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Concerns From The Loss Against Espanyol, And Things That Need To Improve

The press is still bad, and that’s highlighted even more when the offense cools

Espanyol v Real Madrid - La Liga Santander Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images

These observations — where I look at Real Madrid’s history, its players on loan, Castilla, tactical tidbits, and other relevant thoughts — are now a regular thing. All previous editions can be found here.

Eight games into the season, Karim Benzema has scored nine goals and dished out seven assists. The numbers get even more impressive when you unpack them. Only one of those goals came from a penalty kick. He leads the league in assists, goals, xA, shots, and goal-creating actions; and is in the top-7 in carries into the penalty area, passes into the penalty area, key passes, shot-creating actions, and nutmegs (the last one is my favourite). Only three players (all of Real Madrid’s squad) — Thibaut Courtois, Eder Militao, Vinicius Jr — have a better +/- in the entire country.

Where would this team be without him? It’s not a fun idea to entertain. Benzema has scored his nine goals from an xG of three. He’s injecting his will into the offense and carrying the team in a way that hasn’t been seen at the club since Cristiano Ronaldo left. If Vinicius has slightly cooled since his hot start, Benzema has only turned himself into a flaming, unsmotherable torch.

Benzema’s been unbelievable, which has inflated Real Madrid’s offense in a way that made many fans brush aside the defensive issues, or at least worry less about them. How sustainable is this? When will we see the ‘real’ Real Madrid? If Benzema slows down, the team is in trouble. Even Benzema at this pace has not been enough in the past three games now that Vinicius has regressed closer to his mean. Benzema might fall back too — but doubt this maniac at your own peril.

The skepticism voiced on the Managing Madrid Podcast over the past couple weeks was mostly about the concern on what the normalization looks like, once we eventually see it. The team’s defense has stunk; while the offense rocketed through the ceiling. If the offense regressed, would the defense improve to balance it out? One would think so, given that disjointed defensive positioning and synergy can only improve (it really can’t get worse than what we’ve seen thus far), and once the team builds familiarity with the scheme and surrounding cast, there is only one way to go: up.

But the defense has not improved even incrementally. There hasn’t been a single baby step taken. Real Madrid have the 10th worst xGA in Spain — even the defensive sieve in Barcelona commanded by a confused Gerard Pique is about three goals better. The team ranks 11th in successful pressure percentage (28.5%) and 11th in passes per defensive action (9.26).

Those numbers are fine for a team in a mid or low block — but not for Real Madrid, a team that identifies itself as a high-pressing team that holds a high line. If Ancelotti wants to implement this blueprint (and by all means, I’ve been vocal that this is the way to go if you’re to create better opportunities in the final third), the team needs to a reach a level by spring time (ideally mid-season) where they’re collectively sweeping up the ball in the opposition’s half regularly, and generating a ton of chances from the press.

As the team is currently ‘executing’ that identity, two things happen consistently: 1) One or two passes bypass the midfield; and 2) Step-up gambles from the defenders dancing on the high line go terribly wrong. That’s, um, a bad place to be in. Gambles work if you: A) Get them right; or B) Have coverage that eliminate the risk. Spoiler: Real Madrid don’t have either down. (To be fair, Militao has had a few good interceptions this season stepping up at just the right time.)

Part of the issue is the lack of synergy. While you’ll have good pressing moments (see Benzema’s shot in the third minute vs Espanyol), it usually doesn’t hold all the way through to win possession. At least one player will get their defensive rotation late. There were longer sequences against Villarreal where the press looked respectable, but Unai Emery’s men weren’t bothered. They knew they could recycle possession comfortably until something opened or cracked — and it did. One Real Madrid player would eventually miss an assignment, and another would over-gamble to compensate for the leak.

Ancelotti has said several times this season that the team needs to be “more aggressive”. Maybe, maybe not — but sometimes — and certainly there are cases where the aggression needs to be dialled back. Nacho’s step-up on Aleix Vidal against Espanyol was aggressive and costly. Often when the press breaks down, it’s down to one single player deciding to be aggressive, and the others on the team not matching that energy.

Against Espanyol, Ancelotti had four central midfielders who, collectively, know how to defend, cover, press, dribble, pass, and control the game. But it looked “confused” (the word Ancelotti himself used post-game). Part of that comes down to a lack of consistent lineups and roles. There have been injuries, and beyond that, Ancelotti doesn’t know who his best XI is, yet. Camavinga, Hazard, Vinicius, Nacho, Alaba, Valverde, Vazquez, and others, have all played different roles this season. It’s been difficult to sustain rhythm and cohesiveness behind the ball.

This team has exciting things going for it. I don’t think it’s as good offensively as what we saw earlier this season, but I don’t think it’s as bad as we’ve seen in the past three games. The truth lies somewhere in the middle — but for this to work, the defense needs to improve dramatically, and that can only happen through rhythm and familiarity.

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