March 5, 2024

After a trophy-laden era under the mystical Zinedine Zidane and with the superhuman Cristiano Ronaldo Real Madrid have transcended into a new era under the leadership of Julen Lopetegui,  who looks to manufacture a new Real Madrid in his image. So far the eye test has been clearly good with this new Madrid side that focuses on

1. Possessing the ball heavily,

2. Defending by not letting the opponent have the ball,

3. Counterpressing aggressively to win the ball back high up the pitch as soon as they lose the ball and

4. Emphasis on the collective to score the goals and control the matches much more than they did previously.

However, as under any new manager, there have been some noticeable schematic issues too. Real Madrid have encountered some distinct problems while building out from the back against teams that actively man mark the vertical outlets of the team’s most fundamental build up player, that is Toni Kroos and in some case Sergio Ramos. Here we shall attempt to delve into the intricacies as to what creates the problems and the approach Julen Lopetegui has adopted to sort them out. We will also look at the other possible alternative approach they can attempt to incorporate in their play to sort out this issue.

Real Madrid have under Julen Lopetegui at times due to the advanced positioning of Luka Modric and poor staggering of its central midfielders been unable to stop counters effectively and have lost vertical and horizontal compactness. We shall also delve into the possible solutions and reasons for the mentioned problems.



As can be seen during the build-up phase once the ball is played to Kroos in the left defensive half space, the opponent maintains a rigid man marking structure to man-mark all his vertical passing options in midfield and attack while simultaneously the striker tries to shadow cover Raphael Varane and the Goalkeeper leaving only Sergio Ramos open for a backpass, thereby making progression up the field difficult. One of the two opposition CB’s tightly follows Karim Benzema when Benzema tries to drop deep to facilitate as a vertical outlet while the other remains in position to maintain cover.

Similarly, with Gareth Bale and Marco Asensio any diagonal movement they make they are followed strictly by their respective man marker while the rest of the opposition orients themselves to maintain their shape defensively. Even Luka Modric is marked tightly and yet there still remains an extra central midfielder of the opponent to protect the centre and thus progression becomes very difficult for Real Madrid.


Asensio and Bale attempt to receive the pass while on the left flank from Kroos and dribble diagonally inside towards the centre facing their goal and then turning while Marcelo moves higher thereby dragging his marker with him. This attracts the attention of the free central midfielder of the opponent causing him to rush towards Asensio or Bale. In the meantime, Kroos free of any pressure moves up the left half space and receives a pass back from Asensio or Bale and then attempts to progress up using the 2v1 created with Marcelo against the opposition right winger.

Due to this a chain reaction kicks in and the second striker now attempts to back press Kroos leaving Casemiro in his cover shadow and thus leaves Kroos with two open passing lanes – one to Sergio Ramos and the other to Casemiro [Note : excellent press resistance helps Kroos to easily beat the back press from the opponent second striker and easily pass to his outlets]. Once Madrid move into the attacking third up the field Benzema is allowed to drop in by the opponent CB’s who do not follow him then as tightly as in the previous situations.

However, against teams with proficient quick decision makers and well drilled structures such attempts are not so successful as the lone opponent central midfielder manages to smartly position himself to easily intercept the ball from Asensio by creating a 2v1 with Asensio’s marker or force him to pass back to his defenders while Kroos is cover shadowed by the opponent.


Kroos shifting more towards the center towards Casemiro will create a 2v1 against Casemiro’s shadow marker and also allow Sergio Ramos to dribble with the ball upfield. Automatically, as he continues to progress with the ball up field the situation will be such that the lone central midfielder of the opponent otherwise protecting the middle would then have to go forward to press Ramos to prevent his further progress.

In the meanwhile, Casemiro can drop back to Ramos’s position dragging his marker with him leaving Kroos without a marker and alone and in the meantime, Modric can push more towards the center closer to Kroos to create a 2v1 with him and Kroos and Modric’s marker. Bale and Asensio should concurrently look to stay wide to pin their markers wide with them and the fullbacks should do so similarly. Benzema should position himself to pin the two centre-backs in the defensive line and now with a 3v2 overload in the middle with Kroos, Modric, Ramos vs Modric ‘s marker and the lone central midfielder of the opponent possession can be stabilized by Madrid easily.



Now if by any chance to balance the 3v2 overload in the middle any opponent chooses to push in the central zone leaving behind his marked player then that shall create a free man in the wings that can be adeptly picked up by the passers of Real Madrid and they can then progress down the wings too, using Asensio or Marcelo’s third man runs. With reference to figure 1 if Kroos decides to purposely switch a diagonal to Gareth Bale and due to his aerial prowess if he manages to win the ball, then automatically the defending side’s attention will switch there and the left-winger, ball side central midfielder and the left-back will rush in the locality around Bale to win the second ball or force him towards the wing while maintaining their cover shadow.

Read More | Luka Modric: Dancing With The Devils From Zadar To Madrid |

However, the dynamic nature of the sequence may result in not so perfect immediate positioning of the opponent. Thus, if Luka Modric then rushes from the blindside of his rushing central-midfielder to win a potential accurate lay off from Bale then the ball far side central midfielder due to his positional disadvantage shall have to shift towards the center to protect it from Modric entering that space. This situation will now leave Kroos and Ramos without a marker in the opponent half and pockets of space to exploit to which they can then use to stabilize possession and pin the opponent back. There is also the possibility of a through ball for Benzema from Modric if he times his run perfectly between the two opponent CB’s.



Another mode of building up that can potentially be used is if Kroos positions himself in the same vertical lane as Ramos and Asensio. This will cause Asensio’s marker to position himself slightly adjacent to Asensio rather than behind Asensio so as to easily access blocking a direct pass from Kroos as Kroos is not actively pressed by anybody.

When a defender’s direct marking opponent which in this case is Asensio is directly not reachable by his teammates it leads to lesser attention by the markers. And thus if with precise timing Kroos can move wider vertically by playing a pass back to the free Ramos, now Ramos will momentarily in the given dynamics have a direct passing lane open to Asensio who with a dynamic run towards his goal can immediately receive the ball then without the immediate pressure of his marker.

Now Kroos with an inside curved run can attempt to occupy the space vacated by Asensio while Asensio ‘s marker will still be in the attempt to press Asensio. Thus Asensio can then utilize the extra second that he has to turn right and pass to Marcelo who can in a premeditated manner position his body accordingly to just then lay off the Asensio pass to a free Kroos in the left attacking half space while shielding his own marker.

Now Kroos can consolidate possession or attack by driving through the left half space or even combine with Marcelo by creating a 2v1 overload against Marcelo ‘s marker in that wing to progress down that wing. In the meantime, Benzema has to position himself accurately to pin the two opponent CB’ s and Modric can move more diagonally inside to attract the attention of the otherwise lone central midfielder of the opponent thereby freeing Kroos even more. Applying the same principles similar build up can be created in the other flank involving Modric Carvajal bale and Varane.



Timed positional rotations between the midfielders, wide forwards and the fullbacks can cause a decisional crisis or momentary 2v1’s that can also be actively used for vertical progression.

A well-timed third man runs from Modric /Kroos/Casemiro from their markers blindside can also be used for progression.


Generally, the ball far side players are loosely marked and thus they have sufficient distances from their marker to receive the ball. So a potential switch to the ball far side players in conjunction with well-timed combinations can help progression too.



Generally once Real Madrid progress to the final third and are well positioned in possession, we see that Luka Modric is positioned a bit higher in the right half space as an almost right sided no. 10 to influence chance creation while Kroos is positioned along with Casemiro almost as a double pivot along the same horizontal zones just behind Modric’s zone.

Meanwhile, both Marcelo and Asensio are positioned high and wide or with Marcelo and Asensio interchangeably in the left half space and the left flank. The same positioning structure is maintained on the right too with Bale and Carvajal with Bale more in the space between the CB and the LB of the opponent while Carvajal lies along the right touchline to provide the width in between Bale and Modric. Benzema positions himself between the line to support and combine or between the CB’s or between the RCB and the RB. Ramos and Varane push up to maintain a high defensive line.

Problems arise out of this structure when Real Madrid lose the ball and don’t effectively implement a counter-press to win the ball back or at least delay the opponent’s attack. As a ball is lost in the left flank or won in the left flank by the opponent behind Marcelo causes Ramos to jump in and intervene due to Kroos ‘s poor ball-winning capabilities. So in such situations when the opponent manages to best Ramos in a 1v1 due to better dynamic momentum advantage, they get acres of space to run in the left flank of Madrid. In order to prevent that then Casemiro shifts to the left to defend the onrushing attacker while vacating the middle which he previously occupied and Varane in the meantime runs back to maintain defensive cover to not give the opponent a free run on goal and Kroos jogs back.

This chain reaction leaves the right flank almost entirely empty for the runners of the opposition to run into because of Modric and Carvajal’s high positioning in possession they are unable to track back in time with the same momentum and speed as the opponent. And hence when there are 2 or more runners running through that central and right flank space unmarked they just wait for a cut back from the left and then that leaves them in a comfortable 2v1 or even 3v1 against Varane which they can exploit to shoot.






Either Dani Carvajal should be in a deeper base starting position while in possession than he generally is and make attacking runs to combine higher but not be positioned higher from the start in possession ; or Modric needs to operate as a right-sided number 8 rather than a right-sided number 10 so as to have more access to opponents during a counter-press and for better coverage of the right flank.

Marcelo, Asensio, Kroos and Ramos, as well as Benzema, should position themselves when they lose the ball to counter-press in a Pentagonal shape to be more effective in winning the ball.




Given the fluidity in possession, while creating chances and relative ease in counterattacking, the three areas where Julen Lopetegui needs to refine his Madrid team to extract its maximum potential are defensive transitions, counter-pressing situations and building from the back against man marking teams.

Feature Image Eurosport

To read more feature Originals and Tactical Analysis click here


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