Real Madrid head coach Carlo Ancelotti may have expressed a certain apathy towards the idea of signing Gareth Bale while the transfer saga was rumbling on, but, with the Welshman now within his ranks, it seems he will waste little time in thrusting Bale into the action.
Ancelotti confirmed on Friday that the £85 million signing will make his debut at the first available opportunity, against Villarreal on Saturday. The Italian remains unsure whether Bale will start the game or be a substitute—which, in manager-speak, means he is almost certain to initially be warming the bench at El Madrigal—but he will play some part.
What is more, Ancelotti revealed that he sees Bale’s long-term position as being on the right of Madrid’s attack.
“Bale will play tomorrow,” Ancelotti said at his pre-match press conference, reported by BBC Sport. “I have to decide whether he will play as a starter or not, but he will play.
“His position will be the right wing.”
There had been speculation that Bale would be pressed into service at left-back, the berth he started his professional career in, due to a number of injuries in that position for Madrid. But that was never a realistic proposition (for reasons of perception as much as tactics), with Ancelotti instead opting to play youngster Nacho out of position for the match.
Speaking on Thursday at a commercial engagement (get used to them, Gareth…) to launch Real’s new third kit, Bale indicated his willingness to play wherever required for the club—and his hope that he had proved his fitness enough to play a key role against Villarreal.
"We have to wait until the match day to see whether I'm picked or not," Bale said, according to the Independent. "But hopefully I can get my fitness up straight away and get a place in the team.
"I have spoken to the boss about where I'm best on the pitch but I will play anywhere I'm asked."
That position, in Ancelotti’s default lineup at least, appears to be on the right of attack—with Cristiano Ronaldo on the left, Isco in the centre, and Karim Benzema as the focal striker.
That would appear to leave Angel di Maria as the odd man out, but the beauty for Ancelotti is that he can reshuffle his pack in any number of ways.
Benzema can be dropped to allow Ronaldo to play as the main striker, while either the Portuguese or Bale can play in the central role otherwise earmarked for Isco, creating an opening on either flank for di Maria.
Bale may be regularly employed as a right winger, then, but over the coming months can expect to be moved around an awful lot.
Bale’s positioning will depend considerably on how he meshes with Ronaldo, who was one of the first to welcome the former Tottenham man on his arrival at the Valdebebas training complex on Wednesday.
Ronaldo also planted a couple of fierce-looking (but in actuality rather harmless) tackles on the winger at training on Friday, perhaps a pointed reminder that he remains the club’s top dog.
With Ronaldo (a right-footer on the left) and Bale (the opposite) both likely to cut in a lot under Ancelotti’s proposed system, it will be interesting to see whether the Welshman can strike the right balance between deferring to his teammate and attempting the individual moments of brilliance that defined the final months of his time at Spurs.
Similarly, Madrid may find they have a problem with a lack of width—something that swapping the flanks they operate from, or introducing di Maria, would alleviate—although both marquee players should be astute enough to prevent that problem.
These are all variations Ancelotti—who has generally shown in his career to be a decent man-manager, capable of soothing big-name egos and getting them to work together—will doubtless explore over time.
Initially at least, though, it is about getting Bale back up to full fitness after his recent niggles.
"Bale came here without having a normal preseason, but his condition is not bad," Ancelotti added. "He has no injuries, he is excited and very motivated.
"He's arrived full of enthusiasm, and he is very happy to be at the team he wanted to join. He is a humble player who likes to be with his teammates. He fits in well with the squad."
The first Clasico of the season arrives on October 27 at the Nou Camp. Ancelotti will want Bale and Ronaldo to be working in tandem by the time of the first meeting with arch-rivals Barcelona. He seems to have an initial position pencilled in for the new signing, but beating Barca will also require him to have a few variations up his sleeve.
Bale may start his Real career on the right, then, but we can expect a certain amount of experimentation over the next six weeks.
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