The Italian manager’s second life with Los Merengues could become one of their most successful ones thanks to a fluid tactic that aims at taking full advantage of a star-studded team

Currently sitting pretty atop the La Liga standings and into the semi finals of the Champions League, Real Madrid have been a formidable force this season.

So effective at getting results and playing to their strengths, Carlo Ancelotti's doing an excellent job of ensuring his team are on the pathway to success both domestically and in Europe.

Tactically flexible and happy to give his star-studded team plenty of freedom on the offensive end, this fluidity has granted them the platform to shine. In doing so, this has seen Los Blancos pick up wins despite not always playing at their best, for the likes of Karim Benzema, Vinicius Junior, Luka Modric and Toni Kross can immediately turn matches in an instant with a moment of magic.

While he's used quite a few back three and back four systems, the genial Italian coach has largely preferred to deploy a 4-3-3 when attacking, meaning he can use his elite midfield trio of Modric, Kross and Casemiro, while giving Benzema support from the likes of Vinicius, Marco Asensio, Rodrygo and Gareth Bale.

Usually wanting his team to build out from the back, Madrid will regularly drop a midfielder into the defensive line or use goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois to ensure numerical superiority can be achieved. From here, they can access the free man to then beat the press through driving dribbles from David Alaba and Eder Militao or use the passing mastery of their midfielders.

Brilliant passage where Madrid use an overload to progress after luring out Athletic
Wicked switch of play by Casemiro after dropping deep so the winger can be isolated

The role of Kross has been especially interesting, for his drops into the half-spaces, where he can enjoy extra time and space to dictate the tempo and pinpoint options in this less densely populated area of the pitch, have given Madrid valuable control. From here, not only can he offer structural security to offer protection in case of a turnover, but he can also launch raking switches of play to isolate the wingers or fullbacks, hit deadly through balls in behind or find Benzema with slick passes to feet.

Kroos dropping into the deep half-space to enjoy time and space to launch a trademark switch

Moreover, if an opposition midfield or fullback jumps to press him, he can duly exploit the space left behind against their now unbalanced shape. His withdrawn position also helps provide cover if one of the central defenders drives forward on a marauding run into the final third.

Modric's importance to the team cannot be underestimated either, with the Croatian so influential in finding pockets of space to progress attacks. A master at exploiting room behind the opposition midfield and generating overloads, he relishes the freedom Ancelotti affords him.

Once in possession, Modric then breathes life into Madrid's offensive passages through his crafty dribbling and mesmerizing array of passes that ensures he frequently unlocks defenses. Supplying nine assists so far this campaign, the game-changing playmaker's presence has been pivotal towards his team progressing to the semis of the UCL, where his wizardry against Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea was key towards his team's famous victories.

Penetrative runs into the box from Modric, Eduardo Camavinga and Casemiro have proven to be a vital asset for Los Blancos as well. Timing and directing their runs brilliantly to attack gaps in the opposition backline, these runs have caused marking dilemmas and enhanced their threat by ensuring an extra number is in the box.

Shifting the focus to the roles of the nominal wide players, and their wingers and fullbacks have been a huge source of offensive impetus. To start with, the way they execute smooth rotations has been a brilliant weapon, as these don't just allow the wingers to be isolated but also let the fullbacks embark on damaging underlapping runs into the final third that surprise backlines.

Crafty underlapping run by Carvajal as Valverde rotates wide while generating a 4v3

The relationship between Vinicius and Ferland Mendy has been particularly fruitful, with the pair dovetailing superbly to cause a massive nuisance for defenses due to their dribbling, speed and complementary movement. Furthermore, with the right-winger likely to operate more centrally and in the half-spaces, which allows them to combine with Benzema and nearby midfielders, the way Vinicius adds vital width and depth so he can be in ideal isolation battles and expose defenses with blindside runs has given them a real X-Factor in the final third.

Madrid forming a 3v2 as Benzema, Mendy and Vinicius switch things up. Also, note Mendy's underlap
Vinicius receiving the switch to go 2v1 with the opposing fullback

Their wide players have notably helped form overloads to bypass their foes and pinned markers to conjure openings too, which has amplified the worth of their interesting, asymmetrical approach.

Despite the aforementioned being crucial pieces of their offensive armory, there's no doubting Benzema is the man who truly makes them tick. Propelling his team to great heights with his instinctive finishing, smart positioning, elite ball carrying and imaginative passing, he's proven why he's one of the premier forwards in world football. 

Bagging a whopping 39 goals and 13 assists, his remarkable contribution has seen him singlehandedly secure many victories - just like he did vs. PSG, Chelsea, Celta Vigo and Sevilla recently. Multifaceted and turning so many games on their head, it's obvious what a key ingredient he is, something that was on full display when Madrid lost 4-0 to Barcelona in his absence.

So alert to gaps and openings to explore in front of and in behind backlines, it's been a joy to watch his smartly directed bursts in behind and into the box, plus when dropping deep to connect play with crisp combinations. A genius at evading markers with his double movements, zig-zags and reading of the play and ball flight, he's been a nightmare for all challengers.

Selfless and adept at generating space for his colleagues, he's a wizard at drawing markers when he drops deep so a teammate can charge into the newly created space, plus when he lures opponents away with decoy runs. It also deserves mention how he sharply interchanges positions with his attackers and regularly drops to the left to engage in neat interplay with the outstanding Vinicius, who he now shares a fantastic relationship with.

Vinicius exploiting the space in behind initially created by Benzema ahead of their opener vs. Chelsea

Although Los Merengues desire to dominate possession, in matches where this isn't viable, they've still posed a huge menace due to their threat on the counter. Absolutely rapid at springing into life once possession is regained, the wingers (mostly Vinicius) shrewdly target the spaces left vacant by advanced opposition fullbacks to gain an edge.

Crisp counter-attack as Madrid go 4v2 to attack the spaces behind the fullbacks

If the channels aren't available to be attacked down, Benzema serves as an equally excellent outlet, where he can play sharp layoffs to their midfield maestros, provoke multiple pressers, turn his man on the dribble or hold the ball up while he waits for a suitable option.

A fearsome proposition in full flight when attacking backpedaling stretched out and underloaded defensive units, their proficiency has seen them remain dangerous even when they can't monopolize possession.

Superbly executed transition as they use their 5v3 overload to score

Topping the league in many key offensive metrics including goals scored (66), expected goals (62.90), shots (15.26 p90), dribbles (32.37 p90), touches inside the box (25.78 p90), key passes (4.62 p90), progressive runs (23.36 p90) and deep completions (12.44 p90) demonstrates what an attacking juggernaut they are.

To further accentuate their class, they also rank second for average possession (58.8%), second for passes into the final third (58.59) p90 and third for through balls (9.68 p90).

Meanwhile, on the defensive end, there's no denying Madrid haven't been as good as they are going forward. Although they've only conceded the second least goals in La Liga this term (28), this is a huge overperformance when compared to their Expected Goals Against, with this figure being at 36.69 (only the seventh-best). The sensational form of Courtois in goal has seen him be a truly indispensable figure, as his shot-stopping heroics have bailed them out on so many occasions.

Conceding 9.48 shots per 90, which is only the eighth-best in La Liga behind Atletico Madrid, Barcelona, Getafe, Celta Vigo, Real Betis, Real Sociedad and Rayo Vallecano, this shows their struggles stopping their foes.

Upon analyzing their defensive output, many of their issues stem from the fact they attack in such a spread-out, expansive shape, which clearly works for them, but can often leave them exposed to counterattacks. In doing so, this means they can't immediately counter-press effectively, thus giving opponents time and space to instigate lethal transitions.

The situation isn't helped by the aging midfield trio, who can't track back and cover the turf as efficiently as they once did, which leaves the defenders to deal with attacks where the other team has numerical or positional superiority.

With fullbacks high and at least one of the central midfielders advanced, opponents have found joy getting at Madrid in such cases, with Ancelotti's desire to give his players plenty of attacking liberty often coming back to haunt them.

Another problem has been their inability to sustain their pressing intensity over the entirety of a match from both their 4-3-3 and 4-4-2 defensive shapes. Ranking only 12th in La Liga for PPDA on 10.75 and last for defensive duels (51.62 p90), this demonstrates that they don't aggressively look to regain possession. It must be said, however, that due to Ancelotti having many veteran players, this tactic to sit deeper in a mid/low block makes sense, for it allows them to sit back and use their weapons on the counter upon recovering the ball.

Even though they aren't consistently brilliant in this area, there have been many instances where they've pressed coherently, with the recent UCL quarter-final first leg vs. Chelsea a nice case in point.

Here, they smartly dropped into a staggered 5-3-2/5-4-1 block to deal with Chelsea by instructing Federico Valverde to drop into the last line. Giving them extra coverage and compactness, they did a super job of cutting off the center and hemming them against the touchline to make life tough for the Blues to generate danger.

Smartly devised 5-4-1 defensive shape vs. Chelsea
Another example of their staggered 5-4-1 stopping structure

Holding them off successfully to nullify last year's winners while terrorizing the home team in transition using the vacant wide zones, Ancelotti got his tactics spot on here to get a smashing win.

Coming up big when it matters most under the expert tutelage of Ancelotti, who's proven he can learn from defeats by making shrewd adjustments, and having so many players capable of turning a match, Madrid are unquestionably a team never to be underestimated.

“I have been in this world a long time, too long maybe, and I know the qualities that are needed to compete in a competition like this, the personality, the character, that these players have. So I know that this team can compete," mused Ancelotti.

"Raising your game and keeping your cool in key moments are crucial to success in the Champions League and Madrid are the best around," aptly stated Spanish football expert, Dermot Corrigan, in the Athletic.

"They have now made the semi finals in 10 of the last 12 seasons. Benzema has been with the team throughout those 12 seasons and Modric has been central on the four occasions they went on to win the trophy."

Never a team to be written off and quick to punish opposition mistakes, it will be fascinating to see if they can firstly wrap up the La Liga title and how they fare in their colossal Champions League semi against Manchester City.

With all to play for in the closing stages of the season, it would take a brave man to bet against them coming up trumps on both fronts.

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