Steve McClaren, that fabled footballing ideologue, once said: “In football, two days is a long time and a week is a very long time.”
One can only imagine what he would have made of the fortnight Real Madrid have scaled; a very, very long time made all the longer by the season-defining calibre of opponents hurled their way.
Real’s 2-0 triumph over Atletico Madrid in Sunday night’s derby served as the victorious climax to a series of five games, and five wins, against Sevilla, Athletic Club, Real Sociedad, Inter and now their city rivals.
Madrid’s unblemished stretch extended their winning run to ten games across all competitions, qualifying top of their Champions League group and pulling eight points clear at La Liga’s summit. The last time Los Blancos crept into double digits for consecutive victories was when they closed out the lockdown La Liga title in the empty-stadium summer of 2020.
While Carlo Ancelotti’s side are some way from claiming the Italian’s first Spanish title – which would complete his set across Europe’s top five leagues – victory over the reigning champions was the latest step in a galloping stride closer to the trophy.
Madrid cantered a whopping 13 points ahead of Atletico with Ancelotti’s first ever derby win in La Liga, yet Sevilla were and remain Los Blancos’ closest rivals heading into the weekend. Eight points back but with a game in hand, the Andalusians were the first foe in Madrid’s brutal sequence at the end of November.
It took a Vinicius Junior thunderbolt three minutes from time to overhaul the deficit Rafa Mir’s early opener inflicted. Madrid’s blossoming prodigy has obliterated expectations with a scoring glut this term but turned provider on Sunday.
Delivering the final pass to a pair of blistering attacking blurs, Karim Benzema and then Marco Asensio derailed the bright starts Atletico made to each half. Both goals, particularly Benzema’s sumptuous volley, were crisply-taken finishes on a night Madrid showed the ultra-clinical edge that has defined their campaign.
Madrid may create the best quality (and highest quantity) of chances in Spain’s top flight, but no side in La Liga has outperformed their expected goals (xG) by a wider margin than Los Blancos this season (per UnderStat). Due in part to the otherworldly finishing Benzema trotted out on the weekend, Madrid have scored 39 goals from 31.1 xG – netting almost eight more than the average team given the opportunities they’ve carved open.
Whether this finishing hot steak can be sustained for the entire campaign remains to be seen, but Madrid have often required an extra helping of goals given their propensity to cede chances of their own.
In Madrid’s winning sequence they’ve faced three of La Liga’s current top five and the reigning Italian champions, but mid-table scrappers Athletic Club can feel most hard done by to emerge defeated. In the final half hour alone the visitors squandered four gaping sights of goal.
Madrid’s change to the 4-3-3 system Zinedine Zidane honed in that 2020 title win has coincided with a remarkably improved defensive record – Sunday night’s shutout was the team’s fourth consecutive clean sheet. Although this uptick isn’t reflected by their underlying numbers.
Before the October international break Real Madrid were shipping chances worth an average of 1.1 non-penalty expected goals per game. In the nine league games since, that rate has actually marginally increased to 1.2 xG conceded (per UnderStat).
This discrepancy between expected and actual goals conceded is thanks partially to a helpful dollop of good fortune, but also owes to the reliable – if unspectacular – performances of Thibaut Courtois between the posts. The former Atletico man was increasingly called into action as Sunday’s derby wore on, denying Joao Felix from close range with the bridge of his nose – admittedly when the game was already won.
Madrid rank a lowly 11th for non-penalty xG conceded in Spain’s top flight, shipping chances worthy of a mid-table side. Ancelotti veered away from the high press he tried to introduce in the season’s opening months in favour of a compact, counterattack-based game.
However, Madrid are still susceptible to sides that can coordinate an aggressive high press – as Atletico tried to do from the first whistle, with Angel Correa fouling Toni Kroos barely ten seconds from kick off. However, deflated by the opening goal, the snap of Atletico’s tackles subsided, giving this ludicrously talented Madrid squad the time and space to play through the press on the way to their third consecutive 2-0 victory.
Real Sociedad and Inter were both undone by Madrid’s combination of clinical finishing and midfield poise the same week Atletico fell foul to a familiar foe that is threatening to streak clear at the table’s summit.
“If La Liga finished today, it’d be all over, but it isn’t over and we’ve got another six or seven months ahead of us,” Ancelotti warned before the derby (as quoted by the club’s official website). Before concluding with a line as relevant then as it is now: “I don’t know what’ll happen. We’re interested in the future and not the past, where we’ve performed well.”