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.
After Real Madrid lost to Barcelona in a pre-season Clasico friendly in Dallas on Saturday night, there were a wide-range of perspectives from Madridistas. From the despair of losing to Xavi again; to the tranquility that Carlo Ancelotti himself exuded post-game, this 3 - 0 loss was interpreted in different ways.
On one hand, Real Madrid out-shot Barcelona 29 to 12 and had an xG of 3 compared to Barcelona’s 1.9. Ancelotti’s men hit the woodwork five times. On another day, things outside of Ancelotti’s control — like the ball going one centimetre the right way, or Ter Stegen being mortal — would’ve resulted in a win and a different game state.
On the other hand, all those numbers can be spun to tell a different story. Real Madrid had 29 shots and an xG of 3 and still couldn’t score. Does that mean they have great creators but lack a goalscorer? The sample size is just one game — an an exhibition one at that — but given that there is only one striker — Joselu — in the team, it’s reasonable to assume that Real Madrid’s problem next season will be just that: Great in the build-up phase but no assassin up front to lethally and mercilessly puncture goals into the heart of opponents.
‘Kylian Mbappe or bust’ is a tough place to be. There will be no ‘Plan B’ if Real Madrid miss out on the French star. They will wait, and wait. They will wait until next summer if needed. And if Mbappe were to arrive this year, it will be because he and PSG have made initiative to do so. Real Madrid haven’t, and won’t, make the first move. They will remain silent until they are approached and Carlo Ancelotti will plan without him until Mbappe does come.
Now the question is: Will there be enough goals without Mbappe?
It’s not difficult to close your eyes and imagine some of the issues that may arise without a lethal goalscorer. It will not be difficult to generate xG with such a star-studded midfield and so many capable creators; but finishing consistently may be an issue. In all of Real Madrid’s most successful seasons, they’ve had stars that can transcend and outperform xG. Not having at least two players who can do that for your consistently will make it difficult to sustain offensive production.
Vinicius Jr can score, but it’s not him that’s lacked goals over the past two seasons. Two years ago, a prolific Karim Benzema elevated the team. Last season, Benzema’s goals in key moments, namely in one blitzing month during Ramadan, took the team to another level. But outside of that stretch, due to form and injury, his lack of goal production hurt the team. Vinicius was largely alone.
Still, Benzema scored 30 goals while Marco Asensio chipped in with 12. It’s hard to see the team replacing 42 goals through Jude Bellingham, Brahim Diaz, and Joselu. Though, it’s not impossible, especially if Rodrygo and Fede Valverde start scoring more again. But even still, is matching last season’s output enough? It wasn’t last season.
There is also the defensive aspect of this. Thibaut Courtois still comes up big more often than not, which is good, until you realize he comes up big because he has to — when in reality the bleeding should be stopped higher up the pitch. There are still giveaways under pressure; while the press still gets broken down in key moments.
“We were sleeping in some situations, like the free kick where we conceded the first goal,” Ancelotti told me after the game. Those moments need to get cleaned up. If the team is to score less, they need to concede less too. But such was the train of thought the season after Cristiano Ronaldo left, and as history already told us, losing a prolific goalscorer is not easy, and the team next season could be in for a rude awakening if there is no Benzema replacement — just as it was in 2018 after Cristiano’s departure.
I expect some of the defensive miscues to be mitigated with Aurelien Tchouameni bolting down his role as the starting anchor. The Frenchman looks great covering ground and winning balls in midfield. His presence wasn’t there last season after the World Cup, and Toni Kroos — as great as he is on the ball — was chasing shadows and losing runners in the box.
There are other variables: How much does Fran Garcia improve the team’s offense from the wing-back position? How long will Ancelotti stick with he diamond? And, of course, if Mbappe arrives, these concerns about ‘lack of goals’ essentially evaporate, and the team, on paper at least, becomes an instant powerhouse. And if he doesn’t? Given that there will be no other striker signings, Ancelotti’s men will probably miss that one extra gear.