After yet another Cristiano Ronaldo hat-trick led Real Madrid to victory for an 18th consecutive occasion on Saturday, CarloAncelotti wasn’t hesitant to say that the presence of his main marksman makes the club’s weekly task appreciably easier.
“Having Cristiano gives us a great advantage,” the Italian said in the wake of Los Blancos’ 3-0 victory over Celta Vigo, per Inside Spanish Football. “He is in incredible form, he is extraordinarily motivated and he’s at his physical peak.”
You certainly can’t argue with Ancelotti. The firepower discrepancy created by Ronaldo is staggering—the advantage is bordering on cosmic.
If football matches were the modern equivalent of medieval duels, Real Madrid are turning up with a bazooka while many of their opponents arrive with water pistols.
Such a feeling is only reinforced when you examine the numbers that surround this record-breaking run for the European champions: 18 wins, 67 goals, four Ronaldo hat-tricks, plus-58 goal difference and 15 battered opponents.
The onslaught, in every way, has been truly irresistible.
But it’s also only half of the story, for there are two figures that have been largely glossed over in this all-conquering streak: Just nine goals conceded and 10 clean sheets.
It’s impressive; indicative that this run hasn’t just been an exhibition of attacking perfection, but built on a two-way excellence for which the defence is due considerable credit—something that appeared unlikely in late August.
Indeed, it was in the immediate aftermath of the club’s dramatic 4-2 collapse to Real Sociedad when Ancelotti blasted his side’s defensive work and left the rest of us to ponder if this was going to be a season of repeated mistakes for Real Madrid.
“What needs to change is our attitude and concentration in these type of games,” the manager said sharply in San Sebastian on that extraordinary evening, per ESPN FC. “At 2-0 you must show concentration to see out the game.”
Rarely does one see Ancelotti so visibly incensed.
“We thought the game was over,” he continued. “We are hurting a lot, I am hurting a lot, as I do not like the team to play like that in the final hour. The biggest problem was that we did not put in place a good defensive system to control the two-goal advantage. The game changed a lot, we defended badly, missing balance above all.”
But there, in the heat of the moment, the manager also had one very clear message: “Something has to change, and it will change,” he added defiantly.
Eighteen consecutive victories in a three-month stretch have justified such a statement. And although they haven’t been the headliners, his defenders have played a large role in doing so.
Suddenly, after a horrific opening to the campaign, Real Madrid’s defence has helped the team to achieve the state of balance Ancelotti had once lamented the absence of. Equilibrium, a harmony if you like, has been struck.
What’s been most interesting to observe has been the dual improvement that’s taken place; there’s both individual and collective elements to Los Blancos’ ever-improving work at the back.
Anchoring the defence, Sergio Ramos and Pepe have developed something resembling a sense of serenity that has largely escaped the pair during their time in the Spanish capital. Working in a sweeper-aggressor style partnership, there’s a calm understanding now apparent between the two impulsive defenders—a dynamic that’s been maintained when Raphael Varane has stepped in for Pepe.
Flanking them, both Marcelo and Daniel Carvajal appear both more at ease in a positional sense and more willing to complement their attacking drive with the dirtier aspects of defending. For the Brazilian, his tackle and interception numbers are up from last season, while the Spaniard’s possessed showing in Real’s dominant El Clasico victory was a fine example of the magnitude of his improvement.
Tellingly, though, that all feels secondary to the collaborative gains made. Remember, this was a back four previously viewed as haphazard; now the term “defensive unit” feels far more appropriate.
Watch them closely, and you’ll see Pepe or Varane move centrally and the full-backs pull in as Ramos steps out to challenge an attack. Take your eye off Ronaldo and you’ll observe the way Carvajal holds his position when Marcelo flies forward and how the Brazilian does the same when the situation is reversed.
It’s the little things, too: the way they double-up on one side to quell a wide counter-attack, how they maintain their line when pushed back, how they press when the opportunity arrives and how they kick-start a move forward with ease.
In short, the understanding has quietly grown strong and is regularly visible. They now move together, compressing and expanding their shape fluidly like their forward counterparts.
“The secret is hard work, fighting spirit, togetherness and everyone showing desire,” Marcelo said after Saturday’s win, per the club’s official website.
Such words have rarely been associated with Real Madrid’s defence.
They are now.