Ludogorets offer Real Madrid chance to test tactics in Champions League
On paper, at least, a trip to face PFC Ludogorets Razgrad should pose few problems for Real Madrid. The 10-time European champions and current holders against a side who progressed from the Bulgarian second division to the Champions League in the space of just four years would seem like a foregone conclusion. With all due respect to the hosts, few will expect an upset in Sofia on Wednesday night.
As it is, the match could be one of Madrid's most important of the season as manager Carlo Ancelotti desperately tries to find the same balance that helped his side clinch La Decima last season. The sales of Angel Di Maria and Xabi Alonso left Madrid all at sea initially, and now the Italian is gently trying to adapt his much-favoured 4-3-3 to suit the players he has at his disposal.
After continuing Jose Mourinho's 4-2-3-1 in his early days at the Santiago Bernabeu, the return of players including Alonso and the rise of Di Maria as a deeper midfielder, as well as the arrival of Gareth Bale, allowed Ancelotti to take up a 4-3-3 formation that eventually saw his side clinch the Copa del Rey and Champions League. The formula, for the most part, worked.
Now that 4-3-3 doesn't look so solid after all. Not without Alonso and not without Di Maria. Ancelotti attempted to plug those gaps with summer signings Toni Kroos and James Rodriguez alongside Luka Modric in midfield, but that more-attacking trio left Madrid's defence exposed and allowed teams from Atletico Madrid to Real Sociedad and Elche to Deportivo (despite thumping 5-1 and 8-2 wins respectively) to take advantage. Although teams feared Madrid's big-money attacking lineup, they knew they could hurt the European champions at the back.
Against Depor, Ancelotti set his new approach in motion. Haris Medunjanin had just pulled a goal back for the Galicians from the penalty-spot, and although Madrid still led 3-1, visions of a second-half collapse in the defeat at Real Sociedad must have been ringing around Ancelotti's head. Off came Karim Benzema, who had worked his socks off, and on came Asier Illarramendi. The Italian left Cristiano Ronaldo and Bale in attack and pushed Illarramendi into a midfield four alongside Modric, Kroos and Rodriguez. Ancelotti wanted to close the game out and the change succeeded.
It worked so well that 4-4-2 was used from the start in the following match against Elche. Kroos and James remained and Isco joined Illarramendi in the midfield. The visitors caused Madrid problems early on and even took the lead, but it didn't last, with Ancelotti's troops easing to a 5-1 win. At 2-0 up in Villarreal at the weekend, Ancelotti again introduced Illarramendi and the 4-4-2 in the latter stages to successfully close the game out.
The Italian had lived by the 4-3-3 lineup, but now he's showing that he can adapt. It takes time, as it did last season, but Ancelotti is not as stubborn in his ways as many believe him to be. "Playing 4-4-2 is the best system I think," he said before Wednesday's game in Bulgaria. "Defensively it's the best. With a 4-3-3 it's very difficult to apply a balanced pressure. That's why I try to attack with a 4-3-3 and defend with a 4-4-2".
It's not a new formula. In last season's Copa del Rey final, Ancelotti utilised 4-4-2 when his side didn't have the ball against Barcelona, a tactic used after seeing his team lose the midfield battle in matches against Atleti and the Catalans, the strongest teams in La Liga. With the current 4-3-3 set-up, they were set to lose the midfield battle again. But a switch to 4-4-2, and bringing players such as Illarramendi and Isco back into the equation, strengthens Madrid's so-far frail defence.
Madrid have been edging towards this new formation so far this season as the answer to their 4-3-3 problems. Now, against Ludogorets, Ancelotti is actively promoting it, and it could be the first time Madrid use it from the start and the first time the opposition expects it. With due respect to the Bulgarian side, it should be the ideal time to test it before even considering it for the first Clasico meeting of the season in just over three weeks. Ancelotti needs to test it and get his players used to it.
The inclusion of Illarramendi and Isco, two players who were seemingly forgotten men only a matter of weeks ago, could be crucial. Madrid's decision to put Isco in front of the press conference ahead of the match suggests the former Malaga man will be deployed from the off. And although Illarramendi may well be subjected to another start on the bench, he could be used as a 'super sub' if only to nullify the threat of the hosts and not boost the attack.
It's a tactic that is easier used away from home than at home, given the need of the Bernabeu crowd to see attractive, flowing football. But it could be a tactic that becomes commonplace away on their travels in the Champions League and the tougher domestic games, such as at Atleti, Barcelona, Bilbao, Seville and Valencia. It's a tactic Madrid may need if they are to bolster their ever-growing trophy cabinet this season with the players they currently have at their disposal. If Alonso and Di Maria had still been part of the squad, things may have been different.
Cristiano Ronaldo and Iker Casillas are set to be part of Ancelotti's lineup from the off, and individually they will be crucial no matter what formation Ancelotti goes with. Both are closing in on competition records, too, with Casillas just two appearances behind Barcelona's Xavi in the all-time Champions League appearances record. With his substitute appearance in Paris on Tuesday night, the Barca man moved to outright leader with 143, one more than Madrid legend Raul, while Casillas is on 141 alongside Ryan Giggs. Ronaldo sits just three goals shy of Raul's goal record on 68, alongside Messi. Raul's double European record is set to be smashed in a matter of weeks, if not days.