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.
A flurry of news came in today: Asensio’s departure, Bellingham getting closer, and Ancelotti’s interesting pre-game presser. Some notes from an eventful media day:
Fans should be thankful of Ancelotti’s work but expect improvements too
In today’s pre-game press conference, upon reflection of not only this season, but also the two collective years he’s been in charge as a whole, Carlo Ancelotti said: “Evaluating the season, it was a good season. Evaluating the two seasons, it was spectacular. If I evaluate my four years here in total, I’d sign up immediately to win another 10 titles.”
Ancelotti’s words — and whether he meant them this way I’m not sure — are a good reminder that Real Madrid fans (this author included), are spoiled. This season was a failure. By Real Madrid’s standard, it is completely reasonable to be disappointed of how the team played, not only in key moments, but from game to game. It is levelheaded to suggest Ancelotti needs to improve on a tactical level; the players need to improve their performances; the board needs to improve the squad.
But the trade-off Ancelotti is referring to: When he arrived, if you had told Real Madrid fans they’d win three major trophies, including a double last season, and, after one of the most memorable Champions League titles of all time, get to yet another second Champions League semi-final — we’d take that. Fans would absolutely trade a 4 - 0 waxing at the Etihad in exchange for last year’s Champions League title, and, furthermore, 13 semi-final appearances in 15 years — five titles in nine years.
This is not easy. None of this is easy. Losing is more common than winning and that even goes for the richest clubs. Manchester City may finally claim their elusive European crown this season, after over £1 billion spent in 10 years (as well as some other allegedly illegal things).
Real Madrid’s success is also one of competence. For all of the criticism (and much of the criticism is fair) for not having a sporting vision like others — an “identity”, lack of upgrades, bad signings (Eden Hazard, Luka Jovic), the board has gotten a lot of right. Sure they’ve missed — but everyone misses. The trust in Juni Calafat as a head scout and advisor has paid off. Having financial competition has forced Real Madrid to dig deep into analytics, under-the-radar talent, and pieces that fit the sporting vision. Alternatively, the club could just throw money at the wall without a plan — a blueprint that has ripped apart Chelsea football club from within.
But that’s just a perspective to keep us grounded and grateful. There is another side to this — that despite having success more than anyone in sports history, the team can be improved. It should be improved.
What went wrong this season?
Padding yourself on the back doesn’t do much for building your future. The industry is ruthless; the sport continually moving with or without you. Other teams are flexing their financial muscle as they widen the economic gap. Real Madrid have to put their history in the rear view mirror and look at ways to improve — to gain every single possible edge over their opponents next season.
“Barcelona have had a very good season and were consistent, but we struggled in January after the World Cup” Ancelotti said on Friday of his team’s woes this season. “I don’t think it was a problem with the attack, as we’ve scored the most goals. It was more so solidity at the back. There’s a lot of talk about signing a striker, but if you look at the stats then maybe we should sign a defender. Not a goalkeeper, though, because we have the best one in the world. I’m bringing this up just to point out that sometimes stats lie a little. You can’t explain everything with numbers.”
Digging deeper into Ancelotti’s analysis is interesting. He is not wrong on the over-arching point: The numbers tell us that Real Madrid have scored the most goals and created the most chances, while their defense, namely disjointed pressing structures, gaps between the lines, poor marking on cut-backs and crosses, and individual mistakes facing a press, have all cost the team points this season. Meanwhile, Marc-André ter Stegen was super human for Barcelona, and the Catalans grossly over-performed their xGA as opponents missed big chances during Barcelona’s streak of marginal wins. Rodrygo underperformed his xG by about 50%. That should normalize next season. The main difference from last season to this season was that Benzema wasn’t superhuman again — which hurt the team’s offensive efficiency.
I also think some of the advanced offensive analytics are interesting. Benzema took his chances, for the most part -- but last season he transcended and did more than just take his chances.— Kiyan Sobhani (@KiyanSo) May 26, 2023
Rodrygo underperformed his xG by about 50%. He'll score more next season.
But chalking the analysis down to ‘offense, good; defense, bad’ is an oversimplification. Signing a defender won’t necessarily solve the defensive structure. A lot of the breakdowns this season came in more advanced areas of the pitch. Not having a pure defensive midfielder reliably on the pitch after Casemiro’s departure has hurt while the press has broken down in rare times its been implemented.
It will be interesting to see if Ancelotti and the board have anyone in mind to bolster the defensive line apart from Fran Garcia who is already returning. The most glaring position that needs reinforcement is right-back.
Another public outing of Aurelien Tchouameni
“He surprised everyone in the first half of the season, arriving at Real Madrid at such a young age and replacing Casemiro,” Ancelotti said of Tchouameni. “After the World Cup, it’s true that his level has dropped a little, which is quite normal for a youngster at Real Madrid.”
One of the major contributing factors to Real Madrid’s defensive hiccups will come down to the lack of a defensive midfielder. In the 2021 - 2022 season, Aurelien Tchouameni led Europe’s top-five leagues in tackles and interceptions. As an already established player in France, Tchouameni walked into Real Madrid’s starting XI in the post-Casemiro era and immediately connected with his teammates. His progressive passing and ability to get involved in the final third from deeper positions was impressive.
After the World Cup, he missed an entire month due to a muscle injury, then failed to really settle into rhythm — effectively putting a load of pressure on Toni Kroos to cover defensive ground, especially with Eduardo Camavinga having to fill in so much time at left-back.
As cliche as it sounds, I am looking at Tchouameni next season as a ‘new signing’. This season he wasn’t as bad as the narrative dictated. New league, new system. We’ve seen this movie plenty of times before, even with the biggest legends. Give him time. Next season with Camavinga playing more minutes in midfield (I liked what I saw in their midfield connection earlier this season as interchangeable anchors and ball progressers), I expect some of the structure to be solidified.
Who will replace Marco Asensio?
Earlier today, it was confirmed by multiple sources that Marco Asensio has decided to leave Real Madrid — opting out of a renewal and hitting the free agent market. With his departure, he leaves the club with his best statistical season to date: A career high 15 goals and assists in La Liga, second in the league in goals and assists per 90, and second in goal-creating actions per 90. He was a valuable squad player that will need to be replaced.
It will be interesting to see how Real Madrid fill the void. Will they sign another winger, or look from within?
Three ‘within’ options: Takefusa Kubo, Brahim Diaz, Sergio Arribas. Real Madrid have the rights to Kubo; while Diaz’s loan stint with AC Milan ends this summer. Arribas is one of the jewels of Castilla.
None of those three will fill the goal-scoring gap that Asensio provided. Diaz has been disappointing in Milan for a good two years now, and on paper, is a downgrade. Kubo has had a bright season, and though he’s not as good a finisher, he’s still scored nine goals — the same as Asensio in La Liga, albeit in some 800 more minutes. Kubo has taken strides this season as a creator, and can play on the right wing. He still has work to do defensively but has turned himself into a reliable presser and play-maker.
Arribas is the least established of the three, but has a tremendous amount of upside. A good finisher, shooter, dribbler, and a visionary passer. He is a personal favourite — though it’s not clear how much the club rates his ability to contribute to the first team.
None of these are ‘big names’ — though replacing Asensio really means replacing a squad player rather than an alpha starter.
One indirect big name is Jude Bellingham. With his imminent arrival, one underrated talking point about the Englishman is that he could take away playing time from Rodrygo as much as he does one of the midfielders. Bellingham can play as an attacking midfielder, and could see minutes in a more advanced role alongside Vinicius and Benzema. Between him, Rodrygo, Valverde, and one of the aforementioned young players — the club may deem that sufficient.