Carlo Ancelotti is one of the game’s most under-rated managers and perhaps the best manager in the world at managing Europe’s largest clubs. He’s pragmatic, creative, and knows how to handle a dressing room. (Fun exercise: Compare the number of stories about dressing room intrigue at Madrid under Jose Mourinho to the number under Carlo Ancelotti. Recall that both Gareth Bale and Toni Kroos have been disruptive influences at their former clubs when unhappy and that Mourinho never had to work with either of them.)
As Mike Goodman noted in his fine piece, Ancelotti has shown a remarkable talent throughout his career for finding ways to get as many creative attackers on the field at the same time. At Milan he helped develop the 4-3-2-1 “Christmas Tree” formation to accommodate all his elite midfield players. At Chelsea he shifted Nicolas Anelka into a wing role in order to play both the sulking Frenchman and star striker Didier Drogba together. (Result: Chelsea became the first Premier League team to score 100+ goals in a season.)
Carlo Ancelotti’s 4-3-3/4-4-2 Hybrid
Now at Madrid he has outdone himself by developing a hybrid 4-3-3/4-4-2 formation that allows him to to get the best out of a badly unbalanced squad. He first went to this set up last season when the 4-2-3-1 he used initially wasn’t giving Madrid the right balance in midfield and didn’t transition the ball into attack quickly enough. So Madrid went from the formation at left to the formation shown at right:
The only personnel change required was to drop Isco, who endured a rough first season at the Bernabeu before coming into his own this season, and replace him with Angel Di Maria. But that change made all the difference. As already mentioned, there were several significant problems with the 4-2-3-1 they used at the beginning of the season:
- The midfield was too open.
- The midfield couldn’t transition the ball from defense to attack quickly enough.
- The formation was unbalanced. With both Bale and Ronaldo on the field you pretty much were telling your fullbacks “you’re going to defend two guys each on your own. Good luck.” Did I mention that one of those fullbacks is Marcelo?
Real Madrid’s 4-3-3 resolved these problems nicely:
- It dropped Alonso into a deeper role where he could shield the back line and get the ball in deeper positions that would allow him to use his long passing ability to start attacks quickly from the back.
- It allowed Modric to move into a slightly more advanced role where his positional intelligence and workrate made it possible for him to disrupt attacks more effectively in midfield and push the ball forward.
- It brought Angel Di Maria into the team and put him in his best role.
The Role of Angel Di Maria
Of all those changes, the addition of Di Maria proved the most vital. This move allowed Di Maria, for the first time since his days at Benfica, to play in his ideal role: a narrow box-to-box winger hybrid position that only exists in 4-3-3 or a 4-4-2 diamond, which is what he had played at Benfica. When defending, Di Maria would drift into a more traditional left midfield role, Bale would drop off into a right midfield role, and the team took a classic 4-4-2, two banks of four approach to defending.
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In attacking periods, Di Maria came narrower and played a role almost like that of Andres Iniesta at Barcelona, becoming the fourth man in the attacking third who routinely shoots through the channels to unbalance the defense. The difference, of course, is that Di Maria isn’t as capable a passer as Iniesta but he is far better as a direct runner. It was Di Maria who routinely broke Atletico’s packed defense in the Champions League final last season and he did it the same way almost every time: Finding the gap in the defense between wide players and central players and running straight at it. This clip from one of last season’s Clasicos shows Di Maria at his best:
The most important thing Di Maria offered, however, was the work he could do in transition. Neither Di Maria nor Modric look like typical ball winning midfielders. Both are skinny, technical players who you wouldn’t think capable of going up against more powerful bruising midfield destroyers. But both players possess remarkable footballing intelligence and will run for days on end. Combined in slightly advanced midfield roles they proved to be a strong disruptive force that could intercept the ball in midfield and quickly spring an attacking move.
The Balance of Last Year’s Madrid
With all that being said, the most significant thing about last year’s team was the balance that Ancelotti created in his front six. Alonso, Modric, and Di Maria all had distinctive jobs that were suited to their talents. Benzema proved to be the perfect striker to complement Bale and Ronaldo. And the one place that was still badly unbalanced–the Bale/Ronaldo wing tandem could be addressed somewhat by the fluidity of the formation between 4-3-3 and 4-4-2. That relied on Bale being willing to run and track back, of course, but last season the Welshman did this regularly.
Of course, even with that alteration we still never got to see both players at their best when on the field together for the simple reason that even with the moderating effect of Ancelotti’s tactics the two are still unsuited to playing as teammates because they are simply too much alike. It’s no coincidence that both have played their best football when the other has been out for an extended length of time. Bale hit his first great run of form last season when Ronaldo was injured and scored his best goal in a match that Ronaldo missed. Ronaldo, meanwhile, has looked a far more imposing player when matched to a more suitable partner on the opposite wing.
The Lack of Balance and Transitional Play in this Year’s Real Madrid
That brings us to the problems facing this year’s team. As I wrote at the end of the summer, Madrid’s transfer choices last summer were awful, even by the low standards set by Florentino Perez. He sold Di Maria and Alonso, two of the most important players in last season’s squad and brought in Toni Kroos and James Rodriguez–a poor man’s Modric and a rich man’s Isco, in other words. Now instead of simply having one badly balanced pairing in the side Madrid could potentially have three–Modric and Kroos, Isco and James.
Being the pragmatic genius that he is, Ancelotti found a solution after a rough start. He partnered Modric and Kroos in midfield with Kroos taking the deeper role and Modric having license to move forward with the ball. He then brought Isco or James into the side and had them play the old Di Maria role. Neither player offer anything like the running ability of Di Maria, but both are elite creative passers and Ancelotti even managed to convince them to do a bit of defending. And for much of the season Madrid was able to simply overwhelm the opposition with wave after wave of attack, even if there were still notable holes in the team.
However, the lack of balance eventually announced itself in ways that have wrecked their 2015 form and have supporters wondering if they may go the whole season without a single trophy, something practically unheard of in the Spanish capital.
- They lost the devastating long passes of Alonso and replaced them with the passing style of Toni Kroos, who is not really a defensive midfielder and who isn’t much of an initiator in attack. He’s at his best when his team has steady, reliable possession and he’s able to get time on the ball in the attacking third.
- They lost the disruptive running of Di Maria and replaced it with the creative passing of Isco or James. But again, Isco and James are not remotely similar to Di Maria so they aren’t really at their best when asked to do what Di Maria did. Like Kroos, they are at their best when on the ball in the attacking third. (This becomes a bit of a theme.)
- All of this was held together by Modric who compensated for the absence of Di Maria and Alonso by playing some of the best football of his career, breaking up opposition attacks, transitioning the ball quickly into attack, and pulling defenses out of position with his dribbling. When Modric went down Madrid lost the last piece of last season’s Champions League winning midfield. And for once Ancelotti had no solution to losing a key player.
To some degree this is likely to be resolved with the return of Modric. But the team still misses Alonso and Di Maria. Kroos has been better than expected in that deeper role and there’s every reason to think he can eventually become a proper regista. Andrea Pirlo and Alonso himself both started their careers in more advanced roles, after all. But for now he isn’t there yet. Isco and James, meanwhile, are probably more defined in their roles at this point in their careers. They have neither the energy or the power required to imitate Di Maria’s style. This leaves Madrid playing a kind of 4-2-4 formation almost as James or Isco will tend to stay more advanced and central, Bale will play on the wing, and both Ronaldo and Benzema will play as strikers.
If Modric can rediscover the form of last fall, this may work. It worked well enough last fall, after all. But if they lose Modric’s transition play and creativity then we are back to the struggles of the past three months: Madrid has loads of creative attacking players in the attacking third but lacks the ability to attack at speed when the opposition defense is not yet fully set up. The result is that Madrid is forced to try to break down a packed defense modeled after the Atletico Madrid strategy. In some cases, they can do it. But in others–like last weekend’s defeat to Athletic–they can’t. And they end up dropping costly points in the race for the La Liga title.
Much of the blame for Madrid’s disappointing form lately has been put on Ancelotti and, to a lesser degree, Bale. But as the above should make quite clear, the issue with Madrid has been entirely predictable since the sales of Di Maria and Alonso last summer. Madrid’s BBC attacking trio can be devastating when playing on the counter but when asked to break down a packed defense they struggle. Last year’s midfield trio specialized in transitioning the ball from defense to attack quickly and springing their wide men into the attacking third. This season’s midfield, Modric excepted, doesn’t do that nearly as well. The result is that they have plenty of attacking talent, but none of it is able to launch attacks quickly before a defense can organize itself and set up. Consequently the easy goals Madrid got last year via the counter are gone. Now every goal has to be created with precise passing, good movement, and clinical finishing. While they’re certainly capable of doing that, those sorts of goals are much harder to score. And when you combine that difficulty with a poor run of form from multiple key players you get results like last weekend’s defeat at San Mames.