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.
On April 24, 2003, I was a 15-year-old kid on a plane. The plane was heading back north from a family vacation in Mexico. One week prior, I had planned ahead. I knew that in seven days, I would be in a chair in the sky during one of the most important Real Madrid matches of said season -- the return leg of the Champions League quarter finals against Manchester United at Old Trafford. It was the stone age. I set the VCR to record for 2:45pm a week in advance. That I got it bang on without missing a minute on either side was a miracle.
On April 23rd, 2003, my father and I snuck away to a bar to watch Juventus win away at the Camp Nou to eliminate Barcelona. It was him, me, two neural Mexicans, and an Italian waiter who was running around the bar like he had just won the lottery. That was a sweet moment. We high-fived our friend for slaying the common enemy and retired to the beach. The only thing I could think about was how sweet it would be if Real Madrid joined Juventus in the semi-final.
I was a hot mess on the plane on the way home. It was the middle of the night, and Real Madrid’s match against Manchester United had long finished. For one, I had no idea what the score was (‘in my day’ it was relatively easy to stay away from the score in Canada. No one was shoving results down your throat, and no smart phones were blowing up). I was also unconvinced that I had programmed the VCR properly. Every scenario went through my head: ‘what if we press play and it only started recording in the 90th minute and Real Madrid are pushing for a needed goal’? ‘What if it’s a penalty shootout?’ ‘WHAT IF IT’S A PENALTY SHOOTOUT AND 21 PLAYERS HAVE ALREADY SHOT THEIR PENALTY AND THE LAST PENALTY KICK TAKER IS FLAVIO CONCEIÇAO AND THE ENTIRE UNIVERSE RESTS ON HIS SHOULDERS’?
We landed at 4am. Eyes blood-shot but soul was woke. No amount of physical exhaustion would have hindered me from running home and launching myself at the VCR. My dad much the same, and my Madridista blood was inherited from him — if anything he would beat me to it. The first dude we saw after baggage claim was some guy I will hate until the end of my life. He was there to pick up his friend. He was wearing a Manchester United Cap. The smile on his face was bigger than the biggest OG Ronaldo grin I’ve ever seen. My heart sank. He was way too happy. That dude was satan. I fucking knew Flavio Conceiçao had missed that last penalty. I hated Flavio Conceiçao at that moment and I hated the happy Manc too.
We pressed play. It was beautiful. Apart from some dangerous moments from Ruud early on, I was nearly completely relieved when Ronaldo blitzed past Rio Ferdinand to meet a surgical ball from Guti. He beat Barthez near post. Twice more he would score on Barthez that night — once after a ridiculously good build-up which featured the entire attacking line of Guti, Macca, Figo, Zidane, and Roberto Carlos; and another after bringing the ball up the field on a counter and slinging it far post from outside of the box.
Manchester United ended up winning that game 4-3. It was a ‘feel-good’ finish. Old Trafford was as happy as a team can be after getting knocked out. It was at the hands of one of the best players of all-time willing his way to a hat-trick. The second-leg ended with a ‘winning goal’ from their son David Beckham — a nice goodbye before joining Real the following season. Ronaldo was applauded as he was taken off in the 80th minute. In the first leg, they had been played off the park and humbled in one of the most aesthetically-pleasing performances in Real Madrid’s history. It was Raul who had done the damage there — this time it was Ronaldo.
14 years on, that performance remains one of my favourite memories as a Madridista, and there are so many moments within those two legs that could be dissected on their own. Now I can forgive that Manc wearing the cap. But I still hate him.
Here’s the thing about that era: when you’re taking it all in as a kid, everything is that much more amazing. You’re less cynical and more appreciative. You don’t understand the game enough tactically to shred players or break it down beyond what they do offensively. Those legends could do little wrong from the perspective a 15-year-old.
OG Ronaldo was amazing, man. I think if a healthy OG Ronaldo was playing in today’s game, with the support of some of these offensive players in the team now, he’d be a statistical unicorn just like Cristiano.
Fine, maybe not quite on the level of 60 goals / season or whatever, but he’d still be unbelievable. From 2004-2006, in two insanely dark years, with little help, he singlehandedly kept Real Madrid in games. Half of the games in those two years was Ronaldo scoring, and Casillas making unbelievable saves on the other end. It was a two-man team. He was at the tail end of his career in those two seasons, too. In the three seasons prior, he scored 85 goals in 137 games. That’s incredible for a player who was still half-a-decade removed from his prime. Cristiano and Messi tend to dwarf those numbers and blind us with what they’re achieving, but I don’t think OG Ronaldo would be far off if we was healthy and fit. It’s a shame his best season came at Barcelona in ‘96/’97; but it’s still amazing to me that he scored 47 goals in 49 games that year. That’s about as close to a Cristiano / Messi type year you can get without actually being Cristiano or Messi.
But then you look at Cristiano Ronaldo, 14 years later, and nothing makes sense. If 29-year-old Kiyan could talk to 15-year-old Kiyan, he’d tell him: “That’s cute, but one day there’s going to be someone who will make your favourite player Raul look more inefficient than you possibly thought. Oh, and you know that amazing player named Ronaldo who some people argue is the best player to ever play the game? One day there will be someone who does what he did, only better. And instead of 47 goals in 49 games, he’ll score 403 in 392. Oh, and his name is also Ronaldo”.
15-year-old Kiyan would have clenched his fist, and if not for pure angst of not existing in the future, would have given 29-year-old Kiyan an uppercut and told him to wash his filthy mouth.
But the older you get, the more appreciative you are of better players succeeding your idols. If things just continually didn’t get better, it would be a terrible sign of stagnancy -- not only for your club, but also for the game. Sports have been ridiculous in the past two years in particular. They’ve also been spectacular, and some of things that happen on the biggest stage bends all of our minds into a parallel universe. I can’t wait to see what 45-year-old Kiyan will tell me. It is crazy to me that someone eventually will come along that will even surpass what Cristiano is doing. I don’t think it’s probable, but I think it’s inevitable. Cristiano came out of nowhere. His successor will too.
To be fair to OG Ronaldo, in his prime, he was pretty unsurpassable. I still think it’s a shame that he had health issues the way he did. He still looked great a few years on and a few pounds heavier at Real Madrid, but his peak itself was from another universe entirely. If science was ever able to bring back peak OG Ronaldo and put him on this Real Madrid team and place him in the Benzema slot, I’d pay all my money to see it. I would support funding this project over space exploration. I don’t understand the fun of living on a cold red planet with nothing to do anyway. Give me a Ronaldo-Ronaldo strike-force and I’ll stay on earth forever, with zero curiosity of what’s happening in a vast infinite existence.
We often complain Marco Asensio is lost defensively. It’s not incorrect to say that, by the way, but we do tend to have a shorter leash with him than some other players who struggle behind the ball — mostly because his upside is so ridiculous that it’s easy to forgive him. He may not yet have the defensive understanding and tactical awareness of Gareth Bale on the flank, but he’s been really good as of late in suffocating players trying to escape a press or struggling to find breathing room. There were plenty of examples of this against Sevilla in particular, where Asensio’s work rate led to chances for Real Madrid over and over again.
Here, after he burns through Sevilla’s defense, he hunts Vitolo down into another area code and picks his pocket:
Then, Kranevitter has no idea Asensio is lurking. Someone should have told him about the importance of checking your blindspot before turning. Asensio’s dispossession here leads to a goal:
His motor doesn’t cease offensively, either. Beyond embarrassing snoozing defenders, he’ll more often than not make the right decision with the ball. Asensio will hold the ball just long enough to suck in defenders before playing the pass which helps create numerical advantage in attack. Here, he waits for Ramos’ cutting run to drag Mercado out of the play before playing it to Ronaldo and immediately making an outlet run to the flank to provide an option:
He’s a genius on the ball, and works hard without it. He’s still learning where he needs to be defensively (the most extreme example was the defensive drop-off when he came in for Bale in the Clasico, and Carvajal was spread incredibly thin without any coverage); but he still brings way more to the table than he does hurt the team. I would like to see him improve on little miscues like the play below, where he lets Vitolo cut behind him, then, rather than hedging back to track a wide-open Jovetic on the left flank (far left side of your screen), he follows the central channel which doesn’t help anyone. Luckily the ball didn’t find itself furrowed to the left wing where Jovetic was ready to do damage had it gone there.
Sergio Ramos is just fine
I just want to point out that Sergio Ramos is fine, even despite his ridiculous giveaway against Celta and his three billion brain farts since 2005. For the umpteenth time, he’s peaked at the right time, along with nearly the entire squad. Both he and Varane (who, similarly, is a great defender despite not being perfect for 90 minutes), were complete stalwarts against Atletico, and generally rise to the occasion when it matters the most. Here he is tracking a passing lane from the inception of the play against Celta, and on an ensuing defensive possession, reading the passing lane well enough to retain possession high up the pitch.
Marcelo does things in impossibly tight situations
Even if a black hole was about to swallow Marcelo whole, he’d simply do a roulette and tell physics, ‘nah, I’m good’. The only way to thwart his creativity is to take the foul. Him and Isco are going to be so important against Juventus.
Modric is woke, and his outside-of-the-boot pass never dies
Luka is another player that’s peaked at the perfect time. Om and I dissected his other-worldly performance against Atletico already. Real Madrid didn’t need him in Balaidos as badly as they needed him to weather the storm in the Calderon, but they still got another great performance from the Croat. As the heading of this observation suggests, he’s aware at all times; and his outside-of-the-boot pass gives birth to multiple humans each time he sprays it. His right lace alone is responsible for half the world’s population.
We mentioned it in the video linked above, but perhaps one of Modric’s most underrated qualities is his constant awareness of what’s happening in every nook-and-cranny on the pitch, and his refusal of abandoning his teammates. Just track him on this entire sequence. It’s incredible. At this point, a Modric cam might be the next logical step in the progression of advanced statistics.
And as promised...