Replacing the legendary Zinedine Zidane at Real Madrid is no mean feat, but Carlo Ancelotti is making light work of it in the opening weeks of his second spell at Estadio Santiago Bernabéu.
With expectations low, he arrived and sent the club top of La Liga, with a two-point lead over reigning champions Atlético Madrid with six games played.
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So, what has the Italian mastermind changed since his return to the Spanish capital? We take a look at the five key changes which have come to define his first few weeks back in Los Blancos’ dugout.
1. We will score one more than you
In the two full seasons of Zidane’s second spell, Real Madrid matches averaged 2.5 goals per game in La Liga. In the first six rounds of 2021/22, they have averaged 4.83, winning more than half of their games by a three-goal margin. Where Zidane was all about defensive solidity and efficiency, Ancelotti is all about glitz and entertainment.
Not since 1987 have Real Madrid scored so many goals at such an early stage of the season, while they’ve reached the tally of 21 in half as many games as was required in 2020/21. Ancelotti understands that his defence is his weakness, as will be discussed later on in this analysis, but he also knows that he can overcome it with goals at the other end. It’s a strategy which is working, given that only two other La Liga teams have even reached double figures for goals scored (Valencia on 11 and Rayo Vallecano on 10), and their goal difference is twice as good as their next best rival.
One of those to benefit has been Karim Benzema. Leading the way in attack, he’s already racked up eight goals and seven assists from just six games in La Liga. No player in Spain’s top division has been involved in more goals through a six-match period at any point this century. Not even Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo.
2. “This team has balls”
Real Madrid have already picked up seven points beyond the 85th minute of matches this season. When asked about how his team were getting so many late victories, Ancelotti replied, “this team has balls.” This forthright, albeit light-hearted analysis has a serious point – this team has a strong mentality. That much is evident as it isn’t just that the team wins late on, but it’s that the team is fighting back from behind. From seven fixtures played, Real Madrid have gone behind and come back to win in three, against Levante, Celta Vigo and Valencia.
Perhaps, even more importantly than balls, this team has lungs. Under Zidane, some key players were often criticised for being unfit or out of shape. Along with Ancelotti coming back to Madrid this summer, the return of Antonio Pintus, the fitness coach who worked with Zidane as the club won three consecutive Champions League titles, has paid off almost immediately. From 22 goals scored this season, 17 have come in the second half. Maintaining this work rate as others fade comes from the hard work put in on the training ground.
There is also an element of rejuvenation within the squad. In midfield, for example, last season Casemiro played 85% of minutes, Luka Modrić was involved in 80%, and Toni Kroos, who has been unavailable due to injury this season, played 68%. This season, those minutes are more spread out, with Modrić dropping to 50% as the third position is opened up to the likes of Eduardo Camavinga, Isco, Marco Asensio and even youngsters like Antonio Blanco. That kind of rotation may be difficult to keep up as important fixtures come thick and fast later in the campaign, but it’s a sign of Ancelotti rotating and managing his squad far more than Zidane ever did.
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3. Defensive uncertainty
Across seven matches this season, Ancelotti has chosen four different defensive line-ups to start games. Injuries to Dani Carvajal, Marcelo and Ferland Mendy haven’t made his life any easier, but it’s clear that the Italian isn’t fully satisfied by his defensive options. With only two clean sheets to date, it’s easy to see why.
What’s even more concerning is that these goals are coming against teams that Real Madrid would expect to do better against. Levante, Celta Vigo, Alavés and Mallorca have put seven goals past Real Madrid this season in just four games, while the same fixtures last season, or in 2019/20 in the case of newly-promoted Mallorca, led to a total of just one goal conceded. With 7.30 xG against them this season, they rank 11th in La Liga without having played any of the league’s big guns. Tougher tests are sure to come.
But this is to be expected. Real Madrid lost both Sergio Ramos and Raphaël Varane in the summer. Ancelotti has also been without his first choice full-backs on both sides of the pitch, and that’s also meant that he’s had to play David Alaba on the left at times, outside of his favoured position. The odds are against Ancelotti, but he has homework to do.
4. Getting the best out of Vinícius
If there has been one headline story to Real Madrid’s start to the campaign, it’s been Vinícius Júnior. The Brazilian has long been a potential star, but he’s never progressed beyond just that potential. Yet this season, it took him just 55 minutes to match his best La Liga goals tally for a season, and is already close to doubling it, with five goals from six league fixtures.
The youngster even won the player of the month award for August, and his speech was telling as he said, “I want to thank the coach for believing in me, and the players for giving me the belief to do what I do. His confidence under the Italian coach has rocketed sky high, and he’s changed his game as a result.
Under Zidane, he averaged 1.2 shots per game, with a conversion rate of 10%. Under Ancelotti, that’s up to 2.9 shots per game with a 25% conversion rate. Having scored five goals from 2.85 xG, it also means that this season is on track to become the first time that Vinícius has ever performed better than expected when it comes to goals, after underscoring by an average of 2.33 per season since he arrived in Spain.
Marco Asensio hasn’t been quite the same since returning from a long-term knee injury, and while Ancelotti has been slow to bed him in, he’s moved him from a forward position to a role as one of the midfielders. The advanced midfield role saw him connect with Benzema and Vinícius to score a hat-trick against Mallorca, the first of his career. Speaking after the game, Ancelotti explained, “It’s true that putting him in midfield can hurt the other team a lot because he has a lot of quality receiving the ball between the lines, he can shoot really well and he combines well with the forwards.”
Another fine case is new arrival Eduardo Camavinga. The 18-year-old has immediately come into the side and earned himself a role within Ancelotti’s squad, yet he didn’t appear to have a fixed position. In his early substitute appearances, his heat maps would show his movement being all over the park, from using his energy to burst down the left wing to then dropping in at right-back minutes later. With a goal and an assist in his first two performances, Camavinga undoubtedly benefited and has been able to integrate quickly.
Come the end of his tenure, Zidane was criticised for too often being reluctant to gamble. The Champions League semi-final defeat against Chelsea was attributed directly to that, sticking to the players he knew, even if they weren’t fully fit. These are early days and under much less pressure for Ancelotti, but he’s already proven that he’s not afraid to make a brave or daring call.