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Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Real Madrid – Europe’s unlikely kings of defending set pieces

It is not something you would usually associate with Real Madrid, but there is one statistic in which they rise above teams in Europe’s top five leagues: defending set pieces.

Carlo Ancelotti’s team are the only side across those competitions not to concede from a dead-ball situation this season — and that is in keeping with the past five years. Since 2019-20, no team in the big five leagues has conceded fewer than Madrid’s 21 set-piece goals, according to Opta. Paris Saint-Germain are the next-best with 22 and Manchester City are third with 25.

Fewest set-piece goals conceded in Europe’s top five leagues over past five seasons


Set piece goals conceded


Real Madrid


Paris Saint-Germain






Manchester City




Inter Milan


Bayern Munich




Since Ancelotti returned for a second spell as manager in summer 2021, the Bernabeu club have conceded 10 times from set pieces, compared to 11 by City and 16 for La Liga arch-rivals Barcelona. The 64-year-old deserves credit for those meagre stats, as do his coaching staff.

Ancelotti regularly references two key terms when discussing his side’s defensive work: “pessimism” and “concentration”. When centre-backs Antonio Rudiger and Nacho put in a solid performance, he will refer to their pessimism — how they played cautiously and anticipated any potential attacks from the opposition — and their concentration in holding their ground.

The main figures on Ancelotti’s coaching staff are his son and assistant coach Davide, technical analyst Francesco Mauri, physical trainer Antonio Pintus, goalkeeping coach Lluis Llopis and nutritionist Mino Funco. They are supported by a team of four Spaniards, led by head analyst Simone Montanaro, who help Madrid prepare for each opponent by examining tactics.

They try to anticipate their rivals’ movements as if they were analysing a game of chess, selecting the key positions where players will need to block shots. This work has helped Madrid concede the fourth-lowest number of shots from set pieces (57) in La Liga this season.

But arguably the most important figure behind Madrid’s impressive record when facing set pieces is Mauri.

He can usually be seen making gestures from the sidelines and shouting instructions and reminders to the players during every opposition set piece.

The son of Giovanni Mauri, Ancelotti’s former fitness coach who retired in 2017, the 36-year-old’s background is in physical preparation and he has steadily gained experience as part of Madrid’s staff.

Ancelotti insists on his defenders being “pessimistic” (Flor Tan Jun/Getty Images).

Mauri’s is one of two voices in the team who carry extra weight when it comes to tactics, with the other being Davide Ancelotti. Mauri was close to Cristiano Ronaldo during his first spell on the club’s staff, from 2013 to 2015, but his remit has increased since he returned in 2021. He has also worked with Ancelotti at Bayern Munich, Napoli and Everton.

Madrid have not been defensively robust at all times this season. Their first of two losses so far came in September against city rivals Atletico, who comfortably beat them 3-1 after exploiting their weaknesses down the flanks. While Atletico’s goals that night did not come from set pieces, it did expose how Madrid could be punished through crossing from the wings.

Ancelotti’s solution was to turn the 4-4-2 diamond system he introduced in the summer into a ‘box’ midfield — four players in the middle of the pitch, with two sitting alongside each other deeper than the other two — to protect his team down either side. The two attack-minded midfielders, usually Jude Bellingham and Federico Valverde, now help the full-backs when Madrid are out of possession.

Madrid have turned set pieces into one of their key strengths in attack too. Just take Rudiger’s headed winner from a Luka Modric corner against Real Mallorca in their first game of 2024, which came via a ploy designed to scramble the opposition.

As the stills below show, it involves four players lining up one behind the other at the far post. Each one goes their own way to drag opposition defenders out of position — and in this case, allowing Rudiger to break free of his marker to glance the ball home.

“In this first part of the season, we have scored a lot of goals from set pieces,” manager Ancelotti said that day. “My coaching staff is working very well, because I’m not in charge of this, and we have good takers and formidable finishers like Rudiger.”

Just like when Madrid are defending set pieces, Mauri is key here. The coaching staff change the team’s tactics on attacking set pieces for each game, taking into account the average height of the defenders they will be facing.

Madrid have scored eight times from set pieces in La Liga this season from 75 attempts — a 10.7 per cent success rate. That is an improvement on last season’s 8.0 per cent success rate (13 from 163) and the 8.7 per cent (11 from 127) for 2021-22.

It helps that they have expert set-piece takers and finishers to call on. Madrid’s usual takers are former Ballon d’Or winner Modric or Toni Kroos, while they have most often looked to Eder Militao, who is currently out with an ACL knee injury, and fellow centre-back Rudiger to finish the chances they create.

But, according to a coaching staff source — who, like the others cited in this article, asked to remain anonymous as they did not have permission to comment — the roles are not as clear-cut this season. Even shorter players, such as the 5ft 8in (172cm) Dani Carvajal, have chipped in with headed goals.

“He is good in the air and we have changed his role,” Ancelotti said of Carvajal, who has often adopted a more advanced position and even been trusted with taking free kicks. “Last year, he only had to watch.”

The 32-year-old right-back is not Madrid’s only unlikely threat with his head.

In their last game before this season’s winter break against Alaves, Lucas Vazquez, who is the same height as Carvajal, scored the winner in the second minute of stoppage time after a similar move to the one that led to Rudiger’s goal against Mallorca detailed above.

Those kinds of choreographed ploys — and the emergence of others in the squad, such as Bellingham, who are threats to score with their head — have helped Madrid keep the pressure on surprise leaders Girona at the top of the table, with seven points directly won by headers.

Those points could prove crucial in the title race.

(Top photo: Flor Tan Jun/Getty Images)

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