As soon as Real Madrid announced the official starting lineup that would face Atlético Madrid in the second leg of the Champions League quarterfinal, everyone noticed something a little different:
Wait a minute! Pepe, Varane, AND Ramos??
What the hell was Ancelotti thinking? Let the speculation begin!
At first everyone assumed that Ramos would play defensive midfield, just in front of the center backs, Pepe and Raphaël Varane. This seemed like a perfectly plausible solution, given Madrid’s problems in midfield and the fact that Ancelotti had already tried that experiment in last season’s Clásico against Barcelona.
On that day, Sergio Ramos floundered against Barça’s passing game. He ended up getting subbed early in the second half and Ancelotti would later admit that playing him there was a mistake.
But with Ramos the best passer of the three, it seemed like the logical scenario. He’d play deep behind Toni Kroos, who would move up to his more natural position farther up the field.
Then! Real Madrid TV, the club’s official 24 hour cable network, started showing lineups in their match preview that showed Pepe in midfield.
Some astute football fans on twitter pointed out that Pepe actually played there quite a few times for Portugal.
But everyone remembers that time José Mourinho played Pepe in that position against Barcelona.
Of course there was also the possibility that Ancelotti could play with 3 center backs and 2 wing backs.
But that seemed like a crazy idea to try in such a crucial game. It would be a complete overhaul of the system. Instead, Ancelotti did something that literally nobody predicted. He played Sergio Ramos much higher on the pitch, in front of Kroos on the right side of a three man midfield. Huh??
In hindsight, it made perfect sense. With Ancelotti forced to play the attacking trio of Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, and Gareth Bale because the club imposes it for #synergy #marketing #mercantilism reasons, he’s always looked to find midfielders who can cover an insane amount of ground. Typically a 4-3-3 requires that at least two of those forwards be more like creative midfielders that can help the rest of the midfield trio in the build up and defense. Not at Madrid. At Madrid the three forwards are real deal holyfield forwards, who don’t particularly know how to participate in the buildup.
This causes all kinds of headaches for Ancelotti. Last year, he surprised everyone by converting Ángel di María into a midfielder, a position he had never played in his life. Di María had always been an erratic all-or-nothing winger who had one thing going for him: he could basically sprint full speed for 90 minutes and not feel tired. Ancelotti designed a system where Xabi Alonso anchored the midfield and di María covered the space. It obviously worked for Madrid, with di María a key figure in their eventual lifting of the Champions League trophy.
Fast forward to the summer. Ancelotti begged the board to keep di María and Alonso and to sign Juventus’ Arturo Vidal, another all-action midfielder that can cover miles and miles of green grass. Real Madrid President Pérez was like, yeah right bro, I’m actually going to sell those two, and bring in Toni Kroos and James Rodríguez. Flo likes signing players who shine in World Cups – Kroos had just won it, and James was the breakout star.
Just like that Ancelotti watched as the team he had built to win La Décima under extremely hard circumstances was blown to pieces before his curled up eyebrow.
This season, as Ancelotti predicted, Real Madrid has struggled mightily against good teams whenever the infamous “BBC” is on the field. Against the top 5 teams in Spain (Barcelona, Atlético Madrid, Valencia, Sevilla, and Villarreal) Real Madrid has only managed to get 10 points from a possible 24 so far (they still have to play at Sevilla and host Valencia). Their biggest win came against Barcelona at home, and it came when Bale was out injured and Ancelotti was able to play four midfielders and two forwards.
Indeed Atléti has been the toughest opponent of them all. Real Madrid had failed to beat them in 7 previous matches just this season, which is insane. In the moment of truth, where it seemed like it was do or die for Ancelotti, he trusted his instincts and did something crazy, but also completely logical.
In the first leg against Atlético, Real Madrid played the BBC up front with Luka Modrić, Kroos and James behind them. In the first half, Atléti was pinned back. Then Real Madrid ran out of steam, allowing Atléti to push the side back into its own box by the end of the game. To cover for Bale and Ronaldo, Kroos and Modrić must exert superhuman energies, and eventually, that runs out.
But Sergio Ramos, well, he just might be superhuman. And Ancelotti knew that, despite his lack of experience playing further up the pitch, he could at least run for days. 10.8 km, to be exact, the Real Madrid player that ran the most in the match. His aerial ability, along with the equally large and dominant Pepe and Varane, effectively negated Atleti’s most dangerous weapon.
After the game Ramos said:
I have always liked challenges and I like that position. The merit is all Ancelotti’s; we had kept his decision a secret since last Sunday. I have always said that I like coaches with personality and balls. Ancelotti is one of them.
Just like last season, Sergio Ramos came through for Ancelotti when everything seemed lost. Ramos has been at Real Madrid over ten years, and he knows exactly how things work at the club: “If we hadn’t won the tie, Ancelotti and I would have both got it in the neck.”