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How ‘real’ are Real Madrid’s pre-season problems?

Sifting through the “it’s just pre-season” talk to find some truths about Real Madrid

SOCCER: AUG 02 Soccer Champions Tour - Juventus vs Real Madrid Photo by Andrew Bershaw/Icon Sportswire 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.

When pre-season concludes, it’s always a challenge sifting through what is real and what is not real. Lots of summer friendlies are meaningless (factually speaking they all are); so rather than looking at the results, we tend to dissect the process that led to the results — because that’s a better indicator of what’s sustainable and isn’t. The problem is, in most cases, summer friendlies are rarely — if ever — an indicator of what the team will look like in the spring.

But some of the issues that have manifested themselves in the final two games against Barcelona and Juventus were predictable even before the USA tour started, and will likely linger into next season unless Real Madrid sign Kylian Mbappe by the end of the transfer window.

Real Madrid generated a combined 5.7 xG over the course of two games against Barcelona and Juventus, and were rewarded with one goal. On one hand, there was bad luck along the way: a multitude of shots hit the woodwork; goalkeepers were spectacular. Many in the analytics community would argue that generating good chances is important, and the rest is math / luck. On another day, you come away a winner, and that things will normalize.

But skeptics will rightfully point another angle out: Most of Real Madrid’s past trophies, and by extension, most of any champions’ success, comes on the back of players outperforming their xG. It’s part of the reason superstars who can score are generally the most valued players in the sport. Real Madrid currently don’t have such a player who can do it prolifically apart from Vinicius Jr. Other players — Rodrygo Goes, Jude Bellingham — may exceed their xG next season but not on the level of 30 - 40 + goals.

What transpired against Juventus and Barcelona is something that most already knew: There are so many creative geniuses in the squad it won’t be difficult to generate chances. The bigger challenge will be converting them consistently. You may have outliers — a manita win here and there against different teams in the schedule — but sustaining that week-to-week will be challenging.

Even with Karim Benzema in the squad last season, it was taxing. The two most successful periods of the season came: 1) before the World Cup, when Fede Valverde was scoring at will; and 2) during Ramadan when Benzema was scoring hat-tricks. Those were the only two phases of the season where Vinicius Jr had real goal-scoring help in the final third.

And those are the reasons why worrying about Real Madrid’s goal-scoring form in pre-season is not ‘overreacting’. The club may have added brilliant players like Jude Bellingham and Fran Garcia who help create chances; but they downgraded (with all due respect to Joselu) their goal-scorer.

For this squad to out-score their opponents consistently and be efficient in key moments, they need to improve their defense. Zinedine Zidane emphasized this in the post-Cristiano Ronaldo era. The team didn’t have enough goals, but he made marginal, low-scoring victories work by zipping up the defensive lines into more compact, deeper blocks.

Carlo Ancelotti hinted at this idea after the Juventus game.

“Our defense must be improved,” Ancelotti said after the 3 - 1 loss to Juventus. “There has been a lack of balance and we need to fix that. It is an easy problem to solve — lowering the block a bit could be a solution”

It would be surprising if Ancelotti opts for a deeper block, or at least, I’m not sure it necessarily solves the team’s defensive miscues if he goes that route. Many of the chances and goals Real Madrid conceded this pre-season weren’t because they were in a higher block. They were down to poor set-piece defending (a persistent problem for years), giveaways under pressure which generate huge chances for the opposition, and poor tracking in the box.

Some of that can be mitigated by being more careful on the ball, improved marking on set-pieces, and inserting Aurelien Tchouameni as the starting defensive midfielder to improve defensive coverage.

There is also the factor that Ancelotti wants to press more with Bellingham in the team now — something that he confirmed to me before the Clasico in Dallas. Of course, coaches change their mind all the time based on what works and what doesn’t — but a major schematic change likely won’t happen right away if it does happen.

There were plenty of games last season where many, including myself, felt Real Madrid were too talented to be sitting deep against smaller teams in Spain. That will be even more true if you have Mbappe and Bellingham in the line-up.

Of course, if Mbappe does arrive, the concerns about Real Madrid’s offense almost entirely go away. The creative element and the ability to get the ball in dangerous areas already exists. The goals should fall in place.

But Mbappe’s arrival does not solves the team’s defensive issues, and the team can’t rely on Thibaut Courtois heroics as a sustainable band-aid.

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