A very interesting part of Jose Mourinho’s time at Real Madrid was the use of double pivot. Under him, the days of Real Madrid relying solely on the likes of Claude Makelele to break up play and make a two yard pass to a Zidane to start an attack became a thing of the past. In the context of modern game as well, every player on the team sheet has to possess a variety of attributes so that he can contribute on both ends of the pitch and in that sense this double pivot has given the game a new outlook and more emphasis on team play rather than the focus being towards individual players in a particular position.
This double pivot also gave Mourinho the insurance of two defensive minded midfielders that he likes. Now with Ancelotti arriving on the shores of Real Madrid, a change in tactics may be on the cards – so a discussion on the level of success attained by this double pivot formation might be prudent.
How the ‘Double-Pivot’ was employed by Real Madrid
The Real Madrid defensive midfield under Mourinho consisted of two almost-similar types of midfielders with varied roles – Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira. Neither of them is a ‘true’ defensive midfielder in the sense of it. Neither of them is as complete as Fernando Redondo or as astute as Claude Makelele were. These two are, instead, ball-playing midfielders who combine to make things happen.
Alonso is the ‘artist’ with his pin-point passing and impeccable positioning while Khedira is the energetic one running around endlessly through the length of the game. Alonso works in two ways – defensively he drops deep, even deeper than the centre backs at times thus creating a three man central backline. Many opponents’ coaches push forward their deeper players to negate this eventually playing in the hands of Real Madrid by giving the Madrid frontline acres of space to work with.
In attack Alonso plays an even more important role of being the prime creator. Other than playing long aesthetic diagonals towards the flanks – he also plays brilliant through passes that unleash the forwards. Once Alonso is in posession there are no limits to what he can create. He forms the fulcrum of Real’s attack.
His partner Khedira plays a simpler brand of football compared to him – unfancied, not so glamorous but in no way less important. Khedira keeps the ball moving and the play ticking. When teams do not play with ten men behind the ball – he makes vertical runs to help the playmaker have more time on the ball. He also provides the ball forward more often and acts as a decoy; when not doing so he just passes it to Alonso to keep moving things around.
When Madrid attacks, khedira carefully thinks about the defence and plugs any holes that may be exploited. Khedira is omnipresent in defense and attack – like a box-to-box midfielder. His incessant running around the ball often helps Alonso slip behind the opposition guards and when the opposition attack is halted alonso is found higher up in the filed to unleash a deadly scoring opportunity.
Has this really worked?
This is debatable – some would say that it has worked while others would differ. Undeniably this partnership is pivotal to all the success Real has had over these past few summers but things could have been better.
Both Alonso and Khedira are ball-playing defensive players – they both like to play the ball forward from deep positions with a focus on scoring. They try to complement each other with one of them falling deep while the other ventures forward but none of them is a defensive midfielder in the true sense of it. Khedira has taken up the sweeper role in the midfield quite often recovering an impressive number of balls but he is not one who sits back above the defense, lords over the area and guarantees possession much like Redondo or Makelele had done for Real; he cannot dictate a game by himself. It has been proven time and again last season that once Alonso finds himself scuttled the whole Madrid midfield capitulates. When facing teams with superior attacks, Alonso often falls deep back to help Khedira thus effectively helping the opposition team’s offense.
For a team of Real’s stature it is a pity that they do not have a classic defensive midfielder much like they used to have in Fernando Redondo or Makelele. These ‘masters’ have been replaced by two ‘jacks’ and this is where the shortcoming lies for Real Madrid. At Liverpool, Alonso played with Mascherano who sat back deep doing all the cleaning while Alonso played higher up the field. That not only guaranteed more defensive strength but also more space and creativity for Alonso. Its not to say that with Khedira things have failed but with a better defensive-minded partner he could have performed better.
Harking back to the better days of midfield supremacy at Real Madrid – brings up the names of Fernando Redondo and Calude Makelele. The Argentine though cannot be called only a defensive midfielder as many are of the opinion that he was the fabled ‘Complete Central Midfielder’ or as Fabio Capello said ‘a tactically perfect player’. Redondo was not too complex with his play – he relied on precise tackling, perfect timing and an astute reading of the game. His crucial interceptions and his perfect syncing with his teammates made him a master of the trade. He was elegance and strength combined into one. He dictated the game from the deep and Real Madrid continue to miss him. Those days of sheer artistic brilliance are rare these days.
Makalele was the most underrated and the best player of the Galactico Era. He covered every blade of grass, protected the defense and played it simple to help Real Madrid retain possession. His hard work made the likes of Figo and Zidane work their magic. He was the defensive wall and the vast majority of Real’s attack owe their inception to him. He, like Redondo, dictated the game in his own subtle yet brilliant way. He was the engine of the ‘Bentley’ that Real Madrid wanted to build. One they traded, as Zidane put it, for a new coat of gold.
With a new coach and change in tactics a new-look midfield might be on the cards specially with the addition of the likes of Isco and Asier Illarramendi arriving at Real Madrid. It must be said that under Mourinho the double pivot was much appreciated. Falling far from the artistic days of Redondo and the subtle brilliant ways of Makelele – the current midfield was more about pace and brute force and moments of brilliance from Alonso. The structure of this engine has changed in Real Madrid with varied success, and an ambiguous impact on the team’s fortunes.
One could argue differently, but the double pivot fell short on some of the major occasions for Real Madrid and last season provided many testimonies of. With a better defensive midfielder alongside Alonso or Khedira things could have been much better - especially with one like Redondo or Makelele for the double pivot. Stay tuned to see if Ancelotti will persist with the ‘double pivot’ that Mourinho called his own.