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What system will Rafa Benítez use with Real Madrid?

Analyzing what system Benitez will/should use and comparing to the systems that the team has used in recent years,

The era of Benitez
The era of Benitez
Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

It is a new season at Real Madrid and changes are aplenty. The arrival of a new coach in Rafa Benitez signals the start of a new era. There has historically never been a continuity in terms of a footballing philosophy at Madrid beyond the requirement of entertaining and attacking football. This is mainly down to the fact that coaches do not stay for long periods at the club. Since the sacking of Vincente Del Bosque in 2003, only Jose Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti have been given enough time to implement a formation and properly build a team to suit it.

Mourinho joined the club in 2010 after having won the Champions League with Inter Milan playing a 4-2-3-1 formation. It was the formation which was popular across Europe between 2010-2013 with clubs such as Borrusia Dortmund, Bayern Munich, Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea employing it. Mourinho stuck to his tried and tested formation and implemented it at Madrid. A 4-2-3-1 formation has been very popular because it is essentially so versatile and can be altered to fit various styles of play.

Throughout his 3 years, the first 11 essentially remained the same. The double pivot was made up of Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira. Ahead of them, Mesut Ozil was the No 10 with Cristiano Ronaldo and Angel Di Maria on the wings. The striker was either Gonzalo Higuaín or Karim Benzema. It was a wise decision and fitted the available personnel and style of play very well.

The team mainly played on the counter when playing against any decent opposition. Playing on the counter first and foremost requires the pivot midfielders to sit deep and defend. Next it needs speedy players to whom the ball can be fed to quickly. Once the ball is won deep or by active pressing further ahead, these quick players can be released quickly into space. Another aspect which is often overlooked in counterattacking is the requirement of specific type of passers. In Alonso and Ozil, Madrid had the perfect passers on the counter. Alonso’s long balls are absolutely stunning and they would bypass the entire midfield to feel the attackers instantly. Ozil specializes in playing balls to players running in behind defenders which is exactly what happens on the counter. Three prime examples of this system are:

The goal against Ajax in the Champions League is a perfect example of quick and seamless transition on the counter from back to front.

This goal against Barca in the Copa is an example of the long ball releasing wingers on the counter although in this case Khedira instead of Alonso provides the long ball.

The famous Calma goal is an example of Ozil feeding players behind the defenders on the counter.

This system did wonders for Madrid. The league was won in a convincing manner in 2011-2012 and the team returned to European elite after many years of abject failure in the Champions League.

When Carlo Ancelotti joined in 2013, he was accompanied by large scale personnel changes. Isco and Gareth Bale joined, Luka Modric rose to prominence and Higuaín and Ozil left. There were also calls for more expansive football leading to a new 4-3-3 formation. This formation with the BBC ahead and Modric, Di Maria and Alonso in midfield is perhaps the most flexible and balanced team Real has had in recent memory. The players and formation favoured playing with the ball but the team was still very good on the counter due to the Mourinho years. Mourinho left Madrid on a bitter note but he must be credited for reviving the team and indoctrinating the deadly counter attack into the team.

In the 2013-2014 4-3-3 formation, Di Maria was the shuttler or running midfielder connecting midfield and attack. Alonso was the deep lying defensive midfielder and Modric was the player in between the lines. The defending was collective with the onus on all 3 players although obviously Alonso held the majority of the responsibility.

In 2014-2015, this midfield changed to Kroos Modric/Isco and James. Kroos who was an attacking midfielder at Bayern was essentially asked to fill the Alonso role and James, another no 10 replaced Di Maria. Both new arrivals had a specular season but they cannot be expected to perfectly replace the departed Alonso and Di Maria in a like for like manner. Kroos has done an admirable job in adapting his game. There is no question about the level of his playmaking but there are still questions about his defending. James too was just as creative as Di Maria and put in a lot of work. However, he could not link the midfield and attack in the same way as Di Maria in a 4-3-3 because he is still fundamentally a no 10.

In the past season, the best period of football was the 22 game winning streak. A large portion of the streak involved a temporary 4-4-2 formation because of an injury to Bale. A 4-3-3 with the current personnel and especially with a midfield of this choice is risky. The defensive pressure on the midfield is too much especially because the front 3 absolutely have no defensive duties. Isco who often played in place of the injured Modric also had a great season but again is not made for a 4-3-3 with Kroos and James alongside him.

This is no slight on these wonderfully talented players. They adapted admirably to a system which is unsuited to their play and have produced some wonderful football. The level of performances is still astoundingly high and enough to beat most teams and possibly challenge for all competitions. But it does not give the same confidence as the 2011-2012 4-2-3-1 and 2013-2014 4-3-3.

Rafa Benitez will now put forward a new system of his choice and various news outlets have reported that he will use a 4-2-3-1 once again. Before analyzing how his 4-2-3-1 will look and whether it suits this team, we must first talk about how the forwards/wingers are involved in defending.

At Madrid, the front line BBC are given no defensive duties. In the Mourinho team, Ozil would be the first press and Di Maria would track back a lot on the right. Ronaldo almost never help out on the left wing. In the Ancelotti team, Bale and Ronaldo again never tracked back. This places a huge strain on the midfield which can cope with it if the right personnel are there. This was more than a fair trade when Ronaldo was a king on the wing. However, he is essentially a striker now. He almost never takes on a man on the wing or crosses much. Most of his goals last season were high quality poacher goals. If he no longer contributes on the wing, it does not make sense to compromise on defending down the left. Ronaldo has not declined but has merely adapted his game to a changing body.

Ronaldo must play as a number 9, where he esentially plays anyway

It is widely known that Ronaldo does not want to be stuck as a no 9 in the system but Benitez must make this decision. Especially with the lack of a pure defensive midfielder, the forward line must now help out in defending. If it is assumed that in any position Ronaldo will not track back, then he must be placed at striker which is where he essentially plays anyway. It would also mean that the club don’t need to sign another striker.

Benitez’s 4-2-3-1 is said to be with Kroos and Modric in the pivot, Bale on the left and James on the right. If Ronaldo plays as the striker, the only position up for grabs is essentially the no 10 spot. Isco is definitely one of the candidates for that spot. Another candidate would be Benzema. This might be a surprising proposition but it makes sense. For 2 years now, Benzema has essentially played in the hole as, for the lack of a better term a false 10, dropping slightly back with Bale and Ronaldo running ahead of him. His link up play/ hold up play and play making in the hole is exquisite. He has proven that he can play there and will be a good source of goals. This will be the biggest decision Benitez will have to make: choosing between Big Benz or Isco.

A 4-2-3-1 set-up in this manner looks interesting for sure. Looking at the pivot, it resembles the pivot at the latter end of 2012-2013 season when Alonso and Modric played often together. Here Kroos is the Alonso replacement. James will be expected to track back a lot just as last year. On the left, Bale will be playing instead of Ronaldo and he too must track back. Kroos and James are not as defensive as Alonso and Di Maria and to make up for that, Bale must put in a solid defensive shift at left wing. Any defensive output on the left will be greater than Ronaldo’s negligible contribution.

In the 4-3-3 itself, the pressure on the midfield defensively was heavy. In the 4-2-3-1, the pressure on the pivot is increased and can only be alleviated with collective defending. If Benitez sets up his 4-2-3-1 like this, for the first time since 2009, the team will be defending collectively back to front. This has the added benefit of allowing Marcelo( incredible attacking outlet ) and Carvajal/Danilo to contribute more to the attack as well.

Ideally, I believe this team should play a 4-4-2. A 4 man midfield can easily cope without a natural defensive midfielder and we have 2 world class strikers in Ronaldo and Benzema to fit into the system. I obviously hope any new system works out but have some doubts about playing a 4-2-3-1.

On another note, the upcoming season should be the season Marcelo cements his position as the best left back in Europe along with Alaba. Another extremely radical idea would be to play a 3 man defence. Madrid has 3 world class central defenders and it would be interesting to see.

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