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 Posted by Michael Cox
Jul 22, 2014

How will James fit at Real Madrid?

ESPN FC's Alejandro Moreno predicts which team will have the better front four this season between Real Madrid and Barcelona.

The summer transfer window never fails to be a chaotic, ridiculous and erratic mess, but there are some entirely predictable stories every year.

Chelsea will sign a couple of talented youngsters but immediately loan them out. Juventus will embark upon a relentless campaign to acquire a percentage of various young Italian prospects, the majority of whom will never play for the club. But, most predictable of all, every four years, Real Madrid will sign a star -- often the star -- of the World Cup.

- Report: Real complete James deal
- Poll: Pick your Real Madrid XI
- Rigg: Assessing their summer

It started in 2002 with the signing of Brazilian striker Ronaldo. He had endured a horrendous couple of years at Inter, plagued by serious knee injuries that threatened to ruin his career. His participation at that summer's World Cup had been in serious doubt, but eight goals in seven matches -- including both in Brazil's 2-0 final win over Germany -- convinced Real to splash the cash on Florentino Perez's latest Galactico. He hit 83 goals in 127 La Liga games and although he couldn't inspire Real to the European Cup, he was hugely popular.

James Rodriguez might well be the key for Real Madrid moving forward.
James Rodriguez might well be the key for Real Madrid moving forward.

In 2006, Real were losing the footballer who had just won the World Cup's Golden Ball, as Zinedine Zidane was retiring. So who did they buy? Well, of course, the next best thing: the man who had been runner-up to Zidane, Fabio Cannavaro. An unusual signing for Real at the time -- a defender -- Cannavaro helped them to back-to-back La Liga titles.

In 2010 it was more complex -- many of the World Cup's star performers were Spanish but played for Barcelona. The likes of Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and Gerard Pique weren't realistic targets, while David Villa had already signed for Barca. Joan Capdevila? No thanks. Instead, Real had to raid the second-most impressive team, obtaining Germany's Mesut Ozil and Sami Khedira.

This time around, they have pulled off another double swoop -- Toni Kroos, one of the most impressive performers for World Cup winners Germany, and even more intriguingly, James Rodriguez. The winner of the World Cup's Golden Boot (and highly unfortunate not to be awarded the Golden Ball, too) was always a natural signing for Perez.

Managers are always delighted to welcome footballers as talented as Kroos and James, but Carlo Ancelotti will be scratching his head and getting through plenty of pages writing up tactics in his notepad this week.

Last season was a difficult balancing act for Ancelotti, forced to accommodate both Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo in their favoured positions, plus a wealth of technical central midfielders. The system often looked like a cross between 4-4-2 and 4-3-3, with Ronaldo playing somewhere between a left-winger and a forward, while Angel Di Maria did plenty of running to provide some defensive balance.

Di Maria was Real's most impressive performer at times, with a staggeringly brilliant display in the 4-3 defeat to Barcelona and a superb performance in the European Cup final. He, however, seems likely to be the major departure, with James taking his place. This risks ruining the harmony and cohesion Ancelotti worked so desperately to ensure.

Will signing James push Real to the title in 2014-15?

As the World Cup showed, James is happiest as a No. 10. Ancelotti, meanwhile, is always determined to feature players in their best positions, which means 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 aren't options if he wants to play James centrally. A 4-2-3-1, with Ronaldo and Bale on the flanks, is surely the only solution.

Though it risks creating an unbalanced side, the formation isn't entirely unworkable. While playing James, Bale and Ronaldo in a line of three -- presumably behind Karim Benzema -- looks incredibly attack-minded, the bonus for Ancelotti is the fact that both Bale and James are extremely hardworking and more than happy to muck in defensively.

Rodriguez's work rate on both sides of the ball will benefit Real no matter where he plays.
Rodriguez's work rate on both sides of the ball will benefit Real no matter where he plays.

Bale, of course, is a converted full-back and therefore very much capable of dropping back and protecting his defence. This was crucial in Real's European Cup campaign last season, as Ronaldo and Bale didn't play the same role: Ronaldo was a forward, Bale more of a wide midfielder. Bale is a devastating attacker, but not a luxury player.

James, too, is very disciplined. While often considered a winger brought inside to become a No. 10, his performances in the World Cup group stage suggested he's capable of dropping back into the midfield zone to help his side retain possession. He can also put in some strong tackles -- see the way he dispossessed Serey Die to create Juan Quintero's goal against the Ivory Coast. Again, there's no reason to believe James will neglect his defensive responsibilities for his new club.

In fact, compare the front four to the quartet favoured under Jose Mourinho between 2010 and 2013 -- it's no less defensively solid. Benzema and Ronaldo remain in place while James is more responsible defensively than Ozil. Bale is capable of providing Di Maria's energy, perhaps tucking into a slightly narrower position.

There are alternatives, of course. Ancelotti could opt to play last season's modified 4-4-2 shape, with Ronaldo up front and James drifting inside from the left, a role he's played before. Like last season, the true shape is likely to be a hybrid between two systems -- Ancelotti isn't someone who prescribes a rigid formation.

Carlo Ancelotti is the key to all of Real's summer business, given his tactical nous.
Carlo Ancelotti is the key to all of Real's summer business, given his tactical nous.

The key in all of this remains the same: Ancelotti himself. Some other managers decide upon their formation and their style of football before attempting to accommodate the players, but the Italian is much more flexible, bowing to the demands of his greatest assets. It's perfect for a club like Real, who attempt to sign the best players without consideration of their tactical impact -- a club focused upon the individual rather than the team.

James could become one of Real's most important signings in years. He boasts the creativity, goal-scoring ability, work rate, tactical discipline and flexibility to play in any formation, in any style of play. Did Real actually need him? Of course not -- but Ancelotti will consider James central to his plans, rather than as someone who will undermine them.

Michael Cox

Michael Cox is a freelance writer for ESPN.com. He is based in London and writes the Zonal Marking blog about football tactics. He also writes postmatch analysis for the Guardian and contributes regularly for FourFourTwo. You can follow him on Twitter @zonal_marking.