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.
Toni Kroos, the infallible robot
I said it in the first half of Real Madrid’s bounce-back win against Malaga — whatever happens, whatever the outcome of this slugfest, Toni Kroos is magnificent at football. With all the anguish surrounding the club right now — it is actually hypnagogic how much anguish fans feel after this last string of games following the end of the unbeaten run — you can cherry-pick some positive things.
What Toni Kroos did — and does — is the first ripe crimson cherry that’s visible to the naked eye. On Saturday, the German droid attempted 64 passes - missing the mark just four times. 36 of those were vertical, and five of them created a chance. He recovered the ball four times, didn’t commit a single foul, and dished out two assists from set-pieces.
He picked out cross-field passes with enough precision you’d assume someone preset the coordinates into his brain and then pressed launch. These are the moments when opposing wing-backs on the far side, sensing no immediate danger when the ball is 50 yards away, have to bolt into action - caught off guard to chase down the flank and close down the cross. There is always something magical about Toni Kroos long-ball switches - they cause a shifting defense to collapse. Defenders swing-and-sway with the ball, but will often be a step behind.
This is Toni’s bread-and-butter - he distributes in a way that picks you apart. But sometimes the scheme requires more from him. With Bale, James, Isco (was introduced eventually), and Asensio all out of the line-up, the attack often wilts. To compensate, Luka Modric has spent a lot of time high up the pitch on the right flank to act as a creative force, and Kroos does things like this, which is not really part of his job description, but he can do it anyway:
Kroos and Modric will do what Kroos and Modric do, regardless. They provided outlets all night - receiving the ball 102 times combined against Malaga. This beautiful sequence says it all:
It is actually unbearable to think Modric is injured again for just under a month.
Lucas Vazquez as a possible solution to the wing-back crisis
Well this is unbelievable, but, even amid a season where Real Madrid has gone through an unthinkable amount of injuries, the situation has finally hit rock bottom. How? How could it actually get worse for a team that’s lost Bale, Benzema, Ronaldo, Modric, Kroos, Ramos, Pepe, Casemiro, Marcelo, and Keylor Navas to prolonged injuries? Well, the answer: They’ve lost Bale, Modric, Marcelo and Pepe (again), while Carvajal - another one of the team’s most influential players and starting wing-backs - has also gotten the injury bug.
Even Zinedine Zidane - the master formation shuffler - is tired of it. At some point, regardless of how much depth and versatility you have, there is a line you cross that is just plain cruel. Zidane is going through it all, and given that, it’s impressive what he’s done. Now he has to really dig deep to find a way to compensate for the land mines ahead. He’s heading into a critical stretch in the Spanish and European Cup where the team is gutted in the most cold-blooded way possible.
Unearthing a plan this time around is much more difficult to do than in previous months. There are four wing-backs on this team — the two best are injured — and the other two aren’t match fit. Fabio Coentrao has blown away his own reputation of being absent and taken himself to whole other level of AWOL previously uncharted in human history. Danilo is yet to reach match fitness according to Zidane, and even if he’s there, there is a legitimate concern that he just can’t cut it in big games - particularly against Napoli who are so good at looting you from the flanks.
Of all the things Zidane has tried this season, my second favourite (after the 4-4-1-1 in the Calderon) was the 3-5-2 in Seville. The 3-5-2 is such a staunch formation defensively, and it’s a possible go-to scheme not only in tough away fixtures in the Champions League knockout rounds, but also when your team is shorted of wing-backs.
But it has its drawbacks too. It will hinder you offensively — not to the point of being paralyzed (Real Madrid had a better xG map than Sevilla in that loss), but enough to diminish your clear-cut chances and ease of going forward. This drawback is enough to pull the plug on such a formation heading into Balaidos in a game where you need to score twice, at the very least, just to give yourself a fighting chance to stay alive.
Playing with three defenders also requires wingers with multiple lungs, defensive work rate, proper cover, and the brains to pick-and-chose when to bomb forward. Marcelo and Bale are ideal for this role, but neither are available for Zidane to chose from. Even if Lucas Vazquez can rise to the call (more on this shortly) on the right, it requires someone to provide mirrored services on the left — a luxury Real Madrid just don’t have right now. On Sunday night’s podcast, Gabe suggested Marco Asensio, which is an intriguing solution. But Asensio has never played there before, nor is he known for being a patient box-to-box presence on the flank. It would be an entirely new experiment (which hasn’t stopped Zidane before, by the way).
Count your blessings for Nacho. He is the constant presence that will play anywhere you ask him to and do it tremendously well. But even he only covers one position at a time, and in a 3-5-2, would take up one of the roles in the back-three.
The stars align (or shatter into each other and form a black hole, depending on how you look at it) for a four-man backline with Nacho on the left, and either Danilo or Lucas on the right. Danilo hasn’t been perfectly convincing yet. Neither has Lucas, in his entirely minimal sample size of playing there — but he has shown some promising things in his tool box that point to possibilities.
Lucas Vazquez might prove to be a nice bandaid as a right-back. He provides cutting runs that Carvajal typically makes which Modric can feed into; he can cross, and has the vision to sling in precise daggers from deep.
Vazquez will give you an extra umph offensively, and his defensive work rate is nearly unparalleled. He still needs to gut some winger tendencies from his mindset in order to pull off the wing-back slot more efficiently, though. On the goal conceded, he thinks and acts like a winger.
Rather than tracking the man, Vazquez cuts the pass - something you can get away with when you have a wing-back covering behind you. Varane is there once Vazquez is lobbed to help cover, but Lucas then doubles-up on the wrong side when he should be marking the inside to cut off the impending run. Everything Vazquez does here is well-intentioned and diligent, but he’s thinking like a winger rather than a wing-back who knows he’s the team’s last plug on the wings.
But hey, Danilo has had worse gambles than the one above, and slotting Vazquez as a stopgap right-back is an idea that could very well work.
I’ve shortchanged you with just two observations in today’s column — I know that. But fear not, Sam and I will be recording a Castilla pod on Tuesday to have a chat about Marcos Llorente, Odegaard’s promising start in Heerenveen, Castilla’s meltdown at the end of Saturday’s game, and more. Keep your eyes locked.