Carlo Ancelotti has a difficult problem with Vinícius Júnior, and it's not the reason the Real Madrid coach gave his team's most brilliant footballer a harsh word after Saturday's 3-1 win at Almeria. Nor is it Vinicius' attitude and behaviour toward referees, his fitness, his hunger for victory, or the disgusting behaviour toward him by opponents and rival fans.
No, it's that Ancelotti has designed a system to cope with the loss of Karim Benzema and to draw the best out of his plentiful midfield resources, though it absolutely does not benefit the prodigiously skilled, lightning-fast 23-year-old.
All playing systems used by powerful, elite football teams are hard to encapsulate in a few short phrases, but roughly speaking, Madrid are playing with two strikers right now, Vinicius and Rodrygo. And then, according to your taste, you can either say that 20-year-old Jude Bellingham (three goals and an assist in two matches) is performing the "False No. 9" role, or is at the tip of a four-man midfield diamond.
The key thing to accept is that all such systems are fluid. Some player movement is highly rehearsed and inter-linked; other decisions, like little sprints or changes of territory occupied, are instinctive. This is what you get when you accumulate several world-class footballers in the same XI.
The stark truth about most of Madrid's friendly matches this summer in Los Angeles, Houston, Dallas and Orlando, plus their LaLiga wins over Athletic Club and Almeria, is that Vinicius has looked less effective, less comfortable and less of a threat playing centrally. When he's on the left wing, he's almost always (at first) marked by one man: the rival right-back. Since Ancelotti made that flank Vinicius' permanent stomping ground (compared to Zidane, who often misused him on the right), he was on the ball far more often than he has been in his past two league matches.
When Vinicius is playing on the touchline, he'll often receive the ball and turn in much more space -- thus picking up speed, committing defenders to decisions they don't want to have to make and where they're often on the back foot -- turning, or are facing him when he's hitting top speed.
The comparison with the type of possession Vinicius receives when he's paired with Rodrygo is negative in many ways. He's often marked by two centre-halves. He's often receiving the ball in tight spaces with his back to goal; it's rarer now that Vinicius gets on the ball, able to square up to defenders and meet them at pace with the ball at his feet.
The quality of possession he receives is usually lower than when he's on the wing, too, though there are clear positives for the team in this system.
Bellingham, Madrid's young English phenomenon, as impressive a man as he is footballer and just beginning to hint at the massive impact he's going to have on LaLiga and the Champions League, has a knack for "arriving" in goal-threat spaces. It was illustrated perfectly by the brilliance of his turn and sprint into the box, which was met by an equally superb Toni Kroos cross, for Madrid's second goal on Saturday.
The fact that Bellingham has already scored three times and looked like adding more, in just two away matches, underlines with clarity that the core idea behind the new system isn't flawed neither for the team nor for their expensive new English recruit. What it is doing is reducing Vinicius' impact, threat and involvement, and while it might be a short-term thing, it's a clear-cut dilemma -- one that the Brazilian player inadvertently added to during the win at Almeria.
Vinicius' absolutely beautiful goal, perhaps already the best strike of technical quality across any goal scored in LaLiga's first two matchdays, came when he received the ball from Bellingham in a centre-forward position, controlled it with the toe of his right boot and lofted a delightful chip/shot over goalkeeper Luís Maximiano and into the top-right corner of Almeria's net.
If you're Ancelotti and are happy with the overall system benefits, while nevertheless acknowledging Vinicius' lack of comfort in his new role, why wouldn't you stubbornly tell him something to the effect of "I don't care that this is tough going. Stick at it, son: you might not be enjoying it, but that goal is proof of what you can do!" What the Italian manager actually did was, in full view of the cameras, give his junior superstar a "bronca" -- Spanish for a good old telling off.
Another part of the way that the system has been subtly altered is in the way Fran García, Madrid's new left-back, is given huge license by Ancelotti to attack and overlap. Given that Vinicius is nominally a central striker in this 4-4-2/4-3-1-2 system, he can't afford to play with the mentality of a left winger when Garcia has already rampaged high up the pitch into that space.
If Vinicius goes over to that area of play, wide on the left, and tries something extravagant but then loses possession, that means two Madrid players could be left behind if the opposition are quick, accurate and ruthless. It's a talent that, to be fair, Almeria showed quickly when going 1-0 up after three minutes.
Ancelotti, halfway through the first half, called the explosive and headstrong player over to tick him off. He warned Vinicius to be much more careful about when he risked losing possession if Garcia, still young and still completely new to Real Madrid, given that he was only re-signed this summer, was committed high up the pitch. "Don't go on solo runs all the time, try and use link-play high up the pitch!" the cameras caught Ancelotti demanding.
Vinicius argued back -- not provocatively, but with enough gusto to be rebuked by his boss. Madrid's daily training ground work benefits from some democratic ideas, but match day is an autocracy. Ancelotti rules, and rules absolutely.
After the 3-1 win, the 64-year-old manager explained what had happened.
"I was moaning about when Vini lost the ball unnecessarily," Ancelotti said. "He answered back, and I repeated that he shouldn't have lost possession. In no way do I want to restrict that genius he's got inside him -- sometimes he's got to take risks. But in that moment, I was a bit angry. Other times, he thrills me with his moves. Overall, that happens much more often than when he annoys me."
I repeat. The problem isn't that minor back-and-forth between coach and star player in a stressful on-pitch moment. It's more the fact that the more frustrated Vinicius is, the more his supply of possession decreases (because of his new position), and therefore the more he'll be inclined to take risks, trying to produce huge, inspirational, against-the-odds moments, whenever he does get the ball.
That would represent a step backward instead of the clever, mature, percentage play he has shown over the past two seasons, while carefully tutored by Casemiro, Luka Modric and Benzema, with only Modric still at the club.
Even though Rodrygo and Vinicius are huge friends and can play intricate "five-a-side" football inside tight penalty-box spaces, the former doesn't help this emerging problem. Rodrygo is not a typical centre-forward by any means. His movements are instinctive, often produced quite a distance from Vinicius, and he's not the guy who'll usually receive the ball to feet, hold off a centre-back and then flick possession on for Vinicius to chase on the run.
Rodrygo is extremely talented, versatile and hard working, but he makes for an imperfect partner to Vinicius when they are twin strikers.
Guti, who played 547 matches (and won 15 trophies) in attacking midfield for Madrid, takes this view. "Bellingham's arrival and Benzema's departure made it easier for Ancelotti to switch to a 4-4-2," he said. "It's true that you lose Vinicius a bit when you put him closer to the penalty area, but I think he'll get used to it."
Madrid had 97 goals and assists from Benzema in the past two seasons alone that they need to replace. There will be times when Joselu will play centre-forward in a 4-3-3 with Vinicius wide on the left.
At Flamengo, the mercurial genius played as a second striker in a counter-attack style, meaning he does have previous experience when it comes to this system. Yet during his worst times at Madrid, the problems were far bigger and far more fundamental.
Back then, Vinicius assimilated his team's needs, went through a tough, high-profile period of learning and developed into one of the best, most dangerous players in the world. Perhaps this is just Stage 2 in the process, but against a background of the massive abuse he suffered last season and the perpetual spotlight on Madrid's tempestuous, brilliant young winger, the last thing he -- or Los Blancos -- really needed was another problem to work through.