Real Madrid have been the most dominant team in Europe in the year 2014. They have dismantled almost all teams with nonchalance and have incorporated new stars into their team seamlessly to continue with their merry ways. They have had to deal with the departure of a couple of their pivotal stars from last season, namely Angel Di Maria and Xabi Alonso but James Rodriguez and Toni Kroos have hit the ground running and added a new dimension to the team.
A key component of this great run of theirs was Luka Modric, the Croatian midfield maestro, who helped them keep the ball better, added a lot of clinical passes with his great vision and presence of mind under pressure. He formed a great midfield partnership with Xabi Alonso last season, and that was one of the biggest reasons Real were able to clinch the historic La decima.
The beginning of this season saw him form a new midfield partnership with the German Toni Kroos. Both Kroos and Modric are players who are very good on the ball, possess a good shot, and are very calm under pressure.
Though it took Ancelotti a couple of weeks to decide how his team could play at their best, he did it by giving Kroos the instructions to stay deep and control the tempo of the game while Modric was tasked with the responsibility of supplying their insanely talented attacking players, allowing the Croat to do what he does best, i.e. play in transition, both while attacking and defending.
Modric key to Real’s run of form this season
Real Madrid have played 28 matches this season, across all competitions, and have won 26 of them, losing just two. That incredible piece of statistic shows you how decisive they are as a team, and how addicted they are to winning they have become. A lot of the credit for this should go their coach Carlo Ancelotti, who has modeled his team accordingly whenever they have been faced with player departures or injuries.
Modric has been the focal point of their team, with about 50% of possession concentrated in the midfield when Real have the ball. This shows that their focus is now not just on super-fast transitions from defence to attack, but on protecting and using the ball better, and it has shown in their play, as they have dominated teams much more. His ability to dribble the ball out of tight spots and lay it off for the wide players, splitting the defence open has been a great facet of the Madrid club’s play.
With Kroos alongside him, Real have seen much more of the ball in mid-field, and have shown patience while going forward, opting to make the easy pass in order to fashion a more clear-cut chance. When Modric went down due to a thigh injury in the middle of November after a match for Croatia, Real Madrid fans across the world were left a little worried. They had become used to his metronomic passing in the middle of the park and his smart yet under-rated runs from midfield.
With the Club World Cup on the horizon and with the club intending to defend their Champions League crown, it was going to be a tough task for Carlo Ancelotti figure out a replacement and quickly.
Offsetting Modric’s absence – How have Real done it?
The best part about how the Italian manager has accomplished this task is that he has not changed his formation. Real Madrid have played the 4-3-3 which they so perfected last season, many times this season and have moved to an even more attacking 4-4-2 at times, with Ronaldo partnering Benzema in attack.
With Modric’s injury, Carlo Ancelotti sought to set his team up in an attacking 4-3-3, with Ronaldo, Benzema and Bale making up the front three, with Isco and James Rodriguez on either side of Toni Kroos, who played as the pivot. They played three matches with this formation and won all three of them.
However, what was clear was the team lacked balance, and that was seen in the manner of the wins, as a 4-0 away win over Eibar was followed by a narrow 1-0 win over Basel, and a tough 2-1 win over Malaga. They had to do a lot of defensive work in those matches, and that saw their effectiveness in front of goal reduced.
Following the matches against Basel and Malaga, Ancelotti decided that the team was too open and made changes that gave them some more solidity as they switched to a 4-4-2 formation, with James/ Isco on the left of midfield, and Illaramendi in the centre with Kroos, and Bale on the right. They defeated Celta Vigo 3-0 in a performance that saw them limit Vigo’s attacking opportunities and exhibit good defensive solidity.
James’s injury during the match forced Ancelotti to stick to this formation for the next couple of matches too as Isco slotted in instead of him. That match against Ludogorets saw them put in a commanding performance as they dominated from beginning to end in a 4-0 win.
Although Ancelotti changed it up and moved to a 4-3-3 against Almeria (he pushed Bale up to make use of his pace and directness), they won the game 4-1 away, relying on their counter-attacks to kill the game off. What these changes did show was that the presence of Illaramendi adds that physical dimension to their game that they lacked, and helps keep the ball better (Real averaged 57 and 61 % possession respectively in the games against Ludogorets and Almeria).
What really has worked for them in the absence of Modric though is the presence of Isco and Illaramendi in the midfield together with Kroos as that has helped them take care better of the ball, and be better defensively, without really affecting their fluency going forward. The fact that their defence has been good, despite regular rotation of personnel has been an added advantage.
Another point to consider is the presence of Sami Khedira, who was struggling to make an impression and get into the team due to Kroos and Modric’s partnership. The German, who came back from a serious injury just before the World Cup has not been playing much, and his tackling and tireless running could be put to great use.
So, they have successfully continued their domineering run of wins, dismantling every opponent, despite the absence of Luka Modric. Their manner of victories hasn’t really changed a lot. But what they might have stumbled upon in the last few games is another template that might work for them going forward. Yes, this team hasn’t faced any big opponent till now, but that will change soon, as they face Valencia and Atletico Madrid in three of their next four matches.