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.
Happy Wednesday. Yesterday I had put it out that I’m leaning more and more towards Jude Bellingham spearheading the team in a diamond next season; and such a formation was in my ‘Real Madrid’s best XI’ podcast this week.
But I thought it would be worth putting it in more written detail as to why this might or might not work for next season:
The case for and against Bellingham in a diamond
With some many world class midfielders in the team, many have wondered how Carlo Ancelotti will juggle the minutes. Is a formation change in store? Will Fede Valverde play on the right wing? Will Jude Bellingham play as an attacking midfielder? Will Eduardo Camavinga play anywhere but his best position?
I have been leaning more and more toward the idea of seeing Jude Bellingham as a fourth midfielder. Count me out on the idea of using Valverde and Camavinga as wing-backs in a 3-5-2 — that seems too drastic of a tactical shift, and one that doesn’t get the best of both those midfielders. A diamond is more realistic, more true to what Real Madrid have done in recent history — reasonable and strong enough to be applicable to next season.
Bellingham is tailor-made to spearhead a diamond. He’s comfortable roaming to both wings, but also devastating as a central connector. He can break lines with his dribbling, can get the ball from point A to point B without overcomplicating the issue, and his unpredictability on and off the ball make him a good candidate to be a chief problem-solver against stubborn low blocks that are hard to penetrate.
The diamond is also tactically malleable. It can morph into a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 within matches depending on the game state. Other players — not just Bellingham — can also shift in and out of the 10 slot. Brahim Diaz, Rodrygo Goes, and Dani Ceballos all have experience in that role. Arda Güler can play it too.
Should Bellingham play that role, expect asymmetry. When Isco played in the diamond, he tended to hedge left while Dani Carvajal would be the lone wolf on the right to receive diagonal bombs from Toni Kroos after Real Madrid had sucked the defense into a vortex on the left-hand side. Bellingham, as illustrated by his season heat map below, likes the left side, and he can link up with Vinicius there.
Of course, Isco’s role under Zinedine Zidane is not the only version of a four-man midfield. Carlo Ancelotti himself, in part due to injuries to Gareth Bale, deployed a quartet of Isco, James Rodriguez, Luka Modric, and Toni Kroos for large stretches in the 2014 - 2015 season. They controlled possession and played narrow, went on a large unbeaten run, and utilized the bombing runs of Marcelo and Carvajal to create width.
That last sentence is a hint at why it may not work as well next season. Marcelo is gone, and Carvajal is a shell of his former self. Narrow midfields require capable two-way wing-backs. Fran Garcia can help on the left, but the right side still remains weak given that the club has not shown much interest in signing an upgrade at right-back.
The diamond also worked until it didn’t. When Zidane first put Isco in that role, teams were thrown off guard — mercilessly trying to defend but it was an impossible task. Isco was unpredictable, silky, smart. He created and scored — he pressed and worked hard off the ball too. (It should be noted too that Bellingham is a solid north-south player who can defend and cover ground without worry.)
But eventually, teams figured it out: Isco’s roamability also meant the team almost never knew where he was defensively, and had to work double time to cover in transition or when the pressing lines broke. In the 2017-2018 season, Real Madrid did their damage in the Champions League knockout stages (and final) in the second half when Zidane took Isco out and shifted into a 4-3-3 with wingers.
But that’s also getting ahead of ourselves. The diamond may only be a temporary solution, and may also exist only in our minds as a thought exercise until Real Madrid sign a striker. Some of this hypothetical discussion is birthed from the idea of Rodrygo starting as the nine — a scenario that changes if Real Madrid get Kylian Mbappe or another striker that might push Rodrygo out wide again and into a 4-3-3.
Still, no one should be surprised if we see iterations of Real Madrid next season that feature four midfielders in the line-up. These elite players in the middle need to see playing time somehow.