These observations - where I look at Real Madrid’s history, its players on loan, Castilla, tactical tidbits, and other relevant thoughts - are now a regular weekly thing. All previous editions can be found here.
Marcos Llorente is a whiz
There is a part of me that would just like to press fast forward for another five years, just to see what kind of wizardry Marcos Llorente will be casting upon us.
Alaves dealt with all kinds of adversity on Sunday against Celta Vigo, but they were perhaps unlucky not to get a result. Despite losing 1-0 away at Balaidos, they held on remarkably well until the 89th minute with 10 men. When defender Zhouair Feddal was sent off just after half-time, I immediately shifted my attention to Marco Llorente to see how he would cope with the heavier defensive burden. He did fine, as did Alaves as a whole.
Generally, head coach Mauricio Pellegrino’s work flies under the radar. What he’s done with Alaves - who have gone from Segunda to having a top-5 defense in La Liga - is remarkable. The team is so organized and cohesive, that defensively, they remain compact and patient regardless of how much their opponents try to siphon them out of their shell.
Offensively, Llorente typically doesn’t have a huge role other than conservative distribution, along with the odd vertical dagger. Things get channeled mostly through Edgar and Camarasa on counter-attacks as Alaves try to sling back and get the ball to Deyverson; but Llorente’s role is still pivotal. He’s the man who wins possession, while occasionally running the counter himself like a one-man human bowling ball. There was a moment in Sunday’s match where he reminded me of Fernando Redondo - his slim, tall frame intercepting a pass, beating his man, and launching and attack from deep. It was glorious in every sense of the word.
These moments are not unique - they’re scattered throughout his shifts.
Celta ended up scoring in the 89th minute. Marcos Llorente couldn’t get to the ball in time to close down Radoja’s shot. Alaves’ defense - which looked so good all match - was spread thin at that moment. It happens, but the gist of it is this: Alaves are good, underrated even, and are outperforming everyone’s expectations defensively -- and Marcos Llorente is a huge part of that.
The Febas - Valverde duo
Castilla are a complete train-wreck this season. They are working their tails off in a confused scheme and probably won’t have enough talent to sail into playoff territory. The dominoes from last year’s failure to qualify for Segunda are clearly visible now. But put enough rosy goggles on and you’ll find something to cheer about, even in the post-Odegaard era. Campuzano has enjoyed a good scoring run of late, Tejero is starting to string in a few good shifts after starting a gear behind Achraf — and even Quezada -- and Enzo Zidane has improved in his decisiveness and efficiency with the ball, gutting the superfluousness from his game little-by-little.
Heck, if the team was more talented, they may just start blitzing teams on a consistent basis with the Febas - Valderde partnership in midfield which has been a handful for teams to deal with. The common trait with these two is their steady leaps over the course of the season. With Valverde, it’s more subtle; with Febas it’s completely dramatic and paradigm-shifting.
These two work well in unison. Valverde has taken a bigger role as the team’s lone defensive anchor while Febas pushes to press high. Though Castilla lost over the weekend, they opened up Real Union time and time again with Febas dribbling through multiple players and slinging through balls down the middle. With Tejero and Quezada pushing up the wings alongside Sergio Diaz and Enzo, Castilla spread the field and had multiple channels to attack from.
And it’s time we start discussing Febas in a higher light. I’m ready to be as excited for him as I am Marcos, Jesus, Martin, and Borja. I know that seems like pure crazy talk, but trust me — this kid is the real deal, he adds more box-to-box elements to his game everyday and is outrageously good. He will wreak havoc one day for a top club.
Can we stop measuring yesterday’s loss so black and white?
Seriously. The amount of psychologists that have popped up among the fan base is staggering. “It’s better to get the loss out of the way now rather than against Napoli”. Huh? The opposite view that this loss will hurt the team and set-off a spiral is also nonsensical. Short answer is this: We just don’t know how the team will react. It’s also not ideal losing an important game, even if it’s in the Sanchez Pizjuan, even if it’s for the first time in 25 seasons, and even if it’s without Bale, Isco, and James. This is an insanely good league. There is literally no room for slip ups. Look at it this way: Real Madrid has lost just once in 17 La Liga matches, yet, they’re just a hair ahead of Sevilla and Barcelona. That is astonishing. This league is so good that being flawless is barely enough.
Another narrative that needs to be gutted from people’s minds: That somehow this match away to Sevilla was the last hurdle. Sociedad, Celta, Villarreal, and Bilbao are all big-team slayers. Heck - even Valencia are bound to make Real Madrid distressed in that game-in-hand. We haven’t even talked about Sevilla, Barcelona, and Atletico at home yet.
The team will go deep in three taxing competitions, and the depth can only carry this team so far. The team needs its best players on the pitch - it’s once de gala - ready, fit, and available in the do-or-die matches. And guess what? It hasn’t happened yet, not once.
Let’s also rate Sunday’s performance in a new light, because it deserves more respect. The 3-5-2 worked remarkably well for about 80 minutes. It was a stable formation executed properly. The problem was not the experiment itself — which was pragmatic and reasonable — it was the lack of fresh legs, and a couple of horrendous defensive errors that buried the team in a stressful moment at the end.
This is out of character for me - but I’m throwing praise to Casemiro for the third straight match. There is no point to rehash what I said in my last column about his overnight improvement in positioning and composure on the ball. The sample size is still small, so the hesitation to jump the gun is real - but it’s encouraging.
Casemiro’s performance was riddled with these slick touches which saw him get out of cramped situation. Flicks, tight dribbling, and efficient distribution were all part of his new-found repertoire. The Brazilian has also seemingly eviscerated barbarous challenges — opting for levelheaded jockeying in order to dispossess his opponent instead.
I’m cautious, but encouraged.