In football, as in so many other endeavors, the intangibles often account for far more than anyone cares to admit. You can lay out brilliant tactics and field top class players, but the ability to put it all into practice and achieve a victory is often dependent on much slipperier things: belief, heart, cojones (word to Santi Solari). A cherished family recipe and fresh ingredients don’t inevitably lead to a good meal without the right chef to guide the process. Great MCs are more than just the combination of words and rhythm: they require less quantifiable factors like charisma, flow, personality. E-40 didn’t become the Ballatician just by rhyming random words over production that slaps. He married his technical gifts as a rapper with something much harder to specify: swagger.
This is something that Real Madrid have been distinctly lacking through their recent rough patch. I will never understand why our players were unable or unwilling to turn it on while playing for Lopetegui, a coach who by their own accounts they liked and respected, but the fact remains that they didn’t. In steps Solari, with little in his coaching resume to suggest he had the tactical acumen to right the sinking ship, and the team not only bounces back but finds some sort of reserve tank of tenacity with which to compete.
The result is a game like today’s, where we don’t play particularly dazzling football, but we are able to make breakthroughs with flashes of brilliance and stave off the inevitable opposing onslaught with a level of grit and grind we hadn’t exhibited to start the season. And we needed it against Celta, because they came into this one with a down and dirty game plan that centered on kicking our players into submission. Except we didn’t go along with that, displaying the ability to get “stuck in” and hold them off even as starter after starter dropped due to injury. First Casemiro went off after a tackle from behind rolled his ankle. Then Reguilon became the second player subbed off due to a knock before the halftime break. An injured Nacho forced Solari into his third and final substitution in the 69th minute, at which point Lucas friggin Vasquez had to be moved to left back because we were completely out of defenders on the bench. Gareth Bale was another victim of a couple of cynical challenges which hobbled him and left him less effective as the game wore on.
This is only a partial picture of the number of players left on the ground for various lengths of time due to borderline (and not so borderline) dirty challenges from Celta players. I know a team containing not one but two of Sergio Ramos’ elbows has little room to complain about rough play, but the commitment of the entire Celta team to hacking down our players was on a different level. I understand playing “negative” football and being physical to knock people off their game. I can’t condone the wholesale assault on our guys over 90 minutes. In this context, Dani Ceballos’ 91st minute goal stung in from outside the box was an awesome middle finger to close out that slog of a match.
Did we look convincing throughout this grueling game? Not particularly. But we did get the job done, which our recent struggles have proven is the most important thing at this point. Madrid fans have arguably been spoiled by all the club’s success, but a string of bad results is a nice reminder that the ability to grind out a victory can be just as inspirational as an offensive blitz, and sometimes even more crucial. We have needed the four consecutive wins Solari has given us in a major way, and if he has indeed helped restore our confidence as a team, then he is well on his way down the path to the Hall of Game that Zidane paved from Castilla to glory.
Okay, obviously that last one is a stretch, but I needed an excuse to slide in one more E-40 reference before I close this out. Clearly I am heartened by these victories even if I am not entirely convinced by our performances in them, but if I’m getting out of hand, you can just tell me when to go. As long as our guys are clicking with their trademark pairing of money and muscle, I will be content with any outcome. Fo’ sheezy.