Structuring Mourinho's Offense: Solving Real Madrid's Midfield Conundrum

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Structuring Mourinho's Offense: Solving Real Madrid's Midfield Conundrum
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Real Madrid has a lot of attacking midfield players—from stalwarts like the injured Kaká and Cristiano Ronaldo, to offseason pickups like the electric Mesut Özil, or the “Principito” Sergio Canales, los Vikingos are looking at a logjam of players for only a few spots.

At the same time, however, no one in their right mind would rather have the opposite scenario: imagine a Madrid midfield composed solely of defensive players—a 4-4-2 with the four midfielders being Mamadou Diarra, Lass, Gago, and Xabi Alonso (as would have been the case for the upcoming Osasuna and Ajax games had we not stocked up on players this offseason). 

“Embarrassment of riches” or “logjam,” as I just said, are phrases that describe a problem, a crisis; instead, Madrid’s coach José Mourinho is faced with a difficult, but happy decision (barring injuries, that is). How can he construct the best possible offensive formation given all of his options?

The answer, of course, will be determined by the pairs or trios that work best together in training and in games; but we’ll go ahead and speculate anyways.

A quick word about tactics first. If Mou’s nickname “The Special One” is really true, then he already knows the most important thing about offensive maneuvering: that, unlike defense, structural organization—i.e. that each player must stay in his particular zone or area—is much less important on offense.

To talk about offensive tactics is to speak about the small-scale associations of players in triangles or squares, of movement and space, and runs into space; to speak about defense is to use words or phrases like “staying in line,” “man-to-man,” “compress,” “prevent.”

Even if Mou decides to play with a relatively vertical, fast-paced offense, it’s imperative that he understands that associations between offensive players aren’t based on what zone of the pitch each player must stay in, but rather, what part of the pitch they are in at the time.

Thus, offensive formations are much more fluid—to speak of 4-2-3-1, for example, makes much less sense when a team has the ball because in many cases a center forward (CF) can become a center attacking mid (CAM) or a left mid (LM); a right back becomes a right wing mid, etc. In each case the formation shifts: against Mallorca, for example, Madrid shifted between a 4-2-3-1, a 4-2-4, and even a 4-3-1-2 or a 4-3-2-1.

So, with all of that as a given, let’s assume the Whites will line up with a base formation of 4-2-3-1, as we described in our last article. We’ve discussed how the central defensive midfield “pivot” will affect the attacking strength of the team, and I’ll leave that alone for now. Instead, I’ll look at exactly what Madrid’s options are from the midfield trio up to the center forward.

In principle, Madrid would like to have a midfield trio that looks something like CR7 on the right or left, Kaká in the center, and either Mesut Özil, Angel di Maria, Pedro León, or Sergio Canales on the other side. When both of last year’s neo-galacticos come back from injury, the midfield trio has two spots essentially covered.

Özil and Canales can and have played on the wing, and Angel di Maria and Pedro León are natural wingers, so the choice will probably be between those four (given CR7 and Kaká are in the lineup).

In my limited viewing so far, I’ve been most impressed by Mesut Özil who reminds me of a young, speedy Zidane—a player who lacks the touch of the Frenchman, but has the vision and the sense to understand how flowing attacks can be. In Mallorca, Özil played all over the pitch, showcasing electric passing, and a wonderful sense of attacking flare: he’s my early-season choice on the wing of Madrid’s ideal midfield.

Obviously, though, Madrid’s current situation is far less ideal. CR7 is out about three weeks due to some rough tackling in the Mallorca game, and Kaká is sidelined for another few months because of knee surgery. So what are los Merengues' options for the Bernabéu debut against Osasuna?

Last game El Principito was very active in the center of the midfield, but couldn’t seem to figure out Mallorca’s tough defense; Özil looked better to me, as his entrance sparked a major change in Madrid’s attack—we began to find spaces, run on to balls, and associate between players higher on the pitch (that is, closer to Mallorca’s goal). Di Maria, however, was notably absent in the first half, though Benzema was little improvement.

So here are some of the more intriguing possibilities: Canales on the left, Özil in the center, and Pedro León on the right; di Maria—Canales—Özil; di Maria—Özil—Canales; and finally, and maybe most intriguing: Benzema—Özil—Canales.

My two favorites are di Maria—Özil—Canales, and Canales—Özil—Benzema: the former because of the creative potential of Özil and Canales mixed with the pure explosiveness of di Maria on the wing, and the latter because of Benzema’s attacking chops as a second striker.

If we go with Benzema on the wing, Mou would probably vacillate between a 4-2-3-1, and a 4-2-2-2, as Karim would probably join Higuaín in the center, with Ramos flying up the side to interact with Özil.

This seems particularly intriguing to me because Ramos has the defensive chops to cover for Benzema/Özil on the right, while simultaneously filling the right wing mid void—he would interact with Özil on overlaps and crosses, and have two forwards to put passes away.

It’s important to remember what I said earlier about offensive tactics, as that would especially come in to play here. Madrid would switch between a 4-2-3-1, a 4-2-2-2, a 4-2-4, or a 4-3-3 if Xabi and Lass side with Canales in the midfield and Özil and Benzema go forward. I see a lot of creative possibility in the pairings of Canales-Özil and Özil-Benzema, especially because they could always slot the ball back to Xabi.

That, of course, is assuming that Karim “comes to play,” as the cliché goes: if Benzema disappears in the game, he’d be subbed off by di Maria or P. León, who are both more midfield-minded than the Frenchman.

When CR7 comes back—hopefully against Ajax, but probably against Real Sociedad—Canales and Özil are my choices to start beside him, as that trio has essentially unlimited creative potential. 

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