With Los Blancos’ sporting project starting to come together, here is a look at it ahead of the new season:
1. This Real Madrid boasts plenty of squad depth
Lack of squad depth was one of the major problems faced by Carlo Ancelotti, particularly during the second half of last season. Whatever he tried, certain players were unable to step up their game. Asier Illarramendi, Sami Khedira and Lucas Silva proved to be insufficient midfielders at best, while Jese and Nacho were also unable to make an impact when called up to their respective positions. Not to mention the plight of Fabio Coentrao. Outside the first team, only Raphael Varane, Isco and Javier Hernandez made a difference. That too because of the injury crisis.
Rafael Benitez is known to be a fan of rotation. His stint at Chelsea in particular was impressive, as he took a demoralized squad to a Europa League victory, FA cup semi-final appearance and 3rd place in the Premier League. Not too shabby, especially considering the fact that Chelsea played an enormous 69 games after a Euro season.
To challenge for trophies on all fronts, quality squad depth is necessary. Benitez has brought in many low-key but reliable signings, many of which were on loan:
- The Russian left midfielder/winger Denis Cheryshev. Brought back from Villarreal, the 24 year old looks set to be a successful impact player . Cheryshev was one of the focal points of a Villarreal side which managed to defeat both Madrid sides in Madrid. He could give Ronaldo some much needed rest (competition?) as well. A squad player for now, but opportunities will be given to him.
- Espanyol winger Lucas Vasquez. While he seemed to be signed to fulfill UEFA’s home grown player quota, Vasquez functions as an able right sided winger. The Castilla product will provide some competition for Gareth Bale perhaps.
- Gritty defensive midfielder Casemiro. A serious upgrade on Asier Illarramendi and Lucas Silva, the Brazilian will be a crucial player this season. Not least because he can function as a replacement for either Toni Kroos or Luka Modric. His defensive abilities in particular will be craved as Real will look to be a defensively sound unit. More on that front later.
- The goalkeeping situation looks to be much improved at the club. With the Iker Casillas saga over Keylor Navas looks set to deservedly take over between the sticks, although this is likely far overdue. Kiko Casilla is now available as immediate cover and a league-cup rotation could be resumed.
- Of course, one cannot forget the major transfer that was wrapped up pre-Benitez. Marauding full back Danilo, in particular, looks to be a crucial part of the jigsaw puzzle. The Brazilian looks all set to complement Marcelo on the opposite flank, providing the creativity that Daniel Carvajal did, only far more consistently.
Squad depth is the first problem which has been dealt with in a clean fashion.
2. There will be competition for places
Another of the few (but menacing) weaknesses of Carlo Ancelotti’s reign was the lack of genuine competition for first team spots. Ancelotti himself declared his front 3 to be untouchable when they were fit. Benitez will likely rotate and give opportunities to all his players when the season kicks off. Rafa’s switch to a 4-2-3-1 means that. Here is a look at the competition for places-
Right back will see a keenly fought battle between new signing Danilo and youth product Carvajal. Danilo will bring Marcelo-esque creativity to the right flank, as mentioned before. However the real question is whether he will back it up with quality defending. If preseason is anything to go by, the answer should be yes (and more game time as a result). Regardless of this, the right back position should be the one where Real faces few problems this season.
Left back is another story entirely. The signing of Jose Luis Gaya from Valencia looks increasingly unlikely to happen, leaving Marcelo and Fabio Coentrao as the club’s left backs. Marcelo will play whenever possible- his performances feature heart, hustle and creativity. Of course, Coentrao’s superior defensive positioning might give him a handful of minutes against lowly opposition. Marcelo all the way in this position. He is a crucial cog.
The center back slots are in safe hands. Real Madrid have 2 of the best center backs in the world, as well as a world class last man as a substitute. Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane should be the starters when fit and available. That does not mean that Pepe won’t get game time- he will be gradually stepped down by his replacment in Varane. Nacho should see some time as well in certain fixtures.
Playing a 4-2-3-1 means having a double pivot. The two stand out players for this role are obviously Toni Kroos and Luka Modric. The duo complement each-other perfectly. Kroos is the maestro, a pass master who can dictate terms with ease in midfield. The German, like Modric, can deliver killer passes and set up simply wonderful goals on his day. Modric is a different player. Known for his dribbling and passing, Modric is also adept at pressing and providing clean defensive output (something he picked up from Carlo Ancelotti). When fit and firing, this duo can dominate nearly any midfield.
The problem lies in the fact that these two playing alongside eachother became a rarity in the second half of the season. Modric’s injuries coupled with Kroos’ utter exhaustion saw Madrid’s midfield collapse. This is where Casemiro will be crucial. His ability to plug the gap left by either of these players will be of the utmost importance. Of course, even Illarramendi has not been seen as a lost cause by Benitez, and has been given time in his favored holding role (with some success, mind you). The fact that Luka Modric was signed to play Toni Kroos’ attacking midfield role at Real Madrid will not have been lost on Benitez either. Especiallly because both are former attackers are now playing defensively. If Casemiro or Illarra shine, defensive midfield will prove to be an area of strength. Rotation in these positions is a guarantee from the offset as well. Could Casemiro start?
The ‘3’ in the 4-2-3-1 formation
The summer signings will prove most effective when it comes to these 3 positions.
Left and Right Wing
The two most expensive players in the world could hypothetically start in these position. Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale seem to be the most obvious options as well. However, that does not have to be the case. Taking into account the fact that Ronaldo might switch to a center forward role, there are many combinations of players for these 2 roles.
If Ronaldo does end up on the left wing, then Bale will naturally start on the right. If Ronaldo plays up front, Bale could move to the left. Lucas Vasquez can play on the right while Denis Cheryshev has a role on the left. (Squad roles). One cannot forget Jese Rodriguez either, who could play across the forward line. Add in James Rodriguez, who also has right sided ability, and Real Madrid’s attack is glittered with options.
The fact that Benitez has turned this into an interchangeable front 4 means many of these players will be free to roam from wing to center to wing. Coming up with a definitive starting XI is tough, but rest assured all the aforementioned players will be involved.
Central Attacking Midfielder
If the competition at right back is intense, then the competition for this role will be too good to be true. Two of the best in this position in the world, Isco and James Rodriguez will be competing against each-other for a start. Isco’s magnificent dribbling or James’ godly shooting? This contest surely can’t have a winner? Isco is better when it comes to bamboozling players, while James can turn games on their heads with his set pieces, passing and shooting. Regardless, facing these players when they are well rested is a nightmare for any holding midfielder or defender.
There are 3 candidates for this role. Karim Benzema, Ronaldo and Jese. Benzema deserves to hold his place for now, but will no longer be fatigued due to rotation and will have an even more important role this season. Benzema’s duties to facilitate play will be supplemented with the responsibility of scoring more goals. With that said, using Jese’s speed to run at opposition defenses is a real option. As is the possibility of using Ronaldo as a ‘target man.’ The Frenchman’s quality is not questionable though, and he wil surely be used as the season wears on.
The side is already looking more dangerous, and all the competition for places look to be decided by merit rather than presidential pressure as in the past. Benitez will keep more players happy it seems.
3. Tactical flexibility and defensive discipline
As foreshadowed, tactical flexibility looks set to be another feature of the new Real Madrid. (Not that Real Madrid were unable to counter-attack and hold the ball depending on the circumstances before.)
Here is a look at the potential that Benitez looks to tap into:
-The interchangeable front 4. This could be the key to Real Madrid’s attack next season. Simply because it could bring out the best in Real Madrid’s galacticos.
When Barcelona won the treble, their formation was perfectly suited to bringing the best out of their front 3. Each player had the individual qualities to succeed, but when Messi, Neymar and Suarez were given so much of the ball and responsibility they really stepped it up. There is no coincidence that Xavi’s decreasing influence helped the front 3, as they operated extremely well when given more influence (read: time on the ball). Of course, the same thing applies to Real Madrid. Considering this is a more European attack, Real’s players will need their own environment to succeed. An interchangeable front 4 will allow Real Madrid’s attackers freedom within the system. Gareth Bale in particular will benefit from this move. Players like James Rodriguez and Isco (last season) succeeded in midfield because they were still free to move around in midfield, and had a relatively free role when compared to Bale’s strict duties at the right. This change might be the most important of all.
-A resilient and creative midfield. Real Madrid had a recurring problem over the past 2 seasons- the midfield got overrun with ease in big matches. Especially when it was a rigid 4-3-3. Unless Bale was harried into playing as a right midfielder rather than forward, the midfield was essentially baseless. Unless Luka Modric was fit, the midfield struggled to keep control. And against a physical Atletico no combination worked (Champions League matches against them were the exceptions rather than the rules). Rafa’s return has likely brought the right solutions for this. Firstly, Benitez looks set to accomodate more players, if not all in his defensive set up. Output off the ball from most players will be increased. Secondly, Benitez will use Casemiro’s destructive capabilities to aid in midfield. In games like that against Valencia at the Mestalla, Real looked awfully in need of a ball winner in midfield. Modric’s absence added fuel to the existing fire. Of course, they had Sami Khedira but the German never looked up to any task last season. Casemiro will allow Real Madrid to adjust their playing style whenever necessary.
Of course, the majority of the attacking set had already been clicking when Benitez took charge. Exemplary goals were scored throughout the season- Real even outscored Barcelona. If Rafa can manage to bring the best out of his defense, this Madrid side could be on its way to winning plenty of silverware. La Undecima perhaps.
Isco or James? Voice your opinion in the comments section.
Edit: This article will be updated as the season begins.