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.
How quickly the tables turn. Real Madrid went to Mestalla on Wednesday to face a new-look Valencia squad who seemingly have little recollection of how bad they were just a few weeks ago. If they did, they’ve done well to erase any traces of their past catastrophes thanks to Voro’s level head and deeper connection with the club — he is still miles ahead of any other coach that’s come under the Lim regime.
Maybe none of that is actually true — maybe this team from Spain’s east coast just gets so fired up when they see the Real Madrid emblem that they decide to pull every superpower deep from the earth’s mantle and let loose its potency on a club they seemingly despise with every limb in their body. Yeah, there is that.
But it’s not just that, it can’t be. Just prior to beating Real Madrid 2-1, they outplayed Bilbao. With Voro in charge, they go from awful to respectable real quick; and with Zaza and Orellana providing support to talented offensive players like Munir and Nani, it helps with the (previously dire) offensive scheme. Cancelo’s been great. Gaya always had something to his game. There are reasons why Valencia should be good even if they aren’t. They have enough on their roster to tread water against most La Liga teams, as Miran and I pointed out a while back.
Let’s lower our tone a notch — Valencia are still not a great football team, nor were they other-worldly good on Wednesday. They — full credit to their efficient counter-attacks — took advantage of a chaotic and hazy Real Madrid defense to start. They then peaked defensively towards the end by shielding Diego Alves from a barrage of crosses and corners to seal the three points. In between, they were average. More on this later.
This is the problem with rescheduling. It impacts everything. No one will show sympathy for Real Madrid in this situation — they are a massive club with a massive payroll, and few will shed tears about Real Madrid having to play games at unideal times against inferior opponents. But if the fruitless Club World Championship isn’t there to be played 10, 777 kilometers away; then Real Madrid play a Valencia team engulfed in turmoil while being in super form themselves. They didn’t. Instead, they had to wait for a jam-packed schedule sandwiched in-between do-or-die Champions League fixtures, and they did it against a team that’s been bolstered by a good striker in Zaza, and a really, really good attacker in Orellana — both responsible in directly affecting Wednesday’s result.
It’s not something Real Madrid will cry over, it’s just something that’s important to state — the timing of this match was unideal, and the rescheduled match away to Balaidos will be unideal too, if not very difficult.
None of this should matter — it does only because football is wonky, unpredictable, and fun. Real Madrid lost this game by sending gifts to Valencia -- a team that hates them unconditionally. Om Arvind and I discussed those gifts thoroughly on Wednesday night’s podcast. If you haven’t listened to it, you should. The gist of it is this — Real Madrid’s press broke down on a crucial play, which set the tone of where the result was headed.
Analysis of Real Madrid's Poor Defense vs. Valencia in the 1st half. Poor pressing structure & horrible individual mistakes cost RM. pic.twitter.com/Krs5nTsd8E— O.Dembélé fanboy (@OmVArvind) February 22, 2017
Something that Om did not mention here — the failed press on Valencia’s goal relied a lot on Marcelo and Ramos in this situation. Benzema’s hounding of the goalkeeper plus Ronaldo’s support is clear, but they are largely unaware of the lack of cohesiveness behind them. Kroos is spread too thin to cover a vast area of space -- he can no longer hedge towards the central player as Marcelo has failed to press Cancelo on the wing. Marcelo couldn’t press as he had his own man to cover — but this is the problem with a press if it’s not implemented with the utmost unison. Ramos needs to be more conscious of covering Marcelo’s man to send the Brazilian forward. The dominoes that were set off were unforgiving. Even if Real Madrid’s transition defense made up for it by recovering in time, Zaza punished the entire team with a freak goal.
On Valencia’s second goal, Real Madrid’s counter-press couldn’t mask Varane’s giveaway. Once the Frenchman misplaced his pass, every player who could possibly cover for him — Kroos, Casemiro, and Marcelo -- were all in advanced positions. To compensate — or not— both Casemiro and Kroos waltzed back, giving Real Madrid little chance of recovering.
This all happened before Real Madrid eventually settled in and controlled the game, but the lessons are sharp and unforgiving. Titles will be lost in moments of inertia — not in moments of control. Real Madrid lost their second game of the season on Wednesday — and they suddenly have the same amount of losses Barcelona has. Regardless of how much Zidane’s men earn, they are still only a hair ahead. La Liga is batshit crazy.
You always did have a feeling that this match could sway Valencia’s fate one way or the other. Getting battered by an in-form juggernaut could send you spiralling. But they went the alternate route, and could use this victory to propel themselves and shuffle the league standings. They dodged bullets to get here though.
For one, while their defense earned lots of praise, it wasn’t that impressive. Holes were there to exploit, and no one exploited them quite like Kroos did. The way he jogged back on Orellana’s goal will leave a sour taste in the mouth of Madridista’s — he would have, in all likelihood, not been able to catch up even at full speed anyway — but he did so much for Real Madrid offensively, and had more players been more in-sync with him to play a more vertical game, Real Madrid may have gotten more chances through the middle in a game which saw them complete just 5 of their 49 crosses.
Kroos’ ability to create from deep is underrated. He continues to be one of the best in the world at being the opus of his team’s offense from a deep role. He’s known for being a robotic passer who keeps possession -- and that he is — but he’s so much more. With Kroos, it’s verticality first, and if the forward pass isn’t on, he’ll look at the more conservative option. Against Valencia, the German completed 41 forward passes. Only Sergio Ramos had as many.
I love when players do this (Vallejo has been doing this well all season with Frankfurt too): Kroos bombs forward to see what blemishes exist in the defensive line. He pulls it back to safety only once the dagger to Modric in the form of a through-ball doesn’t present itself. No harm done — it’s a calculated gamble.
Without the ball, Kroos was just as good — looking to pop up in the space in behind midfielders, which is exactly where you should be when looking for more penetration down the middle. Further proof that Valencia’s defense wasn’t as good as it seemed, just as they think they have every defensive channel covered, Kroos sneaks in to blindside the scheme.
If Kroos turns here and slips in a pass to Benzema or Ronaldo; then Real Madrid have a good channel to attack from. He doesn’t — probably assuming he has less space than he had — but when he and Ronaldo do here is still important. Eventually Modric swings that ball around and Valencia’s defense has to chase the far-side; and Ronaldo meets a cross but is unable to finish. Those moments of vulnerabilities existed throughout for Valencia. They got away with a ton of caveats, and often resorted to desperate defending after defensive breakdowns.
Valencia was not playing an impermeable compact scheme. There were holes. Look at the space in behind Voro’s midfield here. The movement from Ronaldo and Benzema has been underrated in 2017 — it’s not easy in the absence of Bale, but they are trying. It would be nice if the build-up looked more like the one above, where Valencia back-peddled dangerously and looked susceptible. A lot of this came down to the movement from the midfielders and how willing they were to open central channels. Spoiler: Zidane’s scheme is preoccupied with getting the ball to the flanks — particularly to the wing-backs — and crossing it in unapologetically. Easy pickings for Valencia’s primed central defenders. Attacks like these were rare, and it wasn’t because Valencia denied Zidane’s men.
Some of that is on the way Zidane uses James too. There is a reason the Colombian plays on the right wing, despite cries from certain pockets of the fanbase. He dominated that flank with Monaco, and if he has more freedom with the ball, he will thrive and create. But against Valencia he was isolated to providing an outlet — a role which virtually anyone can play in. I’d like to see him cut more centrally and take advantage of decoy runs down the flanks from Carvajal. On a few occassions, when James did this, he was able to send through-balls to Ronaldo, right down Valencia’s throat.
Right flank Modric is the worst Modric
It started with the match in Sevilla. Without any pure wingers on the right, Modric was often the one having to create from that flank — making runs and swinging in cross after cross. Against Valencia, despite having James and Carvajal there in support, Modric would at times end up being isolated on the right flank again, trying to create on his own. Get him out of that zone. He is not suited to beating multiple players to put a cross in, he needs to carve through the middle and connect with his brainiac midfield partner.
Varane’s distribution of late
It was less than a month ago where I wrote about how good Varane’s distribution has been. Against Napoli, he did well with the ball overall apart from a couple miscues; but against Valencia he was a walking horror-show. In hindsight, we know that the Frenchman wasn’t 100%, which Zidane stated is why he was taken off in the second half — but it’s hard to chalk up these passes to injury.
It’s not that his passing rate has been horrendous, it’s that the his misplaced passes (6/53 against Valencia) all put Real Madrid in vulnerable situations — one of them directly leading to a conceded goal. If you’re going to misplace a pass, you better make sure it’s out of sight and into the stands!
Casemiro’s attempt at being Toni Kroos
Speaking of miscues..
James supporting Marcelo
James is well intentioned here, but he does something subtly wrong. He doubles-up on the wings — as he should — but does it without closing the passing lane simultaneously. Wrong angle, right intention. It provides an easy escape route for Valencia to free themselves from the hounding.
I love that this might actually be a recurring thing in Zidane’s playbook. More schemes and movements that free up Toni for the ‘snooker’ discharge, please. (This is not really a ‘drawn-up’ scenario, it’s just a complete lack of recognition from Valencia’s defense; but I still enjoy the idea of Kroos hovering that area and his teammates being aware of it.)
Marcos Llorente igniting counters
Alaves haven’t looked right since getting tattered against Barcelona. Against Deportivo, Pellegrino switched to a 4-4-2 with Camarasa up top, and the team just couldn’t conjure any flow offensively. But hey — they won! They beat Deportivo after getting thoroughly outplayed in the first half! This is actually a good bullet-point to note for both teams — Deportivo just haven’t gotten results, and Alaves have.
Despite some wrinkles (Llorente was largely invisible in this match and gave the ball away a few times, particularly in the second half) Llorente looked good defensively, and his strongest trait remains his positioning and ability to spring counters with his ball retention and distribution.