How is Carlo Ancelotti doing at Real Madrid?

No Mbappe, maybe no problems?

Everyone knows the long term plan at the Santiago Bernabeu.

I say “plan” but it has exactly one bullet point: sign Kylian Mbappe. Florentino Perez wants to mortgage the club’s future on one prodigiously talented 22-year-old. This isn’t exactly a new approach from him, and unlike the previous attempt, The Cristiano Ronaldo Show did actually deliver four Champions League titles. You can’t really project for any player to hit those heights, but if that’s your strategy, Mbappe is probably the best bet out there. Or the second best, but please don’t give us another decade of a tedious duopoly. It seems like his head is set on Real Madrid, so that should all come together next summer.

The last few seasons of Lionel Messi’s Barcelona career, which Real fans surely enjoyed, do show the risks of building around a single amazing talent. You need to at least set up a competent structure around your star individuals, like Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid or Luis Enrique’s Barcelona. So that’s what Real need to have in place for Mbappe’s probable arrival next summer. We can think of this season as Carlo Ancelotti’s job interview to show he can be the man to build the framework for when the new team is built around Mbappe.

It’s looking good so far. Five wins and one draw in La Liga puts them top of the table, and that Champions League win away at Inter doesn’t hurt. Things can change quickly at Real Madrid, but right now, I can’t imagine too many being unhappy with the work Ancelotti is doing.

It’s awfully, awfully early, but digging into the numbers a little tells a more complex story. Real Madrid’s expected goal difference per 90 is currently +0.54, which puts them fourth in La Liga, behind Sevilla, Real Betis and Real Valladolid. This is actually down a little from last season’s +0.66. Los Blancos currently have the best attack in the division by xG and the 16th best defence, opting for a full-on sickos meme approach. For good measure, they’re running nuclear hot in attack, scoring 21 goals from 11.4 xG, while merely running neutral defensively, conceding 8 times from 8.2 expected.


All stats are from FBRef using data provided by StatsBomb, except for PPDA, which is from Understat.

Attack

There are two ways to be good at attacking: take lots of shots, or ensure your shots are of very high quality. Ideally, you’d be taking lots and lots of chances from point-blank range, but no team is perfect, and realistically sides will lean on one more than the other.

La Liga has always been a league where shot quality matters the most. Unlike the Premier League, say, where most sides take similar kinds of chances but the best simply get a lot more of them, La Liga’s teams have differentiated themselves through quality of chances. If you just looked at shots for and against, you traditionally wouldn’t learn much of anything about which La Liga sides are good or bad.

Except for Real Madrid, of course, who usually just attack by taking as many shots as possible.

It’s no surprise, then, that Madrid’s 103 shots so far outrank anyone else in the division. Their xG per shot of 0.11 is bang average (if memory serves, the average chance of any shot going in is 11%), so it’s all about volume. Real Madrid attack in pretty normal ways, but they just do more of it than everyone else.

Karim Benzema has unsurprisingly racked up the most shots this season (22), delivering his regular 3-4 shots per 90. But the pleasing thing is how they have a decent spread. Vinicius is hot on his heels with 17 shots, taking more per 90 from a higher shot quality (0.16 vs 0.11). This isn’t something I’d really expect to continue long term, but it’s certainly a positive to see Vinicius generating plenty of chances for himself. At 21 years old, it wouldn’t be a shock to see him take a significant step forward this season and become an important player in the side.

The third attacker spot still seems up for grabs. Eden Hazard has played it most often, but it really looks like it’s time to give up on him coming good at the Bernabeu. His stats are much of a muchness with the rest of his Real career, but really paint a picture looking at this season compared to his last with Chelsea. He’s completing half as many progressive passes per 90 and 46% fewer progressive carries. The thing that made Hazard such a complete player was his ability to move the ball into dangerous areas better than almost anyone while also providing goals and assists. Oh, and his expected goals plus assists per 90 are down 35% compared to the same period. Everything is down. He just can’t do what he once could.

In terms of getting the ball to those attackers, they’re really in a moment of transition. Federico Valverde at age 23 has started every game this season and looked the part, contributing both as a ball winner and progressor. Eduardo Camavinga started his first game midweek against Mallorca and there’s obviously more to come from him. He played as the deepest midfielder, which doesn’t feel like the best use of a young player who really can offer the whole package. I think he’d be best as more of a number eight, but that could hamper Valverde and others. It’s something to figure out, but with Ancelotti’s long history of finding the best system for individuals to shine, I’m sure Real Madrid will get there. This is an area of the team where they have two-thirds of the pieces in place to replace the ageing trio of Casemiro, Luka Modric and Toni Kroos.

Defence

Yeah, so Real Madrid just haven’t been very good defensively. Even in such a dominant display against Real Mallorca, the visitors had real chances. They can’t compete in Europe without fixing this.

Again, the issue is volume rather than quality. They’re conceding 12 shots a game and that’s too many unless you have an incredible ability to keep teams away from point-blank range, which Real Madrid do not. Atletico Madrid, for point of comparison, are conceding half as many. They’re going to have to become a better shot suppressing side quickly.

They’re not aggressive high pressers. 23% of their pressures take place in the final third, the tenth highest rate in La Liga. They allow opponents just over nine passes in the opposition half before making an attempt to win the ball, also the tenth most in the division. It’s not really the kind of game we’d expect from one of the best teams in the league, and a club where the opposition inevitably sit back and play more defensively. Ancelotti just got there, but he’s never been a manager known for building a coordinated pressing system, so I don’t think this is likely to dramatically shift. It has to work better the way they’re doing it.

Their stylistic options are limited by the defenders. David Alaba, the big defensive signing, has split his minutes between centre back and left-back. He played for Ancelotti at Bayern and was generally used by the Italian as a conventional left-back, and that’s probably the manager’s natural instinct. At centre back, Alaba is most comfortable in a high line Ancelotti isn’t likely to deploy. If he doesn’t play there, they have to rely on a far from secure Nacho/Eder Militao partnership. Yes, Sergio Ramos is probably finished at the highest level, while Manchester United offered good money for Raphael Varane. But they really needed to get another player in.

This old Real Madrid is dead, and the new one is waiting to be born. They could win La Liga this season, but I’m not convinced they’ll be serious contenders for the Champions League. Is enough there to think that Mbappe is the only piece they need to push on? I’m far from convinced. He’ll inevitably be a huge, huge get. But this side needs a more fundamental spine to seriously compete in Europe again.