While I'm an unabashedly spoiled football romantic who loves the spectacle of free-flowing attacking combinations, I've been thoroughly impressed and humbled by Real Madrid's pragmatic wins against Barcelona and Bayern Munich this past week. Against Barcelona, Ancelotti overcame the absence of talisman Cristiano Ronaldo by deploying Isco in midfield to effectively create a 4-4-2 formation featuring Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale as pure forwards. Last night, the situation was virtually identical except Gareth Bale was the absent player due to flu-like symptoms. Once again, Isco slotted into the left midfield pocket behind Cristiano Ronaldo, who remained forward alongside Karim Benzema, waiting to pounce on Manuel Neuer's goal.
While Madrid's default 4-3-3 formation proved effective against most La Liga teams, it left the capital side's midfield and defense exposed to both build-up play and counter-attacks from top European teams like Atlético, Barcelona and Borussia Dortmund. Now, with Isco and di María reinforcing the wide midfield spaces around Xabi Alonso and Luka Modric, Real Madrid has adopted a more defensive shape that still creates deadly chances on the counter-attack. This practical approach prevents players like Alonso and Modric from running themselves ragged on defense while allowing speedsters such as Bale, Ronaldo, Benzema and di María to blitz the opposition goal out of nowhere.
Here's the question. Does Carlo Ancelotti stick with this system next Tuesday if both Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale return to optimal fitness? In my opinion, Madrid's manager will definitely play Ronaldo and Bale if both superstars are healthy. Would this return di María to his frequent role of left midfielder at Isco's expense? Or, will Isco relegate Angel to the bench with a deeper, more defensively-conscious Gareth Bale occupying the outside right pocket? Could Isco earn a start ahead of the Argentine dynamo? Tough questions for Ancelotti.
Isco has blossomed in midfield with a handful of complete performances, most notably against Barcelona in the Copa del Rey Final. For example, di María's opening goal against Tata Martino's side started with an Isco steal, and even after picking up a yellow card early in the first half, the former Màlaga man managed to complete nine clean tackles in the championship game. While he's known for his fancy dribbles and finesse finishes, Isco has proven to be a clutch player who sacrifices his offensive tendencies and plays to the team's needs. Still, while he was brilliant against Barcelona, Isco wasn't as prominent against Bayern Munich. He managed one tackle and zero interceptions and his most notable play came, in my opinion, from a left-to-right cross that found a wide-open di María (who sadly launched the ball into the stratosphere...)
Despite di María's shortcomings last night, there's no denying he's had a monster season with incredible output on both the defensive and offensive ends. Whether he's scoring against Barcelona or supporting Dani Carvajal in nullifying Franck Ribéry, El Fideo has let his play do the talking and forced detractors like myself to shut up and enjoy his quality. While Isco brings a sense of composure, patience and accuracy to Madrid's midfield, di María brings endless effort, pace and penetration. There's no doubt both players are capable of scoring and creating chances for their teammates, though di María's pace suits Madrid's counter-attacking style and helps create overloads in the opposition's half.
So, who would you start next Tuesday? Managing Madrid's writers are torn on this topic, with Lucas and Dani predicting the confident Isco will get the nod, while Bozz feels one of Ronaldo or Bale may sit due to health issues. I'm sticking with Ángel di María, as I think his experience and versatility is too good for Ancelotti to pass up, and a left wing comprising of Coentrão, di María and Cristiano Ronaldo will cause many headaches for Robben and Rafinha (or Lahm). Regardless of who Carletto chooses, though, it seems the boss will use the 4-4-2 formation to once again stuff out Bayern Munich's threats.
What do you think?