Everything is balanced. The nature is balanced. The human society operates on a certain social dynamic – a form of balance. Try to tip the scale, and there is a price to pay.
This principle also applies to a football team. Every team needs to be balanced – if not, no formation, no tactics can work. Of course, nothing is perfect, but a certain balance between aspects in a tactical system of a team must be achieved – for example, balance between the “flair” and the “structured”.
Real Madrid are called “Galacticos” because they are basically a collection of celestial bodies. Most of them are attacking talents, such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, the new signings James Rodriguez and Toni Kroos. And don’t forget the veteran playmaker Xabi Alonso, or the all-action Sami Khedira.
But who will struck the balance between the expensive attacking players and the hard-working, defensive ones behind? Angel di Maria is the answer.
He provides the essential energy for Real in midfield. Under Mourinho, he played in the right wing, operated lower than the high-flying Ronaldo on the opposite side. When Ancelotti took over, he played Di Maria as a left central midfielder (a role he had played when still at Benfica), above Alonso and alongside Luka Modric, in his 4-3-3 system. The Argentinian covered a lot of ground for the more offensive-minded Croat, the sluggish maestro and a certain Portuguese notorious for his unenthusiasm in tracking back whatsoever – especially in the transition phase, when Real lost the ball.
He provides an outlet in the wing. Of course Mourinho set him in the right winger role – but when playing under Ancelotti, as a “number eight”, he also liked to drift to the left wing. That means he can combine with Ronaldo, who likes to drift inside to find space for the shot, and with the marauding full-back Marcelo. That simple trio turned out to be lethal – Barcelona definitely remember this.
And finally, the team becomes more flexible tactically with him. Real Madrid played a 4-4-2 system in the final stage of last season, with Ronaldo in a somewhat free role, right behind the main striker Karim Benzema. Di Maria filled in the vacant left wing slot. This system helped Real solve the Ronaldo problem in defending, as well as provided a balance that was essential in their Champions League victory. With Di Maria, Ancelotti can play this system, as well as switch to 4-3-3 seamlessly. Without him, none of these two formations would work.
Now, if he goes to another team, how will Real adapt? Toni Kroos is a very talented player, no doubt about it. Kroos has become more versatile, he can play as a number 10, number 8, sometimes even as a number 6. With his technical qualities, Kroos will be able to partner Alonso or even replace the Spaniard in the (near) future. But the young German is not very mobile. He does not have boundless energy, he cannot run up and down to cover the space like Di Maria did. Modric is also not an ideal candidate, since he needs someone to do the legwork when he charges forward. James Rodriguez – absolutely not. Khedira can provide the energy, but can he do the remaining two things Di Maria brought to Real?
With Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale (who is also not very good defensively) in the starting XI, Ancelotti now has a serious problem. Whatever midfield trio he plays, it will still be unbalanced. Kroos – Modric – Alonso is a decent choice, but it will be exposed in transition: Alonso does not have the legs, Modric needs time to get back, Kroos cannot cover a large ground. Kroos/Alonso – Modric – James will add some flair, but Real will be exposed even more, as James is a number 10.
Without Di Maria, the balance will fall apart – and the new “balance” will not suffice.
But perhaps, a good ol’ transfer window cannot be completed without Perez doing something stupid. He once threw away the engine of a Bentley to find the gold paint – and now, expect him to tip the balance.