I‘m not sure it’s possible for a Real Madrid manager to ever be dealt a bad hand in terms of talent, but if it’s happened to anyone it was likely Carlo Ancelotti. Inheriting a post-Jose Mourinho locker room that makes Modern Family look healthy and functional in comparison, Ancelotti had to bring the squad back together while also finding a way to piece together the latest puzzle assembled by Florentino Perez.
Ancelotti had three world-class wingers in Gareth Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Angel Di Maria. He had one striker in Karim Benzema. In midfield he had three elegant creators in Isco, Luka Modric, and Xabi Alonso, but no credible destroyer or midfield runner. Defensively there was a more discernible pattern, particularly at center half where Sergio Ramos and Pepe formed a solid tandem with young French star Raphael Varane available as well.
After a rough start, Ancelotti eventually settled on a formation. It was a 4-4-2/4-3-3 hybrid that looked something like a flat 4-4-2 when defending and a Dutch-style 4-3-3 when attacking:
The formation was brilliant and the sort of thing you can only imagine someone like Ancelotti dreaming up. By creating two banks of four in defense he was able to cover for both Ronaldo’s lack of defensive work rate and Xabi Alonso’s lack of pace (which would be exposed far more regularly the next year at Bayern Munich). He also convinced Gareth Bale to track back (no small thing) and found a way to incorporate all three of his star wings into one squad. In fact, that was the most important point—by bring Angel Di Maria into the midfield three when in possession he introduced a direct running style to the team that hadn’t been there in any other system.
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The 4-4-2/4-3-3 Hybrid at Atletico Madrid
We’re likely to see Diego Simeone’s reimagining of Ancelotti’s formation at Atletico this season. Atletico’s most successful team in recent years has been the 13-14 team that used a deep, narrow 4-4-2 to frustrate opposition attacks and unleash devastating counters. The key players on the attacking front were wide midfielders Koke and Arda Turan and strikers Diego Costa and David Villa. Koke was often the initiator in the attack, dropping deep to receive the ball or drifting in to offer another passing outlet for midfielders Tiago and Gabi. Turan, meanwhile, was the closest thing the squad had to a dynamic creator as he combined the bull-like running of Di Maria with an under-rated passing ability that made him a vital cog in the Atleti machine.
Up top, Diego Costa was the linchpin. He ran everywhere and through everything, often picking up the ball 40 yards from goal before going on a lung-busting run through the defense that finished with a casual finish past the keeper. Villa, meanwhile, provided defensive work and clinical finishing when he got the ball in front of goal.
This year’s team will likely set up in the same way, but with a few significant differences that make it likely we’ll see a 4-4-2/4-3-3 hybrid shape rather than the fairly consistent 4-4-2 that Simeone has often preferred.
Koke is still in the squad and is likely to keep the same role he’s had for most of Simeone’s reign. He’ll start on the left and work in a bank of four in defense but then look to drift inside and form a midfield three when the Atleti are in possession. Why will he need to do that? Because the other three key players in that attacking four are all different from his partners in the Champions League finalist side of 2013-14.
Turan v Griezmann
On the right we’ll see Antoine Griezmann. Turan tended to drift centrally when attacking a la other wide number tens like David Silva or, at one time, Santi Cazorla at Arsenal. But he did so as the creative cog, looking to play quick Griezmann, in contrast, is more of a conventional inverted right winger. He’ll have the same direct running as Turan, but he swaps Turan’s creative spark for more of an eye for goal. Turan’s other position if he’s not a wide midfielder is as a central midfielder—indeed, he’s likely to compete with Andres Iniesta in the Barça first XI when he is eligible to play in January. Griezmann’s other position is as a central forward. Indeed, that’s often how he was used last season. So while Turan would drift inside to play passes and setup Costa and Villa, Griezmann will be a more powerful runner looking to cut inside and attack the goal himself.
Villa and Costa v Vietto and Martinez
Up top, Villa and Costa, meanwhile, have been replaced by new signings Jackson Martinez and Luciano Vietto. As was the case last season, the Atleti strikers will play differently than in 13-14 for the simple reason that no other striker in the world can do all the things that Costa can. Costa is arguably the best counter-attacking striker in world football but he also has the size and strength to be a real set piece threat and is a clinical finisher in front of goal, something the Atleti rely on for goals given their defensive style. Mario Mandzukic offered the clinical finishing, but wasn’t as strong on set pieces nor as comfortable running with the ball in a counter attack. This year’s tandem is better suited to Atletico’s approach than Mandzukic, but still can’t quite match what Costa and Villa were able to do.
Martinez will provide a great set piece threat, will score plenty of goals from inside the box, and will drop deep to receive the ball and play quick passes on occasion. Vietto, meanwhile, is a classic second striker. He doesn’t have great size and finishing isn’t his strongest suit, but he’s creative and elegant and should give the Rojiblancos a nice creative element that they would otherwise lose with the sale of Turan.
How will Atletico line up?
They’re likely to look a bit like Ancelotti’s Madrid in terms of positioning:
What this means is that we’ll likely see an evolved Atletico side this year that isn’t quite so defensive by nature and that looks to play a bit more proactively. Griezmann will run as much as Turan, but he’s not as physical a defender and he likes getting vertical more. Vietto and Martinez, meanwhile, are gifted technicians in attack who will enjoy playing with the ball at their feet. The defensive organization will still be there, of course. This is still a Simeone team. But don’t be surprised if they end up looking more like a 4-3-3 in attack with Koke pulling the strings in midfield, Griezmann crashing in from the wing, and Vietto doing elegant Argentine attacker things while Martinez serves as the focal point of the attack. Diego Simeone’s tactics will always be defensive, but this year we might see a bit more attacking verve thanks to their new signings.