There has been a whole host of criticism leveled at Real Madrid after their unbelievable draw with Malaga. Many blame Ronaldo, the linesman, or poor decision making from our players. While all are valid points of contentiousness, the man who orchestrated this draw from the beginning was Rafa Benitez.
What has Benitez done wrong?
In previous articles, I have touched upon how bad the 4-4-2 is when you are trying to play possession football. But I’m not sure people truly understand why.
For starters, it is a naturally flat formation that doesn’t create enough triangles to ensure enough penetration. The problem can be negated if one of Benzema or Ronaldo moved deeper to receive the ball in between the lines. However, once a forward does that, the formation is no longer a 4-4-2, but a 4-2-3-1.
Secondly, a 4-4-2 dictates that two strikers lead the line by operating primarily in the box. Thus, the first instinct is for the wide men to pummel crosses into their target men. That seriously stunts imagination and doesn’t give the attacking side many options. It would have been more tolerable for us fans if this endless crossing had been solely the fault of the natural inclination of the players, but Benitez sat on the sidelines and gave no instructions to his men to change their game plan. He made only one forced substitution and seemed content with the way things were going.
One positive on the 4-4-2
So why does Benitez persist when it is painfully obvious that a 4-4-2 is stagnant and horrific at breaking down teams that sit deep? One explanation is that it is the most defensively sound formation out there. The likes of Atletico Madrid have famously utilized this defensive astuteness to incredible effect and Ancelotti continually harped about how he wanted to attack in a 4-3-3 and defend in a 4-4-2 last year. Benitez is famed for being a defensive coach, and while that is not entirely fair, it does have an inkling of truth. He likes to be tight at the back and there is no better way to do so then having two drilled banks of four face the opposition. It is relatively easy to organize and constricts almost all space through the middle. In addition, in this formation, you don’t need control of the ball (you only have two central midfielders, one is usually a destroyer, though that is not the case with Real Madrid). You can invite teams on and play primarily on the counter.
But the problem arises when you are given the ball in such a formation. As I mentioned before, a 4-4-2 is not designed to control the game. There are only two central midfielders who have very little freedom to move up the pitch (because they must maintain defensive shape) and the only avenue of attack is through the wings.
So what does Benitez need to do?
After doing away with the 4-4-2, he needs to bring in a formation suitable for creating critical angles like a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1. This allows for a playmaker to drop in between the lines of midfield and defense to receive the ball. Once he has done that, it is all about the style he sets up Madrid to play in. Possession football is all about patience. The whole point is to hold the ball until the opposition makes a mistake. Yesterday we were the antithesis of that. We were incredibly impatient, as evidenced by the way we rushed the ball to the flank and piled balls into the box. What we need to do is rotate the ball across the pitch: from left to right, right to left, front to back, and back to front. Instead of allowing the back four to steady itself by delivering obvious crosses, we need to keep the back line on its toes. Eventually, one of the midfielders or defenders will make a positional mistake and the two deep lying playmakers (Modric and Kroos) can slip a ball into the advanced playmaker (who is constantly drawing players out of position and causing havoc by dancing in between the lines). This advanced playmaker can then shoot, play a ball to the forward, or slip the ball out wide. If the ball goes out wide in such a situation, then Madrid should cross (but as quickly as possible). The defense will be out of balance by such a quick change in tempo and they will not be in a good position to deal with the cross. Lethal players like Ronaldo and Benzema can then ping the ball into the net with ease.
While this sounds really simple, it is incredibly difficult to maintain such precision in passes and intelligence in movement. But we definitely have the personnel to do it and it really is our only option when trying to break teams down. It is up to Benitez to implement the necessary changes.
While I realize I might not have even written this article if Ronaldo had buried half of his chances, I think we should realize that against the likes of Atletico we won’t even get a third of the clear cut chances we got against Malaga if we play this way again. Los Colchoneros are the most defensively organized team in word football and will most likely limit us to 3-4 clear-cut chances even if we play really well. I guess the main positive we can take from our matches against Granada and Malaga is that we are learning these hard lessons before we take on our eternal rivals.