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Real Madrid’s ‘Pintus Valley’: The theories, facts and fiction behind January ‘slumps’

It is a mysterious concept used by some Real Madrid fans to explain the slump their team often suffers in January and one that gained new attention after defeat against neighbours Atletico in the Copa del Rey round of 16 last week.

Known as the ‘Valle Pintusiano’ (Pintus Valley), after the team’s head of physical preparation, Antonio Pintus (pictured above), it first popped up on social media in 2021. The theory goes that Madrid’s physical levels drop off during this midway-point month due to the Italian’s intense training methods, which later help provide a boost over their rivals for titles at the business end of each season.

Last Thursday’s 4-2 away loss against Atletico, after 30 minutes of extra time, was only Madrid’s second defeat in their 30 matches this season (they were beaten 3-1 by the same opponents at the same ground in La Liga in September), but Carlo Ancelotti’s players looked exhausted at the full-time whistle that night and then were again made to suffer in a controversial 3-2 comeback win at home against Almeria three days later.

“I was angry with myself,” Ancelotti said of his team trailing Almeria, who are bottom of the La Liga table and still winless this season, 2-0 at half-time in the Bernabeu. “We coaches need to evaluate players’ tiredness and we didn’t do that well.


Madrid’s players looked exhausted in defeat to Atletico (Burak Akbulut/Anadolu via Getty Images)

“The only thing we could do was to put on fresh players to change the energy. I didn’t take into account the game against Atletico Madrid and I made a mistake.”

Tiredness might well be expected after a gruelling, 120-minute midweek contest against your city rivals, but that Atletico game was not the first — or most damaging — time Madrid have been dumped out of the Copa, Spain’s version of the FA Cup, at this time of year recently. In January 2017, they were eliminated from the quarter-finals by Celta Vigo, the following year they fell at the same stage against Leganes, and in 2022 they were beaten in the last eight by Athletic Bilbao, three days into February.

All of those defeats took place with the influential Pintus as head of physical preparation and in each of those three years, they went on to win the Champions League — adding further fuel to speculation that the supposed mid-winter slump is planned by the physical coach himself, with a view to his squad being at their peak for the closing stages of the season in May and June.


Who is Antonio Pintus?

By Mario Cortegana

Antonio Pintus is one of the most important figures on head coach Carlo Ancelotti’s Madrid staff, along with the latter’s son and assistant Davide and Luis Llopis, the goalkeeping coach.

Pintus is held in the highest regard at Madrid, where he first arrived from Lyon in 2016, appointed by then-coach Zinedine Zidane. He left for Inter Milan in 2019 but returned to the Bernabeu two years later when Ancelotti was reappointed for a second spell in charge.

Technology and data analysis play a very important role in his methods and players love him — last summer, new signing Jude Bellingham said he “loves to kill us”, but added: “he’s a great guy.”

Pintus obtained a university diploma as a physical education teacher in the Italian city of Turin in 1986 and remains a keen runner, finishing 24th in the World Masters half-marathon in 2013. Last April, he completed the Madrid Marathon in three hours, 48 minutes and 31 seconds — Ancelotti asked him to run it just a day earlier as an example to the players.


Coaching-staff sources at Madrid — who, like all those cited in this article, asked to remain anonymous to protect relationships — recognise there has been something of a January drop-off in recent years, but say no such pattern is predicted in planning for a season. They also point out that Dani Carvajal scored Madrid’s winner against Almeria in the ninth minute of second-half stoppage time on Sunday.

“It’s clear that some players were tired — they’re human,” a source said. “But in the end, the team performs very well and you see the physical side of things because we always score at the end of matches.”

La Liga makes very little physical data available, but January has invariably been a difficult month for Madrid while Pintus has been at the club (in two spells from 2016-19 and since 2021). In their five completed seasons with him in charge of physical training, Madrid have won 23 of their 40 games in January — a winning percentage of 57.5, down from 63.9 per cent for the whole of 2022-23 and 66.1 per cent for 2021-22.

Real Madrid’s record under Pintus in January

Year

  

Wins

  

Draws

  

Losses

  

Goals for

  

Goals against

  

2017

4

2

2

20

10

2018

4

2

2

20

9

2019

6

1

2

20

11

2022

5

1

1

16

8

2023

4

2

2

12

9

2024

5

0

1

18

11

While the players looked tired in those matches against Atletico and Almeria, one coaching staff source says Madrid outperformed the latter in “every physical metric” (including the number of accelerations and sprints) by “more than five per cent” — although they preferred not to give The Athletic further specific details, citing concerns over confidentiality. They thought the players’ fatigue in that game was in their heads not the rest of their bodies. “It was a mental tiredness that means that players fail in passages, but physically we were better than them,” the source said.

Even though he is well-loved by players, Pintus’ methods are notoriously tough.

One of his former colleagues says he “does nothing with the ball”, while he makes plenty of use of technology. Madrid players wore CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) masks in pre-season to measure their physical capacity while the coach even visited NASA during the most recent international break to explain his techniques and learn from the U.S. space agency’s work with astronauts.


Pintus in action with Madrid’s players (David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images).

Pintus had to adapt to a shorter-than-usual pre-season before this campaign began. While he would have preferred two weeks of intense preparation, Madrid had only one week at their Valdebebas training ground, with some players still on holiday following June’s international matches, before the squad travelled to the United States for a four-game tour that took them from California on the west coast all the way to Florida on the other side of the country.

“That opened Pintus’ eyes to prepare a much more elaborate and fine-tuned plan than in previous years,” a club source says.

Another coaching-staff source suggests players burn out quicker if they have gone through an extended summer programme under Pintus and plays down the importance of the so-called January ‘valley’. “When the pre-season is longer, Pintus’ teams don’t perform as well in January,” they say. “Every team has problems throughout the season, but at other times.”

Pintus’ plan is adapted to each season and the previous one proved to be among the most difficult of his career given the added pressures on players because of the mid-season World Cup in Qatar in the November and December. Eduardo Camavinga, Rodrygo and Luka Modric all played 66 games for club and country in 2022-23 — the most of anyone at Madrid.

Despite players not competing in the World Cup, Club World Cup or UEFA Super Cup this season, this is the first time this month in which Madrid have not had a midweek game (the Copa del Rey quarter-finals are taking place this week). A former member of Madrid’s coaching staff suggests this schedule — rather than Pintus’ methods — is to blame for the physical and mental slump in January.

“Every three days you have a match and the players need more preventative and recovery work than any other aspect,” they say. “The physios and the medical services took care of that more (than us).”

There have also been multiple injuries throughout the season. Thibaut Courtois, Eder Militao and David Alaba have all suffered anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tears in their knees, summer signing Arda Guler only made his debut this month because of persistent problems, and there have been various issues for Vinicius Junior, Brahim Diaz and Bellingham among others.

“These serious injuries were inexplicable and certainly not due to (physical) preparation,” club sources have said of the three ACL injuries, which are not commonly associated with intense training.

The Pintus Valley, then, remains a mysterious place.

But how Madrid continue to respond to last week’s setback against Atletico will determine whether this January goes the same way as previous ones during his time at the club.

(Top photo: Denis Doyle/Getty Images)



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