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Real Madrid Have Mastered the Passing Lanes

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New column: On the new-and-improved press, transitional defense, and more.

Real Madrid v FC Barcelona - Supercopa de Espana: 2nd Leg Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/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.


Over the course of Real Madrid’s three Supercup grand slam eviscerations, I compiled some low-key talking points. This is something I did every week last season. Here’s your official kickstart to a new and promising campaign — the first of many weekly observations.

Let’s get it!

Real Madrid have mastered the passing lanes

Two things have happened over the course of the last few months: 1) Zidane’s pressing blueprint has become more cohesive; and 2) the deep-lying players have started zipping up vertical channels masterfully. The high-press can be a gamble. Do it wrong, and you’re broken — left treading water and back-peddling while the waves crash against you. All it takes is one player to miss their cue — one failed rotation, or one mis-read run without the ball. When you have stopgaps like Casemiro, Kroos, Modric, Kovacic, Ramos, and Varane reading the game as well as they have been, your risk is lessened dramatically.

This team just keeps progressing in terms of their movement without the ball (more on the pressing later). If opposing teams ruse their way out of the press, they still have to go through the anchors. Real Madrid can snuff out possession so well, that their interception rates have become a real shield for Keylor Navas. Zidane’s scheme reads something like ‘hey, those are some nice technical players you have in your backline, it would be a shame if we swarmed you high up the pitch and retained possession. But hey, tell you what, we’ll let you escape every now and then, but it won’t be long until one of our deep-lying, rough-and-tumble midfielders hedge forward to steal your soul. But hey, how about this, we’ll actually let you get past all that and score sometimes too; but unfortunately we’ll outscore you so many times that you might rethink your purpose in life’.

These thieving interceptions don’t have to be deep in Real Madrid’s half in order to be considered theft. Possession is often won high up the pitch. Look at Toni Kroos reading the play here before Ander Herrera even receives the pass. Kroos looks over his shoulder and knows what Herrera is going to do with the ball before Herrera himself does. Once the deed is done, Casemiro, the anchor, is in a perfect position to pounce to complete the robbery. Now Real Madrid attack, and ensure their waves of pressure are recycled over and over again.

Everyone has bought into Zidane’s vision. There are moments, from start to finish, where you see every wrinkle and roller-coaster that his scheme can go through. The plan can shape-shift from game-to-game, and it can also morph into different variations within the game itself. From players swapping flanks, to Isco roaming, to Kroos, Casemiro, and Modric covering for each other — the cohesiveness remains the same.

Here; Benzema, Bale, Kroos, and Isco are on the same page as they pin Barca deep. As the play switches, Carvajal and Kovacic are ready to to follow suit and close down space. Varane takes the next pass, and Carvajal drops behind him to cover the gamble in case the ball is released down the flank. By now, Kroos and Isco have long abandoned their positions on the left, and have hedged over far enough to close down the ever-press-resistant Andres Iniesta. Andres has no chance.

Keep watching the play unfold. Real Madrid may lose possession in attack, but ultimately recover twice, and regain control just when it looks like Barcelona are set free. Everyone here is woke.

Kroos, Modric, and Isco worked tremendously well together against United in Macedonia. The switch was always flipped as they worked in unison to suffocate space and find outlets as soon as possession was retained.

The transition defense has looked really good too. You can almost hear the applause on this muted video after Kroos recovers to poke the ball away from a frustrated Messi:

Patient Kroos

A new season, but the same, vertically incisive Toni Kroos we’ve come to love. Kroos doesn’t play the obvious outlet, he’ll suck you in patiently until the channel opens.

A quick, clever cut from Gareth Bale is all it took. These are the back-breaking plays that catch defensive lines napping and get them out of their comfort zones.

Isco OOTB

Isco made an outside-of-the-boot pass to the father of the outside-of-the-boot pass!

Pressing tenaciously

Zidane’s press has come a long, long way. Last season at the Mestalla, the lack of cohesiveness against Valencia when implementing their high-press directly cost Real Madrid three points. It was just discombobulated. And guess what? There’s nothing worse than a discombobulated high-press. If everyone involved isn’t in sync, you virtually have zero position to counter-press, your strikers are left in no man’s land, your full-backs retract, and everyone in between is shuffling.

Those concerns have dissipated over time. Things have tightened, and opposing teams have less room to work with coming out of the back.

From the opening whistle of the Supercopa first leg, Real Madrid’s plan looked sharp. This was Real’s shape in the first minute — notice Marcelo darts forward to close the outlet on the flank, ensuring Ter Stegen has nothing to pick out on the field.

Less than two minutes later, Marcelo takes away the left flank from Aleix Vidal again — right after Carvajal, Kroos, Isco, and Bale force Barcelona to uncomfortably switch the play. Benzema is there immediately to snatch possession.

The second leg started much the same. At the Bernabeu, Real Madrid pinned Barca for the first 11 (!!) minutes! The counter-press unnerved Barcelona in more ways than one, sucking the spirit out of their entire build-up.

Mateo Kovacic, elite ball-carrier

There was a time when counter-pressing was Barcelona’s bread-and-butter. On Sunday, they were helpless dealing with Real Madrid’s technical ability coming out of the back. Modric and Kroos are press-resistant brainiacs — couple that with terrific movement without the ball, spacing on the wings, and elite ball-carrying ability from Mateo Kovacic, and you’ve built yourself a solution to being pinned deep by hounding attackers.

Stinky, lazy Benzema

Poor old Benzema. All he can do in football is ‘provide good link up play and compliment Ronaldo. He is lazy and unprofessional.’