European football expert Graham Hunter on how Carlos Ancellotti can get the best from Cristiano Ronaldo AND Gareth Bale to keep star-studded Real Madrid purring.
Carlos Queiroz was a failure as coach of Real Madrid. But part of the solution to Gareth Bale starting his Bernabéu career well and in a positive environment actually lies in the work of the Portuguese former assistant to Sir Alex Ferguson.
During spring and summer 2007 Queiroz came up with the theory that Ronaldo would benefit United if he were played predominantly down the middle and that a sudden change of orientation would help challenge the already prodigious player.
Queiroz told more than one confidant:
He’s the kind of guy for whom the ceiling is always too low. Cristiano needs to be challenged, needs to be pushed out of a comfort zone because he’s so good that he’ll always respond to such a situation.
The Champions League, the Premier League, European Golden Boot, FIFA World Player, the Ballon D’Or and 42 goals later it didn’t seem like a bad piece of deduction and invention from Ferguson’s sidekick.
The one problem is that Ronaldo didn’t enjoy the experience. He often phoned one particular ally, ex-United fitness coach Valter Di Salvo, to unburden his blues about where he was being played.
Flash forward to summer 2013.
Carlo Ancelotti knew when he signed up for duty at the Bernabéu that Bale was joining Madrid. Having mused over some ideas the Italian figured that one terrific way to accommodate a new signing in whose selection he’d played no part, was to use Ronaldo as a striker, not off the wing, and to use Bale either wide right or wide left.
On the blackboard it makes full football sense. Ronaldo was prolific last time he played there. Bale is a snug fit to this team if he’s raking down the left or the right and shooting on sight as is his signature – more pace, more power, more goals. Everybody’s happy.
Cue a deterioration in Real Madrid’s play, Ronaldo’s scoring rate and his demeanour. He didn’t like playing out-and-out striker then and he doesn’t now.
The cutest thing Ancelotti can do right now, so that Ronaldo looks upon the Welshman not a threat but a guy with similar talents, attitudes and athleticism who can help them all win big trophies – is to restore the Portuguese to his left-wing position.
It would mean, in all likelihood, an alteration to the formation – back to 4-2-3-1.
What does this mean for Gareth Bale?
There is one clear, potentially very productive berth for Bale and that’s down the right. It would displace one of the stars of this early season, Angel Di Maria … but that’s life at Madrid.
Bale at full tilt down the right and either crossing to find Ronaldo’s head or, more likely, cutting in to shoot at goal off his devastating left foot – is an attractive prospect.
The only dilemma is how to keep Alonso [when fit again] Illarramendi [ €40m this summer], Khedira [German World Cup stalwart], Modric [fan favourite and Bale chaperone] plus Casemiro [bought this summer] happy when there is only a two-man midfield. Again, over to you Carlo.
But there is an option which would work, which would draw on Ancelotti’s successful past and which would accommodate Di Maria – a clever, old-fashioned winger who opens up tight defences.
When Ancelotti was at his most successful at Milan, Kaká was at his footballing and athletic peak.
He played in front of a hard-working midfield, Seedorf, Ambrosini, Gattuso, and was given license to power down the middle of the pitch using his Olympic acceleration, shooting from distance and/or laying the ball off to wide players and looking for the return into the box.
Remind you of anybody? Welsh? Name of Bale?
There will be a myriad of games at the Bernabéu when Ancelotti’s Madrid face 10 men behind the ball and the frustration of trying to unpick massed-rank defences.
One extra solution, which Madrid have only been able to apply via the (now departed) Özil-Ronaldo connection until now is when they catch the opposition too high up the pitch, particularly at an attacking corner, allowing the then Jose Mourinho’s side to break at high pace. They’ll continue with that and Bale will thrive.
However, with Bale, there are scenarios now where Madrid can pick the ball up not far beyond the half-way line and, even if the opposition are not caught in disarray, allow Bale to run at them.
Most top technical departments around Europe have been left wondering this summer whether Bale’s excellence relies on him athletically powering past a slalom of players – rather than having the close skills [‘a trick’] to jink past defenders from a static start.
One way to allow that debate to develop slowly, rather than to be immediately in the spotlight, is for Bale to take up different positions. This depends of course on how Ancelotti wants to play against certain rivals and whether Madrid are at home or away.
Away from home, with two holding midfielders and Bale on the right. Home with Di Maria wide right and Bale playing off one holding midfielder.
Equally, if Ronaldo is on the left and Bale playing down the middle then the prospect of Di Maria’s devastating crossing from the right adds a greater likelihood of headed goals.
Right foot for standing on?
Of all the times the Welshman has hit the net for club and country you can still count his right-footed goals on the fingers of one hand.
However, the percentage of times he hits the net with a header has been steadily increasing year on year.
Not something Ancelotti’s scouting team has missed in their analysis of the new boy.
Welcome to Spain Mr Bale. These are exciting times, not only for you but for those of us who wish that excellent British footballers would more often opt to better themselves and develop as individuals in some of the continent’s top clubs.
PS: Try to keep on Cristiano’s good side. Whether that’s the left, the right or … down the middle.
Graham Hunter is the author of the award-winning book, Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World. He is a regular contributor to the Paddy Power Blog on football and an all-round good guy. Follow him on Twitter here