Much of the analysis surrounding Carlo Ancelotti's appointment at Real Madrid focused on his man-management skills and very little on the style he'd implement. They aren't mutually exclusive, and a more relaxed approach, contrasting with Jose Mourinho's regime, can in itself get players playing with more freedom and improvisation.
Still, every side needs some sense of structure. We're still not really sure what Ancelotti's favoured system is, although we know narow formations are his forte, having used variants of 4-3-2-1 at both AC Milan and Chelsea. His previous club, PSG, was no different, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic often supported by two attackers playing in close proximity. Ancelotti did, however, use 4-4-2 towards the end of his tenure, and subsequently did the same in the first few matches of his Real Madrid tenure.
It was, as is often the case, not a pure 4-4-2, and Cristiano Ronaldo, nominally one of the two centre-forwards, often moved across to the left so he could make that typical in-cutting dribble from the flank. Combined with Isco's tendency to drift inside into central positions, and same with Mesut Ozil before he was sold for Arsenal, it was a typical Ancelotti team: not a particularly cohesive attack, but one packed full of incredibly talented, creative players that somewhat disguised the overall lack of fluency.
Gareth Bale's arrival has not changed things, although recent games have seen more clarity. A distinction has to be made between clarity and control: we know more about how Ancelotti wants his side to play, but that doesn't necessarily mean they've been particularly good at it.
That was especially obvious in two consecutive challenges against Juventus and Barcelona. In the former match, Ancelotti opted for a front three of Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Angel Di Maria, and with Isco on the bench, it a 'pure' midfield trio: Luka Modric distributing from the left, Khedira providing energy on the right, and Asier Illarramendi playing a strict holding role. You feel, after initial experimentation with a variety of formations, that this will be Ancelotti's first-choice shape: and the following El Clasico reinforced as much.
Although Bale came into the side, first in an odd centre-forward role before shifting across to a more natural right-sided position, the same problems evident against Juventus became obvious. There was no one actively linking the side, and it often felt like Madrid simply had a defense, midfield and front three - there was no overlap between the positions. Furthermore, the pressing hasn't been cohesive, leaving space between the lines.
Thursday's 7-3 win over Sevilla doesn't change much. The front three was Benzema, Ronaldo and Bale -- and although Madrid scored seven, the flaws in their approach were still obvious. Without the ball, the front three stay high up the pitch, leaving acres of space between themselves and the midfield trio. Then, with Isco often darting forward in attack, and likewise with Khedira, it meant there was another chasm between the three in midfield -- often, Illarramendi was isolated in front of the back four, with obvious space to either side of the holding midfielder.
The raw but talented Spaniard was often dragged across to the flanks and drawn towards midfield runners, which in turn created room between the lines for Sevilla to exploit. Ivan Rakitic often broke forward from his left-sided shuttling midfield role to find space, with Sevilla's odd 5-4-1 formation meaning he wasn't leaving his own defence isolated.
But while there are flaws to Ancelotti's approach there are also positives and the by-product of the front three staying high up the pitch is that when possession is turned over they are obvious out-balls for quick counter-attacks. The first goal was an excellent example: Isco collects the ball from Marcelo's long pass form inside his box, and after dragging two defenders across to the touchline with his dribbling, feeds Benzema down the line. Ronaldo times his run too early and ends up in beyond of a position for Benzema to be able to cross towards but nevertheless it has dragged away another defender and promptly created space for the onrushing Bale. It takes one simple pass across goal for Benzema to find Bale and the Welshman promptly provides the cracking finish.
Three minutes later, the pattern was repeated. Benzema has the ball on the break, and he's able to pick out Bale on the run, whose shot this time blazes over the bar. The roles were reversed for Madrid's fourth, as Bale turned provider to set up Benzema's simple tap-in, after Ronaldo collected Diego Lopez's long throw to run directly at the Sevilla defence and create the space for the subsequent passage of play. It was an attacking move of less than four passes, and shows that although there may be defensive issues with the 4-3-3, there are also significant attacking benefits. The combination play between Bale and Benzema on the break will be of particularly great encouragement for Ancelotti.
It is still an anarchic mode of attack for Ancelotti's Madrid, but with players of the quality of Ronaldo, Bale and Isco, they can get away with this disjointedness against weaker sides. As underwhelming performances against Juventus and Barcelona illustrated, though, it may take more fine-tuning in the bigger games.