Carlo Ancelotti was a key cog in one of the greatest teams of the 20th century that won consecutive European titles. Arrigo Sacchi, then coach of AC Milan, dominated with a very fluid and compact 4-4-2 formation. Ancelotti in an interview with FT said: “In my experience, it(The 4-4-2) was the only way to play football.” and that was the formation he deployed at the start of his Madrid career.
Right from the start, Ancelotti stressed on how his team had the quality but needed to find the right balance. After many systematic and formation tweaks in preseason to get the right balance, Ancelotti took to the field in his first la liga game at the Bernabeu a 4-4-2-cum-4-2-2-2 formation, as both wide players Ozil and Isco had the tendency to drift into central roles to find gaps. Many believed this formation was to accommodate both Isco and Ozil. Ronaldo played as a shadow striker alongside Benzema. The opening quarter of the game proved this wasn’t to be the way forward for Madrid, who could have gone a couple of goals behind if not for the brilliance of Diego Lopes in goal. Les Beticos went 1-0 up in the opening quarter, and believe me they could have got more. After the game Carlo Ancelotti admitted: “We have to improve. We created chances to score but we had problems in defence,” The problem indeed was Madrid’s balance. Neither Isco, Ozil and Ronaldo have impressive workrates and Madrid were simply out-done on the break, particularly on the flanks.
“It was a problem of balance. There was a lot of space between our defence and midfield and Betis played very well in this area. If we want to play quality football, we need players like Isco and (Mesut) Ozil to do defensive work. Right now it is a normal problem, but they are generous players and we need to find the balance.”
Two months and a formation change later, Real hosted Sevilla at the Bernabeu, and although they scored seven, they somehow managed to ship three goals at home. The workrate from the Madrid forwards defensively, was once again not up to scratch with los rojiblancos very threatening on the break.
The following week, after going 3-0 up away at la liga strugglers Rayo, Madrid again somehow managed to concede twice in the second half. Carlo Ancelotti reacted furiously to this: “A disaster,” Ancelotti called Saturday’s second-half display against city rival Rayo Vallecano, a team which had conceded 27 goals and scored just eight in 11 previous Spanish league matches. “Against Sevilla we were 3-0 up and let them back into the game. Today the same thing happened and that is not a coincidence, We need to change and remove the superficiality we have on the pitch, the second half was a disaster. You cannot let a team back into the game like that when you have the quality of Real Madrid. It is something that we have to talk about in the dressing room. It has happened twice that being in front has changed the attitude out on the field, and that is not good.”
“Balance, balance, balance. We need to find balance in our game.”
The former PSG coach was struggling to find the right balance with the players at his disposal which gave Atleti and Barcelona the advantage in the opening stages of the season. He said: “We tried the Christmas tree at the beginning, but we changed to the diamond formation and then 4-4-2. I can’t use the Christmas tree here because of the players’ attributes.”
“With Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo, the best system is 4-3-3. Bale took a while to arrive, so at the start I sought a 4-4-2 for greater balance. With Bale I went back to the initial idea and now we need to find that balance. As we saw from recent games, there’s a lot of work to do. The counter-attack is the simplest way of creating a scoring opportunity. Clearly just using the counter means you don’t have an identity, but when there’s space for it with the strikers we’ve got, it becomes lethal.There is a certain demonization of the term in Spain and the word has to be used carefully.” Ancelotti told Gazzetta dello Sport.
“I have an idea of football and I have to build it using the characteristics of my players. My relationship with them is very important, understanding them, analysing them. If I have a good relationship with them, it’s easier to transmit things. Balance: “Balance? People are already tired of going on about it, now it’s time to talk about titles. La Décima’: “It’s an obsession, a big motivator for everyone. It’s a word that is on everyone’s lips. The players are comfortable with the 4-3-3, not because I say so but because they say so themselves.”
Ancelotti’s main trait which makes him one of the best in the world, according to Arrigo Sacchi is his ability to adapt. Since the turn of the year, Ancelotti has laid more focus on the 4-3-3 formation. This formation switch has unsurprisingly coincided with Los Blancos’ terrific form in 2014. P: 15, W:14, D:1, L:O. Scoring 39 goals in the process and conceding only four, a major improvement on their three cleansheets in fourteen La Liga games, and one in five UCL outings at the start of the season.
Twelve months ago, BVB coach Jurgen Klopp spoke about two of Madrid’s greatest weaknesses, tactically. Xabi Alonso, as the only dictator and Cristiano Ronaldo’s workrate. He said to stop Madrid, you have to stop Xabi Alonso. This Article on Bleacher report on how Modric changed the Klopp paradigm shows how Madrid has grown since then under Ancelotti.
Last season, Mourinho had problems fitting Luka Modric into the squad playing him alongside Alonso in midfield, and even at times in the advanced playmaker role shifting Ozil to the wide right position. Modric often looked out of place in Mourinho’s Madrid, which led to the vast majority of the Spanish newspapers labeling him the flop of the season. Under Carlo, Modric has had a defined role in the Madrid team. The departure of Mesut Ozil meant there was a greater onus on Modric to be Madrid’s creative spark, and played a huge role in that. Performance-wise, Modric has been the most consistent midfielder in Europe. Ancelotti described Modric as someone who “plays all over the field”. In Jose’s system, he had less freedom to move as he’d be leaving Xabi Alonso, now in his thirties, a lot of ground to cover laterally. The three man midfield means now, either one of the midfielders can maraud forward to support attack, knowing there’s a spare man in midfield.
Another problem Madrid faced was Ronaldo’s lack of defensive contribution, which remains one of his only flaws. In the modern game, workrate is a trait most wingers must possess. We’ve seen in recent times how most managers have dropped flair players for functional ones. For example at Chelsea, Oscar was preferred ahead of Mata, who is without a doubt the better player individually. Ronaldo’s incredible talent of course means it will be idotic to drop him, so how has Carlo made up for the world’s best player’s workrate?
“I preferred that Di Maria over Ozil for a tactical balance. Di Maria is a passer, he’s a more complete player. When you have two similar players on your team like Ozil and Isco, it is better to keep Di Maria because he has the ability to play most positions on the field”
Back in 2010, Di Maria was an indispensable member of the Jorge Jesus’ Benfica team, not in the wide role we’ve become accustomed to since he went to Spain, rather as a left sided midfielder in a midfield diamond formation, which explains his smooth adaptation to Ancelotti’s more balanced system. Angel Di Maria has had his role shifted in the past couple of month playing on the left side of central midfield in Madrid’s 4-3-3. Di Maria is of course renowned for his attacking work, but his workrate is a major factor as to why he’s a main-stay in this Madrid side. Against Schalke 04, the Argentine made the most tackles on the pitch, which gives an insight to his ‘secondary’ role in midfield; making sure Madrid aren’t exposed on the left flank. Di Maria is still of course one of Madrid’s most prominent attackers despite his more defensive role. According to stats, no player in Europe created more chances in the month of January than him.
One major problem of the new system however, is the involvement of Isco, who was Madrid’s best player in the opening months of the season. Ancelotti spoke on how he intended to use Isco in the false nine role, as he did in the Copa Del Rey game at the Calderon and also against Osasuna.
The asymmetric 4-3-3 formation – which could easily become a 4-2-2-2/4-2-3-1 formation – is without a doubt the main reason for Madrid’s recent form. One advantage it has over the 4-2-3-1 formation is the fact the Madrid’s wide players; Ronaldo and Bale don’t have to do enough defensive work with the midfielders covering horizontal ground. This means that, both are often situated in attacking zones and have yards of space to exploit opponents on the counter, which is gradually becoming Madrid’s forte.
Carlo Ancelotti spoke about how he wanted Madrid to attack earlier in the season. : “We don’t need 30 passes…I can’t go against the qualities in my players, and if we find the solution in three passes instead of 30, that’s what we’ll do. I’m Italian, and the counter is one option I like.The buildup is slow, and when the ball reaches the forwards there is no space,” Ancelotti said, according to Reuters. “We need to be a bit more direct, move a bit quicker and play with greater movement.” The balance and fluidity of the formation has certainly allowed Ancelotti to play a style which suits the traits of his forwards. He said: “Yes, for the moment we will keep playing with the 4-3-3 formation. It gives us a good balance because all of our three midfielders work well enough.”