Right-footed, left-sided attackers are currently one of football’s most fashionable commodities (think David Villa and Robinho at the World Cup; Franck Ribéry at Bayern Munich; Nani at Manchester United), and like any self-respecting wealthy Italian man, Silvio Berlusconi has to be up with the latest trends. So he bought two. But while Robinho is hoping his transfer deadline day move to Milan will allow him to re-launch his stuttering club career, his arrival at San Siro may well turn out to be bad news for Ronaldinho.
Berlusconi might be the most ardent Ronaldinho fan on the planet, but he seems obsessed with the idea that his hero should play in the centre. Earlier this summer he spoke of his desire to see Milan play with two strikers, supported by Ronaldinho as a central playmaker. It’s a seductive idea, motivated no doubt by memories of players like Gianni Rivera and Manuel Rui Costa who wore the red and black number 10 shirt with distinction, but it’s not a role that Ronaldinho seems to enjoy.
Almost all the most enduring images of Ronaldinho during his time at Barcelona – be it his sensational goal against Sevilla or his one-man demolition job against Real Madrid at the Bernabéu – saw him picking up the ball wide on the left and cutting in at goal. As he said himself last season: “I feel great and where I’m playing I can do my best. I’m happy to play behind the strikers, but where I’m playing now [on the left] is my best position.”
Leonardo tried playing Ronaldinho as a central playmaker in a 4-3-1-2 last season and it was an unqualified failure. Moving him to the left of an attacking trident prompted a thrilling – if transitory –return to form and he looked full of brio in Milan’s 4-0 thrashing of Lecce in their opening league game on Sunday, introducing devastating angles to the Milan attack and running through his full repertoire of flicks and tricks, flip-flaps and rabonas.
The following diagram (the now customary ESPN Soccernet screenshot) shows Milan’s average positions from that game, with Ronaldinho wide on the left and Clarence Seedorf the most advanced of the three central midfielders in what appears to be a clearly defined 4-3-3 from Massimiliano Allegri.
[Squad numbers: 32. Christian Abbiati; 25. Daniele Bonera, 13. Alessandro Nesta, 33. Thiago Silva, 77. Luca Antonini; 23. Massimo Ambrosini, 21. Andrea Pirlo, 10. Clarence Seedorf; 7. Alexandre Pato, 22. Marco Borriello, 80. Ronaldinho; Substitutes: 8. Gennaro Gattuso, 27. Kevin-Prince Boateng, 9. Filippo Inzaghi]
So where does Robinho fit in? The obvious answer is that he doesn’t. He may not play in exactly the same position as Ronaldinho – Robinho can play just off a central striker, whereas Ronaldinho tends to hug the touchline more – but both are undoubtedly at their best when allowed to operate with complete freedom on the left-hand side, unencumbered by team-mates getting in the way. It is perhaps telling that Dunga felt unable to accommodate them both in the Brazil starting XI.
The most apparent solution is a 4-2-3-1, with Zlatan Ibrahimović up top, Alexandre Pato on the right and Ronaldinho playing alongside Robinho on the left-hand side. It could work. Milan could end up with one of the most bewilderingly skilful attacking line-ups in football history. But the suspicion persists that they run the real risk of developing a ‘split’ formation, the kind of top-heavy shape that puts far too much strain on the holding players and which spelled doom for Brazil at the 2006 World Cup and for Argentina earlier this summer in South Africa. Seedorf in particular will do well to hold onto his starting role.
At any rate, it will be a fascinating experiment. Just don’t expect Berlusconi to carry the can if it blows up in his face.