How Real Madrid won the Champions League last season - without looking to press opponents

How Real Madrid won the Champions League last season - without looking to press opponents
Real Madrid won a record 14th European title last season under Carlo Ancelotti
Real Madrid won a record 14th European title last season under Carlo Ancelotti
High pressing. High intensity. Not allowing opposition time on the ball. This is how the top teams play. Manchester City, Liverpool and Bayern Munich are just a handful of sides that play this brand of football. However, Real Madrid managed to win the Champions League last season - despite being one of the teams that pressed the least during this competition.

Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp have created relentless Manchester City and Liverpool outfits, and modern-day coaches all tend to follow suit. Xavi, Mikel Arteta and Julian Nagelsmann are all prime examples of this, with the former two trying to take Barcelona and Arsenal back to the top by playing the same high-pressing style of football. Erik ten Hag is also aiming to implement that at Manchester United eventually.

However, Real Madrid won the Champions League last season in a totally different fashion. They played a style of football not as savvy or 'sexy', and something we don't see as much amongst the elite sides. This is far from a criticism. Football is about winning and if you keep winning, the way you do it isn't important.

Amongst the 32 teams in the Champions League last season, Chelsea were the side who prevented the opposition from making the most progress upfield, at an average of around 8.5 metres. Ajax, Atalanta, Liverpool and Manchester City were the next teams on the list (all between 9.5 to 10.5 metres). This is expected, as they are all known to play an intense, high-pressing style. 

Most interestingly though, Real Madrid were third bottom on this list, allowing teams to progress up the pitch about 15 metres on average. Only Sheriff Tiraspol and Dynamo Kyiv ranked lower - arguably the two weakest teams in the competition.

There was a similar feel in regards to the metric: opposition passes allowed per defensive action. Ajax were the best in that department, allowing around 7.5 passes. Bayern Munich, Liverpool, Chelsea and Leipzig rounded out the top five (between 8.5 to 10 passes). Barcelona, Atalanta and Manchester City were all inside the top eleven sides. All these stats are again, expected.

Despite not being as low as they were in the last metric, Madrid sat in 21st, illustrating the way they went about their European campaign. Sheriff and Dynamo Kyiv were yet again the bottom two, with Benfica third lowest.

Again, this is not a criticism in the slightest. There are lots of ways to play football. Just ask Diego Simeone, Antonio Conte and Jose Mourinho. But it is just less common to see nowadays.

So how did Real Madrid and Carlo Ancelotti (63) do it?

First things first, they got a major slice of luck. But if you want to win any cup competition, you need that bit of fortune. In the tie against Manchester City, the Premier League side missed a whole host of guilt-edge chances while also making some awful decisions in the final third. I'm sure Erling Haaland was watching with tears in his eyes.

It wasn't all just luck though. Far from it. The mouthwatering blend of world-class experience and stunningly talented youth meant Madrid had a little bit of everything.

There were two experienced players who undoubtedly stole the show: Karim Benzema (34) and Thibaut Courtois (30). The Frenchman looks to be an absolute shoo-in for the Balon d'Or after bagging 15 goals in the Champions League and consecutive hat-tricks while scoring absolutely critical goals in every round besides the final. He was utterly sensational.

Courtois' performances throughout the Champions League were also different class. Perhaps not previously given the credit he deserves, that is surely no longer an issue.

His imposing presence in goal and ability to command his penalty area is almost unmatched, and his staggering man-of-the-match performance in the final capped of a stellar tournament.

As well as them, it's important to mention the midfield three of Toni Kroos, Luka Modric (36) and Casemiro. They may not have the legs they used to, but boy, is there a lot of quality there. 

Especially with Modric. His assist for Rodrygo (21) against Chelsea in the second leg of their quarter-final was simply outrageous, while his solo run and pass for Benzema's third goal against PSG was mind-blowing.

As previously mentioned, however, they don't have the legs that they did five years ago. But this is where the youth came into play. A typical tactic implemented by Ancelotti was to bring on Edurardo Camavinga (19) and Rodrygo (21) for fresh legs at around the 70th-minute mark. And it worked every single time. Camavinga's power and pace would cruise through teams, while the Brazilian bagged pivotal goals from the bench against Chelsea and Manchester City en route to the final.

Oh, and Vinicius Junior wasn't too bad either. The wonder kid scored the all-important goal in the final, and his pace and raw talent throughout the tournament were almost unplayable. 

Couple this with the fact that they are, well, Real Madrid. The European heritage and never-say-die attitude in this competition powered them through when they looked down and out on several occasions. We described the playing style of teams like City and Liverpool as 'relentless', but this Madrid side are relentless in a different way.

They absolutely never, ever knew when they were beaten. After 150 minutes of being second best against PSG and consequently going 2-0 down, three goals in those remaining 30 minutes came out of nowhere to send them through.

Chelsea looked totally dominant after mounting a stunning comeback to lead 4-3 with just 15 minutes left in the second leg, but Madrid hit back to take it to extra time and eventually grabbed a winner.

In the semi-final against Manchester City, they trailed 2-0, 3-1 and 4-2 in the first leg but managed to take a 4-3 result into the second leg. However, after going 1-0 down, they went into added time requiring two goals to extend the contest an extra 30 minutes. They unbelievably, incomprehensibly did just that, and Benzema sealed the win in extra time.

That's Real Madrid for you. They absolutely know how to win in Europe, and have that pedigree and unmatched determination to just keep going. 

Finally, they had someone who suited European football perfectly at the helm. Some Madrid fans were unhappy with their performances in LaLiga during the early stages of the campaign. Despite cruising at the top of the table for months, they rarely ever looked convincing and their dominance was exaggerated due to the demise of Barcelona. 

But Ancelotti is made for knockout matches. Before winning it last season, he had won three Champions League titles - the joint most. He was soon set to become the outright leader. 

Of course, he is also the only man to win league titles in five different countries, which is an amazing achievement. But he won those titles with teams who were expected to win the league. Bayern Munich and PSG, for example. 

At Chelsea, he finished with 85 points to win the league. The two seasons before he was manager, the Blues had finished with 85 (2007/08) and 83 points (2008/09). The only difference was that Manchester United had finished with 87 points (2007/08), and 90 points the following season - which was a jaw-dropping point tally at the time (enter Manchester City and Liverpool). 

Winning Serie A in 2003/04 with AC Milan was arguably his best achievement, considering Juventus were so dominant. But that was in Italy. A league that was much more pragmatic and defensive. It suited him down to a tee.

Ancelotti's priority is first and foremost, to keep the ball out of the net. He tends to set his teams up to press less, and he is more than happy to sit back and let opponents have the ball. That is not to say that his sides don't play well. His Chelsea and Bayern outfits played great football. But as long as his defence is rock solid and works tightly as a unit, then he knows that the quality of his team's attacking firepower can score.

Let's take a look at their possession stats in the knockout rounds:

Liverpool: 44%

Manchester City: 40% and 44%

Chelsea: 42% and 43% 

PSG: 42% and 44%

In every single knockout round match, they had less possession than their opponents. Compare that to their last Champions League victory in 2018. In every knockout tie - besides the two matches against Bayern Munich in the semi-final - they had more possession. That victory against Bayern came with lots of luck, with many refereeing decisions going against the Germans.

When Ancelotti last won the Champions League with the Spanish side in 2014, they beat Bayern 4-0 in their semi-final second leg. Despite having 31% possession in that match, there was no luck involved. That was a masterclass in counter-attacking football. 

That is my point. Ancelotti doesn't mind giving up possession. In fact, he relishes it.

He sets his teams up to battle and fight, and defend with their bodies on the line. That's exactly what they did last season. The back four of Dani Carvajal, Eder Militao, David Alaba and Ferland Mendy were brilliant. Casemiro was there to shield them. He even utilised central midfielder Federico Valverde as a right winger for his work ethic.

Then with the pace and class of Vinicius Jr, alongside the spectacular, clutch quality of Benzema, they were able to win games.

Many may not particularly like it. They may prefer the possession-based, pressing style of Premier League champions Manchester City. But there is no doubting the brilliance and effectiveness of Carlo Ancelotti's Real Madrid side. 

They are the greatest team in the history of European football for a reason. They begin their Champions League campaign away to Celtic, and it would be absolutely no surprise if they reigned supreme in Europe's elite competition once again this season.