Ancelotti’s new midfield dilemma

It has all been a bit of a juggling act so far for Carlo Ancelotti in his first season at Real Madrid. But, perhaps this was always going to be the case after promises to change the side’s style of play from Jose Mourinho’s pragmatic counter-attacking approach to an ‘attractive possession-based football’. Real Madrid have been a side in transition and while results have not been bad, some performances have left a lot to be desired. Xabi Alonso’s absence for the first two months did not help, but, he is back playing again and last time out against Real Sociedad, the signs were encouraging.

With the former Liverpool man running things from deep in midfield, aided by Luka Modric and Sami Khedira, Real Madrid put in their best most complete display of the season thus far. There was a balance in the side that had been severely lacking and this helped Madrid to control the game. After countless experiments in personnel and tactics, it seemed that Ancelotti had finally found his best XI and best system.

It was a long road to get there and unfortunately for Ancelotti, he must go back down it with the news that Khedira is out for most likely the remainder of the season.

In a bad case of the FIFA virus, the German midfielder tore his anterior cruciate ligament in an international friendly against Italy on Friday. Germany Coach, Joachim Low lamented: “This is a bitter blow for Sami and all of us.” And not only for Germany is this true, but for Real Madrid too.

Khedira is not everyone’s favourite at Casa Blanca. During his three-and-a-half years at the club, he has received praise and criticism in equal measure. For much of this term, it has been more of the latter – during Alonso’s absence, Khedira was regularly asked to play his role as the holding midfielder. Clearly uncomfortable with the responsibility this position entails, the German’s performances were claimed to be one of the reasons why Real Madrid were at times struggling. But, such claims were unfair – Khedira was just being played in the wrong position.

Even despite not being at his best, he remained a favourite of Ancelotti, who values his ability to win the ball and contribute both in attack and defence. For all the midfield shuffling, Ancelotti has counted on the German more than any other of his midfielders.

With Xabi’s return to the side, it is perhaps no coincidence that Khedira’s similar return to a more familiar role saw his performances improve, particularly against Real Sociedad – easily his best showing of the season. Even Modric seems to be more comfortable as he now has less defensive responsibilities. But, just when Ancelotti thought he had all the pieces in their right places, Khedira’s absence poses a new dilemma. 

Madrid sports daily AS ran a survey asking fans who they thought should replace Khedira in midfield. Not surprisingly, Isco won 43 per cent of the votes. The young Spaniard made an immediate impact early in the season but has since seen himself cast aside as a victim of Ancelotti’s tactical tinkering. Angel di Maria and Asier Illarramendi are alternatives but like Isco, they do not represent the most like-for-like replacements. The one player that does is Casemiro. Strong and powerful, the Brazilian likes to also get forward like his German teammate and he is being tipped to step in.

Yet, reports in the Spanish Press indicate he may only be a stop-gap solution until a replacement is signed. One can see just why this could happen. Casemiro has not played a single minute for two months. This is a long time and for this reason, he may not be the ideal solution.

Ancelotti has much to ponder, again. With the campaign well underway and with expectations sky high, he will have to find a solution sooner rather than later – Madrid’s season depends on it and, even possibly, his own future at the club.

Read more from Frank Tigani at The Divine Ponytail.