Madrid’s successful season is due to Ancelotti
May 2013 was the lowest point of Real Madrid’s recent history. Having just lost the league by a whopping 15 points and being humiliated by Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League, the Copa Del Rey final presented an opportunity for redemption for the club, to salvage something from the season.
What followed was an embarrassing loss at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium, their home ground, to fierce city rivals Atlético Madrid. Manager José Mourinho promptly left the club by mutual consent after three turbulent years of managing the club.
The club was thrust into uncertainty. Superstar forward Cristiano Ronaldo was being linked with a transfer back to his former club Manchester United.
To restore some decorum in the dressing room and to make a run at La Decima (Madrid’s tenth Champions League title), Madrid hired Carlo Ancelotti, a manager renowned for his management skill and winning two Champions League titles with A.C. Milan.
Even Ancelotti’s Madrid took a while to get going. Ronaldo’s extraordinary form in the latter months of 2013 meant that Madrid were cruising in the Champions League group stage, but struggling in the league and six points off the top of the league.
World record-signing winger Gareth Bale injured himself just after reaching top form. Madrid were shipping goals at an alarming rate. Defensive midfielder Sami Khedira was ruled out for the rest of the season with a torn ACL and MCL.
Things were looking bleak for Los Blancos and the possibility of trophies this season was turning into a pipe dream. At the turn of the year, however, a new Madrid was born.
They have probably been the best team besides Bayern Munich since, and Ancelotti can take a lot of credit for that. What exactly has changed?
One of the biggest changes from the Mourinho era was the sale of midfielder Mesut Özil and the subsequent signing of Bale.
Özil was Madrid’s chief playmaker and was considered by many to be as important to Madrid as the likes of strikers Ronaldo and Karim Benzema.
However, Ancelotti considered his lack of effort on defense to be detrimental to the team, and with a switch in formation to 4-3-3 from 4-2-3-1, there was no place to utilize Özil’s talents. Madrid struggled without the influence of Özil and the spark he so often provided to create several goals.
With midfield general Xabi Alonso out through injury, midfielder Luka Modrić and Khedira started in midfield and the likes of new signing Asier Illarramendi or Isco took the third.
Isco’s initial form upon arriving was blistering, and he was being hailed as the next big thing at Madrid. Ancelotti saw through the hype and decided to drop Isco from the starting 11 as he struggled with faster defenders and was prone to defensive lapses in midfield.
The return of midfielder Alonso helped matters, and Madrid got more comfortable with their new formation and playing style.
The masterstroke, however, came at the turn of the year. With Khedira now out and Asier Illaramendi not settling as well as hoped, Ancelotti decided to play forgotten man Ángel di María in midfield. Bale’s injury meant that Ancelotti began starting homegrown winger Jesé on the right flank.
These two personnel choices have paid off handsomely for Madrid, as they give the team a liberty in tactics which was previously not available.
When attacking, Madrid can play as a 4-3-3 but a de facto 4-1-2-3 with di María and Modric pushing up and Alonso holding fort or spraying long balls out wide. It gives the team greater attacking impetus, while also freeing up the wingers to try and beat their man on the outside rather than cutting in, something which Ronaldo, Bale, and Jesé are very capable of doing.
With two players in the central positions, the cutting in of the wingers to take a shot on goal also has a renewed surprise effect, especially since each of the midfield three, as well as Ronaldo, and Bale have fantastic long shots.
When it comes to defending, di María makes a huge difference. When playing a 4-2-3-1, the number 10 and the striker are not expected to track back, while the wingers are. However, with Ronaldo being on the left wing and not a player who likes to play through the middle, it tends to leave three players up front and Madrid becomes vulnerable.
To rectify this problem, when defending, Ancelotti changes the formation of his team from a 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2, with Ronaldo switching to a secondary striker and di María manning the left flank. Di María’s incessant running puts pressure on the opposition and the winger on the other flank is expected to do the same.
This results in deadly counter attacks when possession is won back, similar to the lightning-speed counters seen during the league-title-winning season under Mourinho.
The defensive stability provided by the extra man behind the ball means there is less pressure on Modric and Alonso to do the dirty work, and they can shield the back much better.
This strategy has had extraordinary results in 2014. Madrid have played a total of 14 games this year, winning all but one of them — a creditable 1–1 draw at Athletic Bilbao, a team that has not lost at home this season — and with just three goals conceded overall.
The defensive pairing of central defenders Sergio Ramos and Pepe has blossomed again, and the full backs have been rotated so effectively that it rarely even matters which one steps out on the pitch these days.
With the impending return of young defender Raphaël Varane, the Madrid defense is only going to get stronger. The biggest trickle-down effect of this tactic has been that Madrid finally have a blueprint on how to approach games.
When squad rotation comes into play, the basic tactics and positions are already laid out for the role players, such as Isco and Illaramendi.
Madrid have conceded no goals in cup competitions this season as a result, with goalkeeper Iker Casillas showing his pre-2013 form again. Atlético Madrid, who had beaten Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium in the league again earlier this season, were soundly thrashed 5–0 over two legs in the cup, with Jesé scoring in both legs of that matchup.
Jesé has been a revelation since the start of the year, deputizing superbly for Bale, and even making his own case to be a starter in the team. His scoring form has been phenomenal, with him scoring at nearly a goal a game for a part of January.
Ancelotti has not been afraid to use talented players from Castilla, such as Álvaro Morata in the earlier stages of the season when Benzema was slacking, and now Jesé, in light of Bale’s injury and Ronaldo’s subsequent suspension.
Over the last two months, Jesé has been the starting winger for Madrid in every game and, while his game time is likely to diminish now that Bale is back and Ronaldo has completed his suspension, he has given Ancelotti a welcome selection headache, able backup and firepower on the bench, and a new dimension for his team’s attack.
Jesé is a player capable of playing either on the wing or as a lone striker, due to his exceptional ability with the ball and his superb finishing. He seems to be the natural successor to Ronaldo a few years down the line and could become the next striker Raúl of Real Madrid, a homegrown legend.
Ancelotti’s Madrid in 2014 have been nothing short of sensational, and with Champions League now returning, it remains to be seen whether he can accomplish the goal set out for him at the beginning of the season — to bring home La Decima.
Madrid are entering top gear as the business end of the season approaches — they are in the Copa del Ray final and have a three-point lead at the top of the table. It is getting harder and harder to bet against this team winning every competition there is this winter.