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Real Madrid Have Yet To Figure Out Their Two-way Balance, But Still Sit Top

Kiyan Sobhani’s column from the Rayo game: Camavinga’s integration and Ancelotti’s tactical juggling act

Real Madrid CF v Rayo Vallecano - La Liga Santander Photo by Berengui/DeFodi Images via 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.

Carlo Ancelotti spoke to the press at the Bernabeu after a nervy 2 - 1 win over Shakhtar Donetsk — a game where fans felt frustrated amid a conservative defensive approach — and spewed a message of sympathy to those in attendance: “I understand the demanding fanbase here. It can be good to motivate us... It can be good for the fanbase to wake us up with some whistles.”

Against Rayo Vallecano three nights later, Real Madrid attacked with more offensive potency, and sent the fans home happy. Two beautiful goals, three other clear-cut chances, roulettes, mazy runs, back-heel flicks — all of which sent the Bernabeu into near explosion — were on the menu. In the end, Real Madrid did concede (nearly more than once), and have now conceded four goals in their last six games after conceding 12 in their first 10 — a slight improvement.

Ancelotti’s challenge is to fix a leaky defense in the post Ramos - Varane era while sharpening the offensive spear. It is understandable that he shifted away from a permeable high-press to a deeper block in hopes of finding a compact, efficient counter-attack. The first reward was a five goal win over Shakhtar in Kiev, and a much more difficult 1 - 2 away win in Barcelona. The team struggled to break down Osasuna’a low block three days later, then screeched by Elche away from home. Then Shakhtar, having scouted Real Madrid’s new scheme, came to town and made it more difficult for Ancelotti than they did in Ukraine.

LISTEN: Managing Madrid post-game podcast from Madrid: Real Madrid 2 - 1 Rayo Vallecano

There have been growing pains throughout all of these positive results — a process that reads as a raw, experimental, ‘still trying to figure this out’ blueprint that has bred wins and game-to-game adjustments. It’s not a bad spot to be in. Ancelotti has recognized the team’s flaws, has been candid about them, and has proven he’s not hell-bent on playing one way and one way only. What’s clear is that there is no one identity the team will be married to, and a lot of Real Madrid’s games will be dictated based on what the scouting report reads.

Some would see that as a weakness. The best teams generally are in control of the ball, can win back possession at will. Real Madrid have been more of a shape-shifting alien. Like water, they become malleable to what the opponent throws at them. Ancelotti won La Decima, in part, by soaking up Pep’s Bayern and putting their transition defense into a blender. Bayern were purified. You tell me which was prettier — which team was in ‘control’.

Ancelotti tried, almost without mercy, full-steam ahead, to get his team to press this season. It was to be the one main distinguishing factor between him and Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid of last season. The cohesiveness just wasn’t there. Ancelotti had to make a choice: Stick with it, keep leaking goals, and hope the offense doesn’t cool; or put the high press aside and clog passing lanes. He opted for conservatism. It wasn’t as fun, but it worked, and ultimately, a manager’s job is to take the team’s assets and to give it its best chance of winning.

“For our team the most important thing is always defending properly with a low, a medium and also a high block,” Ancelotti said the day before Real Madrid beat Barcelona at Camp Nou. “It’s easier for us to defend with a low block and then counterattack because of the personnel we have offensively, though. Defending the right way is the key to everything. We’ve won every game where we have not conceded. This team has no problem scoring goals, that’s why most of the time I focus on defense,”

It’s helped zip up some of the defensive holes, though it’s still far from perfect. Oscar Valentine missed a huge chance in the six-yard box that would’ve equalized the game on Saturday. Lucas Perez had a massive chance in the Elche game he should’ve buried. Dest missed one of the bunnies of the season in El Clasico. All three of those chances come off of bad Real Madrid defensive sequences, and there were plenty of them, even if less than normal (and on the flipside, Real Madrid missed their own chances to put those games to bed early). Usually when Ancelotti has his team sit deeper, it takes the form of a 4-1-4-1 block with Casemiro as the anchor. When it’s not taken shape, these are the vulnerable passes the high line can be hurt with:

For the most part, the defense has held up, and the damage has been mitigated. I’d argue that these narrow wins over Shakhtar and Rayo haven’t been as far away from big-margin blowouts as we think. Real Madrid’s counter-attack wasn’t as efficient as it was in Kiev, and the difference between 2 - 1 and 4-0 was not that far away. Those are the margins, the difference between getting whistled and not. Fans won’t take issue with defensive football if it results in goals.

Casemiro’s defense has been heroic (his performance on the ball not nearly as close, but that’s a different subject that gets discussed daily). He’s covered both flanks masterfully. Mendy is impossible to get past. I especially loved Eduardo Camavinga’s insertion against Rayo, where he had a few really nice defensive sequences which fuelled the energy of his entire performance:

That is great defending from Camavinga. He puts pressure on the ball-carrier while ensuring he cover shadows the passing lane behind him. That way he’s simultaneously decreasing the space of the winger he’s hounding while cutting off the outlet.

Camavinga grew into the game after a couple lax touches. Early in the first half, Eder Militao was looking for an outlet out of Rayo’s press and Camavinga was a timid outlet. Kroos ran over to the right side to relieve the Brazilian defender, then ushered Camavinga to move off the ball better.

As the match wore on, Camavinga started to impose his presence by being more proactive in midfield.

Camavinga is a freakishly good tackler, something we noted upon signing him. Even if he gets beat off the dribble, he can snap the ball away from you:

As I noted in a previous column, Camavinga, before this game, had only amassed some 300+ minutes. The data on him in a Real Madrid shirt is raw, and against Rayo in a 4-3-3, he played a role that suits him as a starter. He’s young, but a ready contributor that will be needed as Luka Modric battles fatigue and injury. Carlo can count on him as an asset if he wants a defensive stop-gap that can combat high presses.

Real Madrid now get a 13-day gap between now and their next game against Granada as the international break looms this week. They will resume it on the back of a good string of results and a place at the top of the league. Given that everyone expected this team to have growing pains, and it was widely accepted that Ancelotti would have his work cut out for him, that’s not a terrible place to be.

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