With the signing of James Rodriguez from AS Monaco, Real Madrid secured themselves the services of the best player of the 2014 World Cup. However, they also inflicted a problem on their excellent manager Carlo Ancelotti. The Italian found the correct balance in their side which led to them liftning their first Champions League in 12 years, but will now be tested to find a place in the side for their newest recruit. A few days before the announcement of the James transfer, Real completed the signing of German World Cup winner Toni Kroos. Same thing here, terrific player but is he what the team needs?
Last season, which ended with captain Iker Casillas lifting the Champions League trophy, Ancelotti tinkered with a lot of formations. In the end he settled on a 4-3-3 (although at times, especially in Europe, it changed into a type of 4-4-2) with his two best players Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo either side of Karim Benzema. In midfield he had Xabi Alonso sitting deeper behind Luka Modric and Angel di Maria, with the Croatian and the Argentinian flourishing in the system and enjoying brilliant seasons. Di Maria was perhaps even more impressive since Ancelotti seemingly invented a new position for him. With his tremendous work rate and unbelievable energy he helped Modric and Alonso out in central areas, as well as covering the left flank in order to save Ronaldo from having to track his full-back, which allowed the Ballon d’Or winner to stay higher up the pitch in a great counter-attacking position. On the opposite side, Bale worked hard defensively to create a midfield four when defending. Practically Ronaldo stayed up front with Benzema, with Di Maria performing both his own and Ronaldo’s defensive duties. So, with all respect possible to Gareth Bale, Angel di Maria was Real’s second most important player (most important is obviously 60-goal-Cristiano) last season which is why it’s wrong that he will be the one to leave this summer.
Angel Di Maria was sensational last season, but looks likely to be sacrificed for the new signings
TONI KROOS AND JAMES
So, who are these two Galactico’s Real have signed? James is a modern attacking player, capable of playing on either wing, as he did at Porto, or in his best position as a number 10. He shone at Porto for three seasons before moving to Monaco in 2013, where he consistently performed as they finished second with the Colombian scoring 9 goals and assisting 12. A crazy stat that popped up when his Madrid move was completed was that he played 73 through balls last year, seven more than Bale and Ronaldo COMBINED! James is a very creative player with impressive movement, excellent technique and superb vision. He was the top goalscorer at the World Cup, where his composure in front of goal was demonstrated in devastating fashion. While he clearly is a talented player, there is no way he’ll take the place of Bale or Ronaldo (both perfect for Ancelotti’s system) on either wing. That means he should play behind Benzema as a 10. The problem is that Ancelotti’s successful system of last season doesn’t include that particular position.
Toni Kroos is one of the best central midfielders in Europe, and also starred for his country at the World Cup. The East German-born playmaker has superb vision, excellent technique and a glorious range of passing. He boasts terrific passing and possession stats from last season and gives the team both control of games with his ability to keep the ball as well as a cutting edge in possession to unlock defences with razor sharp through balls. After breaking through as an attacking midfielder, a 10 in his time on loan at Bayer Leverkusen, he has been moved to a deeper position. Both at Bayern Münich and for Germany, he has been at his best playing in a midfield three, for example alongside Khedira with Schweinsteiger holding behind them at the World Cup. For only £20m, he was a bargain, but Real already had Modric playing a similar role last season.
OPTION ONE – change to a 4-2-3-1
To fit both new signings into the side, because you don’t sign Kroos and James to put them on the bench, Ancelotti needs to change his system. A 4-2-3-1 with Kroos and Modric in midfield behind an attacking midfield trio with Bale to the right, James as a 10 and Ronaldo to the left behind Benzema sounds mouth-watering and is probably what Ancelotti will use, especially in the league where it wouldn’t be surprising to see Real break the record for most goals scored in La Liga, but against the likes of champions Atletico and Barcelona (who’s got a better balanced squad following their signings than Real) the lack of balance in the team will most likely cause them significant problems. That is sure to happen in the latter stages of the Champions League too, which is why I don’t think they’ll defend their trophy. Attackingly the team is fantastic on paper, but they will most likely struggle defensively playing this system.
This is how the team would look:
OPTION TWO – continue with 4-3-3 with a change up front
Probably the best way to get the best out of their star players, new signings, and to keep the balance in the team somewhat similar to last season. A midfield three with Alonso holding behind Modric and Kroos would allow both the German and the Croatian to push on forward at times, safe in the knowledge that they always have Alonso behind them to cover. In midfield this is probably the best option if Di Maria and Khedira both get sold. The front three would then see Benzema sacrificed for James, with the Colombian starting from the right and Ronaldo from the left, and Bale replacing the Frenchman in the middle. Bale has played centrally before, for Tottenham, and did extremely well. He’s got the physical attributes such as pace, balance and strength and is a better choice than Ronaldo, since the Portuguese superstar thrives on attacking defences at full speed or to make diagonal runs between the opposition right-back and centre-back. There is also the risk that it would be easier to mark him out of games, rather than Bale who is more willing to make runs without the ball. Bale wouldn’t act like a Peter Crouch though, he would be very mobile and the front three would constantly move around the final third to interchange with each other. It could possibly be a very fluid front three, with them swapping positions regularly.
However, a problem would occur defensively with the wide-forwards not known for their defensive work rate. James, like Ronaldo, is a ‘luxury’ player, a player who is so good in an attacking sense that he can be ‘saved’ from normal defensive duties due to his quality in attack. Most teams can’t afford a luxury player, but last season Real could thanks to Di Maria. Despite the quality of the centre-midfielders, neither is capable of covering the same kind of distance as the Argentinian and therefore it would be difficult for Real to use this system. A player like Khedira would be perfect for this system to help cover space and allow more freedom to James and Ronaldo, but he also looks likely to leave the club this summer. Ronaldo is so unbelievably good going forward that he makes up for his defensive shortcomings, and when you regularly score 50+ goals it’s justified, but James is not on that level yet so he will have to alter his game a bit and work harder defensively in order to make this system work, but that is not too much to ask of a player. An alternative could be to play James as a ‘false 9’, but the risk is that he would be ‘bullied’ by centre-backs.
The big downside with this system is that Karim Benzema would miss out. He improved last year and it would not be fair on him to be left out, but it might have to happen for the team to work after the new signings.
It would then look like this:
OPTION THREE – go with a back-three
We have previously written about the recent trend of playing with a back-three. As far as I know Ancelotti has never used a three-man-defence, so this is totally me speculating. The reason I’m putting it out there is that it would possibly suit a lot of their players. First of all, it would mean that the biggest centre-back talent in Europe would get in to the team. Raphael Varane has been back-up for Pepe and Ramos for a few years but is still the French national team’s number one centre-back. He enjoyed a good World Cup, but needs to play regularly to continue his development. A back-three with Varane, Pepe and Ramos would possibly be terrific and with Carvajal and Marcelo as wing-backs the defence would remain hard to break down. Both wing-backs would also be very attacking, particularly Marcelo, who always is a threat going forward but also a bit of a risk defensively. In this system, he would always have Ramos covering behind him, safe in the knowledge that Pepe and Varane would then shuffle across to cover him. In midfield, Kroos and Modric would be responsible for controlling the tempo of the game, keeping possession and to feed the front three. James would act like a number 10 in front of them, and behind Bale and Ronaldo to complete a trio which would be extremely dangerous. Still, Benzema wouldn’t be in the team, but Real play so many matches that he would still get plenty of games, which is also the case in the 4-3-3 of course.
This system might provide Real with a better balance, it would allow James and Kroos to play in their best positions, Varane would get more games, it would suit the full-backs/wing-backs they’ve already got and Bale and Ronaldo would be in good counter-attacking positions as well as being able to move around the final third freely when in possession.
It would then look like this:
Real Madrid have signed two excellent footballers, but their inclusion in the team will affect the balance of the side. With Angel Di Maria, their tactically most important player from last season, seemingly on his way out of the club, Carlo Ancelotti will have to start all over again to find the correct balance. There is plenty of options available to the Italian and it will be extremely interesting to see which he decides to use. Real Madrid have got a brilliant group of players that no club in World football can better, but, ironically, that might prove to be their problem next season. Balance in the side and a well-functioning team is often more important than having the best individuals, but Real looks to have chosen the latter.
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All formations have been worked out in the event of Angel Di Maria leaving Real Madrid this summer.