Analysis: Carlo Ancelotti might not always tell the truth, but he was being honest about Rodrygo Goes

From the Santiago Bernabeu

‘Managers in press conferences, we can’t always tell the truth’, Carlo Ancelotti admitted last season during a press conference. Pause, the smile begins on one side of his mouth and as spreads across the rest of his face as the chuckles and grins fill the room facing him. Affable, entertaining, for the most part jovial, Ancelotti’s humour is part of his good relations with the media, usually treating them to at least one of his wry quips per presser. The genuine impression you get is that most of the players regard him as their favourite uncle too. But when Ancelotti told the press ahead of their 2-0 win over Osasuna that Rodrygo Goes and Vinicius Junior had to play together, he was not simply placating the one seeking more game time.

It was easy enough to say that knowing that Karim Benzema was not playing, but against Liverpool three days later, Ancelotti stuck to his word, launching a three-pronged attack at Anfield. The effects well, they spoke for themselves. Perhaps Real Madrid’s most lethal performance of the season, Rodrygo’s gluteus injury broke up any possible continuity against Atletico Madrid on Saturday. At the weekend, Real Madrid thought they might have ceded the title to Barcelona, only for former Blaugrana Assistant Rubi to hand them a lifeline. Their issues in a rumbling Madrid derby forgotten for the most part.

Los Blancos drew 1-1 with Atletico Madrid, rescuing a point from a game that was slipping away, doing so in their usual fashion. As they sucked in the cold Madrid air and puffed up their chests for the classic Santiago Bernabeu siege, they once again found themselves missing the link which had held them back all game. In Rodrygo’s absence, it became evident why Ancelotti was so keen to work him into the side, rather than stick to the tried and tested formula of last season.

Despite the pattern of the game, Atleti’s attacks looked more threatening in the second half. Their banked defence marshalled Real Madrid with relative ease. Only broken by a set piece, Jan Oblak made saves but neither he nor his defence were forced into heroics. Vinicius led the attack throughout the game, but well-handled by Nahuel Molina after numerous attempts to pick the Simeone lock, even his edge was blunted in the final stages.

Last season Benzema won the Ballon d’Or not only for his goals, but for his game. His assists, his passing, his rhythm and timing with Vinicius, and countless baby-soft touches. Many a glowing editorial was constructed on the nine-and-a-half. Once a ten for Cristiano Ronaldo, now a nine for himself, Benzema was both for Real Madrid.

Yet in this curious season, where there are more questions than answers with the Frenchman, he has so far been reduced to ‘just’ a striker. Still top scorer in La Liga for Real Madrid, Benzema has 5 assists in 25 appearances this season, down to 1 every five from 1 every 3 last season. More than that, you can feel the hole where he was.

For Vinicius, Benzema is the fixed point, his partner in crime, and an axis around which the defence to orientate themselves too. Without the Frenchman dropping into midfield, Rodrygo was moving inside, sometimes in place of Benzema, at others behind him, to be that number ten. Agile and swift with his touches, he provides the numerous talented passers behind the frontline with an option between the lines. Most importantly, he has been providing a distraction for the defenders away from this season’s star of the show – Vinicius.

Like an inverse whac-a-mole, as soon as Ancelotti fills a gap and solves a problem, someone else goes missing. There is obviously a defensive trade off with Rodrygo there rather than Valverde, and it removes some of the Uruguayan’s exocet qualities too. That much was evident at Anfield too. Right now it’s a good deal for Ancelotti, because the alternative is that the glare of the defence focuses almost entirely on Vinicius.

Coming into the decisive stage of the season, Ancelotti will hope that Benzema can return to his old self, and Luka Modric can find more in his fibrous calves, so that he can revert to last season’s setup. Ahead of El Clasico though, Rodrygo’s fitness could cause quite the headache. The first edition saw a threadbare Barcelona defence ripped up in the opening minutes, while a gasping Real Madrid could not move through midfield in the second. A fitter Madrid and a better Barcelona defence will take to the field on Thursday – if Rodrygo does too, just look at the Madrid derby for the explanation.

Tags Carlo Ancelotti Karim Benzema Real Madrid Rodrygo Goes Vinicius Junior
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