Consistency is the name of the game for a team hoping to win a league title.
There can be all sorts of accusations of luck and one-game performances but as far as a league title is concerned, it is always the better team that comes up trumps. Couple this consistency with José Mourinho’s unwavering faith in the fabled football saying, ‘Attack wins you matches, Defence wins you trophies’ and add to it a touch(more than that actually) of world class attacking talent and you have the perfect combination for what has become, and remains, the deadliest counter attacking team in the world.
Real Madrid was at times referred to as merciless and lethal, as they seamlessly entertained with their never ending barrage of goals and ground out results when the going got tough. It all worked out perfectly as Real Madrid won the La Liga for the 32nd time with a convincing 9 point gap at the top. However, there were disappointments in the shape of Copa Del Rey and Champions League campaigns.
Major tactical successes of the last season
The introduction of Gonzalo Higuain to play alongside Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo meant that Mesut Özil took up a much freer role behind these three, no longer responsible for duties in the centre of the pitch. He has, to put it quite simply, thrived in that role.
Although he began his season less decisively, he picked up through the season and became more and more instrumental as the season progressed, especially in the big games. And with the coach’s permission to operate freely in the void between strikers and holding midfielders he has gone on to become Madrid’s main man after Ronaldo, or perhaps as good as him?
Yes, they would not be as decisive without Ronaldo, but Özil has proven that the same is the case with him. As is, his defensive contributions were questioned at times, especially his inability to help out his team in the Allianz Arena, which led to decisive strike by Mario Gomez, but Madrid carry a certain level of unpredictability when operating with all three of their attackers ahead of Nemo. A new Zidane in the making, perhaps?
Another change was borne more out of necessity than anything else. Sergio Ramos moved to the centre of defence after the injury to Ricardo Carvalho and made the position his own. While Ramos is nowhere near as experienced as Carvalho, his ability to initiate attacks from the back greatly helped Madrid, something that could not be expected with the former being on the pitch.
The vice-captain was instrumental in his side’s defence as well, often stepping out of Pepe’s shadow, who is sturdier and an actual centre back, and put in match defining shifts time and again. He’s done a wonderful job at right back all these years, but it’s now time to use his positional attributes and aerial superiority to go on and be Madrid’s best central defender in the years to come. A temporary arrangement turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
Real Madrid were finally able to put their fears to bed against Barcelona having been almost completely dominated for 3 years barring a victory in the Copa del Rey final. José Mourinho, the tactical genius that he is, decided to learn from his mistakes and instead of opting for two extremes, chose the middle path successfully.
Barring Copa Del Rey’s first leg loss, Mourinho has now consistently fielded a 4-2-3-1 formation against Barcelona. Instead of focusing only on stifling Barcelona’s play in the middle with the likes of Pepe (or Diarra at times in the 10-11 season), Real Madrid now focus more on dispossessing Barça players through a less rigorous pressing style than pressing heavily early on in the game and then retreating into more entrenched positions, and Xabi Alonso or Mesut Özil playing a quick ball to one of the three forwards.
Madrid’s commitment to sticking with this trusted formation against Barcelona has meant the Catalans are mindful, perhaps even fearful, of Madrid. Ronaldo’s goal at Camp Nou in the league reverse fixture was a classic example of this strategy. Barcelona’s defensive lapses have most notably been made use of as well, most recently in second leg of the Spanish Super Cup.
The Arrivals and the Departures
Surprising as it may seem, the transfer market for Real Madrid began and ended with the arrival of Luka Modric. There was also the arrival of Michael Essien from Chelsea on loan. Most of what the English press have covered about Luka Modric’s departure is his number of goals and his relatively lower number of assists. But in fairness these stats don’t even begin to tell the story.
If there ever was a term ‘pre-assist’, it would be then that the picture would become clearer. Innumerable times at Tottenham, Modric has pounced on the ball, picked out a player with an immaculate pass, who would then go on to lay an assist for another. Everybody remembers that beautifully laid pass; nobody remembers the one who picked out that free player who then squared up the ball. Mourinho firmly believes that he has the touch of class and magic that they like at the Bernabéu.
About Michael Essien only one phrase comes to mind: ‘Oh! How the mighty have fallen’. Once the most feared defensive midfielder, he earned himself the nickname ‘The Bison’. He tore through midfields, broke up plays, initiated moves, scored screamers and drove the team. His powerful presence and his tackling prowess were one of the most significant reasons behind Terry and Carvalho’s successful defensive partnership at Chelsea.
With Khedira and Alonso the natural first choices for the defensive midfield roles and the arrival of Modric, Essien’s chanes chances of breaking into the team appear a little bleak. In all likelihood, whether Madrid need more physical presence in the midfield or not would decide if he gets a chance. He showed positive signs in his pre-season preparations with Chelsea. Who knows, he could yet find his footing under daddy Mourinho.
Nuri Şahin was the most notable departure for the season joining Liverpool on a season long loan. His departure has been well covered by the arrival of Luka Modric and Michael Essien. Esteban Granero made a surprise move to QPR while Lass Diarra has also left after an irresistible offer from Anzhi.
Young and Upcoming Players
Jose Callejon already seems to be a regular starter after getting several starts in the last season. Di Maria’s injury and subsequent dip in form last season meant that the former Castilla player had his chances and he has taken them well. More of a forward, he has settled on the right side of attacking midfield. He looks likely to make the starting line-up more often than last season.
Raphael Varane is another of young bloods who look set to break through the ranks, after the injury to Carvalho opened up the doors of the starting XI for him. With the transfer activity and young players coming in through Real Madrid Castilla, Real Madrid are well covered in all positions, with a lot of tactical options available to Mourinho.
In addition to the above, Alvaro Morata and Nacho Fernandez, Castilla graduates, will also be a part of first team this season.
Do major overhauls await?
‘Not the best of starts’ – so would say the armchair analyst, stroking his chin. Whether it was down to lousy pre-season preparations or the Euro 2012 hangover, Real Madrid simply failed to hit the ground running. However it is, as it always is, a long season and any significant tactical changes are likely to become more apparent as the season progresses.
For now, it seems Real Madrid have picked up where they left in terms of formations and tactics, apart from the slow legs and ponderous moves that have given way to an uncharacteristically slow start. The Supercopa win would help of course.
Expected Formation and Line-up
As it stands at this point of season, tactics are not likely to have a significant change. The aforementioned would be the best starting line-up for the season, with different teams dictating the presence or absence of certain players. With only one decisive arrival, 4-2-3-1 should and would in all probability remain Real’s favoured formation over the course of the season.
As Real Madrid are a predominantly counter attacking outfit, there is no other formation that can offer the fluidity offered by 4-2-3-1, especially with a deep sitting midfield playmaker like Xabi Alonso (and now with a very effective substitute/partner in the form of Luka Modric) in the ranks, a tireless destroyer and effective midfield enforcer in Sami Khedira (with Essien as a back-up) and a creative genius like Mesut Özil roaming free behind the three forwards. With Benzema drifting out and Ronaldo drifting in, alongside Gonzalo Higuain, expect them to create havoc as they did last season.
The 4-3-3 can still be used as a secondary formation but expect it to be employed in only tricky away games, perhaps like those where Real Madrid faltered last season in Champions League.
Apart from all of this, whatever can be said about Ronaldo is insufficient. Ronaldo demonstrated his class in the recent El Clásico again, with an audacious back-heel flick over Pique. Expect to be entertained by him and his gifted team mates as the best laid plans and tactics get thrown out the door.
Written by Guest Author Shivam Chaturvedi