Real Madrid is the current Champions League winner. The generation with Ramos, Ronaldo, Modric etc. won also in 2014. Nevertheless they struggle in winning the national championship. In 2012 they won their last national championship with Jose Mourinho as their manager. In the last years either Barca or Atletico were the better team after 38 games. There are different reasons why Real could not win the La liga trophy during the past seasons, on the one hand they truly focused on la decima or on the Champions League in general, on the other hand they often struggled against compact defensive teams in the league, therefore they had not enough points in the end of the season. The main reason why they struggle against a good defensive organization is their unbalanced and unstructured possession game.
During the build-up phases the center backs position themselves wide, the fullbacks go up, but the build-up is part of the tasks of Toni Kroos and Luka Modric as pivots or at the number eight position. Normally Real plays in a 4-3-3 formation, with a deep Modric and Kroos as a pivotal it could get a 4-2-3-1 Formation. The two superstars on the wings, Ronaldo and Bale sometimes stand wide or move in the half-space according to the position of the fullbacks.
The problem is that sometimes the build-up of Real is not well structured. As you can see in the picture below. Pepe as a center back has just three possible short-pass options. All of those passing option are on the same line as Pepe. That means Real can´t get forward with a simple short-pass, also they don´t put pressure on the defensive team. If Real just plays horizontal passes, the opponent just needs to move from side to side without having any problems with the individual class of Real Madrid.
Pepe does not have a real vertical passing option. Furthermore no one occupies the ten space.
The picture makes clear the Real midfielders don´t offer passing options between the opponent lines. Beyond Isco moves away the occupies the ten space, tough he is covered by the LCM and furthermore he stands in the cover shadow of the striker so Pepe will never have the chance to really pass the ball in the ten space.
As i mentioned above, Real are not able to form triangles on a constant basis. Often the the midfielders have only one or no passing option forward. Sometimes the players without the ball don´t occupies the important spaces near the ball carrier or they are covered by the opponent and don´t get open. Without any triangles it is hard to build-up the game with short passes, also a good counterpressing is not possible.
In build-up the pivot should support the center backs as well as the other central midfielders by giving a longer passing option. The center backs normally need at least two passing options better would be three, and most important it is not useful to just have horizontal passing options.
If we look at the match situation above, we clearly see that Pepe has no passing options in midfield as a consequence he plays a long ball.
As i mentioned before, without any triangles and ball near support a functional counterpressing is not possible. In this scene the opponent easily receives the ball and has time and space the slowly build-up their own attack or quickly try to score on the counter. Close to the triangles is the point of being connected. The players could be connected by triangles and ball near support. Not only in the build-up phase as well during the attack, Real often needs isolation plays from their top players or unscripted plays by two or three players to get near the goal and create chances.
Real Madrid has serious issues in Possession in term of the connections between the players. Being connected simple means that a short pass is possible without the fear of the interception by a opponent. In Reals offense the connections is not available, too often the distances between to players are too big or the passing angle is simply not useful. Furthermore you can sometimes see that players disappear in the cover shadow of the opponent and either don’t move out of it or make the wrong movements.
When we talk about being connected we ultimately talk about triangles and the offering of potential passing options. According to the principals of positional play every play should at least have two better three passing options mainly, two on a diagonally passing line and one option who can receive a longer flat vertical pass. So all in all you should form triangles or much better are diamonds. The flat vertical passing option is necessary for example if the ball carrier gets pressured by the opponent, with a long pass to the vertical passing option he can solve the situation. Based on the anticipation of the opponent the guy who receives the long flat pass often gets pressured immediately too, but with a simple layoff pass a player who has a good view of the field and situation and furthermore no pressure receives the ball. The team in possession successfully solved a pressure situation and opened up a free man and gained space to continue with the attack but now with a much more comfortable situation.
One example of my German Chelsea article about the advantages of the third man principal. (translation: purple-> space and time; red-> open space)
Break the lines
Another point of Real in possession is similar to the problems of Ancelottis at the start of his champagne at Bayern Munich. Real has the ball but often just play around the shape of the opponent without making real pressure on the defensive lines. They mostly form a „U-Shape“ so the circulate the ball around from one to the other side.
The goal for a team in possession should it be to pass the ball mainly to the players who are positioned in between the lines of the opponent. Why?
Pretty easy, if a player for example receives the ball between midfield and defense he has different options, first of all he can dribble on to the defense line, which have to react and make pressure, therefore a defender needs to step out of the line, instantly he lefts space behind him, furthermore the other defenders need to be aware of the same amount of space but they are less players. If the attacking team makes smart movements and attack different spaces on the same time, the defenders will not be able to cover all passing lanes so the ball carrier who gets pressured has different options to play the killer- pass.
Especially the team of Zinedine Zidane has some players who are good under pressure and could perfectly play between the lines. For example Isco has a good vision, and furthermore are his technical abilities good enough to keep possession under pressure. Also Karim Benzema is a striker who is able to combine with other players so you could find him between the lines. And at least Luka Modric could play a more offensive role as a attacking midfielder, but Real needs his abilities especially the skill to get out of tight spaces. But the concept of finding the players between the lines are not just for the offense, also the defensive midfielders should positioned themselves behind the first line of pressure for breaking the pressing of the opponent.
This should be just a quick review about the Real Madrids problems in possession. In my opinion Zidane has the same problems like Carlo Ancelotti in possession, maybe because Zidane was assistant under Ancelotti. I critizies the structure of Real Madrid a lot here in this article, but you have to say that in big games they perform quite well in most of the games and with their individual class they can create chances easiliy especially in counter attacking situations. Thats why they are one of the favorites of the Champions League trophy altough they won it last year, and no time ever defended his Champions League trophy.