Recovering the balance

September 8, 2014

Carlo Ancelotti could attempt to solve Real Madrid’s midfield conundrum by using Gareth Bale in Ángel Di María’s old role. The move may be the lesser of two evils.


The eleventh chapter of Carlo Ancelotti’s 2010 autobiography The Beautiful Games of an Ordinary Genius is titled ‘I decide the formation’. Unfortunately for the Italian, he does not always decide on the players. Having spent the opening months of last season searching for a well-balanced system, the coach discovered a 4-3-3 where Xabi Alonso anchored a midfield complemented by Luka Modrić (right side) and the roaming Ángel Di María (left). Real Madrid won Copa del Rey (though they played 4-4-2 in the final) and the Champions League. But the harmony was not to last. This summer club president Florentino Pérez ripped the Décima recipe to shreds by signing Toni Kroos and James Rodríguez before offloading Alonso and Di María.

The Ancelotti era has come full circle. Once more, he has set out in search of that much-emphasised ‘balance’. This is not ideal. The formation fiddling of last season hampered a league opening in which Real Madrid were lucky not to drop more points. This time the punishment may prove more severe, as indicated by the disastrous 4-2 defeat by Real Sociedad at the Anoeta. According to Marca, Ancelotti could try to revive the balance of old by using Gareth Bale in Di María’s former role and stick with 4-3-3. (Fábio Coentrão is also a candidate, but is surely unsuitable as a permanent solution.) Now, though, is a tricky time to tinker. Real Madrid are already three points off the pace. Next up: Atlético Madrid.

The general pre-season branding of Real Madrid as La Liga favourites may have undermined the importance of a settled system. There are no obvious answers for Ancelotti. His stars suit a 4-2-3-1 in which Modrić and Kroos hold while Cristiano Ronaldo, Rodríguez and Bale attack, but the formation proved inefficient last season and Ancelotti seems reluctant to return to it. With Alonso and Di María sold, that quintet of midfielders is essentially undroppable and the ‘strongest’ line-up picks itself. Cristiano’s role is surely set in stone and Karim Benzema will play alone up front. Practically, Ancelotti has to choose between 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1. (Though last season’s 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 remains a good option in tough away games.)

There are some issues with the 4-2-3-1. There is no anchor man to extinguish fires between the lines. It demands from the double pivot a defensive awareness that Modrić and Kroos do not possess. (They are gifted, but cannot be compared to Alonso and Sami Khedira from a defensive perspective.) Going forward, the presence of an attacking midfielder crowds the central zone Cristiano and Bale often seek.

Carlo 4-2-3-1

The latter point is important. Especially regarding Cristiano. Under José Mourinho, Mesut Özil drifted wide and dragged with him opposition central midfielders originally instructed to screen the defence. These runs created space centrally for Cristiano to storm into. (The striker’s movement also helped.) The role of Di María had a similar effect last season: by overlapping on the outside of Cristiano, the Argentine lured players out wide and vacated space centrally. The engineering of such an environment is crucial to Cristiano’s game. But Rodríguez is not Özil and his presence as a central playmaker will do little to assist Madrid’s talismanic Portuguese. In fact, it could well do the opposite.

Such factors help explain why Ancelotti considers Bale for the Di María role. (They may also explain why Cristiano fought for Di María to stay.) The Welshman’s explosiveness is stunning and his attacking contribution down the left would mirror that of Di María, if not exceed it. The defensive aspect of Bale’s game is more debatable – he is certainly not as industrious as Di María – but the prospect of the tactical tweak is nonetheless understandable. Indeed, considering the indirect effect of repeating the left-sided overlap, the tactical question is not about Bale nor Rodríguez. It is about Cristiano. And as Ancelotti will know, a cornerstone of a successful side is a good environment for its best player.

Carlo 4-3-3

The role of Modrić is also contributory. The Croat thrives in the 4-3-3 system and is able to drive forward with the ball. His role in a 4-2-3-1 is more restricted: he needs to budget his runs in fear of leaving the midfield unbalanced. The role of Di María was the most important part of Real Madrid’s success last season, but that of Modrić was not far behind.

Should Ancelotti make the switch, it would reflect badly on Pérez. If new signings are assigned to play unnatural roles, they are unlikely to perform to their maximum. Two questions may be asked: 1) Is Bale a better central midfielder than Di María? 2) Is Rodríguez a better right winger than Bale? If the answer to those two questions is ‘no’, the sale of Di María makes little sense. Granting that Ancelotti sticks with 4-3-3, it will suggest that Real Madrid are weaker than last season. (Unless you think Kroos can replace the irreplaceable Alonso.) For Pérez, the situation would have looked altogether different were Ancelotti prepared to play 4-2-3-1 and hand Rodríguez and Kroos their best roles. But he is not.

And so the line-up for El Derbi Madrileño will be intriguing, as will it for the next couple of matches. There is a possibility that Isco could feature too, though the prospect of Ancelotti benching Rodríguez long-term seems unlikely. The conundrum is a typical one for Ancelotti. But with his next opponents being Atlético Madrid and with Barcelona looking good, the margin for error is marginal. The affable coach has come up with brilliant solutions before. Now he must do it once more.

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Photo by Mohan/Doha Stadium Plus Qatar / Licensed under CC BY 2.0


It does seem to me that selling Di Maria and Alonso were big mistakes made by Real Madrid. This is somewhat similar to the season 2002 – 03 , when Real Madrid sold Makelele to Chelsea, to bring in Beckham. It was a move made exclusively for commercial reasons and it backfired disastrously for RM. The same thing might happen this season as well, although surely, it is too early to say something. Ancelotti is a very good coach (I think he is the only one to have won the Champion’s League thrice as a coach) and he might still think of a way to accommodate all the players in a balanced way. Gareth Bale in Di-Maria’s position looks to be a feasible solution, although I am not sure whether Bale can be as incisive with his passing as Di Maria. To me, Bale seems to be more of a finisher, or provider of good crosses from wings. Therefore, it will be interesting to see how he manages to play the through balls from the midfield zone, as Di Maria used to play. However, I think Alonso’s services will be missed by RM, since, as you pointed out, neither Kroos nor Modric, although both technically two of the very best, do not have the defensive guile of Alonso. Mourinho used to play 4-2-3-1, but his midfield was Alonso and Khedira, a solid defensive pairing. It would be interesting to see, as you mention, what formation Ancelotti finally settles on.

Finally, I have one probably very silly question. It seems that the transfers in the big clubs, specially like RM occurs without the knowledge of the coach. Nobody seems to bother to ask the coach, whom he would like to keep and whom he would sell. Is that a true statement? If it is, then I think it would be very reasonable to change it immediately. Otherwise, each and every season, coaches like Ancelotti would have to tinker their formation, which would not be good for clubs like RM in the long run.

by Uddipta Ghosh on September 13, 2014 at 9:30 am. #

When it comes to Real Madrid, my impression is that yes, most of the transfers are decided by the president and his advisors/directors. Mourinho fought hard to gain more power over the transfer market and succeeded to some extent, while Ancelotti is a more withdrawn coach and is unlikely to get into the same political struggles. He has input of course – though just how much his opinion weighs can only be speculated in – but I think Pérez signed him partly because of his ability to find solutions with whatever players he is given.

by Thore Haugstad on September 26, 2014 at 2:00 pm. #

Again it comes down to RM’s and Perez’s emphasis on commercial success and penchant for collecting highly marketable superstars at the expense of the football played and the team balance (although ironically they require not only highly entertaining attacking football but also maximal results as well). Letting Ozil go was a mistake. Letting Di Maria and Alonso go was an even bigger one. Modric to me as good as he is in possession, at times is horrendous when it comes to defensive awareness completely losing the man he is supposed to mark, plus he is not built for physical defensive play. Kroos is good player, highly intelligent, tactically disiplined, and somewhat versatile but not a holder and neither has he played as such for club or country. He is the midfielder between the holder and the AM or the AM himself. Also nowhere near the level of Alonso. Bale is not a central midfielder and never has been one. Defensively he should be ok since he started as a left back and played as one not too long ago. Does have the stamina and pace to try and play the shuttler role. James has and can play from the wing, not sure though if he can drift to the wing from a central position. I don’t know but even for Ancelotti is going to be hard to work his genius in these circumstances.

by Angel on September 10, 2014 at 3:37 pm. #

Yes. The problem for Ancelotti is that he has so little flexibility. As mentioned, the midfield five essentially picks itself. How can you recreate the ideal conditions for Cristiano with James, Kroos and Modrić? It’s a very tricky task. The Bale theory might be the closest thing to a solution, but as you say, it has some serious flaws too. Wonder what Ancelotti thought privately when James came in and Di María was refused a new contract.

by Thore Haugstad on September 11, 2014 at 1:45 pm. #

Totally agree, had been contemplating it myself for some time, especially within the 442/433 hybrid at the end of the season. Still, as you say, the signings are ridiculous in every form, a way of removing individuals who allow the whole system to function (and excelling in it), and putting in specialists far less adapted to the roles they are forced to fulfill. Kroos kind of made sense as a long-term replacement for Alonso (assuming 4231) (though preferably being phased in), but preferably needs another player behind, a Matic, a Matuidi, even a Sandro type. IN a 433, you would think that Illramendi might get a game considering his cost and quality, especially in a 433, but, Real Madrid is Real Madrid.

One thing I have been contemplating is moving Ronaldo up front, James wide left, Bale wide right, with a 3 behind consisting of Kroos, Illramendi or Khedira and Modric. Ronaldo surely can’t keep his physical condition for that much longer, so could perhaps become effective as a more static number 9 (I emphasise the relative nature of the ‘more’ I use, he would still re remarkably mobile). Your solution is more likely, I suspect, and would certainly liberate Ronaldo in the short term, though I suspect a Modric Kroos Bale triumvirate would be sussed out quickly, especially with quick transitions into Kroos’s zone). Still, with Bale’s energy and intensity it is worth a try, I suppose.

by Football Prism on September 9, 2014 at 4:10 am. #

Yeah I think it is, given the lack of other solutions (as far as I can see, anyway). I doubt Ancelotti would bench Benzema considering he’s just extended his contract to 2019 and Ronaldo is better at breaking into space from a deeper/wider position. Let’s see what happens.

by Thore Haugstad on September 11, 2014 at 1:48 pm. #

Ronaldo can play upfront alone and has on occasion played upfront alone (I can only remember once with Portugal), and does have the pace and timing (although even that now is starting to come into question with his prolonged injury status) to break in behind the defense, but one he is better at cutting in to his right foot from the left and making runs in the channels and two I don’t he much fancies being played upfront alone as a 9.

by Angel on September 11, 2014 at 3:03 pm. #