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Real Madrid’s Defensive Gambles Have Been Costly

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Some observation from this young season, including defensive gambles, problems in transition, and more

Real Madrid v Las Palmas - La Liga Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images

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.


Too many notes accumulated over the span of a month was cluttering my brain, so here’s my weekly column, but more specifically, my monthly note splash to tidy up my thoughts and observations on Real Madrid this season.

This is the second time I’ve done this kind of format this season. The first edition can be found here. It’s interesting to note what’s changed, and what lingers.

1. Giveaways. Forced, and unforced giveaways

One strange and unexpected quirk this season that has yet to fade is the unforced giveaways from players like Ramos, Marcelo, Achraf, Casemiro — and even elite passers like Isco, Modric, and Kroos. These are not garbage-time sins either — these are big-game, real time consequential errors.

Again, we’re talking about elite distributors here, making silly mistakes. Normally, a misplaced pass like the one below from Isco wouldn’t break Real Madrid’s back so easily, but with Zidane’s incoherent schemes this season, the team relies too heavily on last ditch tackles from Varane, Ramos, Nacho, or in some cases Vallejo and Casemiro:

Against Eibar, they went unpunished. Charles was a mess in transition, and Inui was uncharacteristically off. Against Girona, in a bloodbath where they were hounded much more effectively by Pabo Machin’s rabid high-press; the team looked dazed:

That high press was great. It unnerved Real Madrid to no end. Quique Setien deserves a lot of credit for keeping Real Madrid in check (with some luck) at the Bernabeu; but Pablo Machin completely flipped that blueprint on its head by applying pressure high up the pitch while unbinding the low-block-approach that Betis rolled out. Machin left gaps behind his midfield, that Real Madrid just continually couldn’t take advantage of. Even Isco’s roulette, which, in a vacuum was beautiful, shows a larger problem, where he had zero chance of getting out of a tight spot with no proper outlets available:

The ensuing four sequences, along with Marcelo’s giveaway from earlier, all happened within the span of seven minutes:

Modric and Kroos are usually the wise, sedative presences who can kick-whip Real Madrid’s organization into shape. They’ve yet to kick into full gear, and when your two brainiacs chime in with mistakes, it sets the tone for the rest of the team.

Tottenham and Girona punished Real Madrid the most, while other teams (Eibar, Las Palmas) just don’t have the quality to turn these turnovers into cold-blooded retribution the way Poch and Machin did. Asensio’s goal on Sunday against Paco Ayestaran’s men unshackled some of Real Madrid’s mental chains and masked a shaky first half, where, these problems were ever-present.

Not all giveaways come in the form of a misplaced pass. In Casemiro’s case, he’s resurfaced some bad habits from early last season. Here you can see him unaware of Jonathan Calleri sneaking into his blindspot, in a dangerous position where alertness needs to be heightened:

This, from Marcelo, is just lazy, and extremely easy to defend:

We keep saying “things will normalize”. They probably will. Maybe Asensio’s golazo was a turning point. Even if it wasn’t, and it’s a slower process, this isn’t a team that’s yet in the mud, and completely zapped of themselves the way Atletico are. Zidane has figured it out before, and he deserves to ride out the worst patch of his tenure now. Besides, not all these miscues are forced tactical ploys from the opponent — a lot of them are unforced, mental fluffs. That stuff, thankfully, is hard to sustain when you’re world class.

2. Let’s remember that Luka Modric is still other-worldly great.

Luka is a regular in my observations, as you know well. Don’t let the shade from the first bullet point dupe you. We are not far removed from Modric doing some great things to start this season. Against Tottenham at the Bernabeu, he transcended everyone else on the pitch, and the eye test was spectacular.

He is the warlock we long to see in football — the generational, aesthetic beast. Dispossessions, interceptions, ball control, distribution — none of it done without grace.

Here Modric ducks into Eriksen and snuffs the ball away, just as the the Dane thinks his sly touch has hoodwinked our wizard. Nope.

So much noise had been made about Modric’s dip in form (including some scant murmurs from yours truly), that it was necessary to remind fans how recent this masterclass against Tottenham was.

The effort below to thwart Eriksen (again) is tremendous. He is no where near the ball when the initial pass is made, and just as the Dane thinks he’s in open water on the counter, he takes a heavy touch, and Modric hotfoots centrally to dispossess him and allow Real Madrid to come back on their own terms.

Some of the stuff this man does still makes me wonder what it is he actually does, like — literally. I still haven’t quite deciphered how he controls this:

still not sure how Luka controlled this

Posted by Kiyan Sobhani on Monday, November 6, 2017

He’s one of those generational players I’m dreading to see retire. Time will go by too fast with him. This, from a previous column, remains relevant (probably forever):

Put him down in history, already. Would anyone really argue putting him into the club’s all-time XI? Everyday, every human on earth should count their blessings that they get to live during peak-Modric. Almost nothing else on earth matters when you watch Luka Modric play football. When he has the ball, everyone watching him should be constantly applauding, possibly even raving, dancing, and going into a coma. Every movement, every shoulder feint, every instruction given, every touch, every pass, every dribble — everything he does is out of this world. He’s an aesthetic artist who’s better at his job than anyone else is at theirs.

3. Baby steps with Achraf Hakimi

A lot of growing pains with Achraf already, and that’s OK. His insertion into the team was accelerated in order to cover for Danilo’s departure, leaving a heavy burden of pressure on his young shoulders. Achraf did not receive the same stepping stones as Marcos Llorente, Jesus Vallejo, and Dani Carvajal did. What he got, instead, was a shoehorn into the firepit of the Champions League against Tottenham. Twice. Is he ready? I’d lean towards ‘no’ — not because he won’t be great, but because the eye test with Castilla last season just gave me another vibe. He wasn’t playing regularly, he was getting thrown around, and even if he was lighting the league on fire, I just didn’t see the illusory rush with him. Months into this experiment, I’m still not confident fielding him in a big game. I will one day, just not now.

Here’s what I am confident of: His pace, and defensive intelligence. Against Tottenham, it was his lack of consistent crossing ability that fans magnified. Those wasted crosses, hit aimlessly into the area, wasted possession. This wasn’t unique to Achraf — it extended to Kroos, Isco, Theo and Marcelo too; and probably Zidane’s scheme in general. Crossing, broken down to its fundamentals — knowing when to cut it back, when to drive it low, and when to sling a weighted ball — tend to arrive with maturity. It will come, as will his ability to dribble past his marker consistently.

Hakimi does very well in the below sequence. He starts marking Harry Kane, whose ever-shifting free role darts away while Fernando Llorente drops back. As Achraf and Varane switch, Ramos covers the ball-carrier in Sissoko. Llorente is then found at the top of the box facing Achraf. Achraf recognizes the play, and keeps Llorente in his view after the ball is released. As the ball goes wide, the young Moroccan stays in the passing lane and makes a key defensive play to prevent a clear-cut chance:

His defensive IQ has been really refreshing. Coming out of Castilla, his most famous attribute was his insane pace. It’s crazy how fast he is once his motor revs, and it’s going to be a huge asset if he’s to morph into Real Madrid’s future starting right back. His pace will enable him to bomb up the field and dart back defensively just when you think he’s caught out, and we’ve already seen examples of this this season.

Pace and defensive IQ. He has the tools to be a lock-down defender:

4. Sergio Ramos’s ‘shooting slump’ — the cross-field switch that hasn’t connected.

Sergio Ramos is a very good passer, and at times, makes these diagonal cross-field switches from deep that can make the crowd swoon. Those diagonal cross-field switches, are, um, rarely executed well this season.

Poor Achraf. He will be petrified every time Sergio gets the ball in his left center back position from now on. “Oh God, he’s going to do this again, isn’t he? And I have to chase it, otherwise I’ll look lazy.”

We love you Sergio. Thanks for everything that you do.

5. The domino effect of defensive gambles

One of the worst aspects of Real Madrid’s defense in the young 2017/18 season has been defensive transition — the lack of shape that should theoretically be chained together to stymie counters when the ball is lost. There has been almost no sign of coherence when the team finds itself facing a wave. Currently, Real Madrid runs the mother of all anti counter-press schemes. When the opponent wins possession, the midfield is vertically unglued, and it takes just one pass to get behind them.

But that is almost an entirely separate issue to some unnecessary defensive gambles Real Madrid takes when there is zero coverage to warrant the risk. This problem peaked last season when the team lost at the Mestalla, and has resurfaced sporadically. Over two legs against Tottenham, it reared its ugly head again.

The gambles leading up to Varane’s own goal in the first leg are staggering:

It starts with an innocent throw-in, and ends in disaster after a row of dominoes fall on Real Madrid’s head. When Eriksen receives the throw, Kroos rightfully hedges forward. When the ball goes back to Aurier, Kroos hedges forward again — only this time no one is picking up his marker Eriksen. Isco can’t, because he has a man on the left flank, and Benzema is too high up the pitch to close the other passing lane which Harry Winks occupies. Ultimately, the ball goes to Winks, and at that point, Real Madrid are already broken. Isco makes no effort to recognize he can still track back to prevent a total collapse, and Marcelo is caught in two worlds.

Gambles do surface in more ways than one. Zidane’s insistence on flooding the box has hurt Real Madrid defensively as much as it has offensively. Offensively, it does not make for a pragmatic solution to needing goals, and defensively, it leaves you whittled.

Six players in the box, and a seventh in Kroos, at the edge of it. Marcelo is in front of the ball too, while Vallejo and Casemiro are high up the pitch. If you’re committing that many bodies forward, you better be in a position to counter-press (Spoiler: Real Madrid aren’t):

Vallejo tracks in time to kill the play. Another version of Las Palmas with Boateng and Roque Mesa pulling strings might have made for a different story

6. Facing a packed flank

Real Madrid average 27 crosses per game in La Liga — the most in the league. Some of these are good, some of them are bad. Some of them aren’t counted as they don’t make it into the area at all.

Tottenham were phenomenal in denying Real Madrid space. While white shirts hovered in the box, Tottenham blocked crossing lanes and forced Marcelo and Isco to recycle possession — leaving the attackers isolated in the area and the team vulnerable to a counter-attack.

Those are the most hair-pulling plays. Against Las Palmas, it was more of the same:

As this play slowly develops, more and more players enter the box. Isco and Marcelo play a nice two-man game that looks semi-dope in a vacuum, but as a whole, leaves Ronaldo and co. scratching their heads. The cross never comes in. It’s superfluous movement.

The scouting report on Zidane is out —> pack the flanks and fluster Real Madrid’s winger and wing-backs, and you’ll thwart them while catching them back peddling defensively.