Formations are key to the manner in which a team operates. It defines the number of personnel available in the defensive, transitional and attacking phase, their average positions and the style of football they will play. By marking out individual zones, formations maintain balance and bring a certain degree of rigidity to a team. However, occasionally certain personnel are afforded the liberty of general free-roaming role either across an entire third of the pitch or a particular side. They are productive enough to outweigh the disadvantages brought about the partial loss of shape. This Madrid team has taken the fluid, free roam concept to the next level however.
In my opinion, positional rules have been relaxed for a total of four players (possibly five) in this team. First, we must understand the average shape of the team. On paper, it is a standard 4-2-3-1. Cristiano Ronaldo lines up on the left, Gareth Bale as the no10, James Rodriguez on the right and Karim Benzema up front. The rest of the team also lines up as expected.
However, the average positions of the players beyond the centre backs resembles two banks of four. Marcelo and Danilo flank the pivot. As anyone who watches Madrid will note, Ronaldo is the main cause of imbalance in this team. In previous years, he was a source of imbalance because he always cut in from the left and never tracked back, leaving Marcelo/ Fabio Coentrao exposed. However, now he is the source of imbalance because he has completely vacated the left wing. He is almost always on the left side of the box, making runs to the far post. He is no longer a winger by any definition but rather a world class striker. All of his goals have and will come from within the box. His recurring knee problems has meant that while he is still one of the fastest while making a run to the ball, he is no longer one of the fastest with the ball.
There is undoubtedly no player as clinical and intelligent as him in the box. People are faulting him for scoring a lot of tap-ins and goals from within the box but that is an invalid argument. He is scoring these tap-ins because he is making extremely intelligent runs and is always at the right place at the right time. While the actual act of the tap-in is easy, getting yourself into that position and creating such an opportunity requires a cerebral player with the killer instinct of Ronaldo. If tap-ins were so easy, why isn’t every player scoring five a game? or even one a game ? The man has truly reinvented himself in such a way that he can easily have three more 50+ goal seasons. He has correctly realized his new limitations which age and injuries have imposed and has found a way to stay just as relevant as before. In the purest sense, Cristiano Ronaldo is the greatest goal scorer of this generation. This is not the same as being the greatest player which is another debate.
At the start of the season, I hoped to see Ronaldo as no9 because of his lack of productivity on the wing. It is still early in the season and Madrid have not had a stern test yet but I think Benitez may have found a solution to his issue while on paper letting Ronaldo keep his left wing spot (for ego issues). If Ronaldo moved upfront the obvious solution seemed to playing Bale on left, James right and Isco centre but that would leave Benzema out which I believe would be a massive loss. The key to new system is Benzema’s versatility/link up play and allowing Bale to take on the free roam mantle.
By placing Bale at 10, Benitez has granted him the space he so desperately lacked last season on the right. He is allowed to practically move unimpeded across the entire zone , especially into also the left which is vacated by Ronaldo. Benzema on the other hand either partners Ronaldo up front or drops in slight behind into the space on the left. The fluidity created by such a system has been stunning to watch and would not be possible with other personnel. Very few strikers can do the dual job that Benzema does and very few players can free roam in Bale’s mould. This is not to diminish James who has( granted in only 1 game) and will expectedly do very well on the right. Isco too has/will be good on the right although his style of play is slightly unsuited to this team.
In this manner, it is interesting to see how so many players play dual roles in this team. Against most teams in La Liga, Marcelo and Danilo/ Dani Carvajal will basically be wingers. Against Espanyol, there was a passage of play where Madrid lost the ball; Marcelo was ahead of Ronaldo on the left and Isco had run over from the right to cover. Marcelo always comes with some risk but is undoubtedly worth it and this season could be the one he rivals David Alaba (who evens knows what position he plays for Bayern anymore) as the world’s best left back.
Toni Kroos and Luka Modric take turns in moving forward into 10 zone when everyone is making runs into the box. Special mention must be made for Kroos who has completely come into his own in the modified Xabi Alonso role. He is one of the few midfielders in the world who can comfortably play anywhere in the middle i.e. no10, CM and CDM which is staggeringly brilliant.
Such a system should do well against most teams. There remain doubts about defensive stability against better teams though. Everyone will have to be restrained back against better players and that is where we will have to see if the imbalance on the left is a problem. Also we have to wait and see how the team does when there is lack of space. Sporting Gijon were tight packed in the front of the box/ in the box and we struggled (could be overlooked as it was the first game).
Another special mention must be given to Casemiro who really looked like the hard, aggressive midfield man we needed. He will be needed in many tight games where more emphasis will be required defensively.