If there is one thing that Carlo Ancelotti is sick to the back teeth of this season, it's people asking him about his side's formation. That, and whether Iker Casillas will be starting the next game. Should Madrid go with 4-3-3 or 4-4-2? The Italian's answer has always been the same - an attacking 4-3-3 with the ball, a more defensive 4-4-2 without it.
In practice, it is more like 3-4-3 when in possession, with full-backs Dani Carvajal and Marcelo bombing down the flanks and Toni Kroos dropping back alongside Pepe and Sergio Ramos in a high back three. Ancelotti gives his talented team licence in attack and the freescoring results give his tactics reason. Without the ball is another matter.
The Italian has stressed the need to complement that attacking flair and flavour with more rigorous tactics at the back. The European champions may have scored goals for fun this season but they have been exploited at the back on a number of occasions. That defensive 4-4-2 has not looked so solid at times, especially against high-intensity teams such as Atletico Madrid, who they have failed to beat six times this season, and Valencia, who ended the historic 22-game winning run in January.
For it to work, one of Madrid's front three need to form part of the midfield four and that job falls at the feet of Gareth Bale. Cristiano Ronaldo is exempt from tracking back, perhaps not only due to his talismanic status as an attacker but also because of a problematic knee, and Karim Benzema links up alongside the Portuguese. The Frenchman has also chipped in with more than his fair share of defensive work this season and has received praise because of it.
The Welshman has been the subject of unwarranted whistles from what the Spanish press perceive to be ‘selfishness' in attacking situations but that is not a concern shared by Ancelotti. "I don't listen to the whistles, I don't think about them and I'm not concerned," he said of the jeers directed towards the former Tottenham Hotspur man in the victory over Real Sociedad. "Bale's playing well and in optimal condition. I hope it stays that way."
But while the Italian publically supports Madrid's most expensive player, reports suggest the pair had a meeting earlier this season to address his defensive duties. Ancelotti wants to continue playing the ‘BBC' whenever they are fit but that relies on Bale doing his duties at the back when he is called upon. He is the one of the front three that needs to track back.
He has often shown a somewhat lackadaisical approach on helping out at the back, one that he can perhaps get away with in the more comfortable matches but one that will not wash with his manager in the closer contests. There has been a sense of wanting to be seen to get back into position but not getting his hands dirty. That has been picked up on sometimes by the Bernabeu, too, especially in looking for a scapegoat during times of poor form.
The thing about Bale is that he can track back and he can track back well. Although Cristiano Ronaldo and Sergio Ramos grabbed the headlines from the memorable Champions League semi-final success against Bayern Munich, Bale played a big role in not only helping in attack, but thwarting the then-holders defensively, too. That a team of Munich's stature failed to score over two legs said plenty about the defensive efforts of Madrid when all the plaudits were being directed at the attack.
The 25-year-old also played as a defender when he burst on to the scene with Southampton. When Bale first made waves in England it was with the Saints as a left-back, albeit one who flourished in attack and who was known thanks to his sublime left-foot and pace. Even so, he had defensive duties and is not unaccustomed to tracking, marking and tackling. That he now has to do it on the right, rather than the left, is not ideal but it is not completely alien to him.
The best advice for Bale is to look at the form of a man he trains alongside day in, day out. Man-of-the-moment Isco is a box of tricks in attack and a delight to watch but Ancelotti has worked hard with him for him to improve the defensive aspect of his game and become a more rounded player. It has worked and he is getting the plaudits for it. Albeit not on the same level, as an attacker and not a man who needs to be more involved in the middle, Bale could do worse than take a leaf out of the former Malaga man's book.
Isco does not only get his foot into a tackle, he gets into position to cover for Marcelo when the Brazilian makes his trademark surges forward, hugging the touchline. Madrid's marauding full-backs are an important part of their overall dynamic and when Lucas Silva, Luka Modric or James Rodriguez look to cover Carvajal on the other flank, Bale needs to take note and cover where appropriate.
It may also be Madrid's midfield magician, handed a standing ovation when he was substituted at Elche last time out and deemed "the most important player for the future of Spanish football", who makes life tough for Bale in the coming months. With Isco playing out of his skin, Luka Modric weeks away from a return and James Rodriguez set to come back from injury not long after, Ancelotti will have to leave one or two of his big names on the bench.
Although given assurances that the ‘BBC' will start when they are fit, the Welshman will want to do everything possible to ensure he is not the subject of calls to be dropped when Ancelotti faces his welcome selection headache. He has been there before and he will not want to be there again. With El Clasico just around the corner, it may be the best time for Bale to showcase his all-round team game.