Carlo Ancelotti and Real Madrid. It just works.
Both share unmatched European pedigreetrophy-laden history and gain a certain respectability when it comes to keeping talent pools in check.
But there is something more underrated that sets both manager and club apart: the ability to constantly evolve.
Real Madrid have gone 238 games – as many as six years – without naming an unchanged starting line-up in La Liga, an incredible run sustained by Ancelotti with tactical complications in his fifth and possibly final season at the club.
While the departure of club legend Karim Benzema to Saudi Arabian side Al Ittihad may have forced the Italian’s hand, his shuffling of six superstar prospects across four midfield positions has been as ever, reminiscent of when Clarence Seedorf, Andrea Pirlo, Gennaro Gattuso, Kaka and others would float in and out of his iconography AC Milan team.
This season, from Eduardo Camavinga playing as a marauding left-back to Jude Bellingham being pushed up front, flexibility has been key to utilizing the myriad skills in the squad and allowing the team’s big names to co-exist.
Somewhere between two to four changes have been standard, while no player has started every game this campaign.
The center of most of that change has been the central diamond introduced by Ancelotti this season, of which we have already seen eight unique variations in just 13 competitive matches.
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The latest was tested in Braga The Champions League Tuesday night’s group stage, with Luka Modric join Camavinga in patrolling from the deep, meanwhile Federico Valverde shuttled up and down the right, allowing Bellingham to press and hook Vinicius Jr.
But it was also only the third time that Aurelien Tchouameni did not start at center this season. For all the flexibility of his squad, Ancelotti has his favourites.
The most common variation, used in five separate games, has emerged Toni Kroos dictates the pace on the left, joins anchor Tchouameni, freighter Valverde on the right and box-crash Bellingham on the diamond tip.
Camavinga has flitted between the left side of midfield and full-back, while Modric has started just four times – on the right, left and in midfield. Now 38 years old — the third oldest outfield player in La Liga — The Croatian’s seven passes that led to goals against Braga reminded of his supreme quality, even as he adapts reduced role in the side.
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Regardless of the boundless energy that all six players seem to possess, the data provides an insight into what makes Madrid’s midfield options so flexible.
Of the players who have completed at least 50 tackles since the start of last season, three of Ancelotti’s midfielders are in the top 10 for turnover rate, a measure that divides a player’s total touches in open play by the number of times they are dismissed. The lower the ratio, the better a player is at keeping the ball relative to the number of touches they have.
Balance and bipedal technical skills, combined with defensive bite, allow each player to operate comfortably across the court.
Tchouameni’s league leaders highlight his credentials for the deep role. The Frenchman is a midfielder with impeccable passing ability who can get out of most high-pressure situations unscathed.
With a passing accuracy of 93.4 percent — the second-highest in the league since the start of last season — he also boasts more success than his teammates in midfield, reserving the great ability to get out of danger with the ball at his feet when needed most.
As his sonar below shows, Tchouameni is at its best controlling play from deep, able to sweep the ball from side to side over long distances with great precision.
A 69.1 percent aerial duel win rate also makes him a capable defensive screen, while no midfielder with more than 50 tackles can better the true tackle win rate in La Liga from 2022-23.
Even at 23 years old, few can dispute his rightful place at the bottom of the diamond.
Kroos has long been able to do much of the same, but the arrival of Tchouameni has allowed the legendary midfielder to focus on doing what he does best: moving the ball forward.
The German’s passing numbers continue to impress in his 10th season at the club, having completed more passes, taken more touches and completed more passes per game than any other player in La Liga since the start of last season, all while maintaining the highest passing accuracy.
Kroos also leads the way for passes into the final third, with a superior ability to break down stubborn midfield lines deep. With Tchouameni under cover, he has been allowed to drift into his favorite areas in the left half space, where he is so clinical when given space to thread passes into the opposition area.
After being in Tchouameni’s side on Tuesday, he is certain to start this weekend’s Clasico.
On the other side of the diamond, Valverde has been one of the other mainstays of Ancelotti’s system, starting 10 of Madrid’s 13 games this campaign.
Few players in football have the drive of this 25-year-old. He’s an incredible athlete who also possesses a ferocious long-range shot, as seen opposite Naples in the Champions League this month.
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) October 5, 2023
As most of the action was sucked over to Real’s left flank – where Vinicius Jr plays regularly the attention of many defenders and Fran Garcia, Camavinga and Bellingham swarming around to bring him into play — Valverde often finds himself with the freedom of the right half.
That’s where his famous running power comes into play. He is able to thunder up and down the field to get to the back post for crosses or tear through the crooked structures of opponents with the ball at his feet.
Valverde is also a great winner of the ball, with a high true tackle percentage of 63.9 percent.
Sometimes he can run the right side by himself.
Last but not least, there is Bellingham.
Although he nominally started as the more advanced midfielder of the four, the Englishman’s endless energy means he pops up all over the pitch. La Liga’s top scorer with eight goals, he has also committed the most fouls of any player in the league.
More than ever, though, Bellingham has been pushing into the danger zone, with his third-down touches up nearly 25 percent and his penalty box touches jumping from 3.5 to 5.3 per game.
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He hasn’t been shooting much more often than in previous seasons, but his advanced position has seen his shooting distance plummet, while his average shot quality of 0.18 xG is among the best in La Liga.
The goals have followed and don’t look like stopping anytime soon.
Bellingham could hardly have asked for a better start to life in Spain and Ancelotti must take credit for this once again.
Thirteen games, 11 wins and eight different engine bays – Real madridHis super strength continues to be a midfield quartet that can adapt at a moment’s notice.
Camavinga can come in for Kroos to hold up the left side of midfield, Modric can replace Valverde if more creativity is needed between the lines, Tchouameni can burst forward and Bellingham can drift back. The six can do most things better than anyone else.
Magnificent midfield battle with Barcelona waiting for the weekend.
(Top photo: Diego Souto/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)
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