Time for Tinkerman Ancelotti to show his best hand

Posted by Nicholas Rigg

If there's any good to come from an international break, from a club manager's point of view, it's that he has extra preparation time, at least in scouting the opposing team and drawing up tactics, for the next match.

There's no quick turnaround from one match to another. No league match at the weekend and, in Real Madrid's case, Champions League match three days later, with another quick turnaround for a return to La Liga. The possibility and the stress of three matches in a week. There's relatively little media attention as the eyes of the media, for the most part, focus on the international scene.

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So while Carlo Ancelotti might worry about the fitness of his senior stars when they return from representing their country (as with most club managers in the modern game), this preparation time is precious. It only happens a couple of times during the season, especially in the case of a club the size of Madrid, which wants the conveyor belt of matches that comes with progressing as far as possible in as many competitions as possible.

The time will be extra precious given the Italian has so far failed to nail down his preferred starting 11. Most bases are covered and tactics are still being tinkered with. Players have been injured and players have been late in arriving to the party. But teams need consistency, even in the modern area where large squads are used to their maximum. A knowledge that a manager can put trust in his strongest 11 when he needs it the most. So far, at least to the public eye, Ancelotti has failed to decide on his best team.

Real Madrid has yet to field an unchanged side for any of its 10 matches in all competitions so far this season. Injuries, again, have played a key part, but Ancelotti has been indecisive in some of his selections so far. To play Ronaldo up front or to play him in his preferred wide position? To use Isco through the middle or out wide? Angel di Maria or a half-fit Gareth Bale? Alvaro Arbeloa or Dani Carvajal? The indecisions even boil down to the goalkeepers, with the Madrid boss trying to find a happy medium with Diego Lopez starting in La Liga and Iker Casillas taking Champions League duties.

In some situations it's probably down to Ancelotti picking his team based on the opponent in front of him. In the right-back case, Dani Carvajal looks like he would be preferred against a side which does not pose much threat on the left flank, offering a more attacking threat, whereas Arbeloa would seemingly be the safer option if Madrid was expecting to soak up more pressure defensively. This approach isn't uncommon, and it makes sense.

But a club such as Madrid, with the players it has at its disposal, should also be ready to throw down a starting 11 capable of winning matches regardless of the opposition in front of it. Regardless of who's up next, Ancelotti should be able to name the 11 men he'd send out in battle for the biggest matches, but at the moment there's seemingly little proof that he can do that. It seems, from the outside, that some of the players don't have the confidence that they're the first choice in their positions, either.

It's a situation that's not been helped by some of the players -- and that's meant in a good way. Gareth Bale might only be half-fit, if that, following his preseason injury setback with Tottenham Hotspur but Angel di Maria has handed his manager one hell of a headache with his performances in what many believe will be Bale's given position out wide. For a world record transfer fee it probably wouldn't be wise to put a bet on Bale taking up a spot on the bench most weeks when he's back to full fitness, but di Maria has risen to the challenge and has excelled since the Welshman's arrival. Indeed, the Argentine has most assists for Madrid so far this season with five, three of those coming in the Champions League.

It's somewhat ironic, therefore, that Karim Benzema is one of just two Madrid players to have started in every match so far this season, alongside Ronaldo. The Frenchman has been the subject of whistles aplenty for the Bernabeu for his performances but Ancelotti has kept faith with the former Lyon man, despite calls to give Alvaro Morata a go.

Let's not be naive, though. Changes will be made and they will be made regularly; Ancelotti already said as much before the season even started. In the modern game big squads are crucial when clubs can be fighting for silverware on as many as three or four fronts. And Madrid certainly wants to be fighting for silverware on all fronts. There's a reason Florentino Perez has splashed the cash on so many big players, and that's not to see them start on the bench every week. Every player will get his time on the pitch to impress. Some, of course, more than others.

But with Los Blancos entering arguably their toughest little spell of fixtures of the season so far, it'll be interesting to see how Ancelotti uses his squad. Malaga visit the Bernabeu this weekend, and although not the side of the last couple of seasons, they will post a threat. Then the big one, El Clasico in Catalonia. If that match doesn't highlight Ancelotti's preferred starting 11, possibly Xabi Alonso aside, then nothing will. Sevilla, back in the capital, caps it off, and that's without the added visit of Juventus in the Champions League in there, too.

New managers take time to install their structures, tactics and indeed players the way they want, but Ancelotti needs to quickly make decisions on who his main men are. This international break might well have helped him do just that.


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