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Takeaways from Real Madrid’s start to the season

A roundtable from the Managing Madrid crew

Real Madrid CF v CA Osasuna - LaLiga EA Sports Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images

What is your single biggest takeaway from Real Madrid’s season so far?

Kiyan: This team has a higher defensive ceiling than I had originally anticipated. Losing Karim Benzema, and replacing him with Joselu (who, in principle, was really a replacement for Mariano Diaz), meant the goals would take a significant hit. But Jude Bellingham was better than anyone thought (you are lying if you “knew” Bellingham would score this much) and the team is creating an abundance of chances. They have generated the most xG in the league (a hair above Barcelona), and they’ve done so with Vinicius Jr missing a good chunk of games. If Rodrygo Goes finally gets going, and with Vinicius back, we might see the offense shoot up even more.

Matt: Real Madrid’s offense and pure creation ability far exceeded my expectations. I had doubts around the diamond, but Carlo Ancelotti has managed to build a system that gets the best out of this team and in particular, Jude Bellingham. With that last statement, another big takeaway is regarding Jude: I now believe he is a Balon d’Or level talent and I had not rated him to that extreme prior to his move.

Sam: That Carlo Ancelotti is handling defensive issues with offensive power. Even two months into the season, we’re yet to see a settled defensive unit, but the firepower at the other end is enough to win games and compete. After the form in front of goal in pre-season and Karim Benzema’s departure, it seemed that the issues might be the other way around this season, but Ancelotti deserves praise for getting the best out of his squad.

Euan: What has struck me the most is the excellent strength in depth of this squad, something that I think was underrated by most. Real Madrid have obviously lost Courtois and Militão for the entire season, and there have been many other injuries as well, not least that of Vinícius, yet Real Madrid have hardly suffered, at least in terms of results.

Yash: The next generation of midfielders in the squad is super exciting and that has only been cemented further this season so far. A contingent of Bellingham, Tchouameni, Camavinga and Valverde (Arda Guler too when we see him in the team) is an incredible amount of talent versatile enough to play different roles in different formation. On top of this we still have Kroos and one of the best midfielders of our generation Luka Modric who can change games at any point. However the time of the next gen is now and it’s incredibly exciting.

Lucas: Bellingham is way better than I expected him to be. I rated him highly but I thought he would need some time to adjust to the pressure of playing for Real Madrid. However, he’s led the team and seems to be very comfortable under the spotlight. Other than that, Real Madrid have survived the injuries of Courtois and Militao and appear ready to compete for the 2023-24 La Liga title. The Champions League will likely be a different story.

Mehedi: This team is at an interesting crossroads of being a group that relies on the individual qualities of the elites among this group and being a team that is formulating its own patterns in its play that can be sustained in the future as well. 10 wins out of 11 games—not much room for criticism left at this point, but some concerns persist in the back of my mind. I am still not convinced how this team stacks against Europe’s elite. But perhaps these 11 games prove a sample size big enough to expect some silverware in domestic competitions.

Will Jude Bellingham hit 25 goals this season in all competitions?

Kiyan: Yes, I’d place the bet if I were a betting man. Will he sustain a goal per game? He won’t, but he will not stop getting into goal-scoring positions all season due to his natural instinct off the ball, and once he gets in those situations, he’s a good enough finisher to put away 25 goals.

Matt: The current run rate will definitely cool off (at time of writing, Jude is outperforming his xG by 3 goals), but if he scores 5 goals every 12-13 games going forward, then he will have no issue hitting 25 goals for the season: mark me as a “yes”.

Sam: No. I don’t think he’ll be far off, but even beyond his xG performance which shows him far outperforming what should be expected, his minutes will need to change too. Ancelotti has never been a big fan of rotation, but even with so many midfield options, Bellingham has played 91% of minutes in the first 10 games of the season. As competitions enter their later stages, you’d expect that that number may reduce and that could be what makes it harder for him to reach that figure.

Euan: Say Real Madrid play 55 matches total this season, and it should be around that figure, then that means we’re exactly one fifth of the way into the season. Extrapolating Bellingham’s bright start, that would project him to net 50 goals. He’s not going to reach that (surely…), but 25 is absolutely attainable.

Yash: He has already hit double figures in goals in all competitions this season for Madrid and we are only in October. While the rate might slow down a bit, his runs into the box and instincts will keep him ticking throughout the season and I feel yeah 25 goals in all competitions is definitely on the cards.

Lucas: That’s where the over/under should be, it will be really close. I lean towards over, although I expect a bit of a drop in his scoring numbers in the upcoming months.

Mehedi: It’s still too early to call, but I would say 25 is probably a bit too much. I see him scoring 18-20 easily, though.

Where do Vinicius and Bellingham rank in the world in terms of the best offensive 1-2 punch?

Kiyan: We won’t truly know until we see them together for a large sample size, but on paper, I wouldn’t trade them for anyone, including the Erling Haaland - Kevin de Bruyne dyad — though, the latter duo is probably the most devastating and should be respected as European champions.

Matt: Haaland-De Bruyne (or Alvarez) rank high, but I would take Jude and Vinicius over those two. The sheer entertainment value from their technical skillset edges it out for me.

Sam: This is a combination who haven’t even played 400 minutes together on a field yet, so it’s still too early to say how good they could be together. The early signs are very promising though, and Ancelotti has spoken about their connection with Vini coming from wide and Bellingham from deep, which helps to cover the absence of an out-and-out goalscorer, but it’s hard to compare that to a duo involving a clinical finisher like Mbappé or Haaland.

Euan: Considering how good each of them is, they’ve got to be in contention as one of the best 1-2 punches, if not the best. The issue is that they’ve barely played together so far because of Vinícius’ injury. And, when we have seen them together, there have been some spatial and positional nuances to work out. Give them a run of games together, though, and they can form a deadly duo.

Lucas: I don’t even think we’ve seen that duo at its best yet. Vinicius has been injured for a month and they haven’t had time to click and gel. I want to see them for a few more games before I make my assessment, mainly because of Vinicius’ role in the diamond. In terms of their potential, it has to be a top-5 duo for sure.

Yash: Despite them not having played a lot of minutes, we can see the early signs of a connection between the two. The flashes are there and given how talented they are, the combination will only get better with time. Both players have an inherent understanding of the positions to take and the passes to play in tight spaces. As for being the best in the world I think I will give it time to blossom more before making that claim.

Mehedi: I think this is a season where we can’t point to an outright number-one duo just yet. But if I were to pick a duo for the famous and well-known Managing Madrid terminology of “who would you pick to save the planet from the alien forces?” — Vinicius and Bellingham would be my answer.

Is there hope for Real Madrid to improve their defense this season?

Kiyan: It’s hard to see the path. Antonio Rudiger has looked good filling in for Eder Militao as the nominal starter, but it’s wearing thin — injuries and suspensions are going to be a thorn in the defensive line all season with one less body on defense, and Thibaut Courtois isn’t there to mop up defensive breakdowns. Defending set-pieces and crosses continues to be a nightmare, and tracking from midfielders has been hit or miss. One thing is for sure: You can’t afford to rest Aurelien Tchouameni much, and pairing two or more of these players: Fran Garcia, Toni Kroos, Luka Modric can be problematic on defense.

Matt: Carlo is opting for a 4-4-2 defensively and asking Jude Bellingham to do some more work defensively. There is a trade-off there, but it may help shore up the overall defensive shape. I’d still rather hedge on this team outscoring the opposition and trust that some of the “school-boy errors” like those in the Atleti game start to iron themselves out.

Sam: You have to have sympathy for Carlo losing two of his first-choice back five in the first few days of the season, and the problems haven’t stopped coming since. It’s clear that Ancelotti doesn’t have much faith in anyone from Castilla, but he doesn’t seem all that happy with his left-back options either. Having a regular line-up may help to settle what has been a heavily disrupted start to the season defensively.

Euan: It’s going to be a defensive slog for Real Madrid this season, which was clear from the moment they lost Courtois and Militão. And, there are surely some more struggles up ahead, as more injuries and suspensions will come. We also have to consider how well Tchouaméni has been playing to start this season and how he fell off last term, so even just maintaining this level of B+ defence would be decent.

Lucas: I honestly don’t think so. Ancelotti doesn’t have the personnel to accomplish that unless he starts sacrificing some offensive firepower the way he did in 2021-2022 when the team started playing more conservative. The left-back situation is worrying and Alaba hasn’t been as reliable defensive as we were accustomed to in the past.

Yash: I am not very optimistic about our prospects in defence especially after losing Militao and Courtois. Kepa doesn’t incite confidence in me and the availability of our defensive options is not great. Tactically speaking our press is poor and the rest defence structure is bad as well which inherently limits our defensive floor. So no, I am not quite hopeful of us improving defensively.

Mehedi: Almost quietly, the defense has actually been the most curious part of our play this season. From the eye test, we know the team has been far from perfect, yet we have conceded the fewest goals (6) in La Liga (three of those in the derby alone). Despite having some obvious technical deficiencies, Kepa has four clean sheets in LaLiga. However, the team has so much room for improvement in their set-piece defending, pressing in the defensive third, and defending transitions when they play a higher line. But with Militao and Courtois out and with suspensions and injuries to other defenders, it will remain an uphill battle.

Who will score the third most goals on the team this season?

Kiyan: Rodrygo will bounce back and make up for the lack of goals to start the season.

Matt: Joselu or Rodrygo, with Vini and Jude juking it out for the first and second spot.

Sam: Joselu. He leads LaLiga on shots and he knows how to finish in the box. Real Madrid create so many chances that, even if he misses several, he’ll still get a hatful of goals this season.

Euan: If the assumption is that it’s Bellingham and Vinícius as the top two scorers, then Joselu is absolutely the third-top scorer in this team. He’s going to play a lot of games against weaker opposition and he’s going to rack up some easier goals in games like Saturday’s 4-0 win over Osasuna.

Lucas: It has to be Joselu. I think it’s reasonable to expect 15+ across all competitions for him.

Yash: Joselu has been chipping in with vital goals, especially at home, and given his aerial prowess and our crossing tendencies, I would say it has to be him. I think he definitely has it in him to score 15-20 goals this season.

Mehedi: Joselu. He is turning out to be a fine signing.

How are your pre-season predictions working out for you so far?

Kiyan: I had: Tchouameni as “most improved” (looks solid, although Fede has been brilliant); Rodrygo as “unsung hero” (not great, until now); and Vinicius as “MVP” (it’s clearly Jude, until now). I also predicted Real Madrid will win the Champions League and that Vinicius will win the Balon D’or in 2024. Too soon.

Matt: Here was my take: “Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo Goes combine for 55 goals or more this season in all competitions.” I still have faith just need the ketchup bottle to loosen up for Rodrygo and for both to avoid injuries.

Euan: I predicted that Ancelotti would take LaLiga seriously this year, that Jude Bellingham would be great and that Real Madrid wouldn’t lose a home game this season. So far, all on track.

Lucas: Not well! I expected Ancelotti to be sacked by Christmas and the team isn’t performing like that at all. Of course, that could still happen as Madrid could very well drop some crucial games here and there before winter, but it doesn’t seem likely at this point.

Yash: I was very skeptical going into the season and while I am still very cautiously optimistic but I predicted us to struggle in front of goal on either ends. Bellingham has exceeded expectations and the diamond formation has sort of allowed us to perform better in front of the goal but problems in the defensive third still persist. So I am 50-50 on my predictions.

Mehedi: My expectations for the team were low considering the squad we have. We faced one big opponent in the derby and failed miserably despite the overall vibe of the team being positive because of Jude and Fede Valverde’s performances so far in the season. I need to see the team perform much better in bigger games for my expectations to drastically change. The end of October vs. Sevilla and Barcelona will be massive.

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