After winning the Champions League and Copa del Rey a season ago, most Real Madrid fans would have expected the club to make some tweaks, surely, but not disrupt a team that had so much success. If it ain't broke don't fix it, as the old cliche goes.
But Real Madrid can't help but fix things. They can help but throw their money around. And the latest signing, World Cup star James Rodriguez, is going to completely change how Real Madrid approaches, well, just about everything this season, at least from a tactical standpoint.
Real Madrid unveiled the player on Tuesday:
He was quickly welcomed to the club by another Galactico, Gareth Bale.
And yes, this signing means that a new era of the Galacticos is well in force. Check out the following tweet from SportsCenter on Twitter:
The question for Real Madrid is simple—how will they find roles for so many superstars?
Last year, Carlo Ancelotti eventually settled on a 4-3-3 system with Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale playing out wide while Karim Benzema played the No. 9. Angel Di Maria was the key figure, transitioning from his familiar position on the wing to a more central, box-to-box role, where he adjusted beautifully. Luka Modric also thrived in the system and was arguably La Liga's best midfielder last year.
Not everyone benefitted from the system, of course. Highly touted youngster Isco saw his natural position at the No. 10 disappear and struggled at times playing in the midfield trio when called upon. But in general, it allowed Los Blancos to control the midfield, maintain possession against weaker teams and absolutely skewer possession-based teams on the counter-attack.
Bayern Munich can certainly attest to the latter.
But the additions of Toni Kroos and Rodriguez call into question whether the system could work again this season. After all, you don't add two players of their quality—and price tag—without planning on starting them.
There have been some suggestions that Rodriguez could slip into a false 9 role, for example, but he's never been asked to fill such a position and the move would also relegate Benzema to the bench, a man who was so important to Real Madrid's attack a year ago both for his goals (17 in the league) and his ability to set up his teammates (nine assists).
In other words, it would make little sense to ask a player who has never played in the role before to replace a player who was excellent as the lone forward a year before.
No, the likely move for Real Madrid is to return to a 4-2-3-1 attack, with Rodriguez playing behind Benzema and Kroos playing in the double pivot. It's not Kroos' favored role—he's excellent as a No. 10—but he has played deeper in the past, including for Germany at times in the World Cup, so he'll adjust.
Ah, but who else will have to adjust? A front four of Benzema, Ronaldo, Bale and Rodriguez isn't going to offer a ton of defensive support, while midfielders like Kroos and Modric are playmakers, not defensive stalwarts.
And where does that leave Xabi Alonso, Sami Khedira and Asier Illarramendi? While it's possible that a player like Khedira could be sold (more on that later), the above trio would potentially be relegated to the bench in favor of a Kroos-Modric pairing. That, in turn, could really lessen the support the back four receives from the midfield.
|Player||Games||Goals||Assists||Pass Completion %||Tackles per Game||Interceptions per Game|
|Toni Kroos||24 (5)||2||4||91.9||1.8||0.5|
|Luka Modric||29 (5)||1||6||89.7||2.1||1.4|
|Xabi Alonso||23 (3)||0||1||88||2.4||1.5|
|Sami Khedira||12 (1)||1||1||86.5||1.1||1|
|Asier Illarramendi||15 (14)||2||1||88.9||2.2||1.3|
Would Real Madrid rotate playing Kroos and Modric while pairing them with a more defensive option? Perhaps, but leaving either Kroos or Modric on the bench hardly seems ideal.
The other issue for Real Madrid is which players will be sold. You could make a strong argument that Di Maria, Isco and Khedira are all now very expendable. While Di Maria could be used to deputize either wing position, it's unlikely he'll want to revert to the role of super sub after having such a strong campaign a year ago.
Meanwhile, Isco may not only find himself behind Rodriguez on the pecking order at the No. 10, but it's possible Los Blancos would turn to Kroos to play the No. 10 when Rodriguez was left on the bench, not Isco.
Isco is one of Spain's brightest young stars. He needs matches, not a spot on the bench.
Meanwhile, even after such a strong World Cup it's hard to see where Khedira fits on this team. He's neither a natural holding midfielder—he prefers to play with the freedom to roam forward—or as talented a playmaker as Kroos or Modric. He seems likely to be the odd man out in the midfield setup if he doesn't depart the club this summer.
There is real concern that Real Madrid may have sacrificed their balance for the allure of Rodriguez. Without question, a 4-2-3-1 with Rodriguez manning the No. 10 gives Real Madrid the most dangerous attack in the world. The R&B attack of Rodriguez, Ronaldo, Bale and Benzema combined for 72 goals and 42 assists in league play alone last season, with Rodriguez tallying nine goals and 12 assists in 34 league appearances for Monaco.
In this system, Rodriguez would likely have huge spaces to exploit, with Ronaldo and Bale stretching opposing defenses both vertically and horizontally. He would have runners to find breaking forward, could interchange freely and would likely find his own scoring opportunities more plentiful.
Rodriguez's assist tally will almost certainly go up with Ronaldo and Bale making runs down the flanks. Consider this stat, from WhoScored:
James Rodríguez: Attempted more through balls (35) than any other player in Ligue 1 last season #RMCF— WhoScored.com (@WhoScored) July 22, 2014
Or these stats, from Squawka Football:
James Rodríguez completed exactly 500 passes in the final third last season, more than any other Ligue 1 player. pic.twitter.com/bImJM2KTGG— Squawka Football (@Squawka) July 22, 2014
James Rodríguez played more key passes (73) in the league last season than C. Ronaldo & Gareth Bale combined (66). pic.twitter.com/i3Q9tbfsgA— Squawka Football (@Squawka) July 22, 2014
Rodriguez in the No. 10 role is a truly frightening prospect for the rest of La Liga.
He truly thrives in Colombia's open, pressing, relentlessly attacking system, as he has the freedom to dissect defenses as he sees fit. While he wouldn't always be the orchestrator of Real Madrid's attack—the team is going to build through Ronaldo and Bale frequently, while Kroos or Modric will often play the role of puppet master—he might also enjoy the fact that opposing teams aren't fully focused on slowing him down.
In many ways, Real Madrid could resemble Liverpool from a year ago, albeit a more talented version. That Liverpool side was open, attacking, the sort of club that often sacrificed defensive cover for a full-out blitzkrieg on the opposing goal. Often, Liverpool had four players on the pitch who weren't interested in prioritizing defense, while the pivot of Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson wasn't the most defensively minded duo.
Given the acquisitions they've made this summer, it appears Real Madrid are going to embrace a similar philosophy. That, or they are going to leave some very talented, high-profile players fuming on the bench. There doesn't seem to be much of a middle ground now that Rodriguez has been brought aboard.
What could transpire is one of the most open, exciting and devastating attacks in the history of club football. Or, it could be an unbalanced, over-priced, unmitigated disaster. There are more than a few questions left to be answered.
But one thing is undebatable—the addition of Rodriguez is going to tactically transform Real Madrid. The club is banking a lot of money on the hope that the transformation will be a positive one.