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.
Real Madrid have been (and will continue to be), heavily scrutinized for gutting the depth from their top-heavy squad over the summer. Nothing will kill the cacophonies apart from silverware at the end of the season. Success is the mother of all remedies to incisive dissonance. Anything less than seeing Real Madrid lift trophies in the spring time will end with recitations of the names of bygone heroes: Morata, James, Mariano.
We already discussed why replacing like-for-like this summer was not an easy thing for Real Madrid to do. Many fans mislabelled last year’s depth as a perpetual cycle of world-class talent riding in the reserves rather than the unsustainable luxury that it was. Eventually role players will graduate for more playing time. In some cases they may yet return (Mariano and James are still within the club’s grasp two years from now; though especially in the case of James, it would be unlikely any option gets exercised); but in the interim, the team has the first-world problem of treading water with shapeshifting schemes of Ronaldo playing as the spearhead, Isco as a false 9, or Borja Mayoral sliding in — who, by the way, is still better than he’s given credit for. (psst: He’s a 20-year-old versatile forward who works hard and is scraping the bottom of the barrel for minutes and doing just fine in his role).
The ‘x player can’t score GOAL’ dictum has become a recurring joke in Managing Madrid circles, but God bless the soul who invented it, because right now the infinitesimal margins of error have been the difference between winning and not — hitting the post, missing clear-cut chances that weren’t being missed during last season’s legendary run, and having almost sure goals met with heroic save after heroic save. Against Betis, Ronaldo had 12 shots, the team had an xG of three, and the Cristiano Ronaldo - Gareth Bale twosome should’ve combined for a couple goals and assists, at least.
They didn’t, though, and Real Madrid lost all pragmatism in the final 15 minutes of a chaotic scheme-less approach which ultimately led to losing their tactics, minds, and points. There’s rolling the dice by searching for a goal, and then there’s staking your soul by inundating the box with five-to-six players waiting for a cross — reducing your chance of a second-chance attacking wave to zero, and inviting counter-attacks against a thinly spread back-peddling line without any proper ball retention or stopgaps in place. It’s the equivalent of pulling up for a deep-three with 20 seconds on the shot clock without anyone to grab an offensive board — sure it may work, but is that really the most conducive way to score, even in the most desperate situation?
But the game should’ve been long sealed before the late chaos. Even with Betis playing a terrifically compact scheme and Antonio Adan doing what former Real Madrid players typically do to Real Madrid -- install real-life upgrades before they walk on the pitch at the Bernabeu — Real Madrid just missed chances.
The ‘we cross too much’ drivel can be a lazy narrative to ride with. Casemiro, Isco, and Modric combined for seven key passes down central channels; and when those channels were zipped up and Real Madrid played the ball to the flanks, they caused Betis problems. Gareth Bale, who led the team in key passes for the fourth time in this young five-game season, created multiple clear-cut chances with his in-swinging balls from the flanks. This idea that Zidane shoehorns a forced tactical blueprint to showcase an exaggerated amount of crosses needs a more holistic view. Real Madrid often try to play cutthroat down the middle, but when opponents play narrow and condensed, the team has to circulate possession in search of an opening. It’s not a matter of not trying.
Betis may have started the season off slow, but they went into the Bernabeu on Sunday and stuck to their guns defensively. Look at how well drilled they are below — they shift and move like pawns stringed up to Setien’s hands. Real Madrid have off-the-ball movement down the central channels from Bale and Isco; but as Kroos, Casemiro, and Modric look to recycle possession and find an opening, Betis are denying them. Javi Garcia plays the passing lanes beautifully. The team is barking defensively, they’re moving, they’re denying:
What Betis did, and what other teams who are even better defensively, like Juventus and Atletico, do, was stop the bleeding and attempt a perfect game. They weren’t perfect, and no team will ever be able to prevent Real Madrid from breaking down the door for a full 90 minutes. Betis needed luck too; and sometimes Real Madrid’s brainiacs found a blindspot in Setien’s airtight scheme to take advantage of before Adan stepped into the scene. But again, this is just to illustrate Real Madrid’s awareness in finding cracks through the middle (they were definitely trying to go down the middle whenever they could):
There were more clear-cut chances than the above. On another night, Real Madrid wins this game by a couple goals or more.
But we’ve been saying that for the past three La Liga home games now. At some point, the only acceptable answer will be balls in the back of the net — prolifically. Last season, Real Madrid dropped nine points in 19 home games. This season, they’ve already dropped seven in three; and we can’t chalk it up to just rotations, depth issues, or letting go of key players — though, those are all legitimate bugaboos in the right context. Against Betis; Real Madrid had an ideal XI, the return of their Portuguese unicorn, rested players, and plenty of chances to capitalize.
Not having James Rodriguez — a great player who should succeed anywhere he goes so long as he’s playing regularly — is mitigated when you already have two of the best players in the world in that position in Asensio and Isco. Not having Morata on Sunday wouldn’t have helped with the non-existent transition defense (though, his finishing almost surely helps against Levante). The problems against Betis have a deeper root in the ground.
But the sample size is small. Where the team is now is not the measuring stick of where this team will be in June.
The team wasn’t properly evaluated in an early home draw against Eibar last season, in a match where I sat press row and witnessed Isco booed off the pitch. Things change. Narratives change. Things are forgotten -- every month, every week, every match, every play.
It’s likely these dropped points will be forgotten too. There just aren’t enough caveats to trigger the full-forced alarm bells just yet, and this team is still closer to the one that blitzed Manchester United and Barcelona in the Super Cup melees. This is a big game team. Don’t believe the Super Cup hype? Just roll back to the spring, when Real Madrid put in their best performances of the season against Napoli, Bayern, Atletico, and Juventus — revving their play to a gear so high that opposing teams didn’t even have an option to divert to.
Morata didn’t start a single match in the seven aforementioned games last spring, and James started just one, while watching another — the Champions League final — in a suit in the stands. But those two represented something more than stepping up in big games — they were the alleviating conductors that allowed Ronaldo, Modric, Kroos, and co. to be fresh for the big matches. That was an invaluable luxury to have around last season, and the onus will be on Mayoral (who is no Morata, to be sure, but the early signs of quality production in his limited role are promising), Ceballos, and Llorente now — among others.
What Ceballos and Llorente are going through now are what Kovacic and Asensio went through in their fledgling phases under Zidane. Kovacic was widely believed to be done when Zidane put him in the ‘dog house’ (a theoretical place assumed to act as a prison for Mateo, when in reality, he was training regularly, roaming free, and being groomed) when the Frenchman first took over; while Asensio wasn’t a needle-moving force in the first half of last season where he spent most of the time on the bench. Ceballos and Llorente will have their opportunities. Zidane has earned trust in grooming the young players the way he deems is conducive to their long-term success with the club.
There are early breathing signs, which won’t be enough to mask the panic, to be sure, but: Gareth Bale is alive, still athletic, and creating chances; Luka Modric won’t age unless you kidnap him and put him in a time machine and set it to the year 5,000,000,2017 when the sun is about to explode; and the team is still young, deep, and, um, very talented.
"I do not think there are any reasons to be concerned. We had a good match in San Sebastian [against Real Sociedad]. Do not be worried," Zidane said to the media after the loss to Betis. "What I always want to do is try to win. I'm not going to change. You can make different changes but the idea is always the same: go for the win and even more so at home."
Going for the win worked enough last season in last-ditch, late-goal scavenges in the final minutes of seemingly lost matches; but get it wrong like you did against Barcelona last season at home, or on Sunday against Betis, and you look like a pick-up team trying to pick itself up from a 3-0-7 formation. Zidane’s gambles can be extreme, without any real in-between solution. Go for the kill, or get killed.
But ‘going for the kill’ can be a deceiving way to win games, as it doesn’t always provide you with the maximized opportunity to score goals.
Towards the end of Frank Rijkaard’s (overall successful) reign at Barcelona, the Dutch coach, largely responsible for Barcelona’s revival during their post-early-millennium slump, would flood the final third with attackers when the team was trailing in the second half. He was scrutinized for it. More strikers don’t always mean more goals — but more wizards behind them ensures more salvaged possession and less vulnerability. That’s something Guardiola eventually remedied; and Zidane ultimately has to decide whether it’s better to lose a match as the consequence of his gamble, or simply draw it with a more calculated approach.
Real Madrid are at their best when they aren’t desperate or chaotic. Every one of the seven aforementioned Champions League skirmishes were met with pragmatic build-up play — an involved midfield and a surgical approach. Chances are they’re more likely to score if they opt to continually knock down the door rather than drain the midfield into the penalty box -- and if a goal doesn’t arrive, then at least you’ve held on to a point.
Dani Ceballos (yes, the same Dani Ceballos we’re trusting Zidane with) made a living manifesting his unique vision in the final-third over the past 12 months. He’s an incisive passer that even the most organized schemes can’t plan for. That’s a weapon we’ve yet to see this season apart from some pre-season humdrums. Having a Dani C type player hover outside the area as a relentless, talented workhorse who can track if needed while providing through-balls that no one can see would’ve been an intriguing dimension to add, and one that would’ve patched some of the bleeding in midfield when Mayoral came in for Modric against Betis.
Betis may have gotten away unscathed, but Real Madrid did too before Sanabria buried them. As early as the 55th minute, alarm bells were ringing with the team’s wonky drops in focus defensively. Even with Antonio Adan allowing Real Madrid 400 seconds to set-up, he’s still able to catch the backline napping — Marcelo left marking two players deep and opting to take the inside player where Modric wasn’t close enough to close down. Kroos is higher up the pitch, and Varane is left scrambling to off-put Francis in a desperate attempt:
"We have to have a cool head because maybe a point would be better than a defeat," Casemiro said in the post-match presser.
"It was bad luck. Everything we created, everything we tried, we fought. It's football. Sometimes it's unfair.
"We have to congratulate Betis, who fought, worked and made a good game here."
Casemiro, who was left alone on multiple occassions, and dealing with counter-attacks tremendously well given the circumstances, may have been one of the players to appreciate gaining a draw rather than being spread thin and fending off attacks almost single-handedly.
"It's a f****** bad start," Sergio Ramos told the media after the match. "It's concerning and alarming, as [this bad start at home] has included games against opponents that we would normally beat at the Bernabeu.
"But we must move on, be self-critical and think about the next games. We are the same players who were winning titles a month ago.
"We have to be united and think of ourselves, but there is a great team here and there are no excuses.
"I don't know why it's so hard for us to score at the Bernabeu. The minutes passed but the goal did not come and it was difficult. We created the chances, but we just missed the goal."
This team is not the team we’ve seen at the Bernabeu in the last three home matches; and it’s probably closer to the one we saw against Barcelona, United, Juve, Atleti, Bayern, and Atleti. It has a track record of stepping up in pivotal moments. But there are admonitions that can be worked on — those are on Zidane to remedy. His depth chart this season has new faces. He can learn to juggle them as he goes as he did with Kovacic and Asensio prior. Those gung-ho, frantic searches for goals? Well, those just need to be avoided altogether with some better finishing. These are all solvable problems.