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.
My goodness, Marcos Llorente is good
“How is this possible?” — an actual quote from a journalist to me a few weeks ago, talking about the leap Llorente has made. It’s a bona fide question. Marcos Llorente wasn’t this good at this time last season, but he turned himself into one of Castilla’s most important players in last year’s Segunda playoffs, then made a leap with Alaves — and he’s still improving.
He is a gift that keeps on giving. Just over a fortnight ago, Llorente put in his best shift of the season against Atletico. Since then, he’s steadied the ship against Celta in the Copa Del Rey -- helping Alaves reach the final — before helplessly looking on as his team was annihilated by Barcelona on Saturday. The six-goal defeat against Barca was surreal and cruel, and I imagine those who think it was a preview of what’s to come in the Copa final will be wrong. Pellegrino rolled out reserves — Ibai, Deyversen, and Camarasa were all omitted — and Barcelona won’t have Luis Suarez in the final.
Llorente is playing at an insane level right now. Pellegrino knows how to maximize his team’s strengths, and he’s fully realized how important Llorente’s composure is to the team’s success. Seriously, his confidence is almost insulting. He glides across the pitch without over-exerting energy. With Llorente, everything is about positioning. He always plays the pass while letting the impressive quartet in front of him to do all the pressing. Once he’s ready to pounce, he will hound you until you release the ball or you’ve been dispossessed.
Here Llorente realizes that Toquero’s gamble on the throw-in has gone amok, so he steps up to pressure Marcelo Diaz — trusting Kiko to track Theo Bongonda’s run. He unnerves Marcelo, and just as he looks beat, he slides in a dishonest foot to embezzle Celta’s attack.
Llorente recalculates his surroundings constantly — it’s a necessary trait for world-class midfield braniacs. You can see the gears turning in his mind on this defensive sequence. He plays the pass constantly, swaying to close angles. Here he hedges back to cut off Radoja’s cross — forcing the Celta midfielder to play the ball out wide to Daniel Wass. In the meanwhile, he’s breathing down your neck closer and closer — and before you realize, he’s closed you down completely. The whole play is met by cheers from Mendizorozza.
Against Barcelona, it wasn’t as easy, expectedly. Alaves were playing without key players, and apart from their initial press in the first few minutes, they opted to sit back and absorb attacks. It was fine, up until Barca opened the floodgates. The problem with sitting back against Barcelona is that you allow Busquets too much comfort on the ball, which is always a recipe for disaster. Llorente was caught a couple times waffling too far into central channels leaving the half-space exposed to overlapping runs. Moments like this sliced Alaves open:
That’s not all on him. He’s coaxed by one run into the box which he needs to follow, and the full-back needs to do better in covering the overlapping run. Llorente had to pick his poison, and all things considered, he had other promising moments against Luis Enrique’s men, like denying Neymar and Messi like his life depended on it:
Llorente denying Messi, just before those 2 big chances at either end. pic.twitter.com/eDuEQlTZn2— Kiyan Sobhani (@KiyanSo) February 11, 2017
These attributes are all prerequisites for being an elite anchor — but Llorente has bonus traits too. He is very good on the ball, which essentially is the ‘make-or-break’ trait in modern football. Being a destroyer is no longer sufficient, and Real Madrid will welcome an unflappable linchpin on the ball. Llorente doesn’t like to lose possession. Even against Barcelona, in Alaves’ worst defeat of the season, Llorente had six successful tackles while misplacing just six passes. He refuses to panic when pressed and will play his way out of the most snug spaces. If there are no passes available, he will twist, turn, and shield the ball to unearth an unseen outlet. He has even improved on vertical passes — an area of his game that critics have used to throw shade over Llorente’s head. Before Llorente would play the safe pass, now he looks to get the ball forward. He only needs a split second and slender lane to thread the needle.
If we’re really digging deep into the wrinkles, it would be nice to see Llorente improve on his shot - particularly from long distance. He will often find himself in open situations from outside the box after picking up an unclaimed ball from a turnover or long rebound. This is not a unique situation to be in for Llorente:
Llorente has taken nine shots this season in La Liga, and eight of them were from outside the box. Of those, he’s hit the target just 13% of the time. In the grand scheme of things, this will matter more to Alaves than it does for Real Madrid. Once he returns to the white shirt, he will have multiple gunslingers in front of him to take advantage of these moments. Remember that Casemiro had a few incredible long-range strikes with Porto, but he never really had the chance to showcase those at the Bernabeu.
On a side note, man, I really wish I was at the Mendizorroza on Wednesday.
The disruptive influence of James Rodriguez
The James sub changed everything against Osasuna. Chalk it up to a formation change, fresh energy, or James himself — whatever you attribute it to, James played his part. In just over 30 minutes, the Colombian had two interceptions, created three chances, and completed 28 / 30 passes. In a surprising twist, his defensive contributions on the left flank — such as the following play where he disrupts Jaime into coughing up possession in a dangerous area — to help Marcelo were conducive to Real Madrid winning this game.
James has looked great in his limited minutes this season, and Real Madrid miss his flair when he’s not there, particularly in Bale’s absence. So, umm, play him more?
Benzema’s lack of focus at times
Speaking of playing time, Morata deserves a shout. Before you tell my what my narratives are, know this: Benzema is still the best striker on this team. He should start. Even his miss in the first half was overblown — yes, he should’ve done better, but he was also denied by a great save, and did tremendously well to make that run and fight his way through closed channels before receiving that pass which no one will ever talk about.
But this is Alvaro freakin’ Morata here. Big game player. Big cojones. Benzema doesn’t need to sit in order for Morata to make his super-sub appearance every game. He’s played just 260 more minutes than Paco Alcacer in La Liga this season, and just four more minutes than Paco in the Champions League. Some things just don’t add up with Zidane’s rotations. There has even been instances where Morata doesn’t get playing time even when Benzema isn’t on the pitch. Again, we’re talking about Morata, the bandit that showed up in nearly every big game Juventus played in the past couple years with guns blazing. He wasn’t brought back to have such a minimal role. Given his track record in big games, Zidane should consider folding him into Champions League batter for the rest of the season, at least.
There are moments when Benzema does look like his focus wanes. It’s not always — despite people complaining about his work rate, just take a look at him without the ball and realize he actually does move quite a bit to hound opponents — but there are times where his tunnels vision fails to take the surroundings into consideration. This Marcelo pass should have led to a chance on goal:
I’m all for Karim Benzema starting, but I’m also a huge advocate of Morata getting more burn.
Stretched defensive lines
The amount of space that Sergio Leon has here is staggering — even for a mutilated ‘3-5-2’ scheme. Sergio Ramos is doomed. Not a single midfielder in sight to double-up on the wings in transition. Both Varane and Danilo are too busy chasing the cutters to help out, and Casemiro ops to track the cross rather than snuff the space in-behind Ramos. This is the kind of stuff that Napoli will lick their lips at.
The Odegaard hype
It’s fun and hilarious.
Remember when Pogba could sneeze and Old Trafford would applaud? Odegaard kinda has the same effect with Heerenveen fans.— Kiyan Sobhani (@KiyanSo) February 12, 2017
Whatever is said about Odegaard by the media and (certain) brainwashed fans who think he’s a bust, the Heerenveen experience is a good one. Odegaard has been released from the iron cuffs of being isolated on Castilla’s right wing, and instead learning new roles. He plays deep, is learning how to play the passing lanes, and create from positions he normally doesn’t in Segunda B.
The fans are hyped about him, even if the press is not, and they may go over the top when he does things like this:
Those are not really the things we look for in Odegaard’s game, though. Far more important are the tactical decisions he makes. Things he is learning: knowing where to be to dispossess wingers who think they can simply turn and play a safe pass; or closing the passing lanes in the middle third while knowing when to press.
There aren’t accessible heat maps for Castilla, but none of Odegaard’s matches with Castilla would look like this:
Sergio Diaz playing far away from goal
This experiment needs to end. Solari has a fascination with reinventing Sergio Diaz as a deep playmaker who can defend the flanks. It just isn’t working, and Diaz has suffered a dramatic dip in form because of it. I can understand trying to shoehorn Campuzano as your striker (he’s been in terrific form, and is now level with Diaz with five goals this season), but it’s another level of fantasy altogether having both Nikos and Campuzano start in a more advanced position than Diaz.
Sergio Diaz should be the highest player up the pitch. Putting both Nikos and Campzano ahead of him just wastes him completely.— Kiyan Sobhani (@KiyanSo) February 12, 2017
Rafael Nadal running things
Nadal says he wouldn’t be opposed to being Real Madrid’s president one day. Um, why not? I don’t think it’s something worth considering in the immediate future, but Perez won’t be around forever, and there is basically no one who can fit the qualifications of running for the gig these days (Raul could probably swing it, but he doesn’t have the interest). Nadal is one I never though of, but he could theoretically fit the bill. Bonus: He’s well respected, humble, and well intentioned. Yolo.