Last season saw Real Madrid’s bitter rivals Barcelona win back La Liga for the first time in four years.
That simply won’t do.
We look at five questions Carlo Ancelotti needs to answer to get Madrid back on track.
How Can Real Madrid Replace Karim Benzema?
The easy answer to this question is Kylian Mbappé. It’s also the most expensive answer. For now, Real Madrid are planning to replace one of their greatest ever goal scorers with *checks notes* 33-year-old Joselu on loan from Espanyol.
Technically, that’s what has happened. In reality, we will see an entirely new Real Madrid next season.
Carlo Ancelotti is going to change his system, with more moving parts in attack than we’ve come to know in recent seasons. Jude Bellingham will start at the tip of a 4-4-2 diamond and Vinícius Júnior will be asked to drift inside more often and play as a second striker as opposed to a pure winger.
Real Madrid scored 127 goals last season in all competitions. Benzema scored 31 of those, which works out as roughly a quarter. Vinícius got 23 and Rodrygo scored 19 in competitive matches, and they should see more opportunities without Benzema prowling the penalty area. The pair will have to assume a greater share of the goalscoring burden next season along with new signing Bellingham. The English midfielder saw his goal tally jump from six in 2021-22 to 14 in 2022-23 in all competitions for Borussia Dortmund and he will be expected to score at least as many for Real Madrid next season.
Aside from Benzema’s goalscoring, one of the key aspects Madrid will miss was how he made himself the nucleus of their attack. Everything went through him even when he wasn’t involved in a move. He was the sun around which everything orbited. Vinícius knew how to play in relation to where Benzema was. Rodrygo too, and the midfield timed their runs based on what movements the French striker made. Their focal point is gone now, and Real Madrid must reinvent themselves without their talisman.
How long that adaptation takes and how well each player assumes their new role will go a long way to defining Real Madrid’s season.
Where Will Jude Bellingham Play?
In Spain, they say a player ‘tiene gol’, which literally translates as ‘he has goal’. It’s not quite like the way English speakers say ‘he’s got goals in him’ but rather something more innate. Like someone’s who’s tall. ‘Jude Bellingham has goal’.
He will be expected to score a lot of them next season too.
But where might he play? Well, Ancelotti has already answered this question for us.
“When I started out as a coach, I had a clear idea of how I wanted to play, and I didn’t adapt to my players. I had an experience at Parma where [Roberto] Baggio wanted to play as the number 10 and I didn’t change the system,” Ancelotti said. “He left for another team. And I was wrong. At Juventus, with [Zinedine] Zidane, I started to understand that it’s better to adapt to the players.”
That quote is remarkable for several reasons. The first is that it gives us a clear indication where Bellingham will play – number 10. But secondly, and most importantly, is the type of players Ancelotti is comparing Bellingham to.
Real Madrid have played a 4-3-3 forever but that will change next season.
Bellingham is a Baggio, a Zidane. He is the kind of player you change your system for and that includes forcing Vinícius to adapt. This is a team filled with exceptional talent, but Real Madrid are aware of the extraordinarily special talent they have on their hands in Bellingham. And with that comes great responsibility. He’ll play as a 10 but will contribute all over the field just as he has during three pre-season friendlies so far this summer.
Who’s Going to Give Vinícius a Breather?
Vinícius Júnior played 4,755 minutes last season. Only David de Gea and Bruno Fernandes played more across Europe’s top five leagues in all competitions. That was partly because of how important he is to the team but also because there was nobody on the bench to give him a break.
Real Madrid won the Arda Güler sweepstakes this summer and although he is just 18, he might play more than Eden Hazard did. It wouldn’t be hard.
The switch to a 4-4-2 diamond also means Vinícius’ replacement doesn’t necessarily have to be a left winger, of which there are none in the squad.
The second part of this question is how the new style will suit the Brazilian. Madrid have spent a lot of money on Bellingham and obviously see him as the kind of midfielder you can build a system around. He has shown his importance even if we have just been watching pre-season games and with Benzema gone, Bellingham becomes even more important.
That means Vinícius might have to adapt to a new system. How well does he do that? Only time will tell. But one thing’s for sure, if he keeps racking up minutes like he has since becoming a permanent fixture in Madrid colours, it won’t be long before we start to see the intensity that has become central to his game start to diminish.
What Is Carlo Ancelotti’s Best Midfield?
This question might be better formulated as ‘can you have too many world class midfielders?’.
There are three midfield positions up for grabs in the 4-4-2 assuming Bellingham starts. Toni Kroos, Luka Modric, Dani Ceballos, Aurélien Tchouaméni, Eduardo Camavinga and Fede Valverde are all vying for minutes. A large part of Zidane’s success with Real Madrid came from his ability to disperse minutes relatively evenly while keeping a core team intact and the players on the bench happy.
Florentino Perez has spent in excess of €250 million on Bellingham, Tchouaméni and Camavinga so you would expect those three to eventually become the core of this team.
But when? Kroos and Modric have signed one-year extensions to their current deals and might be happy to rest more than they once were, but they’ll only rest so much before growing restless. The pair are in the winter of their careers, but they still have plenty to offer and it will be hard to look at two of the best midfielders to ever play the game and not start them when fit.
Ancelotti will have to get the balance right in midfield next season. Many of the players mentioned are similar but also unique with their own strengths and weaknesses. With so many options to choose from, picking the right combination of midfielders in the biggest games will be crucial to their success next season.
Is Real Madrid’s Full-Back Situation Sustainable?
Real Madrid only have one full-time right-back in their squad in Dani Carvajal. They often plug Lucas Vázquez in there when necessary and Nacho has also played in that position too.
Carvajal is 31 and has put in a decades-worth of explosive running down the right-hand side. He needs a natural replacement. On the other side of the field, Fran García was brought back after an excellent year at Rayo Vallecano and Ferland Mendy is the other player vying for starts at left-back next season.
With David Alaba, Antonio Rüdiger, Éder Militão and Nacho to play centre-back, Real Madrid are well set in the middle of their defense, but the full-back situation could hurt them.
Camavinga played left-back last season mainly to act as defensive cover for Vinicius Jr. and to aid with build-up play as an extra midfielder. The new system that Ancelotti will play means Camavinga can still offer that support without having to play left-back. Throughout the pre-season, he has played left midfield in a 4-4-2 and it looks like he could be ready for a breakout season.
But with a narrow 4-4-2 diamond formation, the full-backs will be asked to get up and down the field to provide width while also making sure they are on hand to cover their defensive duties too.
Can Carvajal do that for an entire season without a natural replacement? Are we sure García (who has looked good in pre-season to his credit) or Mendy can do the same to a high enough level on the left?
It’s the one area of the field where Madrid might struggle next season.
You want to read more season previews? Click on the links below: