrid defense.
Last season Xabi Alonso would have stayed in a more defensive position to free the other central midfielder to press and he would be the safety net to stop situations like this from arising.
A huge problem for Real Madrid this season is every player running backwards and nobody going to challenge the player in possession, and that is exactly what happens here. The Betis player receives the ball on the halfway line, turns and runs at the Madrid defense. EVERY Madrid defender runs backwards and away from the attacker. Ramos tries to delay the Betis player but has no support and the player knocks it past him and crosses for his teammate in the middle, who makes a straight run, to score. Real Madrid went on to win this game 2-1 but the early warning signs defensively were there.
El Clasico – Saturday 26th October 2013
Sergio Ramos – The Defensive Midfielder and problems in the midfield
For the reasons highlighted above Ancelotti wanted a player to sit in front of his defense against Barcelona, which is understandable because Barca are very strong centrally and with their “false 9” tactic would have taken full advantage of that space in between the lines. Sergio Ramos was the player he chose for that role last weekend. There are also rumours that somebody from Real Madrid leaked the team to the press before the game and Tata Martino changed Messi’s position and added Cesc as the “False 9” to take advantage of Sergio Ramos playing in the defensive midfielder position.
Now, as I mentioned, Madrid have deployed a defender in this role before. Pepe has played in front of the defense against Barca on a couple of occasions and played fairly well. When Pepe played this position he done so in a purely defensive capacity and didn’t venture forward very often, if at all. He was a destroyer and once he had the ball, he gave it to the other midfielders to play forwards and try to create chances. On Saturday, Sergio Ramos didn’t seem sure of his role and was consistently pulled out of position and/or drawn to the ball. Ramos playing this position also seemed to affect the build up play with Madrid playing long from most goal kicks and their centre backs, Pepe and Varane, not seeming willing to pass to Ramos to start building play.
Even from the 4th minute of the match Ramos is starting to get pulled out of position. From the Barca goalkeeper having the ball, he decided to follow Cesc all the way in to the opposition half and he has left space in front of the defense which Messi has dropped into with nobody picking him up.
One minute later, Ramos follows Cesc again and the Barca player pulls him over to the left side of the field leaving a huge space in the centre of midfield. Xavi got the ball from Valdes and the two central midfielders of Madrid started to press the ball. Xavi passes to Iniesta and continues his run straight through the midfield of Madrid.
Above is seconds later in the same move. Xavi continues his run and find a lot of space in front of the Madrid defense, all coming from a straight run through the middle of midfield and he is now ahead of the Modric and Khedira. Ramos doesn’t react and is the furthest midfielder from the ball. The blue circle is where Ramos should be because from this position he would discourage a pass infield towards Xavi and he could also drop into defense if needed.
This is an example of the movement of Barcelona again causing problems for the Madrid midfield. Khedira was out of position as he followed Cesc, despite Cesc already being goal side of him. As Khedira was out of position Ramos had to go towards the ball as there was no pressure on Xavi. When Ramos comes forward Khedira realizes he’s out of position and tries to get across, at the same time Cesc makes a run into the space left and Xavi plays the ball through. Carvajal needs to make a recovery run and is put in a dangerous situation. The first blue circle shows where Khedira should be, which is closer to Xavi and putting pressure on him. The second blue circle is where Ramos would be if Khedira wasn’t out of position. This would enable him to intercept any passes that Xavi may try to make.
Towards the end of the first half now and the same problems are happening with the Madrid midfield. Di Maria made a feeble attempt to win the ball back from Iniesta, who passed to Xavi and got the ball back. When Iniesta receives the ball back, both Khedira and Ramos go towards the ball leaving Messi standing all alone. Iniesta passes the ball between Khedira and Ramos to Messi, who passes to Cesc. Cesc runs at the Madrid defense who, again back off and nobody challenges Cesc. Cesc passes to Neymar who makes a run down on the wing.
Sergio Ramos was substituted 10 minutes into the second half and didn’t look too happy with the decision to take him off. The truth is, he struggled in the holding midfielder position. He’s a fantastic centre back and I think he should be kept to that position. He was playing in midfield with Khedira and Modric, who both like to go forward and both need a more defensive midfielder they trust so that they have the confidence to go forward. Illarramendi, who came on for Ramos, is a defensive midfielder and had a fantastic season last year with Real Sociedad. He done well when he came on and, perhaps most notably, his team mates showed more trust in giving him the ball to start attacking moves.
In this situation, Ramos has taken up a good position to receive the ball and he has 3 good passing options should he get the ball. Varane who is the player on the ball had passed to Ramos a couple of time previously and Ramos had either played a poor pass or been caught in possession. Varane chooses to play a long ball and loses possession.
From the moment Illarramendi came on his teammates began to use him. Compare the picture above to the previous one with Ramos. The same defender, Varane has the ball under pressure but this time he chooses to pass to Illarramendi who plays first time to Khedira who makes a run up the wing.
In another example of Illarramendi not long after coming on, you can se that he is holding a good position in front of the defense and when Iniesta begins to run centrally Illarrameni shows him inside. The Madrid defense don’t all run back this time and hold the position you see in the picture. The combination of Illarramendi’s blocking run and Modric’s recovery run takes away the space Iniesta was running into and he give away possession when he tries to switch play.
In this example you can see how having Illarramendi on the field helps the balance of the midfield. When Modric passes the ball to Di Maria, Illarramendi drops deeper to give an easy pass option. When he reaches the secondary position you can see the triangle shape that Madrid midfield now have with Illarramendi offering balance and defensive cover.
In the first half we could see how Sergio Ramos was pulled out of position and how much space there was in front of the defense. Compare this picture to the examples in the first half and we can see how Illarramendi understands how to hold his position in front of the defense and minimize the space between the lines. From his position above he can go with the run of Xavi, run to help close down Neymar should he cut inside or drop into the defensive line if needed. Khedira is also in a good position to help the defense and drop back if needed.
Midfield differences in 1st & 2nd halfs
Sergio Ramos started in the holding midfielder role and struggled, not only positionally and getting dragged out of position, but also in his teammates not trusting him in possession which led to Madrid playing long most of the first half. Illarramendi is a very good young player and done well when he came on. He also had his problems and was caught out of position a couple of times, not to the extent of Ramos and was more likely to be because Madrid were looking for a goal. Illaramendi gave the midfield more balance, helped Madrid retain possession and his teammates trusted him in possession. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that he started the next game against Sevilla.
Madrid in attack
In this game it looked like Madrid’s first instinct was to stop Barcelona from scoring and try to hit them on the counter attack using their strong, tall and extremely fast front line of Cristiano Ronaldo, Bale and Di Maria. As mentioned above, in the first half Madrid didn’t try to play out from the back and played long and quickly at almost every opportunity. Even when their defense had time on the ball they would look to pass instead of bring the ball out themselves. The starting front line was very strong but there was a real lack of a link between midfield and the front line leaving them isolated.
Here, Varane is on the ball and has 20 yards of space in front of him to run into but he decides to play a long ball to centre forward. Now, Varane is a very good player with more than enough ability to come out with the ball and if he did come out with the ball the black arrows show how his teammates could have reacted to that movement and allowed Madrid to not only build up better but do so 20-25 yards further up the field.
This was the story of the first half for Real Madrid. This is a free kick in the box early in the match and nobody drops back to receive the ball from the goalkeeper. Madrid has 5v2 in their own half and they choose to kick long. Incidentally they give possession straight to Barcelona.
This is early in the first half and already the midfield is disjointed and there is nobody in the centre to build up and allow the forwards to stretch the play. Pepe is on the ball and although he has a short pass option to Marcelo, there are no midfielders available for a safe pass. Bale starts to drop into the space but Pepe decides to play a long ball and passes straight to a Barcelona player.
Another example of long ball, this time with Marcelo in possession. Despite having a number of short passing options, including playing back to his goalkeeper, Diego Lopez, Marcelo plays a long ball towards a forward player and loses possession.
When one of the Madrid forwards eventually get the ball, in this case Bale, and begin to attack the Barcelona defense they are vastly outnumbered 6v2 with another Barca player recovering behind. Cristiano makes a good run across the face of Bale to try and create space but the two Barcelona players immediately take that away and Bale shoots from around 30 yards and it goes over the bar.
The first half way frustrating for Madrid and the forwards weren’t involved in the match that much. Madrid set up in a 4-3-3 formation with the forward rotating positions, but because the long ball was always played down the centre and all three forwards wanted to go central to try and get on the ball. Above we can see how close all three forwards became at times in the first half. There was nobody trying to offer length or offer an option to go in behind if the long ball was played.
We know from the earlier analysis that things improved when illarramendi came on. not only in his defensive positioning, but also in the build up. We can see Illarramendi on the ball after receiving from Pepe. He has some time in possession and he has a number of passing options. He can split the two Barcelona players and pass to Khedira, go wide to Carvajal or an aggressive pass to Benzema. He even has two longer options from the runs of Di Maria and Cristiano. This is a much better attacking situation for Madrid to be in.
This is the penalty incident involving Cristiano, which wasn’t given. It’s a good example of the 3 forward combining and the midfield supporting. The ball was played to Benzema from Pepe just before the halfway line. Benzema takes a touch which draws Pique in for a second, he then passes to Di Maria and as the ball is travelling Cristiano makes a fantastic run between the two Barcelona centre backs, and Di Maria passes first time into his path. Cristiano drives into the box and is fouled from behind but no penalty was given.
Compare this to the 6v2 in Barcelona’s favour in first half we looked at earlier. This time it’s 5v5 with two Barcelona players trying to recover.
This was a bad day at the office for Real Madrid and they didn’t help themselves with trying to play long ball in the first half as they just gave possession back to Barcelona, and Barcelona’s strength is in possession. I think Ancelotti made a mistake playing Sergio Ramos in a defensive midfielder role and it affected the team both offensively and defensively. Things improved once Illarramendi came on and once Madrid stopped trying to play so direct. The movement of Barcelona in the first half was fantastic and cause Madrid a lot of problems. Starting Gareth Bale was also a risk because he’s still not 100% fit and he looked lost at times. A number of times he went chasing after the ball only to look round and realize he had no support. He still needs time to adjust to playing with his new team and the two goals against Sevilla will have helped his confidence a lot.
Madrid hasn’t played well all season and the defense has been a real problem. There seems to be a lack of a plan in both in and out of possession and although it’s early in the season, Madrid will need to improve quickly. The team is missing a link between midfield and attack and the sale of Mesut Ozil is a huge part of that. Of course Isco can help with some of that but as of right now he hasn’t been as influential in linking the play as Ozil was in the last few seasons. There are lots of people that already think that Ancelotti won’t last the season at Real Madrid, now I don’t think it is close to that level yet but I don’t think Madrid are a far cry from even last seasons team in terms organization and playing level; and that team weren’t close to Barcelona so that doesn’t bode well for Madrid or Ancelotti.