Take a look at Real Madrid’s season so far, and by almost any metric, it looks like a success. They’re top of LaLiga with 12 games left to play, six points clear of Sevilla and 15 ahead of the rivals they care about most, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid. They picked up the season’s first silverware by winning the Spanish Supercopa, beating Barca and Athletic Club. And they reached the Champions League knockout stage, a minimum requirement given the club’s storied history in the competition.
But it hasn’t always been convincing. The team’s meek 1-0 defeat to Paris Saint-Germain in their Champions League round-of-16 first-leg set alarm bells ringing. Can the midfield that’s been the team’s bedrock since 2015 still dominate at the highest level? Is the team’s failure to score a first-half goal in their past eight matches cause for concern? And is Carlo Ancelotti the right man to build a new side that can light up the redeveloped Bernabeu stadium when it’s completed late this year?
Ahead of next week’s return leg against PSG, ESPN examines Real Madrid’s team, squad and tactics this season, Ancelotti’s impact so far, and the issues that need to be addressed this summer.
The squad: Issues of depth and burnout loom
Real Madrid’s starting XI and playing style have rarely been as consistent, or as predictable, as they have this season. In fact, the team’s spine is a big reason they surged to the top of LaLiga.
Thibaut Courtois has made match-winning saves a habit, strengthening his case as the best goalkeeper in Spain. David Alaba slotted in well after his free transfer from Bayern Munich, becoming a vocal on-field leader, while Eder Miltao has become a physically dominant, forward-thinking defender alongside him. Vinicius Junior has been the season’s breakout star and Karim Benzema is MVP, with 32 goals and 15 assists between them. Even the much-derided Marco Asensio stepped up in recent weeks with decisive goals against Granada and Alaves.
The shape of the team has a familiar look to it, too. A 4-3-3 was the default under previous coach Zinedine Zidane, and Ancelotti has enshrined it as gospel. “This team has to play 4-3-3. There’s no other way,” he said with characteristic openness in October. “It’s the system the players are comfortable with.”
A front three with Benzema as the fulcrum makes sense for a squad packed with wingers — Vinicius, Asensio, Rodrygo, even Gareth Bale and Eden Hazard – but there is one knock-on issue: the risk that their ageing midfield of Casemiro (30), Kroos (32) and Modric (36) gets overrun.
“We don’t have midfielders who can defend in an open pitch,” Ancelotti said in November.
“We have to drop off. It isn’t always so aesthetically pleasing, but we’re doing well.”
Sitting deeper to preserve their midfielders saw Madrid go on a 15-game unbeaten run in the fall, and it helps that there are few ideological hang-ups about playing style at Real Madrid; unlike the more dogmatic Barcelona, whatever works is acceptable as long as results keep coming.
However, a busy new year brought problems. January began with a first LaLiga loss in three months at Getafe and ended with Benzema getting injured. That sparked a mini-crisis as a tired team struggled to score without its focal point. Madrid were knocked out of the Copa del Rey by Athletic Club and looked shockingly unambitious against PSG. The failure to register a single shot on target in Paris was met with anger at the club, sources told ESPN, with criticism for the team’s defensive mindset. The dressing room consensus was that the narrow 1-0 defeat was the best thing about the night.
The subsequent response has been encouraging. Asensio, Vinicius and Benzema all scored in the very next game to help clear the air. The tactics have been tweaked, with Ancelotti considering “pushing up with a high press to avoid losing so much control when we don’t have the ball.” But the anxiety that greeted the upcoming suspensions of Casemiro and Ferland Mendy for the PSG second leg highlighted another issue: the lack of depth at key positions.
It’s not that the squad is weak overall. The club have worked to identify young talent to anchor the next generation, but there is no direct replacement for Casemiro – Kroos can play there but doesn’t enjoy it, the all-action Fede Valverde is best pushing forward, and Eduardo Camavinga has faded after a bright start – while the Mendy alternative is Marcelo, who is part of a generation of senior players including Isco and Bale who will not be missed when their contracts expire. Benzema’s return came as a relief as there’s little faith in backups Luka Jovic and Mariano Diaz, nor Bale as an injury-prone last resort upfront.
The manager: Is Ancelotti the right fit?
Few coaches have been as popular at Real Madrid as Ancelotti. Admiration for his 27-year managerial career, including three Champions League wins, is matched by affection for his affable, avuncular persona. There is a feeling – shared by the coach himself, but since forgiven — that he was mistreated the last time he was in charge at the Bernabeu when he was sacked in 2015 a year after delivering the club’s long-awaited 10th European Cup. When Zinedine Zidane walked away last summer, tired of feeling undermined and underappreciated, an unexpected opportunity emerged to make that right.
Ancelotti’s appointment was a product of timing and circumstance. He was not the club’s preferred candidate but was welcomed as a practical (if uninspiring) choice to guide the team this season. Managers don’t tend to stick around long at the Bernabeu anyway – Ancelotti joked on his return that “the only thing that changes at Real Madrid are the coaches” – and as a quick fix, he made as much sense as anyone, even on a three-year contract.
The 62-year-old’s management style is understated. His handling of players is intuitive; he maintains strong relationships even with those players he’s effectively written off, thanks to decades of experience managing big clubs and even bigger egos. His dealings with the media are refreshing: He loves to discuss tactical nuance, while his news conferences are a master class in public relations, engaging with journalists on first-name terms. He is genuinely delighted to be back at this club in a city that he loves. None of the things that irked Zidane – the backchannel briefings and intense scrutiny – bother Ancelotti.
As a manager, he’s a pragmatist, insisting that he has no defined playing philosophy. It shows this season in Madrid, as his approach has been dictated by the group he inherited. At times though, his pragmatism can become conservatism, via formulaic team selection and cautious in-game management. The loudest dissent among fans has been sparked by Ancelotti’s extreme reluctance to rotate the team or intervene with proactive substitutions.
Questions over his apparent refusal to rest Modric and other key players were so frequent over the winter that it became something of a running joke in the media, but nobody in Madrid was laughing when the team looked like running out of gas in early February, or when Benzema’s injury threatened to derail the season. When fit, Benzema (34) has played 94% of the team’s minutes. Elder statesman Modric has made 27 starts in all competitions, playing 85% of the minutes in those games.
The suspicion that the team was too often being bailed out by Courtois at one end, or Benzema and Vinicius at the other, was already lurking before the PSG defeat did more substantial damage to Ancelotti’s standing. He has the chance to rectify that in the second leg on March 9; not doing so would strengthen the case for a managerial change this summer.
Ancelotti is a survivor, though, and his skill set at this late stage of his career makes him well suited to surviving the turbulence that is inherent in a job where anything less than winning the Champions League is viewed as, to some extent, a failure.
The future: a tricky rebuild awaits, though they have money to spend
There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about this Real Madrid team, not least the potential summer signing of Kylian Mbappe. His belated arrival would give the side the star power and guaranteed goal return that have been missing since Cristiano Ronaldo left. Elsewhere, much of the work has already been done. With Courtois, the goalkeeping position is covered for five years or more. Alaba and Militao have done a better job than anyone expected of following Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane. Vinicius has taken a quantum leap forward this season and Benzema is still the best all-round forward anywhere.
Academy talents could also contribute if given the chance. Left-back Miguel Gutierrez, midfielder Antonio Blanco and winger Peter Gonzalez all looked comfortable when given opportunities over the past year. There’s excitement about 18-year-old creative midfielder Bruno Iglesias, while Take Kubo could yet return and make an impact after three years spent out on loan.
Smart management has ensured the club’s financial position is robust to invest in the squad however they wish this summer. Madrid ended the 2020-21 post-pandemic financial year making a narrow €874,000 profit after tax – compared to Barca’s staggering €481 million loss – and with a cash balance of €122 million. They were willing to agree on a deal worth up to €200 million for PSG’s Kylian Mbappe last summer, and could therefore make a substantial investment this year to fill the remaining problem positions.
At right-back, Carvajal’s injury record suggests he cannot be relied upon, and an out-of-position Lucas Vazquez is a willing but limited alternative. Ferland Mendy is a solid successor to Marcelo but lacks the freeform creativity of the Brazilian at his peak. The midfield is beyond reproach — there are few better holding midfielders than Casemiro, few better passers than Kroos, and Modric at 36 is still Modric — but managing the timing of the transition to whatever comes next will not be straightforward.
Madrid will look to follow last summer’s recruitment of Camavinga with another midfield addition to smooth that process. Sources have told ESPN that Monaco’s Aurelien Tchouameni is a candidate, with interest in Ajax’s Ryan Gravenberch.
Tchouameni would finally offer a like-for-like replacement for Casemiro. There are arguments for other targets too, especially at right-back, but the club remains laser-focused on the priority of landing Mbappe, with even Erling Haaland behind him in the pecking order.
The outcome of the PSG tie will dictate the tone for the next few months. A likely league title would mark the season as a domestic success but departing the Champions League early would increase the clamour for the incorporation of a difference-making superstar like Mbappe, and the €800 million Bernabeu rebuild will also demand a glamorous, winning team to fill it.
Note: This article has been written by Alex Kirkland and is published at ESPN FC