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What is Gareth Bale's role in Carlo Ancelotti's tactics?

A deep look at Ancelotti's lack of rotations, his genius in repositioning players, and how Gareth Bale fits into all of it.

Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

There certainly is never a dull moment when it comes to discussing Ancelotti's tactics and decisions, is there? Of late, the criticisms have been pouring in. Why doesn't Carlo Ancelotti rotate more, why is he so stubborn, and why does he insist that Gareth Bale plays every game?

Time to put on our gloves and start dissecting.

Carlo Ancelotti gets a lot of criticism for two things: 1) Lack of league titles; and 2) his inherent refusal to rotate players which may or may not have led to key injuries heading into the Bernabeu for the 2nd leg of the Champions League quarter-final against Atletico Madrid.

To the first point: Fair. In 15 years of Serie A coaching, Ancelotti managed to capture just one league title despite steering the ship of one of the greatest teams of our generation containing legends like Clarence Seedforf, Andrea Pirlo, Andriy Shevchenko, Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Nesta, Rui Costa, and eventually Ricardo Kaka.

His ratio of years-to-league titles did improve on his next two stops. In England, he won the EPL in one of his two season managing Chelsea; and in France, he won Ligue 1 once in his 1.5 years in charge at PSG.

It can be argued that his time in Serie A was met with fierce opposition in terms of quality. During the hey-day of Serie A earlier in the century, Carlo's Milan (in his 8 years at the club) went up against the likes of Lippi's Juve and Inter's 4-year dynasty which started with Mancini and ended with Mourinho.

Still, the arguments to alleviate the criticism don't discount his failures domestically.

Then there is point #2 - you know, the one about rotations. The criticism comes in left, right, and center - from fans everywhere. I'm not here to make friends, I'll say it quite frankly: Carlo Ancelotti knows more than you. We are living in an era of constant criticism - some of it is warranted; while some of it is ignorant.

Carlo Ancelotti is essentially given a squad from Florentino Perez and asked to make it work, and I promise you there is no better coach in football than Carlo Ancelotti when it comes to accommodating star players.

It started in Milan. During the 2001-2002 season, Ancelotti essentially had to 'decide' between Rui Costa and Andrea Pirlo. Of course, he ended up not having to do that at all. In a genius move, Ancelotti completely reinvented Pirlo by transforming him into a deep-lying playmaker so that Pirlo and Rui Costa could play together. How much value do you put into that decision? It was subtle, yet, probably changed football as we know it.

To be fair, Pirlo did play that role breifly in Brescia under Carlo Mazzone with Roberto Baggio in front of him, but not to the permanent extent in which Carlo implemented it.

Pirlo's new role basically set the standard of what a deep-lying playmaker looks like, and, in hindsight, has catapulted him to one of the best players of all-time in his position - a status only Xavi can rival from this generation.

Think about that. Carlo Ancelotti was responsible in large part for what Andrea Pirlo eventually became.

Does any of this sound familiar?

I promise I will get to my point about rotations soon.

Fast forward 12 years - Ancelotti takes over a Mourinho team riddled with failure. At the brink of  the 2013-2014 season, Real Madrid sells it's only true play-maker in Mesut Ozil, essentially replacing him with Gareth Bale who's position mostly rivals directly with Angel Di Maria. Again, Ancelotti finds a way in an un-ideal situation. Di Maria becomes Carlo's 'Pirlo' in his new role as a third central midfielder who can create from deep and wreak all kinds of havoc with the three lungs and slippery eel-like maneuvering that he posses.

Everyone doubted, but Di Maria blossomed. A central midfielder who can run tirelessly, dispossess players, and create from deep? Sign him up - what a luxury.

Di Maria is reborn, his price tag at an all-time high, and Real Madrid cash-in with a £29.7 profit margin on him - a feat highly improbable without Ancelotti's brain.

I had an interesting discussion through e-mail with Michele Pasquali from SB Nation's The AC Milan Offside regarding Carlo's rotations at Milan, and his ability to reinvent players:

Making a comparison with some coach we have in Italy now, Ancelotti is the exact opposite of Massimiliano Allegri or Rafa Benitez and the explanation is very simple. Carlo doesn't like changing the whole starting XI even in extreme situations (3 games in 7 days, for example) and he hates especially changing tactical disposition. An example: back in 2006 Milan had the roster to send on the field a very competitive 3-5-2 with Nesta, Maldini and Jaap Stam as defenders and Cafu/Oddo and Jankulowski as right and left midfielders but Ancelotti insisted with his 4-3-2-1 and forced Stam to play as right back for many games during that season. We can criticize his obstinacy but many of these choices paid off (for example, Milan won the Champions League in 2007 with Stam as right back).

Do you see where this is going yet? It's all foreshadowing to April 22 2014 - where Ancelotti heads into the 2nd leg of the Champions League as an underdog after being heavily criticized for not rotating his players and experiencing calamatic injuries to Luka Modric, Gareth Bale, and Karim Benzema.

One main problem that Ancelotti has in implementing BBC is that it depends heavily on the midfield trio behind them. You saw the collapse when Modric was injured and was replaced intermittently by Illara / Khedira / Silva. The team collapsed. Kroos and Isco were unable to compensate for the weaknesses of those three DMs.

It's no wonder then, there was such panic heading into that vital second leg.

Perfect timing for Ancelotti to pull a rabbit out of his hat - a 3rd central defender repositioned to play as a defensive midfielder alongside Toni Kroos to make up for Modric's absence.

It was a move that ultimately may have saved Real Madrid's season.

Two questions:

  1. Would any other coach have opted to go the easy route and field Illara / Khedira / Silva instead, in what was the biggest game of the season?
  2. Would any coach have been in that predicament in the first place had he rotated the squad properly?
1. Likely not; 2. There's no way to know.

Contrary to what some might think, there is nothing to suggest fatigue was the reason for these untimely injuries.

Carlo has always emphasized the importance of his starting eleven and building that cohesion and rhythm with his core group of players. There is a fine balance between rest, and rust. Rest a player enough, he gets rusty. Don't rest him enough, he'll get fatigued. This is an on-going debate in all of professional sports - not just in football. In the NHL / NBA, players often play 4-5 games a week and their coaches typically opt to not give their players rest even then in order to avoid rust.

Of course, it depends on the case. What's the age of the player? What's their fitness level? What's the importance of the match?

In Real Madrid's case, every game has been important. Every match is a fight for the title, a fight for survival. Amongst all the injuries that Carlo has had to endure with the squad, just how much wiggle room does he have to rotate? The word 'depth' is a funny one, it means nothing if your bench consists of mediocre players. Xabi Alonso left without enough notice to find a proper replacement. Khedira has zero interest in playing for Real Madrid, Illaramendi is mentally fragile, and Lucas Silva's balls haven't dropped yet - I love using that Don Alfredo reference when I can.

Every player in Real Madrid's XI wants to play every game. In the end, Carlo Ancelotti makes line-up decisions based on consultations with both the players and medical team which leads him to make a sound decision. These are not decisions made out of stubborness or ignorance. Real Madrid is not a high-school team, they have some of the best medical staff around and they do know when to rest a player and when not to.

Take all these factors and band them together, and you'll come to the conclusion that these criticisms are wildly unjust.

And if there are any criticisms at all, they are far outweighed by the other positives he brings to the table.

There have been 14 editions of the UEFA Champions League since the turn of the century and Carlo Ancelotti has won three of them - more than any other manager in that span.

For a club like Real Madrid, that's the trump card. For a club like a Real Madrid, an organization which is in constant change from year-to-year, you need a manager like Ancelotti who has the ability to adapt and reinvent the wheel. Such is the scheme demanded from a business-man like Florentino Perez who throws cracks and wild cards out of your control year after year.

I am Florentino's biggest admirer, but even I can admit it can't be easy knowing you're going to have to accomodate a new superstar every season.

Arguably his biggest challenge so far has been sorting out the front three. Many critics feel that Ronaldo and Bale can't play together, and that when one is sidelined, the other flourishes. Ronaldo is Ronaldo and he will get his numbers no matter who he plays with - he is after all, one of the most statsitically efficient players in the history of football. Bale is course in a league below, and many people feel that Bale in particular, needs to play without Ronaldo in order to prosper . See: Copa final last season.

But many people seem to forget that arguably Real Madrid's greatest performance in the past two years - a 4-0 shellacking in Munich where Real Madrid completely dismantled Bayern - came at the hands of Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo thriving together in one of the greatest displays of counter-attacking football we've seen in a long time.

It depends on who Real Madrid is playing. Typically, the more offensively-oriented the opposing team is, the more Bale and Ronaldo can lick their lips and punish them on the counter. A team like Bayern Munich wants the ball, and Ancelotti relishes when that happens. With the players at his disposal, he can absorb waves of attack relatively unthreatented, and then burst free on the counter with the two most dominant athletic wingers in the World - glued and assisted by the brains of Modric, Kroos, Isco, and James.

Take a look at this goal which undoubtedbly you're familiar with by now. It really is the epitome of what Real Madrid's counter-attacking can be. Carvajal, Pepe, and Modric suffocate Ribery - causing him to cough-up possession. The ball trickles to Gareth Bale who pounces on it in the empty pocket Ancelotti's defensive scheme creates. Bale starts the counter-attack deep within his own half.

This is the amazing part. Di Maria and Benzema don't take long to get that ball upfield quickly to catch Bayern's defensive collapse - a total of 7 seconds. That's 7 seconds from the time Bale releases the ball deep in his own half to the time he darts up the field and gets it back (and he's not even sprinting at full-seed), eventually ripping a new backside into Guardiola's tiki-taken (a system which suits Real Madrid's team just perfectly) German / Barca hybrid style of play.

It's no wonder Ancelotti is so adamant about BBC being untouchable when you see what they're capable of. The reason you buy players of this calibre is to have them on the pitch knowing they can directly effect the outcome of the game with their strengths even when the game is not going your way, or certain players are not in form.

The problem is that by now, many teams have figured out how to play against Real Madrid. Guardiola is a coach who loves having the ball, which gives players like Bale plenty of room to operate on the counter - the space in behind his defense is huge and suicidal against a team like Real Madrid.

Other managers have figured this out. Simeone knows once you double-up your wings and play compact, players like Bale and Ronaldo become limited. Bale in particular suffers without space in front of him. The Welshman wants to run at his defenders and get in behind them - either that or have enough space to shoot from distance.

Ancelotti needs to find a solution to this.

As Michele Pasquali also noted in our e-mail correspondance, Ancelotti needs to improve on his creativity.

Carlo left unforgettable memories in his time in Milan and I think he's the most loved coach we had in our recent history just behind Arrigo Sacchi and Fabio Capello so it's almost impossible to criticize a coach - and a man - like him because he won "all" he could with this team. His only limit? His tactical stubbornness: probably he would have won more if he had been more "creative" (I'm trying to be more than rational with this statement).

I've been an advocate of giving Ronaldo and Bale the freedom of swapping wings from time to time in games where breaking the defense is tough. It gives Real Madrid a more direct approach and throws a different weapon at opposing defenders.

An example of this was in the Super Cup against Sevilla, where Bale drifted to the left for chunks of the game and Ronaldo went to the right.

But it's all about versatillity within your offensive scheme. In the same game, Bale drifts back to the right. After making a run from the half-way line with the ball and getting to the final third within seconds, Bale cuts in to the left - and as the Sevilla defense completely collapses to the near side because of Bale's ability to shoot from that position - James is left wide-open and Bale finds him with ease.

And then, on an ensuing possession, Bale knows he can throw something else at the defense since they expect he might cut in again. He uses his speed to beat his man and get down the flank and create a goal-scoring opportunity.

At this point, Sevilla's defense has no idea which way to shift. Mind you, the elite teams in World Football - which seems few and far between these days - are smart enough to not play an open game against Real Madrid, and will double-mark Bale on the wings. Ancelotti is spoiled though. he has James' vision, Bale and Ronaldo's power, and Benzema's ability to create and work with the other attackers.

Essentially, all of that means that Ancelotti does not have to settle when teams take Bale out of the game, since he has enough options to compensate for this scenario by throwing different plays at defenders and letting Ronaldo and Bale swap wings regularly.

Real Madrid is at it's best when it doesn't have the ball. Carlo Ancelotti's 2013-2014 Real Madrid was a machine and one of the most efficient football teams in recent memory. It didn't need the ball - it was direct football at its best. It was one that forced the likes of Barcelona and Bayern to have the ball and there are no two players in the World that can break your back in that scenario more than Ronaldo and Bale due to their sheer speed and power.

In a sense, this Real Madrid was built specifically to destory tiki-taka.

If Real Madrid make it to the final, will Bayern and Barca change their tactics a bit? It's an interesting discussion to be had. In the last clasico, Real Madrid had it's highest percentage of possession in years against Barcelona, so Luis Enrique has already started a change towards more direct football, and Guardiola knows he can't afford to make the same mistake again. All the more reason to give Bale and Ronaldo more freedom to swap wings, otherwise the burden on players like Modric and Isco to breakdown stubborn defenses becomes too dependable. Real Madrid need other options.

The point in all of this is for fans to realize that Gareth Bale can be a tremendously important player if given enough confidence to do so. It's a big ask, but the Bernabeu needs to be patient with him. There is a theory in the media world that is gaining momentum: The reason why Gareth Bale looks like a superstar in Wales and a 'mouse' in Madrid is because of the massive difference in pressure from both sides of the spectrum.

It's a simple but convincing argument, but it's one that directly asks fans to be more supportive of their players and coaches. Now the team has an opportunity to live without Gareth Bale for a couple weeks, which in turn allows Bale to have a mental rest away from the spotlight which should help him get back to his best when the team needs him the most.

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