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Real Madrid has a realistic chance to repeat as European champion

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On how the Champions League is unfolding, staggering questions from fans, and tactical tidbits from the first leg in Munich

Real Madrid Celebrate After They Win Champions League Final Photo by Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/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.


There’s barely any room for columns these days, given the condensed schedule and all. Real Madrid play nine times this month — good for a game every 3(ish) days. Meanwhile La Liga’s schedule is hot-and-heavy, and when you factor in European clashes, there are Spanish teams playing every single day. How the hell do you survive as a journalist in this situation? Answer: You don’t. You wake up every day and it’s a gong show. On the fly, you’re recording podcasts, slinging out match coverage (or, in some cases, scrambling to re-write your match report after a Griezmann goal changes everything; meanwhile the sun decides to do its best roasting act, shamelessly broiling your scalp and triggering laptop brightness to uncharted magnitude), meeting deadlines on freelance gigs, recording Facebook videos, and somewhere in between, trying to uphold your favourite engagement of all — weekly columns where you try to encapsulate everything that’s been on your mind for the past seven days.

To summarize, everything is bonkers right now. I started writing this column before the Bayern game, and now I have to finish it by shoehorning in what happened at Alianz Arena after Zidane’s half-time speech consisted of dropping infinity stones into the souls of eleven Real Madrid players who finally realized that their season was on the line, and if they’re to have any chance of being the first team to repeat as kings of Europe since Milan did it in the ice age, they needed to get their act together.

As a reminder, yours truly correctly predicted that Real Madrid would come out of Bavaria with a 1-2 away victory, completely tossing this idea that ‘Bayern will be hungry and look to seek revenge for being eternally inflicted in 2014’ deep into the earth’s core. There are just too many cojones in this team regardless of any schematic issues not to be confident even against a team of aliens. Seriously, go back in Real Madrid’s history and show me a team that had this many balls. You can’t do it. This one averages more than two per player. Ramos on his own has half-a-dozen gonads in his shorts and I’m amazed they don’t weigh him down when he goes up to meet headers. Ronaldo has about the same. Go down the list: Modric and Kroos are the best central midfield tandem the team has ever had (I’ve written about this before, in case you feel like challenging me on it), and the squad is insultingly deep as a whole. You can almost play the ‘raw talent’ card over any schematic issues. Legendary players can mask problems, and I think one day we’ll look back on this team and realize how lucky we were to watch it and scrutinize all its pitfalls. I actually don’t think we’ll truly appreciate it until this era is over.

I’m not saying this team is invincible — it’s not. Heck, Bayern could overturn a near-worst case scenario here, but you’re going to have a difficult time keeping this Real Madrid team off the score sheet. Even in all their impressive defensive sequences, Bayern were still sensitive to getting gunned down by Real’s attack, and there is enough talent in Zidane’s squad to bulldoze even the best of barricades. That’s something, given how badly we (Managing Madrid, and our personal Twitter accounts) get blasted with insane questions that we just can’t answer. “WHY is Marcelo so fat?!” was my favourite one last week, but nothing will beat that one time someone messaged us and asked us to tell Zidane to switch to a diamond formation next time we have lunch with him.

Wait, I lied. There was also that one time someone created a new Facebook account and asked us to let James know of this important life change, so that James could follow his posts. Shit, no. My favourite was actually that time someone messaged us and asked if he could join the squad next season as a winger. That was truly something. It is the equivalent of flipping through the entire white pages of the United States of America, randomly pointing to someone’s name, calling them, and asking them to tell Lupe Fiasco to go back to spitting real shit, because everything post-Lasers was hot garbage.

I do believe that there is a good reason that no team has won the Champions League back-to-back since the 80s. I think it’s a real thing, and not some fluke. Some of the best teams of all time couldn’t do it. It’s insanely taxing and difficult to do, and for that reason, I am completely detached from what happens in Europe this season. I think, the way it’s all unfolding, Juventus actually has a great crack at lifting this trophy in Cardiff, and that would be incredible for them to do it on the back of losing a superstar just months prior.

But here’s the issue with my belief-system -- it completely discounts what is happening in sports right now. Seriously, impossible things are happening every day. Everything we thought couldn’t be done is being done. In the past two years, we’ve seen unfathomable comebacks across various major sports. Ronaldo just cracked 100 European goals, which in itself breaks my brain, because I grew up thinking Raul would never relinquish his goal-record in my lifetime. Russell Westbrook just averaged a triple-double over the course of the season, and sports science is pushing the boundaries of what we thought was possible daily — like a giant snowball.

Eventually, someone will repeat as European champion. ‘Eventually’ might actually turn out to be this season. It’s not impossible. We can be detached but hopeful. If there was ever a time to do it, it’s surely in a season where Zidane has rotated like a pinwheel, and calculated rest has bought time. Besides the fact that I want my FourFourTwo prediction to come through, I actually think Zidane could pull it off this season if the right dominoes fall.

Five Observations

Real Madrid’s shape without the ball

While Real’s individual movement without the ball was impressive, the team’s collective shape was cohesive too. Amid Bayern’s gunslinging first-half barrage, this tidbit might get lost in the shuffle. Bayern is very good. They can break a press, and much of the first half they succeeded in doing so — but that doesn’t mean Real Madrid didn’t do their best to stop the bleeding. There were some nice moments defensively amid the first half fusillade where Bayern were racking up an untold amount of corners.

This is a great sequence. Modric presses high up the pitch, which has been a recurring theme when he’s surrounded by Casemiro and Kroos in a midfield trio. These three will take turns being the front pivot, but Modric finds himself in this position the most. He’s often the spearhead. Out of the two brainiacs, Kroos and Modric, in midfield; Modric is the most irrevocable binding agent to link the BBC to the midfield. In the above string of passes by Bayern out of the back, their passing lanes are being strategically picked off one-by-one. Benzema and Modric put pressure on the center backs and take away their comfort zone; while Ronaldo, Kroos, and Casemiro take Alonso, Thiago, and Robben out of the equation. On the far side, Bale doesn’t look like he’s doing much, but once the ball swings, he hedges to the flank to cut off the pass to Alaba. All of this buys time for Modric and Benzema to continue hounding before Neuer is coaxed into conceding possession.

What ensues is a subtle piece of artistry. The recognition and sheer ability from Bale to throw the ball into a wide-open Benzema in the penalty area from long distance leads to a great chance for Toni Kroos in his usual sweet spot

More dynamic movement from Zidane’s men, triggered by Ronaldo’s initial sprint to suffocate Neuer. The team follows suit pragmatically. Bale and Modric wisely hedge-off, attempting to dictate where Bayern’s passes will go. From there, the game is to play the passing lane rather than the man. This kind of scheme allows Bayern comfort on the ball, but it also hoodwinks their passing options. Real Madrid eventually intercept the ball twice during this build-up — once from Bale, and a second time from Marcelo.

These small details became more prominent in the second half, when Bayern were aiming to stay afloat while visibly unnerved. On this occasion, the silky Asensio pestered Bayern’s backline, and just when Douglas Costa thinks he’s come out on top, Asensio — along with Modric, Casemiro, and Carvajal — swarm him like an army of wasps.

The bi-monthly need to address the ‘good and bad’ of Casemiro

Casemiro does great things but also bad things? Shocking. How did we get here? The same way we get here every other month. There is no player on earth who can hurt you yet help you to such extreme degrees. No one embodied the dramatic difference between the first and second halves in Munich more than Casemiro. For the first 45 minutes of this game he was a train-wreck offensively. He couldn’t hit passes from his anchoring role, and without the ball, even when he was open, both Ramos and Modric looked him off in favour of horizontal or backward passes. There just isn’t enough margin for error to lose possession against this Bayern side. You can find traces of these caveats throughout the season, and as recently as the Madrid Derby.

But boy oh boy did he quaff deeply from Zidane’s half-time battle cry. Casemiro stepped out from the locker-room as one of the ring leaders the team desperately needed. He completely broke Bayern’s spine with an incisive through-ball to Carvajal which lead to Real Madrid’s first goal, then went on to become an important figure in snuffing out Bayern’s counter-attacks.

RonaldGoat

Ronaldo is making a strong push here late (or early, assuming he plays into his 60s being the unicorn that he is) in his career as the de facto goat. His form in 2017 has been remarkable, and any statistical drop-offs are easily recouped with the eye test which is pure candy at this point. Against Bayern, you could almost ignore his brace and just revel in his exemplary work rate without the ball. We’re talking about doubling up on the wings to cover for Marcelo, dropping deep to close passing lanes, retain possession, and ignite counters singlehandedly.

Keep an eye on him here as he acts as Marcelo’s defensive sidekick to deny Robben space before showing for Casemiro when the ball is retained:

Just before Ronaldo cajoled Javi Martinez into his second yellow, he duped him into his first. The red card is still fresh in our minds, but it’s important to note that Ronaldo drew blood just before that moment. Here Martinez is given a slither of hope to bring the ball up the field before Ronaldo creeps up into his rear view mirror. Once the ball is won, Kroos finds Ronaldo who draws Martinez’s first yellow:

Nacho, and all that needs to be said

The ‘old man’ from Castilla games is the best

It didn’t occur to me until last weekend when I was sitting in Valdebebas that I hear the same old man chirping at every Castilla game. He wears a white hat, shouts pure verbal carnage, and is riled up at the most unreasonable moments imaginable — and it’s seriously the best. He gets particularly rowdy when Enzo has the ball. If you’re wondering why every single one of my Castilla tweets are now accompanied with a remark about the old man, it’s because this dude has earned the right.