A new-look midfield saw Real Madrid’s next generation given a chance to impress in Saturday night’s pre-season El Clasico in Texas, but Carlo Ancelotti will be left with mixed feelings after a result to forget.
Aurelien Tchouameni was fielded as a sole pivot in defensive midfield, with Federico Valverde to his right, Eduardo Camavinga to his left and Jude Bellingham as a No 10 as the Italian coach continued his experiment with a diamond shape in the middle of the park.
Given the importance of any meeting between Madrid and their closest rivals Barcelona, even in a friendly, many interpreted Ancelotti’s decision to leave 33-year-old Toni Kroos and 37-year-old Luka Modric on the bench as a sign of forthcoming change.
Madrid’s starting midfield had an average age of 22 — Tchouameni is 23, Valverde 25, Camavinga and Bellingham are 20 (and the average age of their starting XI was 25.7, compared to Barca’s 27.3). There was much excitement over this but the experiment did not work, nor could the late addition of the two veterans provide a correction.
“The result is the least important thing,” Ancelotti had said in the build-up to the match. After the 3-0 defeat he repeated that message, downplaying the significance of losing to last season’s La Liga champions while picking out the positives.
“We had chances and a lot of mobility,” he said. “It hurts, but I’ll keep the good things: we hit the post five times, something that had never happened to me. The bad thing is the result, but (it’s) better (that this happens) in pre-season.”
Perhaps more significantly, Ancelotti also preferred to downplay the idea that the roles of Kroos and Modric might be diminished over 2023-24.
“Will we see less of them this year? No. Today I wanted to see the youngsters in a match of maximum intensity and they delivered. I already know what Modric and Kroos can contribute,” he said.
Nonetheless, the noise around Kroos and Modric provided a reminder of how quickly football can move on. On Madrid’s previous pre-season tour, almost a year ago to the day (July 31), Ancelotti left a phrase for posterity when he described his midfield trio of Casemiro, Kroos and Modric as “the Bermuda Triangle, because (in their area) the ball disappears”.
Casemiro left for Manchester United a few weeks later, and while Modric and Kroos both extended their contracts by one year towards the end of last season — Madrid were open to offering Kroos a two-year deal — it is also true that club president Florentino Perez was keen for Ancelotti to offer more opportunities to younger midfielders like Camavinga and Tchaoumeni (the latter was signed to replace Casemiro).
Tchouameni shines against Manchester United – and the Real Madrid legend he replaced
On the outskirts of Dallas on Saturday, in front of an 82,026 crowd — a record for a football match at Arlington’s AT&T Stadium, and the largest attendance for a Clasico friendly in the United States — Modric was sent out to warm up as soon as the second half started, by which point Barca were already 1-0 up.
The Madrid fans close by reacted with a standing ovation and chanted his name. In the first half, one of the huge stadium screens had shown a fan holding up a banner dedicated to the Croatian that carried the message: “Don’t ever retire.”
Three minutes later, accompanying Modric on the touchline to warm up was Kroos, his team-mate since 2014. Shortly afterwards they were both introduced from the bench in a double substitution, with Valverde and Camavinga replaced in the 58th minute.
Madrid had actually gone from strength to strength since Ousmane Dembele’s early opening goal, but Ancelotti decided, in the 72nd minute, to revert to last season’s tried-and-tested 4-3-3 when introducing Joselu in place of fellow summer signing Bellingham, for whom the diamond shape in midfield has been conceived.
The change did not help Los Blancos find a way back into the game, as Barca youngster Fermin Lopez impressed from the bench with a spectacular goal and the assist for Ferran Torres’ late strike.
After wins against AC Milan and Manchester United, Madrid tasted a defeat made more bitter by the fact of it coming against Barca — who were also theoretically at an earlier stage in their summer preparations, having played one game fewer.
When the referee blew the final whistle, one image was particularly revealing. The first to head for the dressing room were Kroos, Tchouameni (who played the full match) and Ancelotti, in that order. Neither the old guard, nor the new blood, nor the man in charge of managing them had got the outcome they wanted.
But whether it’s with the veterans, with the youngsters or with a mixture of the two, there is plenty of time for Madrid to analyse and improve.
(Top photo: Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images)