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Observations from 2016

A look back at some of the smaller stories of 2016

Real Madrid v Kashima Antlers- FIFA Club World Cup Final Photo by Matt Roberts/Getty Images

Saying good-bye to 2016 by remembering some of the less obvious storylines of the calendar year.

The Casemiro - Marcos Llorente debate

Get ready, 2017. ‘Casemiro vs Marcos’ will be the new ‘James vs Isco’, ‘Ronaldo vs Messi’, ‘Morata vs Benzema’, ‘MJ vs LeBron’, ‘KAT vs AD’, ‘Kiyan vs Di Stefano’, etc.

I’m getting a head start.

Not a mailbag or podcast goes by where I’m not asked to talk about this in some capacity. With each passing game Casemiro struggles and Llorente thrives in, this debate will wax hotter and hotter.

It’s not so black and white, to be sure - not yet anyway. Casemiro has a strange cult following in many circles of Real Madrid fandom, but even the most obscured Casemiro fans remain open to the idea of Llorente being the one to eventually replace him, presumably because he’s a home-grown talent - of the same mould of players that are generally loved across the board.

Labouring through matches where opponents try to suffocate you with a press, or swarm you specifically knowing you’re prone to error when space ceases to exist has been a trend with Casemiro. It happened against Real Sociedad, Celta Vigo, and Borussia Dortmund. We are not going to spend time talking about all the things Casemiro does well and doesn’t, because we’ve spent an entire calendar year doing so, but we can at least look at some relevant and up-to-date stats which few have laid eyes on in the past.

In La Liga, Casemiro and Marcos Llorente have an identical pass completion rate (87.1%). But break those numbers down further and the distinction becomes clear. Llorente’s sample size is much larger - 947 more minutes to be exact. He also attempts over 12 more passes per game, slings 3.2 more long balls, and makes .3 more key passes. That’s not to say Casemiro can’t achieve those numbers. Last season, the Brazilian had a pass completion rate of 87% - good for 21st in the league. But he also only attempted 44 passes per game - 33 less than Toni Kroos - which saw him ranked 47th in Spain. That’s low, for a starting midfielder for a top-two club. He may not have been required to pass often last season, but this season more is required of him now that opposing coaches have studied Casemiro’s break-out year enough to know that pressing him is a weapon they can use to disrupt Real Madrid’s build-up from the back.

If we’re asking who’s more prolific in their passing, more reliable with the ball at their feet, could link up better with Kroos and Modric, and who’s more sound both in his man-to-man defending and positioning without the ball, Llorente wins here. And just to think, he’s doing all of this with Alaves. Imagine what he could do with more talent and footballing IQ surrounding him.

Castilla need some patch work

It’s interesting to see the dominoes that fell after Castilla’s failure to qualify for Segunda. Mayoral, Mariano, Diego, and Marcos all outgrew the division and the team was gutted. All of that probably worked out for the best, as all four were due for the next chapter in their careers, but Castilla has looked tedious since.

Sergio Diaz - while still highly promising and lethal close to goal - has cooled off since his initial outburst of goals to start the season, and the team lineup looks so different week-to-week due to call ups, injuries, and international duty that rhythm has been hard to come by. To boot, Santiago Solari hasn’t shown anything in his coaching repertoire that would indicate he could graduate beyond his current level. The tactics are unclear, Odegaard is often isolated on the flanks, and the team is riddled with defensive lapses.

Solari will always go down as one of the unsung heroes of the initial galactico team. He’s a favourite within club circles and is well respected. It’s also tough to juggle an ever-changing young team. But he also seems out of his depth in grooming the youngsters properly. He’s close to Zidane - both on a personal and professional level, as Zizou often attends Castilla games and keeps tabs on what Solari is reporting - but I would love to see Guti promoted to Castilla at some point given the tremendous work he’s doing at the lower levels.

Odegaard will likely be loaned out before the window closes - or at least the club is actively trying to look for a fitting place for him - which means Castilla are going to find it difficult to qualify for the Segunda playoffs this season. In his absence, it’s rumoured Brazilian teenager Augusto Galvan could be snapped up - and we know less about him than we did about Sergio Diaz. It’s also unclear how well Enzo Zidane will step up and fill the void Odegaard leaves behind. While Enzo looks the natural next-in-line creative instigator and is coming off an impressive performance against Alabcete, he’s yet to channel his excess superfluousness on a consistent basis. What his father would like to see from him is a quicker release with the ball, and more decisiveness. Of the current (and broad) core of promising youngsters (which includes Febas, Diaz, Achraf, Vallejo, Diego Llorente, and Marcos Llorente), Enzo is the least likely to make it with the A-squad.

*Note, Tejero has not merited a spot on this list yet. His performance against Cultural Leonesa - playing alongside elite players - was misleading. He’s looked a step behind Achraf and even Quezada with Castilla this season.

The 4-4-1-1 is a weapon we should see more of

Zidane’s managerial tenure is scattered with underrated tactical performances, but the demolition at the Calderon was the least disputed of the bunch, and it came out of necessity. Had it been announced before the season started that Real Madrid would have to face Atleti away from home without Kroos and Casemiro - few would assume the team could tread water in such a situation, let alone go on to completely blitz Simeone’s men. Zidane masked a team without a defensive midfielder by packing the midfield - surrounding the two Croatian box-to-box stalwarts with wingers who could defend the flanks deep while slinging back on the counter. Bale ignited counter-attacks with his pace and Isco churned in his best performance in a Real Madrid shirt. Ronaldo spear-headed.

Seriously, just look at this shit.

Real Madrid defanged a wolf, then shoved its teeth straight back into its gums. It was one to remember.

Lucas Vazquez is a bad, bad man

If I had to pick my favourite low-key moment of 2016 it would be this moment right here.

Toni Kroos’ cross-field distribution

The two most aesthetically-pleasing passing motions in football are Luka Modric’s outside-of-the-boot pings and Toni Kroos’ cross-field switches. Watching Toni Kroos distribute the football at an elite rate is nothing new, but it was a joy to watch him switch the field of play in particular in 2016.

Last season - as well as this season - Kroos led the league in pass completion rate. He also led the league in attempted passes. 7.3 of his 75.8 passes were long balls - many of them conducive to switching the point of attack when defenders collapse onto one flank. He is a gift to football.

Jesus Vallejo can improve

Time to nitpick on some things that the beloved Jesus Vallejo can improve on.

The young defensive prodigy has time and footballing IQ on his side. He has a traditional, old-school feel to his game, can bring the ball up the field, and pass his way out of tight situations. Defensively, he looks comfortable on the left side of a three-man backline. Even when Frankfurt’s defense gets stretched - as was the case against Mainz in December - Vallejo can cope by sneaking in desperate tackles with impeccable timing.

Now to nitpick. Vallejo can improve on certain aspects of his game (who couldn’t, really), and it mostly comes down to his ability, physicality, and sheer will to beat his man to a cross. In what wasn’t an isolated incident, Vallejo was outmuscled to the ball against Wolfsburg on a set-piece. This one led to a goal conceded.

This is something that Vallejo could generally improve on - beating his man to a ball. But hey, again, just nitpicking on an otherwise tremendously exciting player who I hope continues his loan spell away to Frankfurt. This is a good fit for both parties, and I hope Real Madrid eventually give in to Frankfurt’s request to keep Vallejo for another season. Why tinker? Let him develop, and work out some kind of common ground with Pepe which sees the Portuguese defender return for a couple more years to act as some kind of band-aid until Vallejo is truly ready.

Nacho is special

It is beyond my realm of understanding that it ever crossed Real Madrid’s mind to jettison Nacho from the Bernabeu. If he doesn’t end his career as a lifer, something is wrong with the way we’re running things.

Nacho in some ways is the perfect player. He’s the utility dude who comes in when needed - no questions asked. He never complains or takes a night off. He’d rather fight for a spot as a fourth-string center back than be a starter on a less relevant team. With Real Madrid’s perpetual injuries and suspensions, he’s proven he’s even more special than what the depth chart initially labeled him as - the desperate understudy to three center backs who are a level above him. This season, Nacho’s played 740 minutes - on pace to at least match his mark of just north of 1500 from last season. Both marks will dwarf his minute totals from two seasons ago, and he’s already played more minutes in La Liga at the half-way(ish) mark this season than his entire 2014/2015 campaign.

And those minutes have been great. The drop-off from the starters to when Nacho plays is moot. He fills in with composure, is in-sync with his backline, reliable defensively, and isn’t a black-hole offensively like, let’s say, Alvaro Arbeloa was before him. And that’s what makes Nacho extra special - he can play across the back four with relative comfort and success, and is essentially the ‘next man up’ for the entire backline because of his versatility.

A player dedicated to the success of the squad who’s this good, works this diligently, and this selflessly should go more noticed.

One of my favourite low-key moments of Nacho in 2016 (obviously erring away from the discernible thunderbolt against Cultural Leonesa that James Rodriguez still hasn’t come to grips with judging by his reaction) is how easily he put Fernando Torres in his back pocket at the Vicente Calderon in November. We got so enamoured by the offensive lesson put on by Gareth Bale, Isco, and Cristiano Ronaldo that other players who didn’t contribute offensively - like Nacho and Lucas Vazquez - yet were so important on the defensive end completely flew under the radar.

Here he reads the pass masterfully, and snuffs out a through-ball mostly due to his positional sense. Atleti have no chance of breaking through here.

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