As have reached the winter break, Carlo Ancelotti and his men must be extremely pleased with the progress they have made since the start of the season.
Players and coaches are afforded a very small transition period at a club like Real Madrid. Defeats and mistakes made during this period are excused but there is little room for error past that time frame.
Ancelotti had a slightly difficult transition period. Not only were the players adjusting to the possession style of play but many new players were still settling in. This was seen in the defeats to Atletico and Barcelona. But since then, Madrid has played some wonderful football. So what is different from last season?
First and foremost is the style of play. Under Mourinho, Madrid were primarily a counterattacking side. With blistering pace on the wings complemented by the long range passing of Ozil and Alonso, they were lethal on the counterattack. This strategy was also built to counter Barcelona’s possession game. Mourinho was brought in to dethrone Barcelona and win La Decima. His tactics certainly worked against Barcelona. Madrid would sit back, absorb the pressure and then hit Barca on the break. This was perfectly done in the 3-1 victory in the Copa semifinal second leg at Camp Nou. However, this led to the team becoming one dimensional.
Against teams that sat back and defended in numbers, they often struggled to find a way through, Instead of having a clear strategy; Madrid relied on moments of individual brilliance from one of their many superstars. This led to disappointments against Betis, Granada etc and even listless showings against Manchester United and Dortmund.
Ancelotti has attempted to correct this situation. He has demanded that the team command more of the ball, thereby introducing a possession style to complement the counterattacking. The present starting 11 appears to be his favoured 11. By playing Modric and Alonso (both deep lying playmakers) and by asking the number 10, Isco to drop deeper, Madrid keeps more of the ball and dominate the midfield battle. The possession style of play is not a Plan B nor is it the Plan A. Ancelotti has not discarded Mourinho’s tactics completely, instead improving upon them using his own tactics.
This new style of play has begun to produce wonderful results. The players at Ancelotti’s disposal suit the style. It is beginning to become clear why Ancelotti chose Isco over Ozil. Ozil, arguably the best No 10 in the world is more suited to the ‘give and go’ counterattacking Mourinho game. Holding up the ball is not his strength and Isco is better in that aspect even if he still is not at Ozil’s level overall. Also, a possession style of game requires players to be present at all times. Ozil has his moments of magic within a game which turn the tide of the game but he often disappears. That aspect of his game caused no problems under the counter style but is not suited to this new style.
The new style has begun to produce wonderful results. Madrid has swept aside teams while playing some wonderful, free flowing football. The players took a bit of time to adjust but the results have begun to show. An important aspect to consider is Ancelotti’s flexibility. While the style has remained the same, Ancelotti has not been stubborn with a particular formation. He has changed it to accommodate players based on the situation.
Second is the new players and the mindset of the players. Madrid started last season in a bad way with four points in four games. The atmosphere in the dressing room and the players mindset fell apart. However things have different this season. The players seem to have more belief in themselves and Ancelotti. The new players have been integrated well into the side. None of them have been rushed in or kept on the bench.
Carvajal is a massive talent but his inexperience has shown sometimes. Under the tutelage of the more experienced Arbeloa, he has begun to become more consistent and is producing the form which saw him rated as the Bundesliga’s best right back last season. Illaramendi is another one for the future. His game is extremely similar to Alonso and while he has not had an extended run in the side, he is getting quite a lot of game time. Playing alongside midfield lynchpins like Alonso and Modric will greatly help him improve.
Bale started slowly and mentions of flop began to circulate. After an initial settling down period, he has exploded onto the scene and took control of the team in Ronaldo’s absence. Players already in the team have also stepped up. Modric really began to shine after last season’s clash with Manchester United and he has carried over his stellar form into this season. An extended run in the team has given him the stability and assurance he requires. His game really complements Alonso’s, making Madrid defensively stable in midfield and a free flowing attacking unit as well. Ronaldo is in the form of his life and Isco is more than making up for Ozil’s loss. In spite of falling behind Barca and Atletico, there is a genuine sense of positivity and belief in the squad. These are two main reasons why Madrid is performing better than last season.