The argument for playing Cristiano Ronaldo centrally at Real Madrid
While reports in Spain suggesting plans are in place to turn Cristiano Ronaldo into an out-and-out No. 9 may be for the future rather than the present, it's true that Real Madrid's talisman is becoming more central, literally as well as figuratively, to his team's attacking prowess this season.
The Portugal international has scored an incredible seven goals in his last two La Liga matches, taking his tally to nine goals in just four league matches this season, with those goals having come with the former Manchester United man moving more freely in his side's three-pronged, or indeed two-pronged, attack.
It's no secret that the 29-year-old enjoys strutting his stuff out wide, taking advantage of spaces and using his penetrating pace and trickery to bamboozle defenders at will. His usual position out on the left of Madrid's attacking trio, which also includes Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale, allows him to cut inside of defenders and let loose his cannon of a right foot. The same goes for Bale on the other flank, a mirror image, to give manager Carlo Ancelotti one of the most lethal attacks on the planet.
That devastating trio, which helped Madrid to the Champions League and Copa del Rey last season, have often interchanged to make life even more difficult for defenders. Not only were opponents marking three of the most lethal attackers in the game, they were often left to wonder exactly which one they would be left to pick up.
That's still the case, but while the majority of matches would see Ronaldo on the left, Benzema in the centre and Bale on the right, that chemistry has changed somewhat in recent matches and has seen Ronaldo enjoy more time in the centre. He's been seeing more of the ball, and scoring more goals. If the move was an experiment by Ancelotti, it's an experiment that has so far worked.
The change has occurred since Ronaldo was handed a two-week "break" by club and country. He sat out of his side's shock 4-2 reverse at Real Sociedad and also Portugal's international matches earlier this month, and it's a decision that has paid off. His return against Atletico Madrid didn't go according to plan, with the champions leaving with a second straight league win at the Bernabeu, but since then his performances have been emphatic.
Eight goals in seven days. The naysayers will point to the fact that he didn't cut it against Atleti and that he bullied lesser sides in Basel, newly promoted Depor and most recently Elche. On paper it seems that way, but Ronaldo's performances of late have merited more than that -- much more. Not only has he grabbed the goals, he's come deeper to receive the ball and get more involved in the action other than providing the finishing touch. He's created chances for his teammates and he's even gotten back defensively, even if that did mean he conceded a penalty that was ultimately only a consolation on Tuesday night.
Most of this has been done centrally. While Madrid have made a sluggish start to the season, Ronaldo has seemingly took it upon himself to almost single-handedly drag his side back to their best, and he's done that by covering plenty of the pitch, not just the left flank.
Perhaps Karim Benzema's failure in front of goal has seen the Frenchman move out wide more and allow Ronaldo, the more natural finisher, to move inside. Benzema has come under scrutiny of late but he has also shone through the attacking changes. His assist for James Rodriguez's sublime strike at the Riazor being a prime example, as he did the hard work down the left before teeing up the Colombian for his wonder goal.
Ronaldo's stunning ability to rise way above his marker and score with his head may also have promoted the change. His header against Deportivo was brilliant, and he followed that up with another headed goal against Elche. More central finishes came in Galicia, Madrid's third, and on Tuesday night when he wrapped up his four-star showing with Madrid's fifth. This is a player who is flourishing down the middle.
It won't be a position he sticks to. Not any time soon, anyway. "He doesn't like playing with his back to goal -- he wants to look for spaces on the wing to be facing goal," Ancelotti said after the Elche victory. "The movements he makes are very quick and that's why they come as a surprise. He is always in just the right position because he has a unique gift for movement."
Ronaldo excelled moving more centrally in Madrid's historic win over Depor, but he was also deployed alongside Bale in a 4-4-2 lineup in midweek as Ancelotti rung the changes in light of his side's fixture list stacking up. Asier Illarramendi and Isco, two forgotten men this summer, returned and played well in midfield alongside Toni Kroos and James, while Madrid's usual wing wizards played in a new-look two-pronged attack, Ancelotti's "Plan B."
It's a viable plan and not only gave players rest, but also added more balance to a side desperately looking for some following the sales of Angel di Maria and Xabi Alonso. Ancelotti has emphasised his desire to stick rigidly to a 4-3-3 this season, but changes in personnel have forced his hand in that respect. Madrid have used a 4-2-2 to defend without the ball, but this was a new look as an attacking lineup, too. It worked, unfortunately for Elche.
Not only will Ronaldo's more central play aid Madrid's "Plan B," it also comes at a time when Ancelotti will have what seems like a new player at his disposal in less than a month. Jese Rodriguez caused a stir when he broke on to the scene at the Bernabeu last season but a cruel knee injury cut short his campaign. The Las Palmas-born attacker is now on the mend, and as another player who can feature in all positions of a front three, that will only add to Madrid's attacking flair.
Ancelotti is expected to return to a 4-3-3 lineup for the tougher trip to El Madrigal to face Villarreal this weekend, but Madrid should continue to use Ronaldo as a more flexible forward rather than one who relies on the ball going to him out wide. The Spanish giants have improved with their No. 7 playing more in a No. 9 role, and indeed as a No. 10, and they will need him at the top of his game on Saturday afternoon if they are to return with maximum points.
Manchester United fans have hired a plane to fly over the stadium with a banner reading "Come Home Ronaldo" trailing behind. Their former hero will be the centre of attention on Saturday afternoon as he always is, but he will literally be central to Madrid's continued improvements this season as he searches to add more goals to his frightening tally so far this season.