Tactics: Robinho arrival threatens Ronaldinho’s renaissance

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.

The average positions of Milan's players in their 4-0 victory at home to Lecce on August 29 (starting players circled); ESPN Soccernet

[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.

7 Responses to “Tactics: Robinho arrival threatens Ronaldinho’s renaissance”

  • [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Aliyu Dahiru™, Angelo Fiorini, Nana Wireko, VM, Tom Williams and others. Tom Williams said: Blog – Tactics: Why Robinho's arrival could spell trouble for Ronaldinho at Milan: http://bit.ly/9YoE2B [...]

  • An interesting dilemma. It immediately got me thinking of the Pires-Henry partnership at Arsenal 6 or 7 years ago. Both liked to start out wide left and work their way infield, often linking up in the process. Henry would drift diagonally into the box while Pires would take up central positions similar to how Zidane operated for France/Juve/Real. However Pires was comfortable playing as the furthest man forward on occasion while Henry stuck to the left (see 2:50 here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J42B7dUjcJg). That way they never got in each other’s way, and Pires was always on hand to convert any rebounds from Henry’s shots. Of course it took a couple of years for that great understanding to develop, Ronnie-Pato may not have that time, but it’s possible.

    The issue for me is whether Robinho is comfortable enough playing a more goals-orientated role and attacking the box. At the moment his game (positionally) is a bit too similar to Ronnie’s to make the partnership work.

  • Joao:

    It is a dilemma it got me thinking of my FIFA11 line up. I think maybe Robinho could work if gets tucked in the right wing and Zlatan and Pato alternate throughout the season (since they got rid of Huntelaar and Boriello, Zlatan and Pato are all the fire power they have upfront!). I like your suggested 4-2-3-1 formation but it seems to put some strain on Robinho as a playmaker rather than a supporting striker, maybe flipping between Ronnie and Robinho in your formation might work a little better. Or i think Milan can go 4-2-2-2 Robinho should haveno problem playing upfront as a CF, but like you descirbed it might create the Split formation specially since Pirlo and Seedorf like to travel upfront and help in the attack…

  • David H:

    I tend to think they can use Robinho to take some of the weight off old man Ronaldinho. They’re playing in the Champions League, there will be injuries, and they do need a deep squad. They’d make a big mistake not keeping Clarence on the field & in the middle. He may be old, too, but he didn’t spend his 20s in nightclubs.

  • [...] Tactics: Robinho arrival threatens Ronaldinho’s renaissance “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.” (Football Further) [...]

  • a forward line that included ibra, ronaldinho and robinho is thrilling but also worrying for milan. where’s the workrate there?! just add berbatov and you’d probably have the laziest attack ever. hope their defensive midfielders are ready for a hard season.

  • Milan already had problems last year because their front three don’t participate in defending at all. Add Robinho to the mix and you have 4 players who don’t defend or press the ball. You also have Pirlo who is a half hearted defender at the best of times. Maybe Allegri can make it work but they will be in trouble in the Champion’s League where they won’t be able to dominate possession. I still remember the way Man United bullied them last season.

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