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.
Real Madrid have now lost three consecutive Clasicos and have gotten it wrong in all of them. In what is the biggest game on the calendar against a domestic opponent, Carlo Ancelotti’s men have conceded five and scored two over those three melees, and the manner in which they lost has been different in all three of them, while the core tenants remains the same.
Of course, that’s cherry-picked. In October, Real Madrid beat Barcelona 3 - 1 at the Bernabeu. But that’s a distant memory now, and since that October Clasico, Real Madrid dropped enough points to ensure that the league was lost in March. Not April and not May. March. So as the team walked off the field last night losing yet another game against Barcelona, it’s no surprise that Carlo Ancelotti’s words after the match — words that exuded ‘moral victory’ — did not sit well. The league is done. Previous mistakes have not been corrected.
Barcelona have already taken two trophies away from Real Madrid this season. They can snatch away a third on April 5th. If Real Madrid can rebound and win that tie and win a Copa del Rey trophy (that is too rare given their history), they have to shake-up several ideologies that have held them back.
Forgive the fan base for being pessimistic that that will happen. Ancelotti left little room for amendments with his message in the press room. After the first leg of the Copa del Rey semi-finals, he praised his team’s dominance despite not creating clear-cut chances. In the Camp Nou last night, he noted his team deserved to win despite conjuring an xG of .52. (Ancelotti’s rebuttal to that will be that he “doubts” Marco Asensio was offside on his disallowed goal; while Thibaut Courtois stated after the game that had Barcelona not scored at half-time, Real Madrid probably would’ve won).
Ifs and buts — the exact things that Real Madrid fans and media (rightfully) criticize about other teams who complain about Real Madrid getting lucky. The standards should be higher. Barcelona were well on their way to scoring eventually when Sergi Roberto made his mark just before the first frame ended. It was deserved.
What’s most striking is the perception of what worked last night and how it worked. There is often confusion on where Real Madrid’s “dominance” comes from. As Matt Wiltse and I pointed out on last night’s post-game podcast, Real Madrid’s best period came at the end of the game (empirically tracked by SofaScore). That spell coincided with Ancelotti’s substitutes. Rodrygo Goes drove forward down the middle and provided Vinicius with support where Karim Benzema couldn’t. Dani Ceballos immediately fought Barcelona’s midfield on both ends. Marco Asensio was a spark.
Unpack this all and you’ll find the clear common denominator. Ancelotti didn’t make subs in the Copa first leg until the 80th minute because he believed what he was seeing was working. In this game, he reacted differently but did it too late. In last year’s Champions League run, Real Madrid’s starters were outscored by six goals in the knockout rounds before the substitutes entered the field and saved the season. These patterns are recurring. The learning needs to be implemented more urgently before every title is off the table.
There is an unshakability to the trust Ancelotti has in Real Madrid’s core. There is enough data to suggest he should be more malleable in his player selections in big games. To his credit, he has rotated the backline and midfield enough in between the heavyweight showdowns, and Eduardo Camavinga has now cracked the Once de Gala. The board has also made it easy for him to run Benzema and Carvajal into the ground by not providing him with alternatives to the right-back and striker slots. (Fran Garcia’s arrival in the summer helps, though I shudder to think if Real Madrid would be bringing him back had Bayer Leverkusen not attempted to sign him.)
Though, even despite the lack of options, there is an easy case that players who are not at 100% shouldn’t be on the field. A hobbling Carvajal was played in the Spanish Super Cup earlier this season. Karim Benzema made it just in time for Sunday night’s Clasico only to look a step slow. Those two were thorns in Real Madrid’s ball progression play all game — killing multiple attacks and build-up sequences. You might have to start looking at Lucas Vazquez more (though, again, this is not a long-term solution); while Rodrygo could’ve easily started as the false nine.
Benzema could use more rest, though, he will certainly get some during this international break. But his presence on the field on Sunday felt forced, and only insisted upon because of the name on the back of his jersey. Put it this way: Based on meritocracy and reputation, the players need to be reshuffled to maximize the output of the team. The most performing players are not on the field as much as they should be.
Eduardo Camavinga was arguably Real Madrid’s best player last night. The Frenchman’s verticality and defensive coverage on both flanks gave Barcelona problems. He deserved to see out the full 90, and Ancelotti could have taken Benzema off while shifting Rodrygo higher up the pitch and letting Camavinga help the substitutes with more two-way balance (that possibly could’ve prevented the second goal by shifting Tchouameni deeper). Ancelotti made it a point to talk about ‘taking risks has cost the team’ — but those risks were more about having players in the wrong position rather than maximizing the chances of winning.
Ancelotti has gone out of his way to praise the Modric and Kroos pairing, focusing mostly on their press-resistancy. He isn’t wrong, and these two legends — two of the greatest ever in their position — should be praised. But maybe there needs to be a realization that having both of them together takes away a spot that a more dynamic two-way player can occupy. Real Madrid’s back-up midfielders are all press-resistant. The team shouldn’t suffer a dramatic drop off — if any — if you put one of Kroos or Modric on the bench. Last night, Kroos’s passing in transition was good and he helped escape pressure. The German did not misplace a single pass, but also rarely got on the ball, and he struggled defensively. Modric, similarly, was reliable with the ball at his feet, but he didn’t have it enough to exert his influence. The player with the most touches was Dani Carvajal, but he was the player who was most likely to give it away. You have to look at that closely.
Real Madrid have to win the Champions League now. That seems like a dramatic statement, but that’s what’s left after a disastrously underwhelming league campaign. Even winning the Copa del Rey (still a big ‘if’) will not be enough to turn this into a successful season.
One (of many) concern(s): What will be the physical shape of the older starters — namely Carvajal, Kroos, Modric, Benzema — against Chelsea (twice), and possibly Manchester City or Bayern Munich (and beyond)? On the surface, Ancelotti now has good reason to rest the aforementioned players now that the league is done and dusted.
But Atletico Madrid — unbeaten in their last 10 league games — are only five points behind second place now. This could quickly turn into an ‘every game is a final’ approach, where the starters just wither.
This is not all on Ancelotti. The mistakes in the transfer window have also hurt the team. One major decision that needs re-evaluating (urgently): Real Madrid decided not to purchase a right-back (apart from a flyer on Vinicius Tobias who is yet to be confirmed as a permanent player). They have looked loyally to Dani Carvajal and Lucas Vazquez — two youth products who have given a lot and love the club. But Carvajal is long from being the player we knew in 2017, and Vazquez is not a right-back. The board have to detach their sentimental value to these players and look at other options.
Benzema is another one. He has earned the right to renew, but not having another option has handcuffed Ancelotti to play the Frenchman every second he’s able to walk. And as I wrote about last week, the renewals of Benzema, Kroos, and Modric have several dominoes that alter the next five years.
This has been a rough season apart from two great legs against Liverpool and a remontada against Villarreal which sees the team in the thick of two major competitions still. Ancelotti’s fate will likely be decided by ‘Champions League or bust’. That’s how it works here if you lose the league.