How Real Madrid Must Adapt After Transfer of Angel Di Maria to Manchester United

Tim CollinsFeatured ColumnistAugust 26, 2014

Real Madrid's Angel Di Maria from Argentina reacts during a Spanish Super Cup soccer match against Atletico Madrid at Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid, Spain, Tuesday, Aug. 19, 2014 . (AP Photo/Daniel Ochoa de Olza)
Daniel Ochoa de Olza/Associated Press

One would imagine that only the return of Cristiano Ronaldo to Old Trafford could cause the sort of stir capable of stripping every single letter "R" from the Manchester United superstore. 

But it seems Angel Di Maria can do that too, with Simon Jones of the Daily Mail reporting the shortage at the club's flagship store as fans clamour to grab Di Maria shirts ahead of United's expected formal announcement of his transfer from Real Madrid

The hype in north west England is understandable: After their worst season in Premier League history, after missing out on Champions League football, after countless transfer humiliations and after grabbing only one point from their first two league outings, Manchester United have still managed to operate in the top end of the market, luring—through considerable cash, of course—one of Europe's pre-eminent stars. 

Where, however, does Di Maria's impending switch to the UK leave Real Madrid?

MADRID, SPAIN - AUGUST 19:  Angel di Maria looks on during the Supercopa first leg match between Real Madrid and Club Atletico de Madrid     at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on August 19, 2014 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
Denis Doyle/Getty Images

On Monday, Carlo Ancelotti's men put forward what can only be described as a lacklustre performance against La Liga newcomers Cordoba at the Bernabeu, a laboured 2-0 victory the manager blamed on fatigue, per Goal, caused by consecutive Spanish Super Cup clashes with Atletico Madrid last Tuesday and Friday. 

With many of the team's stars enduring the lingering effects of gruelling World Cup campaigns, and amid the injury concerns surrounding Ronaldo, the European champions haven't hit the level expected of them after the additions of James Rodriguez and Toni Kroos.

The unrelenting, ball-shuttling and ferocious play of Di Maria is undeniably being missed. 

Now, Los Blancos must adapt, must tinker with the devastating methods of 2013-14 to develop a shape better suited to the team's new talents. With Di Maria headed for the exits, Real's systematic approach can't afford to stand still. 

MADRID, SPAIN - AUGUST 19:  Head coach of Real Madrid Carlo Ancelotti looks on during the Supercopa first leg match between Real Madrid and Club Atletico de Madrid at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on August 19, 2014 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Denis Doyle/Ge
Denis Doyle/Getty Images

It needs to be noted that the continental champions don't urgently require world-class reinforcements (though a backup winger couldn't hurt). Instead, the priority for Ancelotti is how to alter his formation to accommodate the changes in personnel. 

Last season, the team flourished when the Italian switched to a 4-3-3, removing the need for a No. 10 and utilising the rampant Di Maria as the connection between midfield and the side's blistering front three. 

In the Argentinian's absence, however, Real have lacked penetration, struggling to operate between the lines in that same shape. While a trio of Kroos, Rodriguez and Luka Modric is mouthwatering from a technical standpoint, such a combination is one-paced, missing the change of gear that is necessary for making Real's 4-3-3 tick. 

Having recognised that complication and also wanting to reduce the physical workload of Ronaldo in the early weeks of the season, Ancelotti's side has flirted with the use of a 4-4-2, placing the Portuguese alongside Karim Benzema and pushing Rodriguez and Gareth Bale to the flanks. 

Against Sevilla in the UEFA Super Cup, the switch proved effective, but the results weren't as devastating against a gallant Cordoba on Monday. 

With Rodriguez forced to adjust to a new role and Bale still looking to play in a front three—just look at his average position in ESPN FC's Gamecast—Real were caught somewhere between a 4-3-3 and a 4-4-2 on Monday—something that was also notable at various stages in the clashes with Atletico. 

The solution for Ancelotti seems to centre on a switch back to the 4-2-3-1 that was discarded early last term.

Of course, the primary reason for Los Blancos' move away from that formation last season was the need to find a new role for Di Maria following the arrival of Bale. Not suited to the No. 10 role and wasted further back in the double pivot, the 26-year-old was unleashed as the scorching, ball-carrying link in Ancelotti's flowing system. 

But now, the European conquerors are without a dynamic athlete in midfield, instead possessing an armoury of technically gifted playmakers and passers.

The system, therefore, needs to harness that change in abilities. 

MADRID, SPAIN - AUGUST 19: James Rodriguez (L) of Real Madrid CF competes for the ball with Gabi Fernandez (R) of Atletico de Madrid during the Supercopa first leg match between Real Madrid and Club Atletico de Madrid at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on Augus
Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

The most obvious benefit of reverting to a 4-2-3-1 would be the deployment of Rodriguez in his preferred central role behind the striker.

Not blessed with the running power of Di Maria, the Colombian is, however, among the most creative players in Europe; an ideal candidate to play that role between the lines missing from Real's recent outings. 

Indeed, with Ronaldo, Bale and Benzema surrounding him, the World Cup Golden Boot winner should eventually enjoy the success had by Mesut Ozil in the same role. Isco, too, is a fine No. 10, available as back-up to Real's £63 million summer addition.  

Bleacher Report

Behind Rodriguez, Ancelotti's stockpile of central midfielders can rotate through the double pivot, with Kroos, Modric and Xabi Alonso likely to share the duties ahead of Sami Khedira and Asier Illarramendi. 

Perhaps the only major complication to such a system for the European champions is the lingering injury concerns hanging over Ronaldo and his knee. 

In a 4-2-3-1, the physical burden on the wingers is heightened, given the narrow makeup of the midfield. While Marcelo's enterprising approach at left-back can shoulder a portion of that workload, the Ballon d'Or winner's capacity to fly along the wing would be critical to the success of the formation.

With Jese still yet to return from injury, Di Maria ready to depart and Ronaldo's health being questioned, Real's abundance of central playmakers but lack of depth out wide behind the Portuguese and Bale is perhaps the team's most significant shortcoming. 

Yet, having replaced Barcelona and Bayern Munich before them as the most hunted team in Europe, Ancelotti's Real Madrid must unlock the devastating potential inherent within the squad if they are to secure their throne. 

Only a shake-up of the system can achieve that, with the needs of Rodriguez in particular now needing to be attended to in the same manner that those of Di Maria were this time last year.