Football Features

How Carlo Ancelotti conquered La Liga with Real Madrid

By Sam Leveridge, from La Liga Lowdown

Published: 14:43, 2 May 2022

In securing La Liga with victory over Espanyol at the weekend, Carlo Ancelotti became the first coach to ever win all five of Europe’s top five leagues.

The Italian maestro has overseen a return to silverware following Real Madrid’s first trophy-less campaign since 2009/10, and he’s done so in style. Following these five main themes, Ancelotti has guided Real Madrid to success.

Avoiding rotation

One of the core themes of Madrid’s season has been that Ancelotti has not rotated his squad. That gamble was one that could have backfired had it not paid off, but it’s worked spectacularly. Ancelotti has achieved the perfect balance to exploit the historic talents of his ageing players, without compromising elsewhere.

In fact, squad players have been reserved until the final few weeks of the season. In midfield, Dani Ceballos only made his first La Liga start in matchday 33, while in defence Jesús Vallejo was reserved until matchday 34. Luka Jović is yet to start a game in the league and Mariano Díaz made only his second start all season in the league-winning game against Espanyol.

Ten players have played more than 50% of minutes available in La Liga, including the likes of 36-year-old Luka Modrić, 34-year-old Karim Benzema, 32-year-old Toni Kroos and 30-year-old Casemiro. All four have been regulars and essential to Real Madrid’s success, with their experience and taste for victory guiding the youngsters like Vinícius Júnior, Eduardo Camavinga and Fede Valverde.

Building a solid defence

When Real Madrid lost both of their starting central defenders in Sergio Ramos and Raphaël Varane last summer, it’s fair to say that Madridistas were concerned. The duo had been the imperial combination that had ruled Europe for years, and both departed the Spanish capital in a matter of weeks.

Ancelotti was left with the inconsistent Éder Militão, the substandard Nacho and free signing David Alaba. Integrating the versatile Austrian so rapidly has been essential not only to building a solid defensive unit, but also getting the best out of Militão. And so Alaba has taken up the reins of a leader.

Only Sevilla have conceded fewer goals, while Real Madrid average 0.85 goals conceded per game, a remarkable figure. With the best goalkeeper in Spain in Thibaut Courtois behind a solid, new-look back four, Ancelotti has done well. Dani Carvajal and Ferland Mendy’s ongoing injury issues have made it a tough task, but in Nacho, Lucas Vázquez and Marcelo, he has found capable deputies.

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Getting the best out of Vinícius Júnior

The star of the show this season has been Karim Benzema, but he’s been the team’s goal-getter for some time. The difference this time around under Ancelotti has come from Vinícius Júnior. The Brazilian was also identified as a player with phenomenal raw potential, but lacking end product. Until now.

In three seasons at the club, he had only scored seven league goals. In 2021/22, he’s doubled that tally to 14 in a single campaign. Ancelotti has given him the belief and space in which to operate, giving him more importance in the team and encouraging his link-up play with Benzema, with the Frenchman’s movement opening up spaces for the winger to cut inside and have a go himself.

“Ancelotti has arrived and given me the confidence that I need,” the Brazilian said in November.

Others say that even Ancelotti has been surprised by the performances of Vinícius, having under-performed against his xG by -3.47 last season, now over-performing by 1.66. The turnaround under the Italian has been remarkable, and pivotal to Real Madrid’s success.

Winning when it matters

A look at the teams against whom Real Madrid have dropped points shows that this is a team accustomed to winning under pressure. Fans who don’t follow Los Blancos so closely will have seen their European escapades and historic victories there, but that is a feat replicated in La Liga.

Villarreal, with two 0-0 draws, are the only team to take points off the champions in both meetings this season, while Barcelona are the only top-six team to have taken any points off Madrid at the Bernabéu. It may have been a historic 4-0 thrashing, but those three points were the only three dropped in a fixture against a top-six rival.

When it comes to points dropped, they have come in draws against Levante, Villarreal, Osasuna, Cádiz and Elche, while defeats have come against Espanyol, Getafe and Barcelona. They are all matches which, on paper at least, Real Madrid should have been winning with ease. And it’s hard to say that they don’t do that when necessary too, as Madrid have scored four against as many teams as they have dropped points against.

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Having a slice of fortune

As much as we can praise Ancelotti and his squad, it must be pointed out that Real Madrid haven’t had much stiff competition in La Liga this season. It’s been four years since a team won the title so early on and it speaks volumes that their closest competition is Barcelona, a side who were outside the European places at the halfway point of the season.

Defending champions Atlético Madrid have faltered spectacularly, to the point of some calling for the head of their much-loved coach Diego Simeone. Sevilla looked to be the closest thing to title challengers but then endured a spell of only four wins in 14 games to fade away.

Ancelotti has defied the odds to win La Liga with Real Madrid, and made it look easy in the process. Yet, at the same time, he has been lucky. No major domestic rival has allowed him to leave rotations for so late in the season that they already had an unassailable lead in La Liga. Others may have posed more of a test, or exploited the gaps in his defence.

But Ancelotti and Real Madrid can only compete with what they’re up against, and they’ve done so marvellously.

Article produced by Sam Leveridge in partnership with La Liga Lowdown, your home for Spanish football in English with reporters based in Spain. Find them on Twitter @LaLigaLowdown