The first-choice starting XI may have become an outmoded concept in 21st-century football, where squad rotation is now the accepted norm, but Manuel Pellegrini’s tinkering at Real Madrid this season has been enthusiastic even by modern standards.
The Chilean has fielded no less than 16 different combinations in midfield and attack since the start of the La Liga campaign and is yet to name the same team for two league games in succession. Below are the midfield/attack combinations Pellegrini has deployed in the league in 2009-10, in the order in which they have appeared:
1. Lassana Diarra, Xabi Alonso; Kaká, Raúl; Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema (3-2 v Deportivo, h)
2. Alonso, Guti; Kaka, Esteban Granero; Gonzalo Higuaín, Benzema (3-0 v Espanyol, a)
3. L. Diarra, Fernando Gago; Kaká, Raúl; Ronaldo, Benzema (5-0 v Xerez, h)
4. Gago, Guti; Kaká, Granero; Ronaldo, Higuaín (2-0 v Villarreal, a)
5. L. Diarra, Alonso; Granero, Raúl; Ronaldo, Benzema (3-0 v Tenerife, h)
6. Mahamadou Diarra, Alonso; Kaká, Guti; Raúl, Benzema (1-2 v Sevilla, a)
7. L. Diarra, Alonso; Granero, Rafael van der Vaart; Raúl, Benzema (4-2 v Valladolid, h)
8. M. Diarra, Alonso; Granero, Kaká, Royston Drenthe; Raúl (0-0 v Gijon, a)
9. L. Diarra, Alonso; Kaká, Marcelo; Higuaín, Benzema (2-0 v Getafe, h; 3-2 v Atlético, a)
10. Alonso, Granero; Kaká, Drenthe; Higuaín, Benzema (1-0 v Racing, h)
11. L. Diarra, Alonso; Kaká, Marcelo; Ronaldo, Higuaín (0-1 v Barcelona, a)
12. Alonso, van der Vaart; Granero, Marcelo; Ronaldo, Higuaín (4-2 v Almería, h)
13. L. Diarra, Alonso; van der Vaart, Marcelo; Higuaín, Benzema (3-2 v Valencia, a)
14. L. Diarra, M. Diarra; van der Vaart, Marcelo; Ronaldo, Higuaín (6-0 v Zaragoza, h)
15. L. Diarra, Alonso; van der Vaart, Marcelo; Ronaldo, Higuaín (0-0 v Osasuna, a)
16. Gago, Alonso; van der Vaart, Kaká; Ronaldo, Higuaín (2-0 v Mallorca, h)
Pellegrini’s preferred formation, as he outlines in this video from the UEFA Training Ground website, is a 4-2-2-2. The team’s attack is founded upon a two-man defensive midfield pairing, with two multi-faceted attacking midfielders operating behind two forwards (Brazil lined up in similar fashion at the 2006 World Cup, but with less than spectacular results).
The coach’s philosophy demands that players take responsibility for their on-field positioning in attacking areas, as he rarely fields nominal wingers. Instead, the attacking midfielders and forwards exchange positions laterally, with each player using the other three players as reference points for where they should be on the pitch.
“I like playing with two central forwards up front,” says Pellegrini. “There are other systems [that I use], where one has to take a position on the wings and the other in the centre. Playing without fixed wing positions, all specific areas on the wings will be the responsibility of an attacker, a midfielder or a wing-back.”
Statistically, Pellegrini’s preferred defensive midfield partnership is Lassana Diarra and Xabi Alonso. His most popular strike pairing is Cristiano Ronaldo and Gonzalo Higuaín, while Kaká is typically joined in the attacking midfield slots by Marcelo, Esteban Granero or Rafael van der Vaart.
Marcelo was Kaká’s most regular partner prior to the 1-0 defeat at Barcelona on November 29 but van der Vaart, who was not even given a squad number prior to the start of the season, came into the side in place of the injured former Milan hero for the 4-2 victory at home to Almería on December 5 and has since stayed put.
Kaká made his first start since the Barcelona defeat in the 2-0 win at home to Real Mallorca on Sunday and it was the first time he had begun a league match alongside van der Vaart.
“I can play with Kaká, not a problem,” van der Vaart said in a recent interview with Radio Marca. “That is the coach’s decision. I have the skill and quality to play for Real Madrid.”
As Roberticus has noted in his excellent blog on Real Madrid’s tactical options this season, Kaká and Ronaldo – the team’s untouchable star players – are both at their best when running forward into space with the ball at their feet. Marcelo, who started his Real Madrid career as a left-back, provides natural width and defensive strength on the left flank, but he is unable to offer the lateral support (not to mention the wonderfully soft feet and eye for goal) that van der Vaart brings to the table.
A heat map showing the Dutchman’s involvement in the 6-0 victory over Real Zaragoza before Christmas (via a screenshot from ESPN Soccernet) demonstrates that his role involves providing attacking cover across the full width of the field:
Key to Real’s attacking shape is fluidity. Ronaldo can play in any position across the front line and both he and the similarly two-footed Higuaín are able to pose a threat from either flank (Ronaldo often cutting infield from the left and Higuaín from the right). Kaká’s storming runs from deep are his trademark but what van der Vaart provides is a means of recycling the ball in the final third; slowing the tempo and switching the focus of the attack. In the six games he has started, Real have won five and drawn one, scoring 19 goals in the process at an average of 3.17 goals per game.
The importance of having ball-playing midfielders in deep, central areas was demonstrated afresh by Juventus’s capitulation at home to Milan on Saturday. With Juve’s embattled coach Ciro Ferrara once again opting to pair the purely defensive duo of Felipe Melo and Christian Poulsen in midfield, Diego – playing behind the lone striker Amauri – was left isolated as the only creative player in the centre of the pitch.
Liverpool have endured similar woes due to Rafael Benitez’s dependence upon Javier Mascherano and Lucas Leiva in the centre, but Alberto Aquilani has started next to Leiva in the Reds’ last two league matches and will – theoretically at least - be able to take his place alongside Mascherano once the Argentine returns from suspension.
A midfield of Lassana Diarra, Xabi Alonso, Rafael van der Vaart and Kaká would appear to offer the kind of balance that Pellegrini has been striving for since the start of the season at the Bernabéu. It is tough luck for him, then, that van der Vaart and Higuaín have just been ruled out until the end of the month. Such is the lot of the 21st-century coach.