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The Gulf In Tactical Acumen Between Ancelotti And Xavi Points To Greater Concerns

A post-Clasico reflection, the ceiling of this team, and a story about Isco

Real Madrid v FC Barcelona - La Liga Photo by Burak Akbulut/Anadolu Agency 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.

Long after El Clasico ended, I was the last journalist to leave the Santiago Bernabeu’s press row on Sunday night. It was a tough night to sit through, and the post-game podcast, on my end, consisted of some analysis — mostly dumbfounded by Carlo Ancelotti’s tactical disasterclass — which alternated between a few emotional rants and having to mute my microphone to silence the chants from the Barcelona fans who had taken over the Bernabeu. By the end of it all, the scene consisted of me, some Barca fans who were eventually ushered out, Hugo Sanchez providing some video analysis behind me, and the Bernabeu lawn caretakers tending to the grass.

And then there was Isco, the only player on the pitch, well after the final whistle, playing football with his kids, in what was a wholesome moment. The Spaniard soaked in some of his (probably) final moments at the Santiago Bernabeu as a Real Madrid player, in a rare sight where he gets to see the field. Admittedly, I don’t always remember he’s still in the team. Like Gareth Bale and Eden Hazard, he’s almost an afterthought — we only think about them when we see their names in passing on the squad list, or if the camera pans their way. Even Dani Ceballos has become more relevant at Real Madrid. It has been an unceremonious and unexpected end to Isco’s career in a white shirt — not one we saw coming in 2017.

Isco, Bale, Hazard — it wouldn’t have mattered last night. Many people were quick to suggest things wrong with Real Madrid’s line-up vs Barcelona, but there were deeper problems. I won’t suggest the starting lineup was good, nor will I suggest it was bad — but I will point to one thing I’m sure of: The scheme was terrible, and scheme matters far more than formations and lineups. You can talk yourself into playing Rodrygo as a false 9 and Fede Valverde as a pseudo right-winger / central midfielder hybrid who plays narrow on defense and explodes as a ball-carrier on the flank on offense. What you can’t do is what Ancelotti did last night, where almost every player took turns playing center forward and center back at various points in the game, like a merry-go-round — a conveyor belt of positional chaos without a foundational plan. Ancelotti had no pillars to his tactics (calling what we saw last night as ‘tactics’ is extremely generous and polite), and at half-time, the Italian manager took a hammer and personally knocked down the remaining structure on his own. Immediately after the second half, Barcelona had three breakaways and two goals. And the scoreline wasn’t embellished in the least, it was deserved. One team was great, but the other? Pathetic.

Barcelona were good, and by no means should credit be taken away from them, but this was preventable. Their tactics were superior, but Real Madrid rolled out the red carpet and did everything the scouting report shows you have to avoid vs Barcelona. During one of the horrendous stretches in the first half, from about minute 15 to minute 22, Luka Modric and Toni Kroos were the center forwards spearheading a crumbling defensive structure. They would try to press, leaving multiple passing lanes behind them. Gerard Pique and Eric Garcia would play one vertical pass and find Sergio Busquets or Frenkie de Jong available between the lines. Modric and Kroos would put their arms out in frustration. No one was on the same page, and the truth is, no one has been on the same page when pressing all season. Ancelotti has sent out soldiers to die. It’s not clear whether there are any other instructions given to the team other than: “press”.

Barcelona are most unnerved building out from the back when facing a man-to-man high press. As press-resistant as Marc-andré ter Stegen is, he struggles finding outlets during good pressing sequences. Here’s a simple act that could’ve been implemented: If Vinicius Jr stays marking Ronald Araujo when Barcelona’s goalkeeper has the ball, you can fluster Xavi’s build-up structure. Instead, Real Madrid’s Brazilian winger would rush and sprint towards Ter Stegen, and what resulted was a simple pass to Araujo and an easy ball-progression sequence. Araujo, a physical tank who was there for defensive security and wasn’t expected to inflict much offensive damage, would carry the ball up the wing with ease — brushing off any challenges from the pesky and meek attempted tackles that came his way. Araujo, of course, dominated every cross and set piece on both ends of the field.

Maybe last night won’t change who the league champion is by the end of the season — and if it does, God help us all. But peel it back and you’ll find a deeper message to the bloodbath: There are more tacticians managing Europe’s top clubs than there has ever been. Teams are smarter now than ever. The collective nervous system and tactical understanding of the team is vital. Teams have engrained analytics into their ideologies in a way that’s unparalleled in the history of football. It’s not enough to only be a man-manager in 2022.

And that’s where Xavi humiliated Ancelotti on every level. He proved you can implement an identity in the matter of months and do it at an elite level. Ancelotti argued that the press didn’t work. He abandoned it and went into a safer deep block. PSG took a machine gun to Real’s defensive shield — permeable and positionally so lost that they could not get a touch out of their own half. So Ancelotti switched it again for the second leg. But the aggressive pressing didn’t work in the first half. Of course it wouldn’t: the team is teeter-tottering between different philosophies without understanding how to implement any of them. Ancelotti’s theory has always been that his tactics work because he doesn’t have an identity. “The best teams are the ones that can change based on the opponent,” Ancelotti said earlier this season. But the counter to that is that his tactics are not specialized or particularly good at anything. They are just diverse and mediocre, or at least they have been for some time. How much have individual performances masked the issues this season? The heroics of Benzema and Vinicius; the saves of Courtois, the last-ditch tackles on Militao; the collapse of PSG. Real Madrid are starved for a tactician to breath some fresh tactical life into this highly talented team. But the club’s problem will always be they care less about tactics and more about those who won’t cause a fuss. If Erik Ten Hag walked through the door next season, the club would ask him: “Can you manage Mbappe’s ego?

Back to Isco for a moment, as we close the chapter on his Real Madrid career.

In the 2010 - 2011 season, Isco was relatively unknown outside of Spanish youth football circles. He was a kid on the fringes on a solid Valencia side (a good team, but missing something in attack) that could have used his skillset in the post David Silva era. Isco was talented and nimble, possessing a unique feel for the game with his low center of gravity and natural understanding of when to change his pace running at defenders — when to drop his shoulder.

Before the season started, then Valencia manager Unai Emery told Isco he’d be a third division player, and to not count himself as a member of the senior side. Emery then proceeded to hand just four appearances to Isco all season, sending him back to Valencia’s B team (where he scored 15 goals) in between. Emery didn’t have trust in Isco as a whole — especially in his discipline and fitness — and even felt his attributes as a footballer were superfluous to the collective, direct effort required in his tactical scheme.

Those sentiments from Emery were later shared by other managers that oversaw Isco in subsequent years. Vicente Del Bosque (Spain), Santiago Solari (Real Madrid) both sparsely used Isco for similar reasons. Years later, even after Isco helped Real Madrid win an incredible European three-peat, Emery doubled-down on his view of Isco, writing in his book that he is “a footballer with a certain indiscipline and a tendency to gain weight.”

Those labels have long followed Isco throughout his career, and have been shared by many fans who see his ability on the ball as irrelevant to the final path to goal, or his lack of speed not up to par with modern football’s fast pace and aggressive pressing that top teams play with. An inefficient dance, some would say, to the rest of the game. Three years ago, former Real Madrid player Ivan Helguera said: “Isco doesn’t give assists, he’s not good in the air, he doesn’t win the ball back. He could give much more, but the Bernabéu applauds him for doing a ‘croqueta’,“ What do his moves end up as?”

Isco’s rebuttal is something many young players would say when they disagree with their coach: “My football comes from the streets,” Isco told the Guardian in 2018. That is a deeper quote than it looks on the surface. Isco grew up playing football in the streets of Benalmádena, literally. Everyone in that area saw him as a prodigy — a player destined to make it as a star. Isco didn’t grow up learning tactics, but he grew up with a natural feel for the game, and a touch of silk that is hard to teach. He’s always been a player that demands the ball and is never shy — something that directly remained with him in a perfect role: The spearhead of a ball-dominant diamond formation that is now widely considered one of the best Real Madrid teams of all time (2016 - 2017), and the most advanced playmaker in what was probably the best midfield the club has ever had.

While some like Emery (the flag-bearer against Isco’s style of play) didn’t see value in the raw ability of the Spaniard, others looked at his genius from a different perspective. “He can do things very few players can do,” Zidane said of Isco once. Zidane, in a weird way, almost fits into the Isco category himself. The French midfielder is polarizing in the analytics community. Many feel his elegant YouTube compilations are embellishments of a less efficient player. Of course, Zidane is a different beast altogether, and whatever you think of him, he had the balls to show up in World Cup finals, Euro finals, Champions League finals, Clasicos, and whatever other big game you threw at him. His elegance is just a bonus, and just a reminder that football is meant to be beautiful, fun, entertaining. Zidane was an artist, not a robot. He was a bald, tall, artistic bad ass that defenders couldn’t stop and midfielders couldn’t control. That should be appreciated.

Zidane also didn’t play in an era where advanced analytics were available. I’m sure if you started to stack up his progressive passes, ball-carrying, dribbles, etc, an analytics monster would form.

But we do have advanced numbers for Isco, and, um, they’re great. Even now, in what many would agree is past his peak, he is in the elite range for xA, shot-creating actions, progressive passes, progressive carries, dribbles completed, touches in attacking the penalty area, and progressive passes received. His in the 99th (!!) percentile in four of those categories (though, the sample size is obviously not what it used to be, he’s been incredibly efficient in his limited playing time, and has earned more minutes than he’s gotten). At his peak (2016 - 2018 range), Isco was first in La Liga in goals / shot, fourth in xA / 90, fourth in passes into the penalty area, fourth in shot creating actions, and third in progressive carries (and top 10 in a bunch of other things).

But Isco’s strength can also be his weakness. He’s perfect as a team’s facilitator in a free role. He thrived in Zidane’s first stint, and again under Julen Lopetegui later. “Zizou has been very important,” Isco said in 2017. “He’s put me there [in a more advanced role].” The Spaniard made similar comments under head coach Julen Lopetegui multiple times (both at Real Madrid and with the Spanish National Team during World Cup qualifying), and even as far back as 2013 where the two worked together at the Spain U-21 level.

“I am very lucky that Julen Lopetegui gives me total freedom to move where I like,” Isco said in 2013.

“I think this is one of the keys to our team. Our attacking players aren’t static, there is a lot of movement in order to create space within which to pass.

“This helps us cause our opponents more problems.”

But to give Isco that kind of freedom in today’s more structured, pragmatic schemes that Real Madrid deploys, is problematic. Having one or two players who can have that freedom is one thing, but having multiple is disastrous. Isco’s role, even in 2017, was problematic defensively. It needed Modric to be superhuman defensively to cover multiple zones. Real Madrid got away with it through heroic individual defensive efforts, sustained possession on the ball, pressing, and lights-out transcendency in front of goal from Cristiano Ronaldo. By 2018, it was stale and scouted. The team trailed Barcelona in the league by 18 points, and most of Real Madrid’s net-positive periods in the Champions League run came when Isco wasn’t on the field (the shift vs PSG and Liverpool after Isco was subbed was clear, and Bale provided a better two-way presence in the final).

And none of this means Isco isn’t a good footballer — quite the opposite. He’s fantastic, unique, brilliant. But some managers have insisted on categorizing him as a luxury player who you’d need to built a scheme around. That might be true, but is there another way managers can use him? The challenge has been that the two other options: Left wing and central midfield, are occupied by better players. Vinicius is a better left-winger; Kroos is a better left central midfielder.

But Isco hasn’t even been seen as a back-up to either of those positions, and Ancelotti has fated him into the Hazard realm: A dying breed who can’t bring the defensive production of a central midfielder and someone who doesn’t have the pace and line-breaking of a winger. That is, the twilight zone where many have fallen and perished at Real Madrid. Against Real Sociedad in early March, Dani Ceballos leap-frogged both Hazard and Isco off the bench. The latter two didn’t see the field. Isco has totalled less than 200 minutes. Only two players have played less if you don’t include Castilla players: Mariano Diaz and Ceballos.

Many argued, myself included, that Isco could’ve been useful in the second leg against PSG as a fourth midfielder to help press and hold the ball higher up the pitch. If Kroos sits (he didn’t, of course, and played at probably less than 100%), Isco is one of the few players in the squad that can help keep the vertical passing alive.

But there is something deeper than Isco, Hazard — and even Gareth Bale — not playing meaningful minutes. Real Madrid have little to invest in them at this point. Bale is on his way out, as is Isco — both are on expiring contracts with no chance of renewal. Hazard’s contract runs until 2024, but as Matt Wiltse pointed out on the Real Sociedad post-game pod, bottling Hazard’s playing time sends a message, even if some would interpret it as cruel: ‘Your time here is up. If you want to play and get momentum before the World Cup, you’ll have to find a new club and take a salary cut to go elsewhere.’

The other side of the coin may matter even more: Getting Eduardo Camavinga and Rodrygo Goes reps against PSG was invaluable. These are the games where, as Alredo di Stefano would say, balls drop. Real Madrid probably won’t look back five years from now and say ‘boy, we’re sure glad we gave Isco, Hazard, and Bale some playing time with the season on the line in 2022.’ Instead, Camavinga and Rodrygo gave oxygen and hope to the team’s remontada. Everyone won: Real Madrid advanced while grooming their young players and giving them experience on a magical, European night where the pressure was popping; Rodrygo, Camavinga, and Valverde proved they belong.

Real Madrid v Granada - La Liga Santander
Ancelotti has little incentive to give Isco playing time at this point.
Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images

Isco is a ‘systems’ player, as many people like to label him as. To an extent, isn’t everyone, though? Every player thrives and suffers based on the system they play in. What’s probably hurt Isco the most — beyond his reported attitude and work ethic — is his lack of versatility. He is not a winger-turned-cm like Bernardo Silva who can dribble past players on the wing at an elite level if you put him there. Though, if you put Isco in a high-pressing and control-based scheme like the one at City, it would be hard to see him fail.

Systems. That’s in part why, while Isco was thriving in one scheme, he was simultaneously struggling in another.

“Here, the manager has confidence in me; maybe I haven’t earned that at Madrid,” Isco said after scoring a hat-trick vs Argentina with the national team in 2018. “Julen (Lopetegui) shows his confidence in me with minutes. At Madrid I don’t have the confidence that a footballer needs.

“Maybe I’m the problem; I haven’t been able to earn it. I have to keep working to earn Zidane’s trust.”

People may forget that Isco’s rocky relationship with Real Madrid preceded Santiago Solari, and actually began with the man who was so important for the Spaniard in the first place: Zinedine Zidane.

In 2018, if you strip back Real Madrid’s Champions League title, the heavy lifting was done when Isco wasn’t on the field. In the round-of-16, Isco started in the first leg and the team struggled. Zidane then replaced Isco with wingers, and the team turned a one-goal deficit around and won 3 - 1 with a fresh scheme that went away from the diamond. In the second leg, Isco didn’t start, and Real Madrid won 1 - 2 away from home pretty comfortably in a more a secure 4-4-2. Against Bayern Munich in the semi-finals, down 1 - 0 in Bavaria at half-time in the first leg, Isco was taken off at the half for Asensio and Real Madrid won the game 1 - 2. Isco did not play in the second leg. In the final vs Liverpool, the tide changed in Real Madrid’s favour when Gareth Bale replaced Isco in the 61st minute.

“The problem isn’t Isco,” Zidane said shortly after Isco’s quote with Spain. “The problem is that I have 25 players and can only play 11 of them,”

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

If Zinedine Zidane had trouble using 25 players, for Ancelotti, it’s even harder. But as much as some of Ancelotti’s issues have been with the lack of rotation and exhaustion of certain players — something he has denied the existence of numerous times — his issues are tactical as well.

“I got it wrong tonight,” Ancelotti said after the 0 - 4 loss to Barcelona. “But I don’t usually get it wrong twice”

Time will tell. He may not make the same mistake he made against Barcelona again, but he may very well make a different mistake — such is the problem with a team that takes pride in experimentation on the fly without an engrained speciality in one particular thing.

“We have looked for the space behind their interiors,” Xavi said in Sunday night’s post-game press conference. “We’ve had personality. Bravery. I have asked them not to lose silly balls. We’ve had the game under control.”

Real Madrid’s problems were all those things that were mentioned. They had little control, too much space behind their lines, little personality, little bravery — and lots of silly balls that they lost.

Perhaps the reaction to last night was one of overreaction. Maybe. But the problems have seemed significant, and perhaps a premonition of how this Ancelotti stint is destined to end.

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