Real Madrid is currently sitting in third in La Liga with as much talent as any team in the world. What’s wrong with los Blancos? By Max Karakul.
So far this year, Carlo Ancelotti’s Madrid has failed to dominate teams in the way it should, given the sheer talent throughout the squad. Any team that can start Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Luka Modrić, Ángel di María, and Isco, among many others, should not need a frantic comeback to beat Levante. The principle issue to this point in the season has been the team’s inability to settle into a single, effective formation. How can Ancelotti get the most out of an array of attacking talent that is embarrassing in its variety and depth, without sacrificing the balance needed to remain defensively sound? A 4-4-2 has failed. A 4-2-3-1 has failed. A 4-3-3 has failed. Can anything work?
The question cannot be answered without analyzing Madrid’s squad first. Five things immediately stand out about los Blancos after scanning the team sheet:
With the correct formation, they will dominate opponents. The quality evident throughout Madrid’s squad means that few teams in Europe will be able to take the game to los Blancos. Domestically, nobody except Barcelona and possibly Atlético Madrid can compare. Madrid’s biggest problem will be preventing the counterattack.
Wing play is a strength. Cristiano Ronaldo, obviously, is a force on the left; he would be a force for any team in the world. On the right, a fit Gareth Bale will terrorize defenses already stretched by Ronaldo’s presence, and Ángel di María can more than adequately deputize while Bale recovers from whatever injury (or injuries) is currently sidelining him. Even Isco can fill in out wide if needed, leaving Madrid able to terrorize opposing fullbacks over the course of 90 minutes.
The striker position could create a sticky situation. Karim Benzema has been atrocious for most of his time on the pitch this year. Missed chances, a poor work rate, and a startling number of offsides calls have characterized every appearance. Meanwhile, Fábrica product Álvaro Morata had quietly been making his case for a starting role, and the fans have embraced him whenever possible. Despite Morata’s performances, Benzema is still starting for two reasons: resale value and Florentino Perez. If Madrid wants to recoup any of its investment in Benzema, then it needs him to perform well, which means he needs game time even if he does not offer the team the best chance to win. Furthermore, Benzema was one of the marquee signings meant to highlight Florentino Perez’s reelection as Madrid’s president in 2009. Perez is loyal to these signings, and it will be tough for him to see Benzema benched. Any time politics interfere with sport, conflict becomes possible. If Perez uses his influence to keep Benzema in the starting lineup despite Morata’s good form, sparks could fly, and the entire team could suffer.
The center of midfield is loaded with creativity… Modrić, Isco, and Asier Illarramendi all possess the ability to unlock a defense, and Sami Khedira has a motor capable of creating opportunities from energy alone. Even without Mesut Özil, Madrid has all the ingenuity it needs from the middle of the field.
…And no muscle to match it. The first Galáctico era’s fate was sealed when Madrid sold Claude Makélélé to Chelsea after refusing to raise his salary. Without him to break up play in the center of the park, Madrid’s performances suffered, Florentino Perez resigned, and David Beckham—the last of the Big Four Galácticos— moved to the LA Galaxy. Like the initial Galácticos, today’s Madrid suffers from a lack of balance in midfield. With Xabi Alonso injured and his long-term replacement, Illarramendi, not yet able to fill Alonso’s role on his own, Madrid do not have an effective two-way holding midfielder. For a club that often dominates matches, particularly domestically, a player capable of lying deep and controlling the game is of vital importance. Unfortunately, it looks as if Madrid will have to do without until Alonso’s return— and even then, there is no guarantee that Alonso will be able to immediately slot into the side or play every minute of every game as he has in the past.
Ideally, Madrid’s formation would emphasize wing play, cover up the Alonso-sized hole in the middle, and do something to alleviate the potential storm brewing up front. Carlo Ancelotti is not a manager known for experimental formations, but he could serve his new club well by shifting to a 3-3-3-1.
A 3-3-3-1 would effectively balance Madrid’s strengths, the wings and attacking midfield, while covering up the team’s vulnerability to the counterattack. The trio of Modrić, Illarramendi, and Khedira would be able to make up for Xabi Alonso’s absence as well as covering for Ronaldo (and, to a lesser extent, Bale) on defense. Meanwhile, Madrid’s twin wingers would be free to attack at will, while Isco could occupy his favored role behind the striker, and either Benzema or Morata could sit off the last defender.
However, there are two potential issues with such a formation. The first is that by playing only one striker, a 3-3-3-1 does nothing to address the Benzema/Morata conflict. Admittedly, Carlo Ancelotti could be in serious trouble if Benzema does not round into decent form soon, especially if Florentino Perez throws his full weight behind the troubled Frenchman. However, a formation that accommodates two strikers AND the world’s two most expensive players would be too attack-oriented, or at least relegate too much midfield creativity to the bench. Moreover, for all his problems, Benzema is a phenomenally talented player. In January there is a good chance that another major European club will gamble on a change of scenery to bring him back to his best, which would permanently solve Ancelotti’s problem. In the end it comes down to fixing the midfield or accommodating two strikers and the midfield is a more pressing and more permanent concern.
The second problem with a 3-3-3-1 is the defensive questions it poses to a team’s back line. Playing without fullbacks leaves space out wide for opposing teams, especially on the counterattack. Therefore, it requires three defenders with good mobility and defensive vision. Raphaël Varane, Sergio Ramos, and one of Marcelo or Dani Carvajal can fit the job. Ramos/Marcelo/Carvajal all have the mobility to cover the wide areas of the pitch, while Varane has proven more than capable of excelling in the middle. Between the three of them and one of the midfield trio covering the back side, Madrid would be defensively sound.
Admittedly, Carlo Ancelotti does not have a reputation for incredible tactical flexibility. However, he is also a very smart manager, and he has to recognize that his teams thus far have not fired on all cylinders. A 3-3-3-1 would be a radical departure from a 4-2-3-1, 4-4-2, or any other four-back system. It would also provide a unique challenge to Madrid’s opponents and put a frightening amount of attacking talent on the field at one time. As long as the back three can cope with counterattacks then the formation will be sound— the goals will come, and Ancelotti’s Madrid could find long-term success.