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Benzema, Ancelotti, and the kings of constancy

On Madrid’s recent success, its future, and how they got past PSG

Carlo Ancelotti applauds the spectators following Real Madrid’s comeback against Paris Saint-Germain in the second leg of the 2021-22 Champions League Round of 16 tie. Photo by Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images

‘Constant Carlo.’

Carlo Continuity’

One of those should have been the title of this article when it was thought up sometime around halftime of Real Madrid’s Champions League clash against Paris Saint-Germain. Constancy was meant to be the culprit — Madrid’s core flaw holding the team back amidst its ongoing revival.

And then in came Karim Benzema.

If there is one person who always seems to resurrect from after being written off (quite literally), it’s Karim Benzema. At this point, he might be a good fit for a horror film or some dark, dystopian, survival video game series like Left 4 Dead. Just imagine a zombie-esque creature that’s old but impermeable. One that outlasts generations as they come and go past him, all the while posting flamboyant Instagram photos reminiscent of up-and-coming rappers. Taking bullets, shots, and tackles left, right, and center, but noticing nothing as he marches forward. Donnarumma and Marquinhos shouldn’t be the only ones having nightmares about an ageless, bearded, bandaged, French bandit who just won’t disappear.

Karim has only gotten scarier in recent years. Since Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure in 2018, Benzema’s ability to resurrect has seemingly expanded; he can now rise and dig the rest of the team out of its grave as many witnessed on Wednesday. Still, not accounting for Karim was a miscalculation—a mistake I, and many others, have made time and time again.

Madridistas are notorious perfectionists—unable to focus only on positives. Last week’s comeback ignited a youthful joy that hasn’t been felt around Madrid in a little while; it’s why this article was almost going to be scrapped. Then came the bombardment of praising press. In spite of the applause, the victory felt haunted by a sense of what could have been. What should have been.

Madrid should have started out completely differently. With Ferland Mendy and Casemiro —two staples of the team’s starting eleven — suspended, Ancelotti was expected to make some changes. He had no choice but to adjust. Notorious for his lack of rotation and rigid reliance on the same personnel, Ancelotti’s two biggest predicaments became: 1) who would slot into the left-back spot; and 2) who would replace Casemiro in Madrid’s golden midfield trifecta. A third, albeit less complicated debate, was who would start on the right wing—Asensio or Rodrygo? Nacho and Valverde answered the first two questions, while Asensio got the nod on the right. It was the most basic approach possible, consistent with Carlo’s established hierarchy and hesitance to stir the pot.

Madrid began the game well, tightly pressing and pinning PSG in their own half. But as effective can be, intense pressure never lasts. With an aging midfield, the grip dissipated all too soon, leaving Madrid exposed on the right flank especially. Madrid’s tactics were a walking contradiction. Carlo’s conservative selection was juxtaposed by the reckless decision to have Carvajal push up extremely high, leaving Kylian Mbappe wide open for three nearly identical breakaways which ended in one goal (not to mention the two disallowed Mbappe finishes).

The lack of imagination within the lineup was disappointing. Asensio was too static, as he so often has been this season. Nacho offered little on the left offensively. The desperate tactics were confusing. Madrid was going with all-out attack from the onset despite being only one goal behind and no longer having to worry about the newly cancelled away-goal rule.

The confidence to experiment seemed misdirected on Ancelotti’s part. The game needed risks, but not the ones being taken—something along the lines of Jose Mourinho’s bold Clasico experiment, where Pepe started as a center defensive midfielder to handle Messi. Given Mendy’s absence, why couldn’t Valverde fill in at the left back spot while Camavinga took over the center-mid vacancy? Why couldn’t Rodrygo or Hazard replace Asensio? Why couldn’t Madrid play the same effective 3-person backline, with the left-back pushing up instead of Carvajal (as not to leave Mbappe unmarked)? If Ancelotti really didn’t want to alternate personnel, why couldn’t he revive Alaba as a left-back with Nacho in the center?

To Ancelotti’s credit, Camavinga and Rodrygo were substituted on early during the second half (at the 57th minute). It was a concession that paid dividends, completely changing the game and adding energy to a team that seemed to have lost hope. The substitutions came much earlier than Ancelotti’s typical swaps, which occur around the 80-minute mark. The changes presented a rare glimpse of Ancelotti being clearly mistaken. However, despite his constancy, Ancelotti had just enough flexibility and level-headedness to adapt and react. As great as Zidane was as Madrid coach, his substitutions were often frustrating in their timing as well. Zidane must have picked up the tendency to substitute at the 80th minute from his days as Ancelotti’s assistant. But Zidane was even more religious about delaying substitutions until only 10-15 minutes remained, never earlier. In this case, the master proved his worth.

Despite almost being the blame for an embarrassing exit, consistency displayed its greatest merits on the same night it showcased its worst. Madrid’s modern empire—it’s four Champions League trophies in five years—was built on the backbone of consistency. It was the Italian tactician’s team, with its untouchable lineup and depth on the bench which unlocked Madrid’s storied Decima after years of coming within touching distance. It is that same team that has survived a short dip that signalled alarm bells and finds itself at the center of Madrid’s resurgence today.

The same Benzema. The same Modric. The same Carvajal. All unsung heroes of the night. Despite being an anomaly in the world of football, Benzema is not the only story of age being relegated to just a number within Madrid. Modric had seemed to be signing off just a few years back, seemingly collapsing after reaching a World Cup final and securing the first Balon d’Or of the post-Ronaldo/Messi dominance era. He seemed exhausted—a shadow of his former self. Like Benzema, he was written off too early. A few slightly more relaxing summers have provided enough recovery to bless the world with some more years of that magical, elegant, energizer-bunny wizardry. Even David Alaba is a staple of Carlo Ancelotti’s old guard, albeit from a stint elsewhere between his terms at Madrid.

The dispersion of these trusted veterans among the younger generation has reversed Madrid’s decline while allowing the squad to prepare for the future. The old guard share their experience and substance with the youth as the new guard offers a contagious passion and liveliness that acts as a bloodline for the everlasting vampires of Madrid. Watching Benzema nearly in tears as he ran to celebrate his third goal and the tie-winner or Alaba with his now notorious chair-lifting celebration or Modric jumping around like a kid post-game, it was easy to lose sight of exactly who the youngsters were.

The balance between consistency and renewal is one that is difficult to perfect, but Madrid seem to be on the right track at the moment and it is best to enjoy before the torch is completely passed on. For a special moment Madrid’s aura shines, simultaneously refreshing and nostalgic. While many were ready to pen the end of an era following a Madrid exit at the hands of Mbappe and PSG; Benzema, Modric, and company have presented their swan song on their own terms. And there may yet be more to come, in harmony with Vinícius Júnior, Éder Militão, Fede Valverde, Eduardo Camavinga, Rodrygo, and the new class of Madrid.

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