This may or may not be a regular thing. With mailbags, podcasts, match coverage, and FB live videos - who knows just what is and isn’t regular anymore?
6 things on my mind
- Gareth Bale’s absence
Even if Real Madrid tide Zidane over with the Lucas / Isco band-aids until Gareth Bale comes back, this injury still presents us with a huge ‘what if’. Real Madrid of 2016/2017 copes with injuries. It’s just what the team does now. Like, it’s a thing. An everyday routine in an unforgiving world.
We rarely talk about the ‘once de gala’ anymore because we don’t believe it’s attainable. We’re also not sure what it is, entirely. Or at least, there’s not really a consensus on what it should be. There are contrasting views on the Casemiro / Kovacic, Morata / Benzema, and Varane / Pepe slots; and no one quite knows where Isco might fit when everyone is healthy, despite him playing his way into a starting role.
A time will come, presumably, when Real Madrid’s full-squad will be available. When that hour arriveth, Gareth Bale’s role is undisputed.
The Welshman has arrived - even if it took him a few years. After exploding onto the scene in his debut season, he went through a sophomore slump in his 2nd - raising questions about his technical ability in tight spaces and ability to cope in situations where opposing defenders double-up on the wings and take his space away. He’s improved tremendously in those situations now, and there’s little concern about playing him in matchups where defensive schemes snuff out space. Now he coasts, has diversified his mixed bag of blitzing runs, cannon-like slinging shots from 40 yards, leaping headers, whipped crosses from the flanks, and quick distribution out of a double-team (an area he used to struggle in); and has taken his game into a new realm - into a new conversation which sees him regularly conversed in the circles of top 3-7 players on the planet, and has arguably become the team’s most vital instigator in attack.
His understudies - Isco and Vazquez - have been phenomenal up until now in Bale’s absence, to be sure. Real Madrid have several players who are interchangeable between multiple positions, and both Lucas Vazquez and Isco have proved versatile enough to compensate for Bale’s defensive work on the flanks as well as some of his offensive output. But there’s frustration in that, regardless of how important the ‘next man up’ has been for Zidane this season. It’s one thing to have quality rotational players tiding you over to earn a result in the Camp Nou against a wounded Barcelona team, but it would be another to have a healthy Bale set Barca ablaze with his ability to morph a pinned midfield into attack within seconds. The latter steps on Luis Enrique’s throat and swells the La Liga gap to 9-points; while the former tides you over with a draw.
There’s a huge difference in having Gareth Bale and not having him. Dynamics become vastly different, and the dominoes of his absence are apparent.
2. Sergio Ramos is the most interesting man in the world
Poor Gerrard Pique. For all the praise he receives for his ability to play as a center forward, he always seems to get overshadowed by Sergio Ramos, who scores more goals than him across the board. More important ones, at that. Goals important enough to go down in history, over and over again.
It was hard to decipher, amid the pandemonium of Saturday’s goal in the Camp Nou, just what happened in real time. It was a chaotic moment which ended in jubilation. Moments after the match, when you step back and dissect the film, it’s quite shocking to see how Barca defended that set-piece. Spoiler: they didn’t. Lucas Vazquez pulled out the ‘irritate and get in Pique/Arda’s head’ card, and Sergio Ramos - the most dangerous player on the pitch - was the most neglected of all.
Lucas played a game of diversion, freeing up space for a cold-blooded assassin. Mascherano didn’t stand a chance, neither did Busquets, Turan, Pique, or anyone else in that entire backline. Strange. That set-piece may have been Barca’s season encapsulated - a moment to swing fate. Just neglected. Cules fuming.
It may not have mattered, one way or another, when you consider Sergio Ramos does what he wants, when he wants. Time is not linear for him, nor does it shrink his balls or warm his blood. That’s what makes him interesting. Science will learn a lot from his body composition one day.
3. The good, the bad, and the Casemiro
It’s not entirely clear which one fits the description best for Carlos Henrique Casemiro. He’s bad at some things and good at others. There is no ‘one size fits all’ with him. In moments when you need a goal he cripples you, and in moments when your backs are to the wall defensively, he works his tail off and puts his life on the line.
How less laborious Real Madrid’s 2nd half would have been with a more technically gifted midfielder, yet, how quickly the celebration from Ramos’ goal would’ve been short-lived without him.
Casemiro does things others don’t, and can’t do things others can. That’s what makes his entrance into the Clasico - after the team had just conceded a goal and after Iniesta came in to dictate the midfield (something Bozz and I talked about on this podcast we recorded last night) - so nonsensical. Just where was Real Madrid’s goal going to come from? Benzema was isolated, Ronaldo was reliant on support, Bale was out, and Isco - the most dangerous and biggest offensive instigator - was sacrificed.
The goal came, as we know, through the will of Sergio Ramos, but if this was a match for Casemiro at all, it was either from the beginning or after you need to defend a lead - not an hour into the match when you’ve lost control and looking for an already unlikely goal.
4. Varane has climbed his way out of ‘regression’
The bi-polar Real Madrid fans - the ones asking for Varane’s head at the turn of this season - will be relieved that he’s put together two elite performances against two elite competitors in two very hostile and difficult stadiums to play in. There were suggestions that Nacho - who’s been great also - would be better suited to take Varane’s place against Atletico as the Frenchman was playing through an unthinkable and abysmal funk. But things have worked out, and Varane has risen to the call.
Varane’s turned a corner. No doubt he had hit rock bottom just before the Madrid derby - showing almost no signs of his breakout performances which put him on the map in 2012 - but something clicked somewhere. Maybe it was the level of opposition, which Varane seems to invite, or maybe it was correlated with a formation change - a packed midfield which masked defensive deficiencies all over the park. Either way, Varane has returned, and that’s a relief for everyone.
5. Mateo Kovacic has been a God-send for everyone
Any concerns about Kovacic’s development stemming from last season’s set-back when Zidane took over seem all but forgotten now. Mateo Kovacic has been utterly brilliant this season. He’s stepped up amid the crisis in Real Madrid’s medical bay, has acted as a two-way presence who renders no blade of grass on the pitch untouched, and his understanding of defending channels and bringing the ball forward has looked elite all season.
He’s like a more frenzied Marco Veratti. Box-to-box in nature with a dose of adrenaline. He often looks on the fritz, and is the type of player you would go to war with - praying you won’t have to go to war against.
Against Barcelona - in what was in no way a unique example - Kovacic was everywhere.
This kid is going to be a star, and Real Madrid fans will bask in the Kovacic-Modric-Kroos sunshine for a few years. What a fun window to witness.
6. James Rodriguez has an uphill battle
It’s tough to see a way back for James Rodriguez in a Real Madrid uniform. It’s just not clear where his minutes are going to come from at this point. As we discussed on last night’s podcast, it’s not simply a matter of ‘his position being non-existent’. As talented as he is, he just doesn’t bring enough to the table to compete with Isco and Vazquez. He doesn’t link up with Marcelo to form a blitzing tandem like Isco does - nor does he understand how to defend the half-spaces in the midfield like Isco - and he can’t defend the flanks or act as a two-way traditional winger like Lucas.
Which, in theory, is fine, because that puts him in direct contention with Asensio as the Bale / Ronaldo back-up. But, he’s not winning that race either. It’s hard to pinpoint why. Zidane seems to prefer youth products - even if Asensio is not a Castilla product, he represents something of the sorts, being a young Spanish player Real Madrid loaned out - and James is caught in the middle.
To no fault of his own, James was signed as a surplus in a top-heavy team. He played well enough to earn his place regardless - manifesting a unique trait of hounding opponents in a high press and making surgical decisions with the ball in-and-around the penalty area. Early last season, under Benitez, he continued to impress before being brushed aside by Zidane.
Perhaps Asensio is trumping James in training - we don’t know. But the position James is in right now in Zidane’s depth chart is staggering. It’s an endless ladder to climb.