If Bale wants to be Kaka, could Spurs play like Ancelotti's Milan?

Richard Heathcote

With Gareth Bale moving towards a permanent central role and AVB tinkering with narrow formations, perhaps Spurs could learn a thing or two from one of the most successful wingerless teams of the past decade.

*I would like to give co-authorship credits for this piece to my new collaborative partner in crime Lennon's Eyebrow, who devised and pitched to me the 'Gareth Bale as Kaka/Spurs as Milan' hypothetical and fleshed out this piece with many vital ideas and pullout quotes.

Over the past season, Gareth Bale has changed up his game to the point where he has now successfully replicated the style of one of this decade's most iconic attacking midfielders- one of the most expensive players in sports history, currently to be found plying his trade at Real Madrid. This player is not the one your instincts would lead you to think of. Gareth Bale is not the new Cristiano Ronaldo. Instead, if you look at the role Bale now likes to play for Spurs, and at the elements of his game that have been carried over during that transition, it's possible to argue that Bale is in fact the new Kaka.

Just like Kaka (in a certain sense), Bale has drifted over the past two seasons away from the role of a creator to that of an inside forward. His trickiness, ball skills and preference for long shots have been the focal point for his transformation into a centralized goal threat. Like Kaka he thrives in his new role by capitalizing on pockets of space- his goal in the first match against Manchester United, which saw the striker isolating him against one centre back and allowing him to power past and finish in the opposite corner, bore clear shades of the approach which made the Brazilian such a potent threat during his peak years.

OK, so where exactly is this all leading to? Well, if we accept this comparison and use it as a jumping-off point, I believe we can start out on an interesting path towards re-thinking the tactical issues which have faced Andre Villas-Boas in recent weeks. Bereft of the key influence of Aaron Lennon, AVB has been forced to experiment with a number of different approaches to make up for the shortfall in width that accompanied the flying winger's absence. The most successful but by no means totally viable of which was a narrow formation deployed against Anfield at Liverpool. This is a problem that has jarred Tottenham's momentum this season and obviously must be accounted for carefully going forwards. Over a longer span of time, he has also struggled throughout the season to find a consistent place for talented number 10s Gylfi Sigurdsson and Lewis Holtby and creative bright spark Thomas Carroll, as Bale and Clint Dempsey have monopolized the central and wide left positions and Parker and Dembele have remained the preferred central midfield pairing.

All of which to me raises the question: if Bale is the new Kaka, and AVB is keen to find a width-less formula that can work for Spurs for occasions Lennon is out while trying to work in his bevy of playmakers, then why not look for inspiration to a team that brought all of these elements together while achieving fantastic success at both a club and European level- AC Milan under Carlo Ancelotti, 2001-2009?

Let's start by analysing Ancelotti's tactics at Milan and how they could potentially work with the personnel Spurs currently possess. In essence, throughout the Ancelotti era, Milan alternated primarily between two formations- the 4-3-1-2 (or diamond 4-4-2 as I prefer to term it), and the 4-3-2-1 'Christmas tree'. These two formations had a couple of elements in common- in both, Andrea Pirlo was always deployed to sit deep and distribute from in front of his back four, and Gennaro Gattuso and Massimo Ambrosini were always deployed as holding players in the centre of the park with Kaka serving as a withdrawn forward. Ancelotti would also sometimes drop Ambrosini to pair Pirlo with Clarence Seedorf and Gattuso to increase the overall spread of creativity in the side. The obvious difference between the formations was that the diamond 4-4-2 provided more out and out firepower with two strikers, while the 'Christmas tree' packed in another number 10 alongside Kaka (usually Seedorf or Rui Costa) to stretch the opposition midfield and defence.

By having creativity so deep in Pirlo, Ancelotti's teams forced opponents to defend higher up the pitch (which isn't so novel now as most teams play with deep playmakers) therefore allowing gaps between the lines for Kaka. Second, it also forced the opposition fullbacks to pinch in and help mark the attacking midfielders since obviously two center backs couldn't mark all three players. This allowed bombing fullbacks to get into space deep on the flanks, and also allowed diagonal runs from Kaka into the vacated space by the fullback forced to move over. Also, it allowed Fillipo Inzaghi to sneak in and poach while the primary goalthreat was coming from a deeper starting point on the pitch.

Do we have analogues for the required roles to attempt either of the aforementioned formations and subsequently try to implement Ancelotti's tactics? On paper, quite possibly.

Of the two systems, I believe that we're better equipped personnel-wise to make the 'Christmas tree' work, as this formation correlates with Spurs' lack of striking firepower but overload of advanced creativity. In this system, one of Tom Huddlestone or Thomas Carroll could take on the Pirlo role, sat deep and distributing accurate long balls, while Mousa Dembele and Scott Parker screen in front of him, with Bale playing in the Kaka role partnered with Holtby or Sigurdsson, whose energy, ability to press opponents and creative passing mean they could slot in as the Seedorf/Rui Costa replacement. Dembele or Parker could also be dropped for Holtby or Sigurdsson for the added burst of creativity that Ancelotti would add by slotting in Seedorf for Ambrosini. All of Ancelotti's formations naturally required athletic, attacking fullbacks to serve the dual role of tracking back and providing a wide threat, roles in which on paper Benoit Assou-Ekotto or Jan Vertonghen and Kyle Walker could succeed in, while Jermain Defoe already pretty much replicates Pippo Inzaghi's minimal-touches, goal-poacher game.

Below is a formation diagram of how I envision this team lining up.

football formations

In theory, then, Spurs appear to have the personnel to make Ancelotti's formation and tactics work. With that superficial analysis out of the way, let's critically interrogate this hypothetical a little more closely. Naturally, the biggest question that springs immediately to mind is whether or not Tom Huddlestone or Thomas Carroll have the requisite skillset to fill the enormously influential shoes of Andrea Pirlo in this system. This, ultimately is an issue which has the potential to unravel the whole exercise, as neither for me fully captures what Pirlo brought to Ancelotti's Milan- Huddlestone fits the model of quarterback perfectly but cannot match Pirlo's decision-making or ability to drive forward with the ball, while Carroll has exhibited both of these latter abilities yet has never quite shown the eye for the long pass on a consistent enough basis to convince me he could take on enormous creative responsibility he would be forced to shoulder. One might also doubt whether Parker is disciplined and athletic enough to serve effectively as one of the 'runners' in a narrow formation, and perhaps similarly you'd also question whether Kyle Walker would capably carry off the doubled responsibilities of a fullback in a wingerless system.

Finally, there are the wider problems with the system caused by the tactical evolution in the game. While back then it was mostly unheard of, now most teams play as a 4-2-3-1, so now you're likely to see two midfielders sitting deep and able to camp on the advanced Kaka/Seedorf figures in a way that previously wasn't a problem. This also probably means the poacher won't get as much joy and the fullbacks won't have as much space, problems which AVB would have to account for were he to try and tinker with the Tree. Perhaps you might simply counter-argue against all of these issues, however, in stating that unleashing all of the sheer talent Spurs possess in the positions that make up the central spine of the side would allow the team to power through these problems against most teams, as Chelsea did playing a narrow shape in their first season under Ancelotti himself.

Looking closely at this current Tottenham lineup, an Ancelotti-style formation would certainly seem to be a logical use of the resources we have- lots of creative talent in terms of classic number 10s and destroyers, and not that much natural width when Azza's out. It would create a myriad of new problems for the manager to work out- but importantly, one could argue that it would work better than what AVB has attempted in recent weeks, and what's more set the team up to best utilize the newfound skill set of our most talented player, just like Ancelotti's Christmas tree did for Kaka. Trying to replicate Milan's tactics would be a gamble, but then almost everything AVB has attempted since Lennon's injury has been- at least trying to replicate a tried and tested approach can't be worse, in any case, than Benny on the left.

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