Real Madrid’s identity as the most efficient counter-attacking outfit on the planet right now was initially established during José Mourinho’s reign at the Santiago Bernabéu. The Portuguese manager turned it into their predominant threat by some distance, using the services of Xabi Alonso and Mesut Özil in particular to get the best out of the electrifying pace they had up front. It was, to describe it in two words, utterly ruthless.
What it led to, though, was a dependency forming on transitional phases. They weren’t quite one-dimensional, but when push came to shove their somewhat limited armoury often proved to not be quite enough. Without the ability to exploit space on the break, despite possessing some extraordinary ball-players, there was an incisiveness lacking – place a wall in front of them and they’d just try to run through it.
Not that team strategy has ever had any influence on which Galáctico is pursued next by Florentino Pérez, but the necessity placed on attacking in transitions made the whole Gareth Bale saga which followed Mourinho’s final season in charge even more curious. Their most creative player, and arguably the best playmaker in the world (Özil), was allowed to leave, whilst they signed someone for a world record fee that would be best utilised in a style which they were becoming too dependent on. Rather than dealing with their weaknesses, they just accentuated their already greatest strength.
Where Mourinho failed in certain regards though, Carlo Ancelotti has done a fine job. Since taking charge at the start of last season, he’s managed to maintain the counter-attacking ability which gets the best out of Bale’s athleticism, keeping it as undoubtedly Real Madrid’s greatest threat; but most importantly he’s also helped them develop as a team in regular attacking phases.
The further the Italian gets into his reign, the more complete they look as an offensive outfit – something which the additions of Toni Kroos and James Rodríguez in particular have helped to initiate even further this season. The arrival of those two, however, combined with the departure of Xabi Alonso and Ángel Di María, has led to an altogether different problem arising.
That swap of personnel, leaving Luka Modric as the only constant from last season’s Champions League winning midfield, has effectively led to an inversion of their midfield triangle. Where Alonso once acted as a one-man pivot behind Di María and Modric, it’s now turned from a ‘1-2’ into a ‘2-1’; Kroos is deployed next to the Croatian with Rodríguez ahead of them both and closer to the striker.
Without Alonso’s ability to break-up play in defensive phases (and, it must be said, collect somewhat necessary but clumsy bookings in the process) and Di María’s mobility helping to cover both centrally and behind Ronaldo on the left, the concerns of a lack of midfield balance on paper prior to the season were proved correct in the very early stages. They lost the Supercopa to Atlético Madrid, and had just 3 points out of a possible 9 after the first three La Liga games – including them conceding four goals away at Real Sociedad and succumbing to another derby defeat at the Bernabéu.
Following the loss to Atleti, something started to click for Real Madrid as they began to embark on what has become a 14 game win-streak in all competitions which still shows no sign of stopping. The goals being conceded have gradually slowed (8 in the 14) and a rather astounding 56 have been scored in that time, with the blossoming of the Kroos and Modric partnership as a whole being a cause for great but somewhat cautious adulation.
Doubts understandably remained about the defensive balance in that duo though, and the trip to play Liverpool at Anfield in the Champions League in the 8th game of that run was regarded as both their and the club’s first big test (despite the English side’s poor campaign thus far) after the start of the promising streak.
That pairing remained in the side for the game, and continued their form by playing superbly, but it was an absentee who swiftly became the biggest talking point. With Bale ruled out through injury, Ancelotti was forced into being without the world’s most expensive ever footballer for what was – at least theoretically – their hardest European game of the group stage. To say he was a big loss in the convincing 3-0 win, though, as the scoreline suggests, would be a long distance from the truth.
What they lacked in the Welshman’s athleticism and energy, they made up for in greater control and defensive solidity. A more distinct and rigid 4-4-2 shape was formed when out of possession; Ronaldo moved inside and level with Benzema, Isco (Bale’s replacement) covered the left flank ahead of Marcelo, and Rodríguez did a similar job on the opposite side for Carvajal.
Out of possession, and more specifically in transitional phases, the 4-4-2 swiftly changed into a fluid 4-3-3 – Isco drifted inside (in turn allowing Marcelo to maraud up the left in what was a tremendous display) and helped establish firm dominance in the middle of the park alongside Kroos and Modric, whilst Rodríguez on the opposite side moved more vertically to get closer to Ronaldo and Benzema.
That series of moves is very similar to what happens when Bale is in the side instead of Isco, albeit with Rodríguez doing what Isco does on the left and Bale taking up the Colombian’s role on the right, but this seemed to work more efficiently with a much better balance evident. It was the same story in an even bigger test, El Clásico (a 3-1 win), a few days later, and again in the home tie against Liverpool (a 1-0 win) soon afterwards. If you ignore the 30 minute sub appearance in the second game against Liverpool, it’s been three big games without Bale, three very assured performances, and three wins.
When Bale is in the line-up alongside Ronaldo and Benzema, he fails to provide adequate protection behind him on the flank and contributes to emphasising the lack of an Alonso-like figure to slow down moves in front of the back four. Without him, Isco and Rodríguez add greater cover, form a more secure shape, and offer (the Spaniard in particular with his role) a brilliant level of ball retention. The Welshman may be a match-winner, but he’s one of a significant number at the club – however good he is he doesn’t actually offer anything new.
Just like in the summer of 2013 when he was signed, Bale still only enhances what’s already there. He does it incredibly well, sure, and he’s a world class talent – watch the winning goal he scored in the Copa del Rey final last season if you really need a reminder of that. But, well, is the chance of a moment of brilliance really worth sacrificing the consistency of everything else which is looking better in the big games without him?
That’s the question Ancelotti needs to ask himself, and the answer may prove to be a big defining factor come the business end of the season. The consistently brilliant performances of Isco and Rodríguez, in all manner of matches, will have the Italian raising his eyebrow (even more than normal that is) about just how droppable both of the pair are in the future.
A recent injury to Luka Modric may have a significant impact on the dilemma facing Ancelotti now though. Whilst Real Madrid don’t have any huge tests (the hardest probably being a trip to Valencia) until February when the Croatian is expected to return, Asier Illarramendi, Sami Khedira and Isco – as he did in a deeper central role at Málaga on occasion – will all have a chance to make an impact in the midfield alongside Kroos.
Isco has been tipped by Ancelotti to be the preferred choice right now because of his form, and he was in the 4-0 away win at Eibar (although it was played as more of a flat 4-3-3 with Rodríguez a bit deeper this time), but should one of the others impress enough there is a possibility of the more defensive midfield triangle with a proper holding player returning in the biggest matches. If there were three in midfield again, the sustainability of keeping Bale out wide would be increased a lot. If not, despite the manager saying “everyone knows that [Ronaldo, Benzema and Bale] will almost always play when they are fit”, then there is certainly some thinking to do.
Bale will inevitably play a massive role in the squad throughout the season whatever the system though – amongst many others he scored the goals which won them the Copa del Rey and La Décima last year, after all. But perhaps in the future, should Ancelotti decide it’s what is best for the team like some of these signs have suggested, moments like those for the Welshman in the most important games will only be produced after coming off the bench. It’s just something worth considering.