Can Real Madrid bounce back from a crushing loss?

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.


SOMETIMES WHEN YOU WIN SO MUCH it’s hard to step back, zoom out, and diagnose problems. Over time, key players leave; role players seek pastures with more playing time and more prominent roles. Layers of paint get peeled off; older players decline.

Real Madrid have won five Champions League titles since 2014 — more than most clubs do in their entire history. Last season they knocked out four of the favorites en route to lifting the title. The run was historic, dramatic, emotional, and unforgettable. It’s hard not to get lost in the delirium — to put down the champagne bottle and start nerding out over the team’s weaknesses.

It’s not that the team needed an overhaul or major retooling. They were (and still are!), after all, champions of their country and their continent. The club made key acquisitions in Aurelien Tchouameni to replace Casemiro while adding Antonio Rudiger to the centre-back depth chart.

But there are other factors to consider when discussing how to improve a team that just won the double. You can’t measure heart and mental battles — both intangible traits that most sane people would agree Real Madrid had figured out better than anyone. But you can measure numbers. From a scientific standpoint, some of this math was always unsustainable. Real Madrid’s counter-attack worked in part because the stars played out of their minds. The team got away with conceding tons of clear-cut chances because Thibaut Courtois made the most saves of anyone in the Champions League (56), and had the best post-shot xG-GA (+5.1).

Vinicius Jr and Karim Benzema over-performed their xG last season (by some margin). They are not doing so this season, yet. And that’s fine. The most successful teams generally spend the most money and have the best players. But here’s where that might eventually catch up to you: Real Madrid won’t always have the best players on the field in the modern era. Relying on your stars to have better games than the opposing stars is a risky affair — especially when your game plan is more predictable than your opponent’s.

Domestically, Real Madrid also had the luxury last season of having their main rival — Barcelona — completely out of sorts. That is not the case this season.

Real Madrid’s loss to Barcelona on Sunday was crushing and demoralizing, but not entirely surprising because what Barcelona did to Real Madrid was just an extension of what many teams have done to them this season — just a better version of it. In so much of Real Madrid’s history, they’ve been able to stay calm after such big defeats. And there have been plenty big defeats in Real Madrid’s past — it goes hand in hand with their dominance of the trophies that ensue. Can they compose themselves, rebound, and put together a deep run?

“Real Madrid taught us that finals are not played, they are won” — a famous Casemiro quote, was left unfilled this time. And sometimes, as much as we love these quotes and battle cries, it’s not always enough to be ‘calm’ — you have to have a sound plan.

That’s the part that Ancelotti will have to figure out. Change is necessary. As an example, Dani Carvajal has, over the course of the last few years, deteriorated physically. Athletically, he’s lost several steps. Although his effort is there, he doesn’t have any offensive bounce left apart from diagonal crosses, and can’t keep pacy dribblers ahead of him. Is it completely lost? Maybe not. As recently as the Champions League final a few months ago, the Spanish right-back put Luis Diaz in his pocket. But to get those Carvajal cameos, you’ll need to rest him in between the big games. Ancelotti may have to look at players like Vinicius Tobias now that Lucas Vazquez is injured. Carvajal wasn’t 100% fit in those two Super Cup games. The trust in younger players needs to increase.

That’s an example of some of the personnel moves that need re-thinking. But beyond that — beyond the names that are chosen for the XI — the tactics need a fresh reset. Ancelotti has changed his tactics before: Last season he went from an aggressive high-press to a deep counter-attacking block. The scouting report is out now and opponents know they have to press high and limit Vinicius’s space in transition. Can Carlo draw up something more unpredictable and less-reliant on one or two individual players?

One of the strangest narratives to come out of the Clasico bloodbath was the dragging of Eduardo Camavinga from some of the Spanish media. One headline listed Camavinga as one of the three ‘disasters’ of the game. Really? The 20-year-old kid who attempted to move between the lines, get the ball up the field directly, and cover for Mendy — that was the culprit? That’s the guy who falls on the sword?

Camavinga wasn’t some kind of magic solution or infallible floating divine midfielder that should get a pass; but flipping it on him is strange given that he was the most productive midfielder in the first 45 minutes before getting yanked.

Some of Ancelotti’s decision will likely come down to trust and game state rather than something Camavinga did wrong, I hope. Ancelotti wanted to change something at half-time. Rodrygo was an obvious solution. Ancelotti has too much trust for the other three — Toni Kroos, Fede Valverde, Luka Modric — to take anyone else out.

As Matt Wiltse and I pointed out on the post-game podcast, Camavinga could’ve done better with his cover shadowing and preservation of the ball. But he also got into the right channels in the build-up phase, had a couple crucial interventions in transition, provided support on Dembele cut-ins, and did well to get the ball out of his feet and up the field on a few occasions when Barca pressed him.

Let Camavinga play through his mistakes. There is a really great player there to work with for the future.

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