When it was announced that Gonzalo Higuaín, Real Madrid’s prolific goal-scoring center forward, needed to undergo surgery for a herniated disc in his back, I was crushed. I know how much this injury hurts: I’ve been dealing with several herniated discs in my back for a year now, and I can’t imagine playing a professional sport in my condition.
As the Argentine prepares to go under the knife for an operation that will leave los blancos striker-less for at least two months; Real Madrid and prolific head coach José Mourinho will have to think outside the box for an alternative.
Right now, Real Madrid is suffering from a tactical malaise, a lack of identity on the ball: there is no clear mission moving forward, with players running around almost listlessly at times. Cristiano Ronaldo remains a threat, as do Di María and Mesut Özil, but these players appear diminished without the spaces and the chances that the versatile, speedy Higuaín created for them.
As I see it, the team could combat this tactical malaise in one of two ways: they could either (1) stick to Mourinho’s traditional 4-2-3-1 by inserting either Karim Benzema, Álvaro Morata, or an outside hire into the lone striker slot; or (2) switch to a 4-6-0 formation, an odd but effective tactic that was most notably used by Manchester United in 2007-2008 (which, incidentally, was Cristiano Ronaldo’s best year as a red). Let’s discuss both of them before making a judgment on the matter.
Option one, sticking to the current formation with Benzema, Morata or an unnamed striker as “nine” would not have to mean replicating Madrid’s play of late (I’m thinking of Real Madrid 1-0 Sevilla, and Getafe 2-3 Real Madrid). Instead, it would require Mourinho to convince the players to buy into this system again, and to force the “nine” to stay higher on the pitch. This wouldn’t mean that the striker wouldn’t drop at all to create chances or help recover the ball, just that these meandering runs back would have to be cut down in distance. The striker could easily drop to the wings and cut in to the center; this would be the idea of the false nine, or the notion that the striker drops back or to the side to help free up space and create mismatches. This is essentially what Higuaín did for los vikingos.
Of course, this option would only work if we have a player who can play as a false nine: this suits Benzema slightly better than Morata, who is more like Fernando Morientes (a more classic nine) than Raúl (a sort of prototypical false nine). Benzema, as we saw in the Getafe game, is extremely good at creating space and slotting the ball in to others (he had two assists in the game, and could have had more).
If Mourinho decides to keep the basic 4-2-3-1 shape, then the way the team plays will be dictated by who is playing the nine. Morata is more adept at balls in the air and over the top, while Benzema is better at dropping to the wings to cut in like a false nine. Mourinho likes both types of players (as evidenced by his work with Diego Milito, Didier Drogba, and Gonzalo Higuaín) and is certainly willing to go with both, though he will try to mold Morata into a more “modern” striker. That is, as Mou said “a striker is not just a striker. He's somebody who has to move, who has to cross, and who has to do this in a 4-4-2 or in a 4-3-3 or in a 3-5-2.”
Still, Morata’s play is more reminiscent of the traditional goal scorers than Benzema’s, and it will be interesting to see which one gets the bulk of the minutes if Mou decides to pursue this strategy.
We saw the second option first emerge at the end of Real Madrid’s game against Getafe: when Kaká came on for Benzema in the 75th minute, los blancos were effectively without a striker. The lineup looked like this: Casillas, Arbeloa (sent off), Ramos, Albiol, Marcelo, Alonso, Khedira, Özil, Di María, Kaká, Cristiano Ronaldo. None of those players fit the traditional striker mold—CR7 arguable comes the closest. So what was Mou thinking? Let’s take a look.
In 2007-2008 Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United won both the EPL and the Champions League; their formation notably featured Wayne Rooney at “striker,” though in practice he played more like a midfielder. United was particularly fantastic that season in part because they did not have a single point of attack—the ball was just as likely to come from the left as the right; down the wings as through the middle; or fast as slow. Their “striker” was as creative as their creators: this allowed Sir Alex to field a very fast-paced, creative team, which got contributions from players all over the pitch. Notably, Cristiano Ronaldo scored over 40 goals for United in 2007-2008.
This formation, a 4-6-0 if you will, is not hugely different from a 4-2-3-1 with a “false nine” striker except that it is more extreme. It would mean, for example, that one of the attacking midfielders would shift forwards slightly, and be in charge of directing the attack from deeper in the opposition’s territory. But this player would also be expected to drop back to help move the ball out of the midfield, and to filter the flow of the game around the pitch. This player could be Kaká or Cristiano Ronaldo; I would probably suggest Kaká, simply because CR7 has been so effective barging in from the wing this season, and he plays worse in that central role (plus, he was very effective for Sir Alex’s 07-08 team because he was playing from the wing).
This formation puts a premium on creativity, and could be molded to fit any style: a 4-6-0 Real Madrid would look very different from a 4-6-0 Barcelona because the underlying tactics are so different (i.e. Madrid is fast-paced, vertical; Barcelona is possession-based and more horizontal).
So what should Mou do? The cautious answer is that he should try both systems, or even switch between them during games (like he did against Getafe). This would allow him to work through both systems, and rotate players in and out depending on how they are doing in the system. This would allow players like Benzema and Morata to battle for their spots in the system, and would give him greater flexibility when crafting his lineups.
The more aggressive answer would be that he should stick with the 4-6-0, shake up the lineup and stick Kaká in immediately. The 4-6-0 offers Madrid the ability to keep all of their best creative players on the pitch at the same time, and could be the spark that ignites some beautiful attacking play—imagine combinations that start from Xabi and pass through Özil, Di Maria, Kaká and finally CR7.
I’m not necessarily an advocate of the aggressive strategy. Madrid is a great team and may not be in need of a drastic shift in tactics—perhaps once the other players adapt to Benzema’s style the play will sort itself out. One thing is clear, however: in the last few games Madrid has looked tired, embattled and out of ideas. They need to find their tactical identity again before a team really makes them pay.
For more Real Madrid coverage, check out Gabe's blog, and follow him as he chronicles los blancos' 2010-2011 season on B/R. A por ellos!