At the end of Real Madrid’s pre-season match against Juventus on Wednesday night, there were wild scenes at Orlando’s Camping World Stadium.
Madrid had lost an entertaining game 3-1 and the referee had just blown his final whistle when around 30 fans streamed onto the pitch, dodging security workers to try to get closer to their idols.
It was the kind of reception Real came to expect during a two-week pre-season tour in the United States, with Los Angeles, Houston, Dallas and finally Orlando making head coach Carlo Ancelotti and his players feel at home. For a club who have spent years seeking to open new markets on U.S. soil, it is a good sign.
On the pitch, however, Madrid experienced mixed fortunes.
They started the tour with two victories, coming from two goals down to beat AC Milan 3-2 and impressing in a 2-0 win over Manchester United, but ended with two defeats. One of those was a 3-0 thrashing by El Clasico rivals and reigning La Liga champions Barcelona which showed them work is left to be done ahead of the new season’s kick-off next weekend.
But while those losses may have provoked doubts from outside the camp, from within the trip is largely being seen as successful.
Here’s what The Athletic noticed during Madrid’s two weeks in America…
No Mbappe… or Florentino Perez
While Madrid themselves may tire of the subject, it was impossible to escape talk about Kylian Mbappe’s future on this tour.
The trip began with rumours and reports suggesting they were close to signing the Paris Saint-Germain forward they have long coveted. On their first day training at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), Ancelotti spoke to the media as part of his obligations for the Soccer Champions Tour and The Athletic asked him about the France captain. “I have never spoken about players who are not at Real Madrid,” was the Italian’s firm response.
Ancelotti dodged a host of other questions about Mbappe and the need for another striker as the tour progressed. Madrid still see difficulties in trying to sign the 24-year-old this summer, although they are monitoring the situation and do not rule out circumstances becoming more favourable as the September 1 transfer deadline approaches. That is also the message that has been conveyed recently to Ancelotti by his superiors.
Kylian Mbappe and Real Madrid: A pursuit 10 years in the making
Madrid executives were also present in the U.S. and followed the training sessions closely. The highest-ranking person on the trip was chief executive Jose Angel Sanchez, who always leads negotiations with potential new signings. Juni Calafat, the chief scout, was seen on a number of occasions, along with Bernabeu legends such as Emilio Butragueno, now their director of institutional relations, and Roberto Carlos, who is a club ambassador. Bernd Reichart, CEO of A22 Sports Management, the company that promotes the European Super League plan, was spotted at training in Los Angeles and even watched the match there against Milan sitting in Madrid’s box.
Superleague CEO Bernd Reichart is here.
— Mario Cortegana (@MarioCortegana) July 25, 2023
But club president Florentino Perez was nowhere to be seen. He was scheduled to arrive in Dallas, with the rest of the team, last Thursday (July 27) but never showed up. The 76-year-old has always been a fixture on these occasions in the past and has previously organised a dinner with journalists during Madrid’s pre-season trips overseas — although that practice came to an end last summer during their first tour since the Covid-19 pandemic.
Una gira con JAS y Juni Calafat… y sin Florentino Pérez.
— Mario Cortegana (@MarioCortegana) August 3, 2023
There was, then, no contact between the board and journalists and they gave no interviews to Spanish media.
It was the opposite of what has been seen on Barcelona’s own U.S. tour but reporters were given less access to training in the Catalan club’s case.
Davide Ancelotti takes centre stage and Llopis’ tough love
At Valdebebas, Madrid’s training ground back home, the club only allow their pre-match training sessions to be viewed by journalists for 15 minutes, and even then it’s from a distance. But it was very different in the U.S., where the press were given privileged access and were able to witness a few telling moments.
Carlo Ancelotti usually stays in the background during training. He plans the sessions but then delegates the running of them to others and limits his involvement to a few comments or a particular gesture of affection for a player.
It is his assistant, and son, Davide, who really holds the keys when Madrid are training. Having obtained his UEFA Pro Licence for coaching the week the tour began, the 34-year-old could be seen giving players tactical advice, putting pressure on them, demanding more intensity and congratulating them.
Davide Ancelotti to continue working under Carlo despite interest
Francesco Mauri, another assistant, has also grown in importance. He was one of two specialists who worked one-on-one with Vinicius Junior on one of the first days of training at UCLA when the rest of the team were on the other side of the pitch, helping the Brazilian forward with his finishing and penalty kicks.
Elsewhere, goalkeepers coach Lluis Llopis rarely gives his charges a rest. One notable incident was captured on camera during this trip as Llopis berated reserve ’keeper Andriy Lunin, with the pair making up in the next session.
After Sunday’s defeat by Juventus in Florida, The Athletic encountered a member of the coaching staff by chance, who asked to remain anonymous to protect their position.
He said it was normal to have experienced some bad results and seen some mistakes from players on the tour, particularly given the change of system — Ancelotti has trialled a 4-4-2 diamond formation, using new signing Jude Bellingham at the tip of midfield. That coach felt Madrid are playing a more daring style which is bound to cause mismatches and firmly maintained the trip’s last two results against Barcelona and Juventus were misleading.
Everybody loves Bellingham
Unsurprisingly, all eyes were on Bellingham after his move from Borussia Dortmund. The England midfielder cost Madrid €103million (£88.8m; $112.8m), plus an extra 30 per cent in variables which could mean he becomes the most expensive signing in the club’s history.
The 20-year-old had already made a great first impression at Valdebebas before Madrid flew out and he confirmed that with his impressive demeanour in training and matches once they got to the U.S. — including the fine lobbed finish for the opening goal against Manchester United last Wednesday at the home of the NFL’s Houston Texans.
Bellingham has Ancelotti’s full backing, with the coach acknowledging in that first press conference in Los Angeles that he is building a team around the Englishman. This new 4-4-2 system is essentially designed to get the best out of Bellingham, who would play as the No 10 in that formation.
Real Madrid’s new system still needs work – but Bellingham is impressing already
Ancelotti will use that setup in the opening La Liga match of the season away to Athletic Bilbao next Saturday, but he has not ruled out reverting to his usual 4-3-3 system. That would mean Bellingham returning to his spot in central midfield, but either way, he will play a key role.
Bellingham started all four games on the tour and also stood out for his camaraderie. He has joked around with reporters in Spanish, congratulated his new team-mates when they do something well and has enjoyed greeting Madrid fans.
– How would you describe your goal… in Spanish?
— Mario Cortegana (@MarioCortegana) July 27, 2023
Guler’s setback after bright start
The low point of Madrid’s trip was the news of summer signing Arda Guler’s injury after such encouraging first signs from the former Fenerbahce midfielder. The 18-year-old had impressed everyone in his brief time at Valdebebas after his move from Turkey, but the fans in the U.S. didn’t get to see him make his Madrid debut.
The third day at UCLA was the last day Guler trained with the group. The club then reported privately that he had merely sustained an ‘overload’, although a few days later The Athletic was able to find out he had in fact suffered a knee problem.
Guler was seen working with the club’s specialists and talking to head coach Ancelotti and Dr Niko Mihic, Madrid’s head of medical services. Finally, Madrid issued a medical statement explaining he was facing a spell on the sidelines and confirming he would return to the Spanish capital rather than stay on the tour.
The Athletic reported the Turkey international would undergo a platelet-rich plasma (PRP) treatment, with surgery a possibility. While behind the scenes the club suggested there would be no operation, Ancelotti confirmed that could be the outcome in his press conference following the Juventus game — but played down concerns about the injury.
“It is not a serious problem,” Ancelotti said. “We are assessing whether to operate or not. At most, I think it will be a month off. He is an alien.”
The first part of Guler’s treatment has gone well. If he continues without pain in the week, surgery will be ruled out and he could start to think about rejoining training.
Arda Guler has completed the first part of his treatment and feels very good.
If he continues like this for the next five-six days, surgery will be ruled out.@TheAthleticFC https://t.co/etdPRO69eq
— Mario Cortegana (@MarioCortegana) August 2, 2023
(Top photos: Getty Images)