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Real Madrid’s Offensive Options, and Other General Tactical Solutions

This is part two of our mailbag. Today’s topics: Ronaldo, summer signings, the attacking trio we’ll never see, music, and tangible solutions to Real Madrid’s problems

Real Madrid v Villarreal - La Liga Photo by Denis Doyle/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.

The mailbag has blown up. There are more questions than ever before. I’ve decided to release different questions daily (on non-match days). If I answered them all in one go, it would blow up the universe — and no one wants that. Besides, almost no one on earth has the attention span to read 10, 000 words in one sitting.

As always, if you want to ask me a question, best to ask me on Twitter or Facebook.

Here’s a link to Part 1 of this mailbag, where I talked about Kroos’s defensive habits.

First, from our Patrons:

Quick note: This question is a bit misleading, as this trio only actually overlapped together in the Super Copa for 13 minutes over the course of two legs. They all played their part (particularly Asensio, who put the world on red alert with two obscene goals when everyone wanted to talk about Mbappe and Dembele instead), but didn’t get to connect dots as a trio for a huge sample size at that time.

I’ll simplify this question a bit: We’ll see it out of necessity, not by design when the full squad is healthy. I’d love to see it more often. Isco and Asensio are incisive brainiancs. Bale is versatile enough to press high, finish chances, and drop deep as a false 9 of sorts. He’s not the David Silva replica which Lopetegui used when he deployed Silva, Isco, and Asensio together, and certainly not someone you’d think of as a traditional false 9, but he has the ability to pull off that role. Think about it. He creates, drops deep, hounds opponents, and as a free-roamer, he played some brilliant football under Benitez centrally. We’d be better defensively without suffering a drop-off offensively (I mean, you can’t drop-off offensively from ‘zero’)

Matt Wiltse and I talked about this on Sunday’s Managing Madrid Podcast: The probability of Zidane experimenting now is slim. He doesn’t have time. He has to win every single game from now on. The team virtually has to be infallible. He won’t risk deviation now even if almost everyone knows a change is needed.

anything not despacito

But seriously, this is an unanswerable question because it changes daily and is highly dependant on mood. I discovered Kadebostany and NF recently (two crazy opposite ends of the spectrum, but both great) and they’ve become a staple on my playlist.

Sometimes though, I just want to kick back with stuff like this:

Luka loves that one.

I’ll keep this one brief, because in some sense, I’ve overanalyzed it in podcasts and previous columns. There are a lot of intangible mental mysteries this team has, but there are also clear, tangible, things this team needs to gut from its system. Here are some tactical things that Zidane needs to address (both defensively, and offensively):

  • Consistent coverage for the full-backs. This looked better against Villarreal in the first half, which is not too surprising, given it was after Real Madrid’s closed-door meeting where some air was (hopefully) cleared, but it also dissipated as the game wore on and Real Madrid grew desperate. There’s still a long way to go. I’d encourage everyone to go back and read the article I wrote on Kroos last week. It touches on the lack of symmetry in Zidane’s scheme (there is nothing wrong with not being symmetrical, just in this context, I highlight the clear role-distinction between Modric and Kroos, and how much more help the right back generally receives under Zidane), the lack of structure to mask Marcelo’s defense, Casemiro and Isco not being in the right spots defensively, and the lack of cohesion between the midfield trio which was more present last season.
  • Flooding the box. 44 Crosses against Villarreal — a whomping 13 extra on top of Real Madrid’s season average at the Bernabeu. Crossing is not a bad thing, but do it enough times, and teams plan for it by packing flanks and flooding the area. Earlier this season against Las Palmas, I noted how Real Madrid often sends five or six (seven even, as I noted on one occasion!) players to meet a cross that never arrives. If it does arrive and doesn’t connect, it leaves your defense to rely on back-peddling defenders to save the day:

The above sequence is not even a do-or-die, last-minute scenario. It’s in the first half. This ideology was also apparent against Tottenham, and perpetually present in general. People often think having more attacking options in the final third is correlated with a higher chance of scoring — it’s not. The most successful teams on both ends of the field have balance, defensive safety nets, and an ability to suck defenders out of their comfort zone.

  • Lack of ball retention.
  • Predictability. The three best performances of the season: @ Sociedad (17 crosses), @ Dortmund (6 crosses), vs Sevilla (10 crosses) were all tactical detours from the current scheme, and in all of them Real Madrid committed to far fewer crosses than their season average. Opposing coaches didn’t have enough sample size to scout the diamond (which had kinks, mind you, even last season) last spring, but they have plenty now. They’re geared for it. They prime themselves and look forward to punishing Real Madrid, and recent results from La Liga ‘minnows’ provide more ammo and confidence to execute their game plan. The formation needs vigour. It needs hunger. It might need a bloody-thirsty Dani Ceballos, even.

Sayantan, you know me, I’m not huge on talking transfers in general. but the latter is definitely more likely. I think twisting Ronaldo’s arm to play up top is something that should’ve been done earlier in the season. He doesn’t like it, as he’s noted in the past, but bloody hell peak Ronaldo can be damn good at setting teams on fire as the spearhead surrounded in the right scheme:

Two issues now: Current Ronaldo is in a rut. Against Villarreal, he had space to run into on the counter, and looked like he was about to lose possession every time — as he did on three separate counter-attacks when the team was in open water. Earlier this season, Ronaldo wasn’t scoring in La Liga, but was highly conducive to Real Madrid’s attack, even dropping deeper and slinging assists and key passes. Now, even those riches have abandoned him. At some point he’ll resharpen his knife (I mean, it would be crazy if he didn’t), but we’ve been waiting for things to normalize for an unfathomable amount of time now.

Issue two: Zidane hasn’t replicated that scheme from the above video yet this season. Last season, he’d opt to pack the midfield when taking off Benzema instead of bringing on Morata — and it worked. Ronaldo would shift forward, and the midfield would get strengthened with Asensio sliding in and allowing an extra outlet for Modric and Kroos to hang out with. This season, even amid Benzema’s absence, Bale and Ronaldo have been high up the pitch together, with neither of their roles being that clear. Bale often tracks deep to help retain possession and start counters, while Ronaldo floats horizontally into space. That, theoretically, is not a disaster. Cristiano isn’t the clear spearhead he was against Atletico in La Liga last season, but on paper, Bale and Ronaldo high up the pitch together sounds fine. We’ve seen some iconic goals scored by Bale carrying the ball with pace against a high-line, while Ronaldo’s off-the-ball run seals the counter. Again, against Villarreal, Ronaldo put himself into good positions, but lacked efficiency. Last year, his decision-making could be masked with bags of goals — this year, it’s magnified. A wrong decision really matters when you’re out of form.

If you’re going to feed Ronaldo consistently to get him through this dry spell, you have to do it with less randomness offensively. Currently, the roles aren’t clearly defined and the off-ball movements are confusing and superfluous, as I wrote more about here. Against Atletico it worked because there was an emphasis in zipping up the flanks with Lucas and Bale; while the team sat deeper and tracked passing lanes centrally with Kovacic, Modric, and Isco. Zidane’s men were in a position to counter efficiently without sacrificing their defensive structure. We’re still waiting to see that kind of conviction from a schematic stand point on a consistent basis this season.

It’s more likely we’ll see a new striker signed this summer then seeing Ronaldo play as a ‘nine’ in the right scheme next season. These things are generally unpredictable though, and the two options aren’t necessarily correlated. We may see Ronaldo transition up top with a low-profile back-up striker; or we might not have Ronaldo at all in a year’s time. Who knows?

More mailbag questions will be released in the coming days.

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