Real need to go rediscover the secret of their past success
With Carlo Ancelotti’s move to Real Madrid imminent, the Italian must ignore the notion of Galacticos and address Los Blancos' weakest area—defensive midfield.
Prestigious clubs such as Real are invariably linked to the world’s best talent and Madridistas love nothing more than gleefully watching a Galactico being paraded in their magnificent stadium. But is this functional?
In the recently published Numbers Game, written by Chris Anderson and David Sally, their statistical theories threaten to test even the most staunch footballing beliefs.
In extracts published by The Times, the authors demonstrate that eliminating a team's weak areas has a more significant impact on the team compared to strengthening the best components.
"It is the weak link that matters more. For every percentage point that your best player improves, your goal difference per game increases by 0.27. That means that if you improve your best player from 82 percent to 92 per cent, then over a 38-game season, you will find your goal difference improving by just over ten [and] five more points a season. Upgrading your worst player by 10 percentage points from 38 per cent to 48 per cent is worth 13 goals a season, or nine points in the league table."
Insightful stuff. So then, considering Real scored over 100 goals in La Liga last season, is it not slightly bizarre to hear the likes of Gareth Bale and Luis Suarez linked with summer transfers to the Bernabeu—particularly when the former is mentioned in the same sentence as a world record transfer?
Los Blancos should focus their considerable resources in prioritising the acquisition of an orthodox holding midfielder as that responsibility currently rests with Xabi Alonso and Luka Modric. Whilst both £30m purchases are extremely gifted ballplayers, neither is a true defensive midfielder—someone who will happily roll his sleeves up, do his team's dirty work and be the unsung hero.
Makelele throws his weight around for Real Madrid against Manchester United
Following Real Madrid's Champions League success in 1999-2000, Claude Makelele was purchased from La Liga rivals Celta Vigo, essentially as a spoiler. His objectives were simple: cover every blade of grass, protect the defence, win the ball and play it simple in order to keep possession.
Makelele was invaluable to the success of Real but was an unsung hero, reflected in his very modest contract terms compared to the Galacticos around him. He fell out of favour with the Bernabeu board after he asked for a new contract—half of the money Zidane was earning. The result was a transfer to Chelsea and a less than flattering parting shot from president Florentino Perez.
The Frenchman, though, had the last laugh as he went on to win numerous trophies at Chelsea whilst Real laboured in his absence.
In assessing Ancelotti's options, five candidates have been selected who have the necessary qualities to succeed at Real Madrid as a defensive midfielder.
Javier Mascherano battles for Argentina against Brazil
Whilst Barca are in a dominant position in Spain, there is no danger of the Catalans selling one of the most reliable performers to their bitter rivals. A utility player, who also operates across the back line, Mascherano is a critical squad player at the Camp Nou.
The Argentine captain certainly fits the bill as a spoiler, even to the extent that he takes out medical cart drivers.
In addition, Sandro would have been considered as a likely candidate had he not suffered a serious knee ligament injury in January. Pivotal to Spurs’ success during the first half of the season, the beast enjoyed his best spell at White Hart Lane snapping at opponents ankles and becoming a regular in Brazil's first XI.
The combative Paul Pogba has made an instant impact in Turin
The legendary ex-Manchester United manager only gave the talented French youngster a measly seven substitute appearances in two seasons for the Red Devils. His 35 appearances last season for the Bianconeri last season made a mockery of the Scot's usually sound judgement, with Pogba playing a key part in Juve lifting the Serie A title, plus winning his first senior international caps with Les Bleus.
Despite his young age Pogba, 20, has slotted in effortlessly at Juve and when interviewed by Sky Sports, he praised Antonio Conte, his Juve coach, by defiantly stating "Conte told me that age is not important and that the best players would play. I want to become the best in the world and win the Ballon d'Or."
With three years left on his contract and given the faith Juventus have in the youngster, he is unlikely to leave Turin this summer. However the Spanish giants will undoubtedly keep tabs on the talented Frenchman as he gains further experience at the highest level.
Arturo Vidal has been linked with a move away from Juventus
A club team mate of Pogba, Arturo Vidal is an all-action midfielder and has also been instrumental to Juventus’ success during the last two seasons in Serie A, following his transfer from Bayer Leverkusen.
In addition to his creativity (20 goals and 14 assists), his tenacity is evident, following his direct involvement in over 250 fouls (144 fouls conceded and 107 fouls suffered) during two Serie A campaigns and one season in the Champions League—resulting in 26 yellow cards and one red.
There is a concern however, whether Vidal would remain disciplined enough to play as a strict defensive midfielder.
Paulinho has made a good impression with Brazil during the Confederations Cup
Currently representing his country in the Confederations Cup, 24-year-old Paulinho is a comparatively small fish in the big pond of Brazilian international football, which contains the likes of Neymar et al.
Alongside Bayern Munich’s Luis Gustavo, Paulinho’s role is crucial in the smooth running of A Seleção Brasileira. The pair, although they are box-to-box midfielders, have a primary duty in ensuring there are no defensive gaps and that the backline is never exposed.
Although The Daily Mail has previously reported Real's interest, Sky Sports understands that Spurs and Corinthians have agreed a £17m fee for the combative young midfielder. Taking advantage of the fact that Paulinho is close friends with current Spurs midfielder and compatriot Sandro, Spurs new director of football, Franco Baldini, has nipped in under Real Madrid president Florentino Perez’s radar in attempting to conclude a transfer.
"There is an official offer from Tottenham Hotspur. But, as I did when there was an Inter Milan offer, I'll sit and decide with my family before I make any decision. I will only do it after the Confederations Cup because it's hard to deal with all these things."
Luis Gustavo demonstrates his athleticism during last season's Champions League
"In terms of our opening match he was one of our best performers. He’s been making the most of all the conversations we’ve been having. He brings a lot of balance to the team and he’s been schooled in Germany, where they’re pretty demanding. That makes it much easier when we demand something of him.”
Secondly, although the Brazilian was part of a historic treble-winning Bayern Munich side last season, he only made 16 starts in the Bundesliga and three starts in the Champions League. Although his employers may be the most in-form club side in Europe, can Luis Gustavo really be happy playing in a bit-part capacity, especially during a World Cup year?
Blaise Matuidi gets to grips with Andres Iniesta
This is the most unassuming option of the five, since Blaise Matuidi's progress seems to have largely crept under the radar in Europe.
Having transferred to Paris Saint-Germain from Saint-Etienne, the Frenchman became a lynchpin in Carlo Ancelotti's Ligue 1 title winning side.
A key performer in breaking up opponents attacks and winning possession, Matuidi replicates Makelele's (who incidentally is the assistant manager at PSG under Ancelotti) athleticism and other key strengths. He has also become a fixture in the French national team.
In an interview with L'Equipe reported by ESPN, Ancelotti praised his PSG defensive midfielder calling him "as indispensable as Ibrahimovic or Thiago Silva."
Given the combination of a) his contract status, and b) his former mentor's more than likely departure to Real, there is a strong chance that Ancelotti could return to his French employers for one of last season's key ingredients—Blaise Matuidi.