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.
This is a world of narratives. Sometimes things that happen in life support the ideas you push down people’s throats, and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes you’re subdued with your opinions, and sometimes what happens to support your narrative is drastic enough that you pounce as soon something goes your way.
So here’s what has transpired in the past week, just to catch you up: Real Madrid played an uncomfortably entertaining game against Bayern Munich which they won without Gareth Bale; and with Asensio morphing into the father of every German who ever existed on earth. Bale returned to training shortly after, and was ‘fit’ just in time for el Clasico, which was controversial, because: 1) Asensio was in form; and 2) Zidane was going to (and ultimately did) waste a sub if Bale had a relapse. I always give the manager the benefit of the doubt in these situations. There is not a chance on earth you, me, or any other fan who wants to shoehorn their hot take are more connected to what’s happening in the medical room than Zinedine Zidane. Ultimately, he has to have the soundest information of all, fully knowing the risk factor of starting a player (who, to be clear, is not a shmuck, and is a player who has given Barcelona all kinds of headaches in the past), after consulting with both the player and medical staff. Yet here we are, media and fans alike, quite easily throwing blame and all the shade that comes with it. Why? Because it’s easy to do so — arms on chairs and all.
What’s the problem? Odds are, that Asensio was going to come in for Bale at some point anyway — it just so happens that he came in about half hour earlier than expected. Yet, as Messi stripped down in front of the Bernabeu the narratives were already written: It’s time to break up the BBC, and Zidane shouldn’t have started Bale. Here’s the thing — I’m not opposed to the former — but this is a weird, weird game to base it off of. We want to gut the root of the BBC tree on the back of a game Bale barely played in, and everything came down to missing chances while miscueing defensively.
Bale gets a lot of shade, man, and I think he deserves more patience from the fans. There are reasons to keep him, and reasons to not — but the reasons to stick with him trump the reasons not to, and it’s not particularly close. We’re talking about a game-changing presence who can turn games and do things no one else in the world can do. Schematically, it’s not far-fetched to build a system with him as a point of convergence and piggyback off his strengths. He has a really high IQ without the ball, provides really good stability, and has enough lungs and athleticism to dominate a wing as a two-way presence. He’s also about to enter his peak (he’s still just 27), and seeing him at another top EPL club would be enough to make most hurl.
The question then, is not about Bale’s talent or fit; but rather his health. There are ways to atone this. An infinite amount of talent resides in the squad at Bale’s position, ready to make the leap from their understudy roles. Asensio has been a revelation this season, proving he’s no longer a prospect, but a man who belongs on the biggest stage. Isco has made a leap from ‘inconsistent over-dribbling genius’ to ‘game-altering maestro’ who delivers consistently. James is James — a player most other teams on earth would love to have, and his stats per 90 metrics remain impressive.
Look, you’re not going to be able to keep all three of those players. Nor should you. You need to trim the depth chart in order to provide better rhythm and a more channelled distribution of minutes to just one or two players rather than three. But even if you keep two (I have already made up my mind on who it should be, but won’t reveal it until the end of the season blockbuster mailbag), you still have the cushion you need for Bale’s injuries, assuming they continue into next season. Keeping Bale then, with world class talent in the rotation as a buffer is a low-risk high-reward scenario for a superstar that can still hep you nab trophies and gun down your biggest rivals like a Welsh assassin (I don’t know any Welsh assassins, personally, apart from Christian Bale, but I’m sure they’re very good at what they do and Gareth is no exception).
You know what? I actually have believed for quite some time that the BBC needs to be given a good shake. I think there is a fine line between continuity and insanity. Continuity is Zidane — the man who might finally defy the managerial conveyor belt, the man who makes tactical mistakes but also pleasantly surprises, and the man you let continue to make mistakes because you believe in a greater cause.
Insanity is Arsene Wenger.
If you don’t sacrifice Gareth Bale, you need to decide who you’re going to sacrifice. I’ve swung-and-swayed on this since last season. I never considered Bale to be the one that is uprooted. Last season, I believed it to be Ronaldo, but he’s proven to be more clutch than I ever had imagined. The issue with Ronaldo was always a matter of ‘when do we cash in on this guy before he starts turning mortal and starts taking vital playing time from stellar young talents’? The answer though, might just be: ‘whenever a meteor hits the earth because no other natural disaster will stop Ronaldo from starting for Real Madrid, not even death itself’.
So we have to talk about the elephant in this article (because he’s so not an elephant in the real-world. He’s whatever an antonym is to an elephant, maybe a small boar), Karim Benzema. To be clear, before I lay down my solution to this line-up problem, I’m going to layout the fact that I’m not in the camp that would rather drink molten lava than see Benzema take the field. Om and I have debunked the myth of his supposed ‘laziness’ in plenty of articles and videos; and even in a subdued game, there were plenty of examples of Benzema doing good things against Barcelona, like playing Asensio through on goal moments before Ronaldo missed a sitter, and pressing well in the first half. He ended the match without a goal to his name thanks to some heroism from Ter Stegen.
Ultimately, as much as he still has good things left to give Real Madrid, of the three members of the controversial BBC, Benzema has lost his charm the most. In this context, I will define ‘charm’ as ‘degree of replaceability’. In this case, Karim Benzema has become the most replaceable player of the trio. But it wouldn’t make sense to replace him like-for-like. Half the reason for this exercise is to talk yourself through solving the problem of players like Asensio getting hindered by lack of playing time.
This is the part where you purchase one of those digital picture frames, upload the 0-3 demolition at the Calderon from earlier this season where Ronaldo scored a hat-trick playing up front on his own, and hang it up at Valdebebas. “From here-forth, our mantra will be an ode to that near-perfect night, where a double-pivot without Casemiro worked because the midfield was packed, the wings were stable, Isco was a focal point, Bale’s work on the wing was responsible for 90% of the children conceived that night, and Ronaldo scored three goals because if he ever become the spearhead of the attack he would be best #9 on the planet”
.. ‘But, Ronaldo as a #9 is a terrible idea’. If you really want to go there, this train of thinking could easily be flipped with the right scheme.
Playing Ronaldo as an isolated forward that sits at the penalty spot and springs up for headers is a terrible idea.
Playing Ronaldo as a roaming forward who gets fed from Bale and Asensio’s darting runs on the wing as well as Isco’s precision from the middle = profit. So let’s get that money, yeah?
.@LucasNavarreteM The sooner we realize that Ronaldo can play higher on his own, the sooner that extra slot gets freed up. Bale is 27, entering his peak.— Kiyan Sobhani (@KiyanSo) April 24, 2017
A side of the Bale / Asensio swap that won’t show up on the stats sheet.
Eye test time. Everyone loves bringing up those Squawka comparison matrixes where ‘x player’ looks superior to ‘other x player’ because stats per 90 metrics tells us everything we need to know about measuring players. Squawka will never, ever, tell you that Gareth Bale makes Real Madrid better defensively. As mentioned above, Bale’s IQ without the ball is very high — he understands when to press and when to hedge off and close the passing lanes. This actually isn’t anything new if you’ve read this column since I first started it a few months ago. It’s precisely why Bale works so good as a two-way stabilizing winger. Most recently, Real Madrid’s shape in el Clasico looked much better with Bale in it than without him, and against Bayern, it was the same.
(also, Om and I will be uploading a video which breaks down Real Madrid’s good press (first half) and bad press (second half) shortly.
With Asensio, as blitzing as he is offensively, Carvajal was spread thin after the substitution was made. David Cartlidge and I discussed this on last night’s Churros y Tácticas podcast. Both of us feel that this wasn’t Asensio’s fault, and it was more a matter of Zidane asking Asensio to stay up and act as an outlet in transition as he smelt blood in the water, and wanted to go for the kill.
Leading up to Rakitic’s goal, Asensio completely ignored Carvajal who was marking two men on his own -- tucking inside and high, relying on Kroos shifting from a narrow position if the ball went there. This was a recurring theme in the second half.
Look at the alarm bells ringing right before Rakitic strikes. Asensio opts to take Iniesta — who is not in a dangerous position — out of the play, neither hounding the ball-carrier, nor tracking Suarez’s run / cutting off the passing lane.
This Benzema quirk that drives me nuts
Benzema has done this one thing like three billion times this season, and every time he does it, I say to myself ‘nah, this ain’t enough to be one one of my observations, surely’. But, then he does it, and he continues to do it, and then he does it almost every game. When anticipating a ball on the run, he tries to let the ball slide through and lead him, only to let it hit the back of his heel. I’m not about to go back and pull out every time this has happened, but I made note of this particular instance on Saturday. Feel free to look out for this strange vagary that appears in Benzema’s game moving forward.
The really efficient movement of James Rodriguez
I love this. It’s money. I will use any reason to celebrate James that I can. Just watch his movement in the lead up to his goal. He starts the play himself from the right flank, then runs and bamboozles everyone en route to scoring — with the sleeping Busquets being his final victim.
Just watch James without the ball and nothing else.