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.
Real Madrid’s 3-1 win over Napoli was riddled with all kinds of great small details. There are obvious talking points, to be sure — Ronaldo putting in one of his top-two performances of the season, Benzema stepping up to silence critics, and Casemiro putting in the performance of a bulwark — but less obvious specifics are fun and plenty too.
It started as early as the first minute, when Real Madrid conjured a chance from the left flank.
Both Albiol and Koulibaly cut off the near-post cross for some reason here. Good decision from CR to cut it back. pic.twitter.com/orZlrB1hq2— Kiyan Sobhani (@KiyanSo) February 16, 2017
Had Pepe Reina not read Benzema’s shot, Napoli would’ve been in some hole after 30 seconds. They dodged that initial bullet, but that’s the type of stuff that could have had Sarri ripping his hair out. The defensive coverage is abysmal — and a second’s drop of focus nearly could have churned this result even worse for the Italians. In the sequence above, Napoli’s defensive line completely ignores the two points of threat. One is James’ far-post run, and the other is Benzema lurking just 60 degrees behind Ronaldo. Ghoulam hedges far off James, and both Albiol and Koulibaly make the same run to cover the ghost that must be heading towards Reina’s near post. Ronaldo’s cut-back is perfect.
That moment foreshadowed a couple trends — Ronaldo would be an instigator of the team’s chances throughout the night like as if it was 2012, and Real Madrid would channel play through the left flank often. Benzema hovered in close proximity to Ronaldo, and Marcelo was the water carrier.
Real Madrid jabbed Napoli, and they jabbed often. The verve with which Zidane’s men thrusted forward made Napoli’s opening uppercut — after some freak decisiveness and accuracy from Insigne — all the more unsettling. This could have quickly turned into ‘one of those nights’ at the Bernabeu where the fans leave whistling and momentum spirals. Once Napoli figured out how to break Real Madrid’s press (which was, actually, quite good), things looked worrisome. But at some moment in the first half, right around Benzema’s goal, Real Madrid snapped into it. The hounding became more efficient, the space with which Napoli had to pounce on started to clench, and before long, they were getting dominated in the final third, biding against time and hoping to stay afloat until the return leg in Naples.
More small details — Toni Kroos’ contribution to Real Madrid’s first goal was just as important as Benzema’s finish, Carvajal’s cross, and James’ control. It was the German’s ball — a sword drawn when Napoli were expecting a simple butter knife — that broke the Italians. Go on and watch the slew of passes — notice when everything changes from a normal build-up into a full fledged assault.
Kroos initially started the attack with a vertical pass to Ronaldo. He gets it back almost immediately as Ronaldo cuts it back, and plays a square ball to Carvajal. By the time it comes back to him, Carvajal, Modric, and James have combined for three horizontal — and patient — passes. At this point, everything is normal and under control for Napoli. The pace is slow and Real Madrid is knocking the ball around in a non-threatening manner. Then Kroos decides he’s had enough as he turns on the sniper scope and hits James with a long diagonal ball, causing Napoli’s defensive line to stretch just enough for Insigne to double-up on the wings to lend Ghoulam a hand, which leaves Carvajal open. Everything that transpires afterwards is gold dust. This was a fabulous possession.
Toni Kroos is magnificent in making plays like that; as is his midfielder partner, Luka Modric. We say it in such basic terms and we say it often, but it’s so true — Real Madrid are so lucky to have both. Over the summer in France, it was surreal to see some of the standout players at the Euros and how many of them reside at the Bernabeu — Bale, Ronaldo, Kroos, Modric, Pepe — they all form one hell of a spine when they’re together. If you thought Kroos’ 28 vertical passes were impressive, consider that Modric had 45. If you’re defending that, there’s not a moment where your focus can wane, because both will always look to pierce you with a pass. Some of them pierce you so incisively that you’ll never stitch yourself back together again.
Again, these diagonal passes seem subtle, but they’re disguised torpedos. It’s these passes that ignite attacks.
It helped that Cristiano Ronaldo put in his best game since turning the Calderon upside down in November. It was extra satisfying that on Wednesday night, he turned Kalidou Koulibaly upside down too — not least because Koulibaly had dispossessed Ronaldo a couple times earlier in the game, but because he stood over him after fouling the Portuguese, before jawing his mouth. Shades of Zaza standing over Westbrook.
The way Ronaldo turned back the clock against Napoli opened all kinds of doors — doors full of hope and endless possibilities. Benzema did his part too, and the club will breathe a sigh of relief to get their cat back into sabre tooth mode. His ability to make plays is one thing, but it’s another for him to continually debunk the myth that he’s lazy.
Seriously, the amount of fans still crying about Benzema’s work ethic is staggering. Some criticize his lack of precision in front of goal, others “can’t stand his lethargy”. This is actually not a real thing to yap about — please stop. Watch Benzema from an aerial view. His motor doesn’t cease. Even in games past where people have criticized him the most — against Osasuna, Sociedad — Benzema presses and hounds defenders. People scrutinize the obvious things they see, but they rarely zoom out and see the big picture. Players alter the game without the ball constantly, and Benzema is no exception to this rule.
Sometimes Real Madrid flow seamlessly. Counter-pressing leads to ball retention, ball-retention leads to attacks on vulnerable back-peddling defenders. When cohesiveness is present, questions over Zidane’s lack of tactical sophistication dissipate. More often than not under the Frenchman’s tenure, his team-oriented vision manifests itself on the pitch in big games. When Ronaldo — who typically doesn’t press on every single possession, so as to conserve energy — joins the party, defenders will have a tough time breaching the initial roadblock.
James, thoroughly involved on the right flank — a position that has always suited him well since his Monaco days — was not exempt from the grind. On this play — met by a raucous applause from the Bernabeu — his hard work was backed-up by Carvajal and Modric:
As the world has witnessed, individual pressing is trivial if the team is not in-sync from 1-11. When everyone is on the same page, it’s wonderful.
You’ve seen this before, but if you’re a press-junkie, you won’t mind seeing it again:
The press on this goal kick is beautiful. pic.twitter.com/5jMCivV4QF— Kiyan Sobhani (@KiyanSo) February 15, 2017
Those plays can destroy teams mentally. Imagine facing a squad like Real Madrid, who look so lethal on paper, not allowing you to get out of your own half from a goal-kick — an area of the game which is supposed to provide you with relief from the high-tide of attack. It’s not fun.
But it wasn’t all daisies and daffodils. It took some time for Real Madrid to figure this out. Napoli, for stretches in the first half, leading up to, and just after Insigne’s goal, found ways to exploit Zidane’s pressing scheme.
Modric, Kroos, Casemiro, Carvajal, Varane, and James are all well-intentioned here; but look at how surgically Napoli zip the ball in-and-out of the suffocating space before finding their reward. By the time the ball reaches Hamsik at the center circle, the gap between the defensive line and midfield is too vast to recuperate. Before getting it right — and they eventually did, as per aforementioned examples — they took some gambles which could have turned out disastrous.
Offensively, there were miscues too -- that is before the artillery actually started hitting the mark. Varane and Casemiro struggled to distribute out of the back — both misplacing a couple of passes each early on. But those were minor hiccups that shouldn’t be emphasized. Once Real Madrid got into their groove, everything clicked. Varane only misplaced one more pass all match after the initial fluffs; and Casemiro finished the match completing 43 of his 48 attempted passes.
A full 90 minutes of gun-slinging perfection would have been nice, to be sure, but given Insigne’s scare and Mertens’ miss from point-blank in the second half, Real Madrid won’t lose too much sleep over a 3-1 cushion.
"That's the way football is. It's a pain that, playing as we did from the start, with that intensity, they go and score. It's a bit f***** up," said Zidane.
"But in the end, we scored straight away and we got into the game.
"Benzema showed that he has personality and that, in critical moments, he knows how to answer in the best way possible - by scoring. I would have liked him to get one more because he had chances. When he moves in that way, he's a constant danger."
Napoli might be happy too, though they have their own stress to deal with (more below). They may have been played off the park for large stretches of this match, but Italy is always (usually) a place of hellfire for Real Madrid.
"It's still 50-50," Zidane said. "It'll be a second leg and they will make it difficult. I would have liked not to concede. It's a good result, but it's not decisive. It's not enough to settle the tie."
It won’t be easy, and Napoli have enough emotion to fuel them a lifetime.
"The important thing is that the team believe we can do it. We might also have more focus on that one night. The San Paolo will be an inferno. It'll be tough to contain their attack but they won't have it easy," Napoli head coach Maurizio Sarri said.
Napoli’s emotion comes from a strange place — it stems from their misinformed president De Laurentiis. He threw his players under the bus, criticized everyone but Insigne, and triggered reactions from both head coach Sarri and goalkeeper Pepe Reina.
I think the lads lacked the Neapolitan grit tonight. The only one who showed it was the Neapolitan, [Lorenzo] Insigne, who scored a very sneaky goal.
The others simply did not exist. They seemed to be stunned into submission by the glorious figures of Real Madrid, who didn’t even play that well (note: this is my favourite part).
Our inadequacy on the evening meant it actually went well for us, because we could’ve lost by five or six. In Naples it’ll be a cauldron, but if Real Madrid score there, I can imagine the same players will crumble again.
When you are young, you need to be humble and not arrogant, but Napoli tonight just weren’t there.
How Napoli react in the 2nd leg will be interesting, but I imagine it will be with an animated spirit. Sarri was visibly miffed by De Laurentiis’ comments, stating that the president should have talked directly to him. He then went on to defend the determination of his players. He’s right. Sarri rightfully believes Napoli’s miss-passes can’t be attributed to a lack of valor.
De Laurentiis just announced he would put Zlatan in charge of the team if he could. He is a mess. Napoli will come back guns blazing, but they’ll do it for themselves and their fans — not their president.
"It was a great night and all of us put in a great performance," said the striker, who had gone over a month since his last goal.
"I'm really proud and happy with my display. I now feel very good and after scoring the first goal.
"I felt that the fans were with me and that is really important for your confidence.
"Since a young age, I have lived with criticism. I work hard and sometimes you score a lot of goals and on other occasions you don't.
"I'm not a striker who always wants to score, I like to do my bit for the team and that is why I work so hard in training.
"We know that we are here at Madrid, the best club in the world and the fans always support me. At times, it is to be expected that I come in for criticism, but I'm always here trying to help the team.
"I enjoyed myself. I got my goal and it was a game with a lot of action."
I have been talking about wanting Casemiro to showcase his shooting skills from Porto more often. This is beyond bonkers. pic.twitter.com/R4qmAzLZrV— Kiyan Sobhani (@KiyanSo) February 15, 2017
"I've been practicing those kinds of shots a lot,"
"They're important because of my position on the pitch."
I'm lost for words,"
"When I struck the ball I wanted to smash it, for the game, for the fans, for the Bernabeu. I love to play here, I can't say any more than that."
"James is our player and that's why I put him in," he said. "He did very well. He helped keep us calm with his play on the ball, especially in the first half. And he's very good with crosses. I'm happy for his game, as I am with everyone's."
"Ramos had a knock from the start and then I took him off because of the yellow," he added.