I have hopped around a lot in my football fandom over the years. As an American from a family of basketball and baseball fans, I did not grow up watching the beautiful game, so when I happened upon it thanks to morning sickness and the 2006 World Cup, I embarked on the journey as a blank slate. I wasn’t raised with any particular feelings toward any of the teams, big or small, in any of the big leagues in Europe, so I was able to pick and choose the ones I liked based on my mood and how much I enjoyed watching them play.
All of that is merely to say that, despite the intimate relationship I have developed with Real Madrid over the last twelve years, I have also had “favorite” teams in the Premier League and Serie A that I have followed and pulled for to a lesser extent. The biggest of these, at least in my first years as a soccer fan, was Arsenal. I was a fan of Thierry Henry, and I loved the fluid way the team played under Arsene Wenger when I started watching in 2006-07. But while they were usually a joy to watch, the narrative surrounding the team was always the same: lots of beautiful play, but not enough results. A number of London derbies between Arsenal and Chelsea around this time devolved into a familiar storyline, in which Chelsea would pounce upon their relatively few opportunities and then retreat into a hardline defense, cede the majority of possession, and stubbornly stifle wave after wave of Arsenal attack. The prevailing sentiment was, in very English fashion, that while Arsenal may have played the better game overall, they didn’t have the grit to grind out a result, in essence “passing the game to death” without converting when they needed it most.
A similar narrative has surrounded many other teams over the last twelve years I have followed the sport, and I’m sure in all the decades preceding that time as well. The Spanish national team that bombed out of the 2014 World Cup met with similar criticism, as did some incarnations of post-Guardiola Barcelona. That has not been the story around Real Madrid in recent years, though. There have been plenty of gripes from fans about both results and style of play, but lack of results in the attack has not generally been at issue.
This year, under Lopetegui, has represented quite a change in that arena. In one sense, and against lesser teams, the team has been downright fun to watch. The way they have retained possession and stretched opponents out with intricate passing has been beautiful to witness and a definite change from what we saw under Zidane. And you could even make the case that our overall performance in La Liga has been improved from Zizou’s tenure, as we have stayed near the top of the table throughout the early weeks of the season. As a Madrid fan who witnessed the dominance of Barça under Pep Guardiola, seeing my own team play something akin to that style of football has been a welcome change.
The flip side of that, however, is what we saw against CSKA Moscow, as well as in the rest of the games during this skid. During those six plus hours without a goal, the team has generally looked good overall, maintaining possession and stringing passes together beautifully, but the inability to convert in the final third has been devastating. It often feels like watching tantric football, with all the beautiful build-up leading to no pay-off whatsoever and the ultimate inability to atone for a crucial mistake. Through it all, I kept hearing those annoying British announcers, whom I always pictured laughing primly from behind a monocle and a cup of tea, chiding Arsenal, and now Madrid, for “passing the game to death” without being able to make the key breakthrough. And that is not something I am used to feeling when it comes to this team.
The take-home from all this is that the blueprint for defeating us is looking more and more doable. Teams that are able to sit in that low block and effectively counter-attack have shown that they have a legitimate shot at knocking us off our pedestal, and they have done just that repeatedly. While you could argue – and I have – that Atleti is a superior defensive team that stymies the best attacks in the world, you can hardly make that same claim about CSKA Moscow or Alaves. Yes, we’ve been in hostile environments, and yes, a few chances that went awry could have changed the entire outcome, but the point still stands that what we have displayed in the last few weeks has been substandard by any metric.
The silver lining here, of course, is the insane number of changes Lopetegui has had to make to the starting eleven due to injury, to the point that calling it a “rotation” feels insufficient. Ramos, Marcelo, Carvajal, Bale, Isco – all injured or at less than full fitness in some or all of these games. Add to that list Modric, who has performed below the celestial level we have come to expect from him, and you essentially have an all-star team worth of players, including our most creative bunch, who were unable to contribute to the squad. That sort of turnover would confound any team, so judging Lopetegui based on his results without said superstars feels a little harsh. That said, the talent we have on the bench should still be enough to hold us over against the likes of Levante and Viktoria Plzen, our competition in the coming weeks, and if those games lead to still more lost points, I fully expect his feet to be in the fire and the monocles to come out in judgment of the team. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned as a football fan over the last twelve years, it’s that Madridistas are not a forgiving bunch. And that is some tea you can take to the bank, whether in smug British judgment or the columns of Marca, both of which I’d prefer to avoid.
I have never craved an international break more than I am this one. May our players come back rested, without injury, and in renewed form. Because, hey, a girl can dream.