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It’s time to enjoy the small victories

This week’s column: on the comeback at Madrigal, Marcos Llorente’s performance against Valencia, and much more

Villarreal CF v Real Madrid CF - La Liga Photo by Fotopress/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.

Seize the day, enjoy the small victories.

On Sunday night, there were seven victories.

  1. In the 58th minute, Zidane, in a delayed reaction, realizes Casemiro is a liability in a match where Real Madrid are getting hounded trying to escape a press, and introduces Isco. Real Madrid’s ‘bandy-legged’ beauty opens the game and finds space in absurdly airtight spaces, and provides a new channel to work with in-behind Villarreal’s midfield.
    Wait — why does Ray Hudson call Isco ‘bandy-legged’? I just searched ‘bandy’:

(of a person's legs) curved so as to be wide apart at the knees.

This is a picture of Isco’s legs:

Oh my God. It makes sense now.

I attribute Isco’s strong play in the past few months to the growth of his beard. What he is doing here with the length of his bristles is unparalleled in modern football, and defies the status quo. Hair growth in general is a risky strategy in football. Raul’s decline started when he went from bourgeois Spanish hunk to a man with a mop who I could no longer trust. Bale had a dip in form when he started to grow his hair too — but luckily for him, his decline only lasted the awkward hair growth stage before, like a butterfly releasing itself from the shackles of its cocoon, bloomed into a samurai.

I would like to take this opportunity to shoehorn my important opinion that Bale’ samurai cut >> David Beckham’s samurai cut.

2. In the 60th minute, Real Madrid implement their first press — up until then, Zidane’s scheme had the attacking trio hedge off the backline and play the passing lanes; which is, a debatable tactic given Villarreal’s comfort on the ball was conducive to them regaining their confidence in their build-up play (they were struggling in the games leading up to this one offensively). The press changed the game completely, visibly unnerved Escriba’s defenders, who, up until that point were acclimating themselves with comfort, and started to get bullied into surrendering a two-goal lead.

3. In the 64th minute, Gareth Bale scores.

4. In the 74th minute, Cristiano Ronaldo scores a penalty from a controversial (but correct) call. The controversy is important here — and a small victory to celebrate — because, it triggered Pique into tweeting something embarrassing after the match.

5. In the 77th minute, Alvaro Morata enters the game for a hard-working, yet, largely inefficient Karim Benzema.

Disclaimer: I’m a huge admirer of Morata, but let’s take into context three things (because my mentions were filled with Morata > Benzema comments after the game, and the point of celebrating this victory was not to throw Benzema — the fifth leading goal-scorer in Champions League history — under the bus): 1) Morata’s header was right at Andres Fernandez. 2) He missed a clear-cut chance to make this game 4-2, which, had Benzema missed, we would be in an apocalypse today; and 3) had the benefit of playing with a revitalized scheme infused with a counter-press and ‘round-knees’ Isco.

Phew, we got through it. And just in case you think I’m throwing cold water on Morata, I’m not. No shade to anyone. It’s nice and sunny here in my office.

6. In the 83rd minute, Alvaro Morata scores the winner. Boom.

(while all this is happening, Pique’s sodium levels are rising by the minute, leading to our 7th victory)


I’m not going to go into reasons as to why this is petty (check out last night’s podcast), but it is — and it is a victory for Real Madrid.

Before the 58th minute mark, there was no victory, and it was almost impossible to predict that I could have come up with 7 of them by the time referee Gil Manzano blew the final whistle. Yet here we are — so smell the roses. But, feel free to look through a critical lens too — as you should. There was a lot to fix in the first hour. There will be lots of complaints about Real Madrid’s lack of pressing in particular. Zidane’s justification may have been this — the team’s press broke at a critical moment at the Mestalla early on, which ultimately led to a goal conceded and a bad result. Perhaps a more conservative approach was needed this time around. In this case, that turned out to be the wrong ideology, but no one has hindsight in advance, and to Zidane’s credit, he did fix the issues he had, even if it would have been better had he remedied them earlier.

Hiccups, that’s all. You can understand the anxiety behind Madridista’s voices before the comeback was complete. It was not just about what was happening at the Madrigal, it was about what was happening around them too. Frustration surfaces from Barcelona’s trailing footsteps, who just refuse to go away — unimpressive and stumbling as they may be. Consider this: Real Madrid’s 2nd loss of the season came in February, and now they have just as many losses as Barcelona, who, despite it seeming like they are lightyears behind, are right there. The state of La Liga is different (and very very good) this year and it’s making Real Madrid uncomfortable.

But it should give them pride too. What Real Madrid have done up until now seems so laborious given their minuscule buffer, but the reward of getting it done this season will be ubber impressive too.

Six Observations

The difference between Real Madrid’s defensive structure before the hour mark, as oppose to the last half hour.


Benzema, Ronaldo, and Bale ignore the goalkeeper and two central defenders, opting to man-mark the wing-backs and defensive midfielder. The rest of the team is in-sync, following suit to cover the passing lanes and attempting to mark the midfielders out of the game. That’s fine — football teams do it all the time. But again, we’re talking about a Villarreal team that shouldn’t have been coaxed into their comfort zone by allowing to play through their offensive struggles.


Night and day. Isco works tremendously hard here. Track his position from start to finish. Zidane recognized the instructions he needed to deliver, and Isco gets it right away. Once he starts the chase, Villarreal retreat back to their goalkeeper Fernandez, and Benzema follows suit to hound him. Isco is a smidgen late to recognize he needs to hedge left to close Musacchio, but he does eventually, and it’s enough to visibly unnerve Villarreal.

Again, what Isco (and Zidane) did around the hour mark shouldn’t be understated. It changed the game completely, and Escriba’s men were looted of their confidence from there.

Just an additional note before I move on to my next point: Isco really was brilliant on Sunday. He created the first goal by drawing in defenders and slinging the ball out wide to Carvajal, and it was his tackle on Castellejo (who was a huge thorn in Marcelo and Ramos’ side all night) that led to recovering possession before Morata scored the winner.

Appreciating Gareth Bale

This is not extraordinary — it’s just Gareth Bale being Gareth Bale. I missed him, and I appreciate him. These little moments make me smile.

Appreciating Gareth Bale (part 2)

The above sequence made me smile, but this made me laugh:

Jumbled notes from Castilla

Castilla lost to Toledo on Sunday (Sam covered it for you, here), failing to build on their two-game winning streak. They lost the match, to be sure, with 10-men for a large stretch, since kingpin Aleix Febas was sent off in the second half. I always wondered what Castilla would look like without Febas, who has carried the team so much and has easily been Solari’s best player. This match gave me an answer — it was a mess.

Some tidbits:

  • Febas is now doing long vertical switches that are very Xabi-esque — uh, what? Is there anything this kid can’t do? Add it to the list, along with: Eel-like dribbling in tight spaces, defensive positioning and ability to play as an anchor, making runs up the field like an unstoppable bowling ball, shooting from distance, and dispossessing opponents. The only thing I haven’t seen him do yet is figure out how to reverse climate change, which, to be fair, he’ll probably figure out while he’s serving his one-game suspension. Oh, he also apologized for his red card — brownie points.
  • Sergio Diaz hasn’t been himself for what, four months now? This kid started off the campaign dominating Segunda B and fathering everyone who played in that league. Since then, he’s not only cooled off, but he’s become a corpse who hangs his head when things don’t go his way. He’s missing easy chances, and hasn’t meshed well into the scheme since Solari’s never-ending experiment of putting him on the left wing began. I’m not sure I’ll get to pick Solari’s brain about it until I take in a few Castilla matches in April, but somehow he needs to figure out what to do to get the best of Sergio Diaz. Solari doesn’t see Diaz as a pure 9, and he’s in his right to play the in-form Campuzano up top; but he’s trying to re-invent Diaz into a Hazard type role where he’s more of an Aguero.
  • I’m not sure how, but Luca Zidane has been really, really, really good lately. He’s been immense, with key saves, since the New Year. Encouraging signs from a kid who looked awfully mistake-prone earlier in the season.

Marcos Llorente setting teams on fire on the counter

This is easily Llorente’s best trait. Concrete examples of this have appeared in almost all of my columns since December. He is a thief, and positions himself in pockets where he can close you down quicker than you have time to calculate your surroundings. Against Valencia, where Llorente avenged our loss, he was doing a lot of good things defensively.

Here, smoke this good stuff:

His positioning is so damn good. Even when he’s not about to steal your soul and propel a counter, he does subtle things like play passing lanes and have you doubting your existence and purpose on earth — let alone what you need to be doing with the ball.

Some players chose between marking the man, and covering the passing lane — Llorente does both. He marks the man while hedging towards the ball-carrier. It’s subtle, but it’s conducive to ball retention.

Keep your eye on #6 and his yellow boots:

Here Llorente cuts off the vertical pass to Parejo, forcing Carlos Soler to play the ball out-wide:

Did I mention Llorente does really good things?

Llorente ended the match with four interceptions and seven tackles. His distribution was subdued (50/57 passes completed), but that was mostly down to Alaves’ lack of possession. He did come up with the hockey assist on the night, which ultimately gave Alaves the three points.

Borja Mayoral and Diego Llorente...... Both played?

Yes, we’re at a stage now where we put our hands in the air whenever Diego Llorente gets playing time — he’s almost as forgotten as Mayoral is now! Joking, I would never forget my son Borja — but I don’t hold it against you if you did.

Anyway, you already know that Mayoral doesn’t get a lick this season, and if you’ve been reading my columns, you should know Diego has been in the dog house since December 2016 — flung into the deep end of the depth chart, looking up at the walking disaster that is Miguel Torres. This all unfolded after Malaga’s heavy-defeat at the Sanchez Pizjuan in December, and Llorente hasn’t been favoured since.

This weekend — on the same match-day which saw Marcos win and Odegaard grab an assist (although Frankfurt played, Vallejo didn’t due to injury) — both Borja Mayoral and Diego Llorente started for Wolfsburg and Malaga respectively. Diego played as a defensive midfielder, and helplessly saw his team get ransacked by Eibar.

Mayoral — although seeing his team lose — had a better day, scoring his team’s only goal.

He also should have scored another:

I’ll leave you with this: Although Mayoral scored Wolfsburg’s lone goal, I don’t see him playing himself into the team, and he needs to jump ship, like yesterday. I understand that it’s not down to him, but I imagine Real Madrid have already begun drawing up a plan of getting him back in Spain next season, where plenty of La Liga teams could benefit from having him up top. Against Werder, despite his goal, he wasn’t being used properly — often isolated at the top of the attack or playing as the highest player up the pitch. He needs to go back to his roots and be played where he’s best — just behind the striker in a situation he’s able to create without being a target man.

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