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.
In 24 days, Real Madrid gruelled through eight games — coasting through a condensed schedule before the most important point of the season looms -- just a stone’s throw away. If Real Madrid haven’t already reached the event horizon of the 2016-2017 season, they’re not far from it. We often misuse or overuse the wording of ‘most important’ when analyzing strings of games within a schedule to label them as provisional defying moments, but once Spring hits, you truly are well into the make-or-break moments of the season. The first do-or-die hurdle was conquered at San Paolo — but it wasn’t easy, nor were the tests leading up to that moment. In the eight games from February 11th to March 7th, the team dropped five points and came up with more questions than it can answer.
Business arising: Why have Real Madrid blown their opponents out of the water in the two times they, by obligation, where thrown to battle without Ronaldo and Bale? If the team is so much better off with Kovacic instead of Casemiro, then why was the midfield so disjointed against Las Palmas, leaving the flanks vulnerable, jilted, and without cover? Why do players like Asensio, James, and Kovacic — always impressing in limited minutes (relative) — go back to the end of the queue, rendering the concept of ‘form’ antiquated? Zidane’s answer to all these questions are that ‘every squad player is important’. Not as verbally frank is his answer to what the Once de Gala is in the do-or-die clashes — but we see it on paper in every big game, and it’s the one we saw in Naples.
It is hard to attach any blame to Zidane for his thought process on this. The team has won a Champions League with said lineup, and got the job done at San Paolo. Bottom line is this: Your best players should play in those heavyweight melees, and rotations can be left for the minnows sandwiched in between. Still, it’s hard to see if the team would still be standing had Sergio Ramos not scored two headers off set-pieces — two plays detached from the palpable flow of the game — when Napoli had made Real Madrid so unnerved with how well they pressed.
Let’s get this out of the way: No single player is a problem. Gareth Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Karim Benzema have all carried Real Madrid to new heights — they are still elite players. Mateo Kovacic has put superb performances in all season, and the anomaly against Las Palmas where he was spread thin doesn’t overturn the idea that Mateo starting over Casemiro would be more conducive to Real Madrid winning games. There are issues of scheme at play, not issues of personnel.
Real Madrid have looked good in different situations. We do this often, but we have to do it again — the performance in the Calderon with the 4-4-1-1 was so good that it should be replicated. That formation featured all of Ronaldo, Bale, and Kovacic. All three excelled where they don’t in other formations. Against Las Palmas, Kovacic was raided and spread thin; whereas in the scheme against Atletico, Modric hovered and aided Mateo with box-to-box work, with Isco just in front, and the wings packed — the defense looked like a legitimate stronghold. It was a blueprint that didn’t sacrifice offensive prowess, with Bale and Isco leading a delicious counterattacking charge spearheaded by Ronaldo.
Certain schemes will have players excel. In the 4-4-1-1, you could insert multiple gunslingers without worrying about drop-offs. James could play the Isco role, and Kroos slides in naturally anywhere in the middle — and you’d still have enough diligent soldiers across the board to make up for Kovacic’s belligerency if you dropped him. Of course, that formation also guts Benzema and Morata; but hey - pick your poison. The argument here isn’t to shove a singular formation down your throat, but to shed light on the importance of scheme as a whole. How can Bale and Ronaldo look so good in one scheme, and lost in another? How can Benzema be otherworldly against Eibar but barely see the ball in Naples?
The cloud over the front three against Napoli in the second leg of the Champions League round of 16 was dark and cold. But that’s not all on Bale, Benzema, and Ronaldo (the front three even performed well in the rare attacks they did have going forward). They were isolated thanks to Napoli’s press. The backline struggled threading vertical passes to the BBC, who were parked for a fast-slinging counter-attack. Again, these are schematic issues, and not so much personnel issues.
"When we talk about the BBC, we are talking about the best player in the world, another player with enormous quality and another who has real pace and power," Casemiro told RealMadrid.com.
"There will always be criticism, but they are very important players for us."
"Everyone is here with an opinion every week. People change their opinion every week," Zidane said before the second leg when asked about the BBC.
"I'm happy to have all my squad available except two or three that we've left at home. We're all here and I'm happy for that.
"Everyone is free to have an opinion and decide who they think should play but it doesn't bother me too much."
Zidane’s not wrong. Narrative changes from week to week. This is not just on the fanbase — it’s on the media too. One week Bale is indispensable, the next he’s a liability. Ditto Benzema, Ramos, Marcelo, Kroos — the list goes on. Zidane has the deepest toolbox on earth, and using every tool regularly enough before it goes rusty is a task on its own (Coentrao is the exception to this rule, he is more absent than Peter Lim), and if some of these depth and rotational ‘problems’ are to be solved next season, there needs to be some gutting and tightening of the rotation, because rhythm is currently taking a backseat to keeping players happy.
Per WhoScored, Real Madrid has rolled out a 4-3-3 26 times, 4-2-3-1 four times (there is a good chance the 4-4-1-1 at the Calderon falls under this category, depending on your interpretation of it), 3-5-2 twice, and 4-4-2 once. Among these formations came endless shuffling in terms of personnel. The cadre just hasn’t had enough continuity to prove its worth, which now brings the biggest question of all — have we reached a point in the season where it’s time to build the rhythm for the Once de Gala? There are counter arguments to this idea, but given the amount of rotation that’s already come through, and with a looming international break, the case for the final blitz — familiarity and rhythm of the best lineup possible — is there to be made. If Zidane is set on the idea that the 4-3-3 (with a hexad of Casemiro, Kroos, Modric, Ronaldo, Bale, and Benzema) is the way to go — even if everyone in the solar system disagrees with it — then he should ride it until the death. The final hurdle is now. Let the continuity and rhythm unfurl. Better now than later.
The fashionably late press
Twice now in the last week or so, Real Madrid have buckled up into deep lines, coaxing their opponents into coming at them while leaving their backline exposed to the infamous counter. It hasn’t worked. Neither Villarreal nor Napoli took the bait. In the case of Fran Escriba’s men, they were allowed comfort to build, while closing Real Madrid down as soon as they retained possession, simultaneously denying passing outlets. In the case of Maurizio Sarri’s blueprint, Napoli’s counter-press was so efficient, that getting the ball to the bandits up top — Ronaldo, Bale, and Benzema — became improbable.
Then boom. Zidane, sometime early in the second half of both games, implements a high press, extending Real Madrid out of their shell and into the field of battle. In both cases, the very first press threw both Villarreal and Napoli off guard, wheedling them into coughing up possession in key areas. I broke the Madrigal game down in my last column, but to give it to you tangibly, here’s the first real press at San Paolo:
There is great cohesiveness here. Benzema’s press spearheads it, and just as Koulibaly looks to be the free man, Modric races to erase Napoli’s numerical advantage, and once Casemiro follows suit, Napoli have already dug their own grave. Maybe there is something to using your press only at certain moments — it’s arguably more sustainable this way, and given that Napoli were accustomed to comfort coming out the back for 50 minutes, dealing with a press out of the blue takes them by surprise.
Sharp contrast to how Real Madrid were set up in the first half:
The anchor that never was
Real Madrid have a prosaic ability to play a defensive scheme without being very good at it. The best (worst) example of this was the 3-5-2 at Balaidos in the Copa del Rey. At Napoli, the performance nearly made the cut before everything worked out fine and Sergio Ramos put on his power ranger belt and decided it’s morphin’ time. Despite hedging back and playing a deep line, the channels weren’t nearly compact enough, and the ever-reliable brainiacs, Kroos and Modric, were getting sliced.
When Real Madrid’s midfield wasn’t leaving gaps on the vertical plane, they were unaware of who should be occupying the anchoring position, leaving Hamsik with an unreasonable amount of space. Casemiro would get pinned as a third central defender, and Kroos and Modric weren’t covering as a stopgap in front of him, where Hamsik had enough time to gel his hair, blow-dry it, and get a full scalp massage:
Three times in the first half Hamsik was left in a situation like the above. One of them led to a goal.
Marcelo coverage gone wrong
Real Madrid still can’t get this right consistently. In open play, Isco, Casemiro, Kroos, and Kovacic have all proved useful when ducking in-behind to cover for Marcelo’s bombing runs, but there are moments where the dominoes fall quickly if the team doesn’t get it right. On the surface, this play shows Ramos as the culprit for failing to drop deep for Hamsik’s run, but the damage was done much earlier. Ramos is honing in on the winger where Marcelo normally covers. Pepe can only pick-up one of the two central players, and opts to grab the far man since Kroos is lurking. But Kroos makes the wrong run — drifting inside rather than dropping to eliminate the real danger, which is Hamsik’s run. Once Ramos and Pepe recover from these dominoes, Hamsik is already gone. This nearly made it a 2-0 lead heading into half-time.
The efficient Colombian
Some love for James is overdue. He was phenomenal against Eibar last weekend — outside his goal and two assists, he also created three chances while binding the midfield with the attack. On one possession he was linking up with Asensio on the left, and on another, with Vazquez on the right. Free-roaming James is the best James.
More love: Per 90 metrics, James completes more key passes and creates more chances than Gareth Bale, Isco, Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, Samir Nasri, Vitolo, Neymar, and Lionel Messi. He is proper. My take on the James situation goes back to 2014 — it would be a waste of life to not build with him moving forward.
Marcos Llorente watch
Queue obligatory Marcos Llorente observation segment. I almost can’t not include him on every column. He draws me in almost every matchday. Alaves took two points off of Sevilla last weekend, and although Llorente’s performance wasn’t on par with his pervious stellar displays against Atletico and Valencia, he did a lot of good things, which is pretty routine for him this season.
What I love about Llorente is that he doesn’t waste time. In his mind, he’s already zipped the ball to the next player before it even gets to him. He plays quick, and he would rather accelerate than dwell on the ball and waste precious calories and brain cells which could slow down the pace of the offense.
His decisiveness and desire to use every second like the earth’s survival depends on it extends to his defense too. He doesn’t overextend energy, and at times, his serene maneouvering when tracking back can make him look immobile and lazy — think of Toni Kroos in that sense. But he’s far from it. His strength lies in his positioning, and when he retains possession, it’s because he pulls the ball like a magnet — it is not a lunging or desperate motion.
Llorente’s passing and ability to be useful with the ball at his feet is not what defines him. His most impressive trait is easily the way he pops up at the right moment to retain possession and launch counters like a human catapult. Without exception, he has these moments folded into each game he plays in. It’s his bread and butter.
So chill here in reading the passing lanes before intercepting the pass that was meant for N'zonzi. pic.twitter.com/neXOpQCMwW— Kiyan Sobhani (@KiyanSo) March 6, 2017
Llorente’s distribution still isn’t polished to its peak. But his vertical passing has improved greatly in the past couple months. Here’s one more Llorente morsel before I leave you:
Nice stuff from Marcos here. Quick pass, rushing to provide the outlet, and bringing the ball up the field to create a chance. pic.twitter.com/L779Qw0if3— Kiyan Sobhani (@KiyanSo) March 6, 2017
Miscellaneous Castilla notes
Scheduled observation on Castilla, copy and pasted from now until eternity:
FEBAS IS AMAZING
PLAYING SERGIO DIAZ ON THE WING SHOULD BE CONSIDERED A CRIMINAL OFFENCE!
That’s all. I mean, it’s reasonable at this point to play Campuzano up front given his form. But this is where it breaks down: In a game where Campuzano didn’t start, Solari still kept Diaz on the left wing and put Nikos up front. Nikos is really not good enough to shoehorn in there just to torture Diaz — death by a thousand cuts. The worst part is this — Solari finally did go to a 4-4-2 in this game, but he took off Diaz for Campuzano.
Final verdict: Solari actually is down with playing a 4-4-2 which would allow Diaz to play up front, but that formation will only take place with Diaz on the bench. I love me some Santiago — he was one of my favourite players in the original galactico era — but I’m counting down the days until Guti gets promoted.