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Four Talking Points from Real Madrid’s Early and Confusing Season

On Real Madrid’s defense, Carvajal not being himself, and more

Borussia Dortmund v Real Madrid - UEFA Champions League Photo by Martin Rose/Bongarts/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.

All great football teams have gears that they shift in and out of. In the past 12 months, Real Madrid have gone from zero-to-six in record time, and they can veer up-and-down based on opposition, level of threat, and the consequence of the match they’re playing in. We’ve seen the team booed off the pitch at home against lower-table opposition, we’ve seen fans aim pitchforks at Zidane after an inexcusable Clasico collapse, we’ve seen players teeter-totter from villain to hero (and vice-versa) from week-to-week proceedings, and we’ve seen the team kick into an other-worldly level of football against the best teams in the world amid lifting a trophy that they almost knew belonged to them the whole time — temporarily silencing perennial bellyachers until something eventually goes wrong again.

This season, the fluctuations have been more dramatic. We can chalk it up to complacency, tactical negligence, acclimatization of new players, newly-dabbled depth, and finishing. There is no clear-cut answer to the question ‘why has Real Madrid dropped seven points in La Liga so early in the campaign?’ — it requires a more holistic ‘all of the above’ approach.

In this young season of inconstancy, let’s celebrate some good, and address some bad.

Unforced errors

One of the more obvious talking points this season — apart from everyone’s favourite and dramatically polarizing subjects, Bale and Benzema — has been the lack of defensive coverage, and the general bleeding of goals that are perfectly preventable. In another world, Real Madrid takes more and gives less — and the moments they give are masked by clinical finishing and pure offensive steamrolling. But this season, ineffectiveness in front of goal has put the defensive miscues under a magnifying glass.

Rarely have Real been pinned into submission — forced to watch in horror as their defense gets carved mercilessly. Instead, the theme has been internal laxity: Giveaways, blown coverage, and chaotic transition facing counter-attacks. In the past two matches, near-post marking has been an issue. Both Alaves and Dortmund scored from similar situations where Real Madrid miscommunicated or reacted late to an open-man at the near post; and unluckily enough for Varane — who overall has been really good — the French central defender has been directly involved almost every time.

It’s not all his fault. Against Dortmund, just after Aubamayeng scored at the near-post by squeezing in-between Varane and Ramos, Real Madrid conceded this chance:

This, on the surface, almost gets immediately pinned on Varane — but he’s stuck in-between two worlds. The play at first seems harmless — Modric is tracking Yarmolenko who’s on a mission, and hedges back, assuming Varane has picked him up. Modric’s brain here is programmed to read the passing lane and help Casemiro and Carvajal to double-up on the ball-carrier(s). But Varane has a tougher choice to make here then what appears at first glance. Both he and Ramos are stuck with three markers as Nacho is there as the far-post safety net while he simultaneously gets magnetized by Gonzalo Castro behind him. Varane realizes the danger, and opts to help Ramos close the two players making a run down the middle — gambling on a wide-open Yarmolenko. Modric tracking further into the box would’ve helped mitigate this situation. Kroos is doing his usual jog into zone 14, acting as a potential outlet or stopgap if the ball goes there. Point is — Varane was stretched, and context is important.

That was one of the more convoluted defensive sequences. Most of the holes defensively were due to aforementioned, preventable scenarios (for the madness against Betis, click here).

More straightforward was Real Madrid suffering defensively due to offensive lapses. Against Alaves, just before Manu Garcia scored from his near-post run, Lucas Vazquez dilly-dallied into three players rather than providing a simple pass. Against Dortmund, there were even more turnovers — most unforced. In the below sequence, Carvajal and Isco give the ball away within the same minute, allowing Dortmund to pounce on dangerous counter-attacking opportunities:

Nine minutes later, a lazy giveaway nearly changed the complexion of the game:

Real Madrid have now conceded seven goals in eight matches across all competitions — not a terrible mark. There are caveats, as noted various times over the course of the season; but all things considered, Real Madrid’s defense (and offense, for that matter, along with its domino effect), should normalize. It’s been more good than bad, as we’ll get to below.

The sample size is still too small to start pumping doses of anxiety into your fandom veins. Real Madrid is much closer to their performance at Signal Iduna Park than it is to what we saw against Levante and Alaves; and that’s not even taking into consideration the gear they’ve yet to kick into, and may not actually hit until April.

The numbers to start the season are almost too absurd to sustain:

There are more good defensive signs than bad ones

It’s still only September! Not everything bad is actually that bad. Detach yourselves from hanging your head down in misery because poor little Levante stole two points from the Bernabeu, just like poor little Eibar — still a much better team than we knew at that time -- did a season ago. Even amid all the defensive criticism, this team is fine, and more importantly, likes to zip up the holes when needed.

A lot of the defensive improvements over time stem from Real Madrid’s progress in pressing cohesively, and reading the passing lanes. These habits have trickled through naturally to this season -- with moments of imperfection riddled through which should get polished as the season rolls on.

Shoutout to moments that reminded us why this team’s understanding is so high, starting with the ever-reliable Nacho stealing Mario Gotze’s lunch money just as the German thought he was about to gorge:

Once again, Nacho has been one of the performers of the season for Real, and no one is allowed to be surprised at how good he is at this point. He is one of the most important squad players in one of the greatest teams in the club’s history. That’s, something.

One of my favourite developments over the past half-a-year or so has been the dynamism of Toni Kroos. We all knew he was a brainiac when it comes to vertical passing — the hockey assist for Real Madrid’s second goal in Dortmund perfectly exemplified his patience, vision, and execution from deep — but his ability to dribble through tight spaces when needed, muscle opposing players off the ball, and overall vitality has been refreshing.

It’s still surreal that Real Madrid have Kroos and Modric in one midfield together, and the added bonus of Casemiro taking leaps gives Zidane a trifecta of three interchangeable midfielders who understand each other’s movements off the ball, and know how to act as two-way players who can cover for each other when needed.

As Real Madrid gently rev into the season, you should see these good defensive moments swell and volumize more to whitewash the kinks. Last season, Zidane’s team conceded just over a goal per game in La Liga — by far the worst mark of the top-three teams in the league, and only slightly better than ninth-place Alaves. Again, that shouldn’t really matter. Goal differential and trophies are the trump card. Not keeping clean sheets was overblown because blitzing offense masked it, truly. Opposing teams won’t be content with scoring a goal — they’re generally helpless to outscore Real Madrid over 90 minutes. Levante, Valencia, and Betis should be the exception to the rule, once things normalize; even if all three of those teams are good (which they are).

"We defend with 11 players and we attack with 11 players. You cannot blame the defence," Dortmund head coach Peter Bosz said after his team scored a goal while letting in three against Real Madrid.

"Against a very good opponent, who made almost no mistakes, we always were a step late.

"We need to defend better. We couldn't pressure the ball in nearly every moment of the game. That's what makes it hard against such opposition, who have quality. We have to analyze this and improve."

Zipping up defensively will always be a priority for even the best teams Real Madrid will face, because outgunning a team this good is actually, um, very difficult. Betis escaped alive with some luck, and then took advantage in transition against a team desperate for a goal. They came away with the most ideal scenario imaginable for a team facing Real Madrid. It’s not easily replicable — football tends to homogenize itself, and the cream rises as the season progresses.

There was a time early last season where some members of the media hinted Varane had regressed after lighting the stage as a teenager in El Clasico — no one is saying that now. He’s been a bulwark defensively, particularly in the big occassions. Ramos and him have formed an underrated partnership you’d want to go to war with.

Examples like this, have been riddled throughout his highlight reel since last spring:

More often than not, Varane makes good decisions in situations which require fast-thinking; and considering he’s playing in a team that has left him in frantic situations early in this season, he’s dealt well. In the above play, he has to choose between marking Aubamayeng and Yarmalenko on the counter with a ton of space behind him that Dortmund were salivating over. He realizes Yarmalenko is in an offside position, allowing him to hedge forward just enough to give Auba no choice but to try to take Varane on, and Real Madrid retain possession.

Ramos has done just as well in those knotty, back-peddling situations. He will rightfully never shake-off his tantrum-rich notoriety which has been engrained into his childish reputation perpetually, but that has to be separated by how well he reads the game.

One of the things I love most about Gareth Bale — apart from the fact that his peak offensive abilities are unique, fun, and beastly — is his ability to affect the game from deep. You can understand why Zidane likes having him run off the shoulders of defenders, latching on to through-balls in open water and using his pace to leave skid-marks on the pitch; but man, his defensive understanding is so good. You can see his background as a left-back carrying over as a guide, allowing him to calculate his surroundings and dig in defensively.

This play against Sociedad is great. He checks over his shoulder constantly, denies the passing lane, tracks the winger, denies the passing lane again, then sticks his foot in:

Appreciating Luka Modric

Put him down in history, already. Would anyone really argue putting him into the club’s all-time XI? Everyday, every human on earth should count their blessings that they get to live during peak-Modric. Almost nothing else on earth matters when you watch Luka Modric play football. When he has the ball, everyone watching him should be constantly applauding, possibly even raving, dancing, and going into a coma. Every movement, every shoulder feint, every instruction given, every touch, every pass, every dribble — everything he does is out of this world. He’s an aesthetic artist who’s better at his job than anyone else is at theirs.

His presence on the pitch is always felt, particularly when Real Madrid need some serenity in hostile stadiums. He’s a seamless fit alongside Kroos and Casemiro -- all of whom understand each other so well. He almost always makes the right pass in the final third when Isco and Asensio (sometimes) don’t. He’ll hit Bale’s cutting runs, create space when space is impossible, and, with eel-like maneuvering, slips through helpless pressers trying to take the ball from him.

Let us begin the love-fest:

He is a cold-blooded reptile, doing things on the edge of his own by-line, pressured by an attacker, in an away game in Germany in the Champions League, that people can’t do in pick-up games in their own backyard.

It’s players on Modric’s unparalleled level that allow you to play a scheme where you dictate the flow of the match. "We're only focused on ourselves," Modric said back in July. "We don't look at other clubs. We want to do things our way, the best that we can, and not worry about everything. It's our way of thinking, our politics."

Modric continually credits Zidane for not only his own play, but the team’s play. He’s probably right. When fans chirp at Zidane’s tactics and abused crossing — which tends to be exaggerated — Modric praises the Frenchman for his preparation and studious work.

"Zidane and his staff detected Juventus' defensive weakness, so throughout the week, in preparation for the final, we practiced return passes," Modric said after the Champions League final.

"Juventus' defence is great when it comes to crosses, but not so on low return passes. That is what we worked on and that is how we scored three of our goals in the final. Congratulations to the coach for that detail, which was the key in the final."

That’s nice Luka, but this is all about you:

It is hard not to mention Zidane when discussing Modric’s greatness, though. It’s not that Zizou is controlling Modric with a Playstation controller, and it’s not really just about holding his hand and giving him a dose of encouragement — it’s about rest. It’s about realizing his (and Kroos’s) importance, providing that position with ample depth, and allowing Luka’s strength to be restored in-between appearances.

"He knew how to get the most out of every player and that helped us to reach the end of the season in top form," Modric said.

"This was different to years gone by, where we sometimes got a little tired at the end. Now, with all the rotations...

"Any player who came on did well and helped the team. It was easier to do what Zidane wanted. These were the keys to winning the double."

Dani Carvajal will be OK

I get that Dani Carvajal hasn’t been himself yet this season, and he’s been lagging ever since Real Madrid made those pre-season appearances overseas. But, I’m almost not worried about him. He had one wonky decision not to pass the ball timely enough early against Dortmund on the counter, and his first-touch and passing hasn’t been as crisp; but his leg-heavy appearance is starting to wane, and he’s working ridiculously hard despite not being in great form.

We’ll see regular-season Carvajal soon, and we saw signs of it against Dortmund. Again, you’d be worried if he was a mere passenger, but he’s doing all the right things to get back into his groove, and he’s contributing in other ways:

"This club is such a big part of my life so this is fulfilling a dream for me," Carvajal told the press after he signed his new contract with Real Madrid in September. "I'm very grateful to the club.

"It is another great day in my life, to extend my contract with the club I love, the club that is my family. I want to win everything here.

"The release clause is also so high so that nobody can take me away from here and I don't want to leave."

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