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Carlo Ancelotti’s latest re-invention: Rodrygo Goes as a #10

Left winger, right winger, false 9, and now a #10 — Rodrygo’s versatility and IQ has made him a huge asset

Real Madrid v Shakhtar Donetsk: Group F - UEFA Champions League Photo by Mateo Villalba/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

These observations — where I look at Real Madrid’s history, its players on loan, Castilla, tactical tidbits, and other relevant thoughts — are now a regular thing. All previous editions can be found here.

There was always a sense that Rodrygo Goes, a gifted footballer, one I initially labelled as a ‘blitzing offensive weapon that Real Madrid couldn’t miss out on’ back in 2018, had some bad luck.

Vinicius’s emergence on the left wing had many wondering if Rodrygo’s signing was a victim of bad timing. His best position was on the left, just like Vinicius, and of the two, Vinicius cemented his spot for two main reasons: 1) He was lights out good; and 2) He was less versatile than Rodrygo. I have always said this: The most versatile player usually gets punished the most, in some weird, twisted way. Rodrygo went to the right. Fede Valverde, also, played on the right wing because he could, and not because it was necessarily his best position.

But it could be argued now that all that ‘bad luck’ worked out, and maybe it was meant to be this way. Vinicius securing the left wing has allowed everyone to see how good Rodrygo has been across three attacking positions. Had he not been asked to play on the right, we may not have seen how devastating he is at making unstoppable diagonal runs across the face of goal to meet passes from Vinicius and Benzema. Had Benzema not endured an injury this season, we may not have seen how good Rodrygo is as a false-nine.

Now we know many things: Rodrygo is an excellent link-up player, off-ball mover, finisher, and line-breaking dribbler. Everything he does is productive to generating chances. He’s currently third in La Liga in shot-creating actions per 90 (6.21).

Now we know even more, thanks to an intriguing tactical wrinkle deployed by Carlo Ancelotti in last night’s 2 - 1 win over Shakhtar Donetsk: Rodrygo can play as a 10.

In theory, that’s something we knew he could do, but last night was the first time we saw it in practice, and it was encouraging.

On paper, Rodrygo was deployed on the right wing. In most cases this season, when Rodrygo is garrisoned on that flank, he drifts to the left and overloads that side. It was not surprising, necessarily, to see him hedge away from that side. But last night, Ancelotti took his role to a whole new level, almost giving us a glimpse of what it was like to see Isco in the diamond under Zidane. Rodrygo had most of his devastating touches centrally. He provided good vertical outlets for Aurelien Tchouameni and Toni Kroos, and combined with the rest of the attackers — Vinicius, Benzema, Valerde — effortlessly.

Rodrygo’s touches in his fluid role, were scattered, and far from what a traditional winger does:

Rodrygo’s heat map vs Shakhtar Donetsk, via WhoScored.

Some will point to the fact that Real Madrid only scored two goals last night. I don’t think you can punish this line-up because of its lack of efficiency. The process tells a different story: Real Madrid’s build-up was near-perfect. Four players alone — Kroos, Alaba, Benzema, Valverde — combined for 21 key passes. The amount of chances this line-up generated were absurd. There is a good case that Ancelotti should give this line-up more continuity together and let it start marinating.

What I love most about it: It’s unpredictable, just like Zidane’s diamond with Isco was. It’s much more difficult to defend Rodrygo if he’s roaming freely. He can still do things traditional wingers do: Take players on and put crosses in. But asking him to do that for 90 minutes is more predictable, and takes away from his talent and intelligence.

His goal was a great illustration of what he brings as an unpredictable roamer. He starts the play with the ball at his feet on the right wing. After releasing the ball, he moves centrally. Nine seconds after he makes the pass from the right wing, he’s at the top of the box, wide open. No one on Shakhtar detected his presence because no one can man mark his fluid role. Buckets.

The main question: How does this work against an elite team? I don’t think it changes much apart from the natural degree of difficulty. The great thing about this line-up is that its unpredictability can break down low blocks; but it can also slice holes through the collective heart of teams who dare to hold a higher line.

Defensively, it would require winning the ball higher up the pitch, just like it did against Shakhtar. That’s not a bad thing. Carlo Ancelotti spoke about the defensive side of Rodrygo’s role last night:

“We defended in a slightly different way compared to other matches,” Ancelotti explained. “Because Rodrygo has that energy to challenge their centre-backs, who are good with the ball.”

Last night’s pressing was encouraging. Ancelotti’s men generated several great chances through their aggressiveness high up the pitch.

As I mentioned on last night’s post-game podcast, Ancelotti can also shift things in-game with this line-up if tactical issues arise. If you need to hold a deeper line after an elite team starts breaking down the press, the tweak is easy: You can re-arrange into a 4-3-3 without making any subs.

It’s hard to see Luka Modric — so pivotal in so many key games — sit out a big game. It will be interesting to see what ‘Once de Gala’ Carlo Ancelotti will roll out on October 16th vs Barcelona.

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