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.
MOMENTS AFTER REAL MADRID suffered a humiliating exit at the Etihad on Wednesday night, Carlo Ancelotti took to the podium in the post-game press conference to repeat the same message — the same answer — over several questions.
For Ancelotti, this was a matter of losing to a better team. There wasn’t much public self-reflection, a desire to absorb blame. That will have to be done internally instead, with scrutiny.
“They were better than us today,” Ancelotti said. “Like we were better than them last season.
“I think it was a good season overall. I hope we can finish it strongly over the final four league games. Reaching a Champions League semi-final is a success, as only four teams make it. It can happen that you sometimes lose a semi-final.”
Ancelotti’s words have a hidden meaning, a subliminal message that has resonated too much with the club: ‘It’s ok to lose the league. The season was successful because Real Madrid reached the Champions League semi-finals. It matters little that Real Madrid lost the league to Barcelona (by an ungodly number of points). We mention our success in Europe, but ignore our failures domestically.’
Of course, that’s not the intended message, but that’s the unspoken one. Real Madrid haven’t won back-to-back league titles in 15 years. For those that called last night’s demolition ‘an overreaction to one game’ have also ignored the 14-point league deficit, while turning a blind-eye to the process of last year’s success, and some heavy defeats in big games where the team was played off the park.
There is no doubt Real Madrid deserved their double last season. There is no doubt, equally, that Carlo Ancelotti is one of the greatest managers in club history. There is no doubt Real Madrid win more than anyone, and there is no doubt they lost to a team, quite frankly, that looked like one of the best teams we’ve seen in a long time — an utterly robotic and merciless Manchester City symphony. It may also be from a spoiled position that many ask for heads to be axed — asking more from a team that has given more to its fans than any other club has ever done. 13 of 15 Champions League semi-final appearances. Lose at the last hurdle on the road to a potential 15th Champions League title? Blow it up — the cycle is over.
The truth is somewhere in between. Many of the Managing Madrid staff, en route to celebrating a deserved Champions League title last season, called for an analysis of the process, not the trophies. Modern football is all about finding every little detail — every little minimal edge — that can give you an advantage over your opponent. It’s ok to improve a team that continues to win — that’s factually the only way to keep winning. How can you improve a team that won a double? It’s hard, but in the case of last season, those who saw it knew: Better wing-backs, more prominent roles to the young midfielders (and in turn, a demotion in roles to the veterans). Many pointed at the unsustainable nature of Benzema’s form as he grew older. His age now shows — his body unable to recover from injuries the way it used to. Last season’s game at the Etihad was not dissimilar to the one this year in some ways, but one of the main differences was Benzema. Last year he was transcendent; this year on his last legs — one of the worst performers on the field. He did not have the same superstar powers to dig his team out.
That hurt Benzema. It hurt the entire team to be powerless — to want to fight but unable to do so because they were outmatched. Thibaut Courtois — eliminated with the small consolation that he was again superhuman and without blame — said they tried, but couldn’t. “At half-time we had the courage to try and change the game,” Courtiois said. “But we weren’t clean with our passes and that takes its toll.
Which begs the question: If Real Madrid knew what they had to do, tried to do it, and uncharacteristic of them, could not, for once, punch back against all odds — was there anything they could’ve done? Does every scenario result in a loss to a superior team?
“We didn’t do what we’d planned,” Ancelotti said. “This defeat is just a step to try to be better next season.”
Perhaps Real Madrid lose this game eight out 10 times its replayed, even if tactics are tweaked and different players are on the field. But identifying what went wrong in order to improve next season is vital. City aren’t going away anytime soon, they will be at the gate again next season. What will the plan be? This is Real Madrid — the goal is to beat the best.
Pinning all the blame on Ancelotti is harsh. As I stated on last night’s Managing Madrid post-game podcast, there’s blame on everyone. Real Madrid’s problems may stem from poor squad construction, poor player performances, and decline. But they’ve been tactically outmatched often too. Last night there was a disconnect between the attack and midfield. Vinicius Jr and Rodyrgo Goes attempted to make peeling off-ball runs behind Kyle Walker and Manuel Akanji, but were looked off. No long balls were sent in, and no short passing outlets were available — all snuffed out as the the midfield sat deep and City blitzed out a suffocating counter-press. Positionally, Pep Guardiola’s men were flawless.
Movement between the lines was needed. The only moments of semi-respectful football (sparing, to be sure), was when Rodrygo had to move to the left or drop to connect the dots. It wasn’t until Eduardo Camavinga moved to midfield in the second half when Carlo Ancelotti’s men finally had a midfielder moving between the lines. Dani Ceballos, in his late cameo, looked lively too. But those detailed analyses mean nothing now. By the time those changes were made, it was far too late, Real Madrid were spread too open, and their confidence was zapped. For so much concern about Rudiger being benched; it wasn’t Haaland so much who hurt Real (although, that’s only thanks to Courtois) — but rather John Stones and Rodri who were allowed to carry the ball freely. City did their damage in midfield, between the lines, on the wings, and the way they positioned themselves off the ball.
Did last season, and by extension, the first leg of this season’s tie, skew our perception of how even these two teams were? Why could Real Madrid find a gear at half-time in the first leg and dominate the second half, while being unable to summon that bite on Wednesday?
When I asked Pep Guardiola this question after the game, he articulated it by saying the Bernabeu itself was a distinguishing factor (he reiterated several times in the press conference that playing home and away in the Champions League makes all the difference), and that City’s passing and pressing both improved in the second leg:
City, in short, hit another gear in the second leg that they didn’t hit in the first.
And maybe that’s a long-winded way of saying none of it may have mattered. It may not have moved the needle enough to start Antonio Rudiger — still high off locking down Erling Haaland in the first leg — alongside Eder Militao while David Alaba goes to left-back and Camavinga plays in midfield. It may not have mattered if Modric and Kroos didn’t start. It may not have mattered if Aurelien Tchouameni played as the anchor to prevent some of the wide-open runs into the box.
But it matters in a different way: Real Madrid could’ve lost respectably, punching City on the chin and going down emptying the clip. They were not put in a position to maximize their chances, they were set up to retreat deeper and deeper, to lose confidence with each lost ball while their opponent gained confidence with each pass. City expanded; Real retreated.
“The way we fell hurts more,” Courtois said. “You can lose a game 2-1, 1-0... But it’s a very tough defeat,“
While there is gloom to the elimination, it should be noted that Real Madrid have an incredible upside and promising future. Vinicius Jr has played himself into the conversation of the best winger in the world. Camavinga is a player you can build a midfield around. Rodyrgo has taken another leap this season. Good things are brewing. Approaching this with the right sporting vision, with a purposeful retool, and the cycle begins as soon as it ends.
But its important for Real Madrid to pinpoint what those problems are. Ancelotti called to “be better next season”. The elephant in the room, of course, is that Luka Modric and Toni Kroos can not continue to start big games together. If Ancelotti is at the helm next season again, will he continue to trust those two more than the young players?
These are the questions that Ancelotti should be held accountable for, but often these questions are aimed at the coach because that’s the easiest thing to do. Who is asking the questions of the board?
If Real Madrid want to move away from playing veterans, they can force Ancelotti’s hands by providing better wing-backs, another attacker, and so forth. Benzema was a shell of himself last night, but taking him off may not have mattered — there was no other striker to bring on.
The board has to also ask tough questions of themselves: How ruthless do they want to be to maximize the squad’s immediate and long term success? It’s hard not to have sentimental attachment to the two greatest central midfielders in club history, both of whom expire this summer. There is a desire to bring Bellingham in now. Ceballos, also expiring, has earned a contract. Is it better to have five years of Ceballos or one more year of Modric? How about Dani Carvajal and Lucas Vazquez — two players the club sees as ‘barrier contracts’ to bringing in a right back?
This discussion is intertwined with next season’s coach — it’s impossible to separate it. If the club want to move away from the veteran core who have given so much, they can simply do so by not renewing some contracts and signing a striker that can compete with Benzema — forcing Ancelotti’s hand to kickstart a more youthful era. On the flipside, what could a manager like Julian Nagelsmann or Xabi Alonso do with a young, athletic, and tactically intelligent core?
Last night was a tough pill to swallow for Real Madrid and its fans. The players looked distraught; Vinicius starved and frustrated; Benzema angry. But as heavy as this defeat felt, the club is three good decision in the summer away from being better next season.