Carlo Ancelotti has always been renowned as a player's manager.
Whereas some Italian coaches are obsessed by formation, strategy and shape, the Real Madrid manager has a more relaxed approach that concentrates on maximising individual talent.
Ancelotti's trophy haul is impressive rather than spectacular but he has proved the perfect coach for the modern-day owner obsessed with cramming expensive individuals into the same side. At Milan Silvio Berlusconi ordered him to field two strikers; at Chelsea there was pressure to field Roman Abramovich's star signings simultaneously; while at PSG the repeated recruitment of big names – from world-class stars like Zlatan Ibrahimovic to fading forces like David Beckham – also tested his diplomacy. If a president presents Ancelotti with a new superstar, he will manage to accommodate him – usually in his best position.
Madrid, of course, is home of the galáctico. Whereas Barcelona have excelled because of their focus on teamwork, youth development and cohesion, Madrid remain steadfastly committed to the concept of the individual.
Realistically, they do not remotely need Gareth Bale. Last season José Mourinho regularly fielded Cristiano Ronaldo, Mesut Ozil and Angel Di María in the line of three behind the main striker, while Florentino Pérez has now recruited Málaga's Isco – the most impressive performer in Spain's victorious European Under-21 Championship campaign, and yet another gifted attacking midfielder. Then there's Kaká, crowned the world player of the year under the guidance of Ancelotti at Milan.
Whereas Manchester United's rumoured interest in Bale made sense considering their lack of goals from the wing, Madrid would be breaking the world transfer record for a player who does not quite fit.
But this is Madrid, so Bale will probably be signed, and this is Ancelotti, so Bale will start regularly. His development into a pure attacker capable of scoring goals regularly means it's unthinkable he would revert to his old left-back position, and it also seems unlikely Ancelotti would field Bale as an out-and-out left-winger – he appears restricted in that position, forced to dribble down the line before crossing rather than charging towards goal.
André Villas-Boas's use of Bale – now a goalscorer more than a creator – as a central attacking force worked excellently last season. It was notable that he scored several goals from a right-sided position, where he could cut inside before shooting.
"I have been shooting a lot more and I have been coming inside a lot more too," Bale said. "I have a few less assists but I am in more scoring positions and that has helped my scoring tally."
With Isco and Ozil likely to command first-team slots, there is a good chance Ancelotti will decide to shift Ronaldo into a permanent central striking position. The departure of Gonzalo Higuaín to Napoli leaves Karim Benzema as Madrid's only established centre-forward, while Ronaldo's astonishing record of 201 goals in 199 appearances underlines his ability in the penalty box.
There has been discussion about whether Ronaldo's position on the left significantly weakens Madrid defensively. In the defeat to Borussia Dortmund in last season's Champions League group stage, it was clear Jürgen Klopp had asked his players to exploit the space down that flank.
In Madrid's nervous second leg against Galatasaray in the quarter-finals, the Turkish champions did the same, forcing Mourinho to desperately reorganise in order to protect the left-back Fábio Coentrão. Mourinho occasionally used Ronaldo as a lone centre-forward – he scored the Copa del Rey winner in 2011 against Barcelona with a towering header from that position, while Carlos Queiroz sometimes played him up front for Portugal.
In Madrid's 1-0 friendly victory over PSG at the weekend, Benzema scored the winner but was later withdrawn for Kaká, with Ronaldo moving up front. Without Higuaín and with Luis Suárez out of reach if Madrid commit to buying Bale, it makes sense to play Ronaldo in attack and it is clear Ancelotti is considering that possibility.
For Bale, who has unashamedly attempted to mimic Ronaldo's development, that positional switch may be perfect. For Madrid to play two similar players behind a traditional striker would be overkill but if Ronaldo becomes something of an old-fashioned No9, Bale will have greater scope to demonstrate his individualism. That, put simply, is what Real Madrid are all about.
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image: © Jan S0L0