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.
It’s column time — a short window in the week where there’s just enough time in-between matches to squeeze in some discussion about the deeper details, without having to worry about match previews, recaps, or any other news. Let’s do it:
Mobile cyborg Kroos
Toni Kroos took a dip in form this season — slipping the most away at Wembley when Real Madrid were overrun by a high-octane Tottenham scheme which overwhelmed them with waves of attacks against outnumbered, back-peddling defenders. But zoom out and you’ll see Toni Kroos is still very much at a peak level, and if the team ever kicks into full gear, he’ll be an instrumental piece in getting Real Madrid over this hump.
Opposing coaches have started to take note of Pablo Machin’s triumph over the European champions earlier this month. He was the first to successfully break Real Madrid down with a high press. When Quique Setien won at the Bernabeu earlier this season, it was with a hope-and-pray, crowded defensive scheme. Betis got away with it with some luck. Machin’s approach needed little luck — it was fuelled by a rabid counter-press. Machin had noted Real Madrid’s struggles getting out of the back in games prior, and decided to detached himself from the space Girona would leave in-behind their midfield. It worked. Real Madrid never had a chance to escape the press to take advantage of that space.
Machin once assigned Pablo Maffeo the chore of man-marking Messi and sacrificing a pawn, taking his chances on a nine-vs-nine bloodbath. Against Real Madrid he didn’t need to do that, and focused his energy on hounding Zidane’s back-line.
"We thought that cancelling out that source of football and goals would give us more chances of beating Barca,” Machin said after Girona’s game-plan nearly worked against Valverde’s men. “It started well because Messi didn't intervene, but with the own goals and the fact they're very good, they beat us well.
"Madrid have many more sources to create chances to score, they all do it. We'll have to focus on trying to stop everyone in the best way possible."
When you cut off the supply chain from its roots, where Real Madrid build from the back, you have a chance. But dealing with a high-press shouldn’t matter for Real Madrid. On paper, and as shown in past months, they thrive in those situations, and will manifest neat zip-and-move passing triangles to quickly beat the press while navigating through open-waters that broken presses tend to leave. We just haven’t seen it much from Real this season, but we have in the past — and that ability is not latent enough that it won’t recharge at some point.
Real Madrid will need peak-Kroos to consistently appear again as a press-resistant presence. And, he has started to appear, again. When we talk about Kroos in this role, we often tend to talk about his ability with the ball during a press, but that’s not really what being ‘press-resistant’ means. Kroos creates space when others are uncomfortable in finding outlets. The movement without the ball is what matters:
With Real Madrid struggling to find outlets in the early stages of the Madrid derby, Kroos’s eye for verticality, both with and without the ball, helped loosen Atletico’s defense. In the above sequence, Ramos receives the ball, while the German hedges higher up the pitch to suck in two defenders. If he doesn’t make that movement, the passing lane to Benzema wouldn’t have opened up like that, and once Benzema receives the pass, Kroos knows where the space is, and he’s in a position where neither Atletico defender can catch up to him as they’re caught in two worlds.
Even as he’s still revving into gear, Kroos has 91.6% passing accuracy in La Liga this season. The only midfielder among qualified players who ranks higher is Javi Garcia, who is ahead by just a hair.
Shaky passing, unpunished for now
Not a column this season has passed without discussing this issue. Real Madrid have still yet to have a team punish them (apart from Girona) thoroughly for switching off on routine passes that the team had been so good at up until the Super Cups. We discussed it here and here. The team has played better overall since Asensio’s golazo against Las Palmas, but these quirks need to be gutted before a better opponent comes a long in full-out-punisher-mode:
These are not cherry-picked. Real Madrid are dispossessed over 10 times per game — on par with Levante, Betis, Alaves, and Getafe; and more than Girona, Depor, Eibar, and Espanyol. Per 90 minutes, they are 10th in inaccurate short passes. Those are just alarm bells for now. There’s no need to panic about it. What matters is the standings. You can win a treble even with those numbers. In the end, efficiency on the scoresheet is what matters most, and in the Champions League, Real Madrid’s numbers are better. But the passes above went unpunished, because Apoel gonna Apoel. Against Girona, each miscue was a dagger in the gut; and against Atletico the team just dodged bullets:
These are conscious, mental mistakes, and saying ‘it was just a bad pass’ is a very lazy fall-back. Forget the pass — it happens. Marcelo decides, every step of the way, not to track Correa after the giveaway. He has plenty of time to fly back to protect this counter-attack from further damage. Atleti are slow enough to figure the attack out that Marcelo can sprint back. The ball yields three times: once when Griezmann receives the ball and Correa darts forward; once when Carvajal interjects; and once more when Varane slips the ball into a wide-open Correa. Each interlude provides Marcelo with an opportunity to switch off his reliance on Ramos to stop the counter, and by the time he even considers it, it’s too late, and Ramos is unfairly caught trying to both close Koke as well as the passing lane to Correa.
It’s been aeons since Atletico have had a deadly counter attack. PSG or City would be licking their lips at opportunities like this:
It will improve. It has to. When Real Madrid switch on, they are an aesthetic masterpiece:
The movement from Isco and Casemiro here is perfect, and again, Toni Kroos stretching the field vertically is what eventually unglues Atletico’s press. Subtle, impactful motions, I call it.
Odegaard is unstoppable
Last season, it was Marcos Llorente who appeared in my column regularly. This year, Martin Odegaard is joining my adopted band of sons. In the post-Mel era, the un-chained Fede Valverde is on his way too.
Odegaard has had a great season at Heerenveen. He’s been in my columns before, raising eyebrows regularly and arousing Sam Sharpe along the way. Against Twente over the weekend, he did anything he wanted, and was a prominent figure in creating from deep:
Always showing as an outlet. Never shy — he’s a commanding presence who wants to take over the game and exert influence as much as possible. As he roams from deep, and typically from the right side, he can eel his way around the pitch with mazy dribbling, and slip in through-balls from almost anywhere on the pitch. He deserved to have a couple assists in this game.
Poor Twente had no answer for Martin:
Twente do have ways to stop him, though. pic.twitter.com/Hljn0UOxh0— Kiyan Sobhani (@KiyanSo) November 18, 2017
Odegaard makes it 3-0. He's been fantastic all game. Twente don't have an answer for his vision, dribbling, and through-balls from deep. pic.twitter.com/orMJPOkNOl— Kiyan Sobhani (@KiyanSo) November 18, 2017
This moment when Luka Modric laughed at Angel Correa thinking he could skip past a God
A perfect way to end the column: