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Marcos Llorente’s Presence, Bale’s Positioning, and 6 Other Observations

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Kiyan Sobhani’s latest column: Observations on Llorente’s performance in Rome — among other things

AS Roma v Real Madrid - UEFA Champions League Group G Photo by Paolo Bruno/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 thing. All previous editions can be found here.


This week’s observations.

Attacking low blocks

Continuing a point from last week’s column, on the issues Lopetegui faced against low-blocks — those issues can still linger even when the team attacks properly. In a match against Moscow earlier this season, Real Madrid switched play, circled possession swiftly, and moved between the lines. Sometimes even that isn’t enough to create a prolific amount of chances against a defensive team that packs the planks and is spread efficiently horizontally. Even Asensio - Isco one-twos were stifled. The answer often in these situations is to make runs in the half-spaces, coupled with the vision of an elite vertical passer:

Ceballos is one of the best at picking out those spaces, and when Asensio wants to be more than a passenger (he was an off-ball ghost in Sevilla), he can make those penetrating runs that Real Madrid needs against barricades.

The question of ‘how are we going to break this wall down today?’ will never go away. Few teams will actually go at you enough to allow counters. The most elite defensive teams will give you a moment’s opportunity, only to get back in transition and deny you in record time.

Atleti are masters at hoodwinking you into thinking space exists when it doesn’t:

Atleti under Simeone are historically one of the greatest defensive teams of all time. Even when Asensio gets into the half-space in the first sequence, his options are limited. His shot is from an acute angle. A cross to Benzema, surrounded by defenders, is not a great choice. His best bet is to hold the ball and wait for on-rushing white shirts, and if he doesn’t find an outlet, the recycling of possession begins again.

There is nothing unsolvable about Real Madrid’s offensive difficulties under Lopetegui. A goal-scoring assassin like Ronaldo helps; but It’s on Asensio, Isco, Bale, and Benzema (who thrives making those runs from the left) to make those runs or hit those passes. The team is blessed with surgical passers. Marcelo is behind only Lionel Messi in most key passes per game in La Liga; and Toni Kroos has been one of the best creators in Europe for three years now. Solari’s job is difficult, but it’s not unthinkable he can resurface some of the team’s better habits, especially if he can get more out of Mariano once the striker is healthy. (Solari may fix certain things, but may come up short when the team needs a cold-blooded finisher — but that expectation should come with his job description.)

What has hurt the team more than anything is that big-stage presence, and, to put it in tangible terms: goals. Kroos, through the first four Champions League games, had 5.3 key passes per game. The only one who came close was Neymar at 4.3. He’s one of the most accurate connectors in Europe. No team in the Champions League has as many shots as Real Madrid does this season. Isco and Bale are hovering around their career averages in chance creation.

The goal-well was dry before Solari arrived, and even after his six-goal surge in his first two league games, the team has underperformed their xG overall; while Barcelona, Atletico, Alaves, and Espanyol have over-performed their metrics. Last season started similarly, until Ronaldo turned the corner and the team finished the season in better scoring form. Ultimately, this is the case for more Mariano — his goal-to-shot ratio is absurdly good, and his goal-to-game ratio was one of the best in Ligue 1 last year.

Ceballos, the anchor

Solari shoehorned Ceballos into the line-up as the team’s defensive midfielder against Eibar. Amid all the swooning of him coming in and finally deploying players in their natural habitat (Odriozola instead of Lucas at right-back, etc), we forgot his entire Castilla tenure was riddled with attempts to reinvent players. That’s not necessarily what he’s doing with Ceballos — in Vigo, Ceballos was a makeshift choice when Casemiro left, and in Ipurua, Solari decided to continue an experiment he thought worked — taking a big gamble in the process.

Ceballos as a defensive midfielder has the tiniest of sample sizes, and you have to go back to his Spanish youth team days to unearth what he can do at that position. That doesn’t mean he can’t swing it — but we saw how badly he got toasted against Eibar. Mendilibar’s men have always been a buzzing team off-ball — they can make it difficult for opposing teams to build from the back with their press; and Sergi Enrich and Kike are behemoths who like to throw players around. If you don’t have a Casemiro-like presence to provide you with some steel and ball retention (something that Marcos Llorente and Fede Valverde at least naturally have), the scheme needs to compensate.

On Eibar’s first goal, Ceballos famously had to choose between marking two players in transition. He was caught in two worlds, and Asensio was never going to catch up to Escalante who scored. (Asensio has a bad habit of being lackadaisical running back, with the most recent case being in the Camp Nou; but often will fail to track cutters in the half-spaces in slower build-ups.) It wasn’t just Eibar’s first goal where Ceballos looked like he was suffering being the lone midfielder covering defensively.

You can see Ceballos’s central-midfield tendencies kick-in here. He can either track Kike’s central run or close the ball-carrier. If he takes Kike, then Orellana has a free overload; and if he moves to the flank, Kike has a lot of space to attack with the ball. Ceballos might naturally think there is a defensive midfielder behind him, or that Kroos and Modric are in close proximity. They’re not, and Ceballos has to make a quick decision. He gets lucky. He hesitates before hedging towards Joan Jordan (the ball-carrier), and leaves the passing lane to Kike completely open. If Jordan makes a better pass centrally, Kike’s gone.

That issue doesn’t magically rectify itself if Kroos switches positions with Ceballos. A non-traditional anchor needs to either share duties in a double-pivot, or have a team-implemented counter-press to limit transition waves.

Spoiler: Having seven players in-and-around the box (on Escalante’s goal) does not qualify as a counter-press.

Building from the back

We can harp on Real Madrid’s struggles in the final third all we want — it doesn’t ignore the other main problem offensively, which is the team’s inability to build from the back amid high presses.

Real Madrid are (or should be) one of the most press-resistant teams on earth. Marcelo, Isco, and Kroos have made a living coaxing naive pressers into committing high up the pitch before blazing a path to goal. Even these elite players have struggled. Against Sevilla, Real Madrid couldn’t pass Machin’s press or find outlets. Solari couldn’t figure it out against Eibar either. Once Real Madrid went down two goals, their issues were only amplified, and they started to rely on unattainable long balls.

Sergio Ramos is a good long-ball distributor from the back, but he misses his mark often. From 2016 - 2018, he’s misplaced almost three long passes per game in La Liga. His problems with distribution peaked in the Uefa Nations League this season, where he misplaced four long passes per game with Spain.

Ramos hits a distant prayer to Asensio — but that’s not the real issue. As the game wore on and desperation kicked-in, Real Madrid tried to get past Eibar’s press with more rudimentary methods in hopes of catching Mendilibar’s men off-guard. It didn’t work. The disconnect was real.

The ball should probably go to Kroos, who’s in a good position to receive a pass from Ramos. From there he can zip the ball out wide to Marcelo. Even if it goes there, though, the issues don’t go away. Then what? Modric is on the far-side, and Asensio, Bale, and Benzema are too far from the play to receive a pass in a good position. Maybe Marcelo plays a better ball down the flank to Asensio from the wing — but that’s the same pass that got Real Madrid nowhere the entire match.

Right now, it’s easy to prepare playing against Real Madrid. The creativity just isn’t there.

Marcos Llorente, a foot in the door

Finally.

Marcos Llorente’s presence was felt as soon as the third minute in Rome:

Fans will remember Llorente’s appearance against Roma for his reading of the game, his ability to win the ball and start counters, and just being in good defensive spots. They don’t expect him to be a ball-carrier, or to be comfortable in tight spaces. But he’s always been at ease when opposing players swarm him — rolling out his slick 180-turns and close-control with the ball until he finds an opening.

He’s a better dribbler than he is a passer. He will look unnerved when pressed but needs to improve on the weight of his passes, or looking up into more daring vertical channels when he releases the ball. For now, he’s a low-risk distributor who’d rather win the ball and find a quick outlet to someone who creates better than he does.

Llorente’s more famous trait which earned him a living at Alaves, winning the ball to ignite a counter:

Marcos Llorente, at the age of 21 with Alaves, was one of La Liga’s best defensive midfielders. Over and over again, he’d win the ball and distribute. Only three players in La Liga put in more successful tackles per game than Marcos in 16-17’: Casemiro, Victor Sanchez, and Sergio Alvarez. There was always an intrigue to see how Llorente would do surrounded by better players and more abundant outlets. At Alaves, a defensively-oriented side, Marcos didn’t have nearly as many good passing options, particularly of the vertical nature.

Llorente is a traditional single-pivot anchor. He’s a like-for-like replacement for Casemiro. He’s an experiment worth continuing.

Dani Carvajal’s effort making up for his offensive slump

Carvajal hasn’t been offensively dominant since the 2016 - 2017 season. In Rome, he killed two attacks early on with his poor passing.

Within the span of seven minutes, Carvajal gave the ball away twice in two similar situations on the right flank, surrendering a counter-attack in the process.

But give Carvajal respect, and some slack. During his offensive slump in the past two(ish) seasons (and by slump, we mean he’s not nearly as terrorizing on the flank as he was two years ago, when he blazed the wing at and unparalleled level from the right-wing-back slot), he has never shown poor spirit or defensive ineptitude. Whether his offense flows or not, you know what you’re getting from Dani: defensive output, and a covenant from him that ensures he fights with every cell in his body. Form is not always correlated with effort — Dani proves that.

Dani’s defensive production has remained a constant. If he can unearth his offensive best, the complexion of the team’s build-up completely changes.

Beta Bale

Since Bale’s hot start at the beginning of the season, he has seemingly crumbled under the weight of pressure on his shoulders — one of the many pieces that make up the holistic wad of Real Madrid’s problems.

We haven’t seen Alpha Balefor large chunks of the season. You can generally count on Di Francesco’s high-line to cure Bale’s woes (Roma love giving Bale space in transition, for some reason, even when their press isn’t good enough), and the Welshman’s demeanour completely changed (for the better) after he got his goal in the second half.

But get Bale involved in deeper roles, and he’s a completely different player. There has been, too often this season, a disconnect from the front three to the rest of the team. It ruins the offensive flow, and severs the team’s spinal cord. That’s the case for more of Bale on the left-wing, where he can contribute to the team as a two-way winger (where he has had his most brilliant moments offensively, even, throughout his entire career). “Bale is wasted doing defensive duties” is a lazy narrative. Isolate him, and you defang his strengths. He’s more than quick enough to aid in transition on both ends of the field while helping the team’s gung-ho left back.

Twice in the first half, Bale came to Marcelo’s aid in a deeper position in Rome.

There’s a chance we forgot how good Bale’s off-ball IQ is. (Part of the reason we haven’t seen much of it lately is because he’s been playing high up the pitch for almost 12 months now.) If he’s not in the final third, or putting a challenge in deep, he can read passing lanes well and force teams to recycle possession, or just simply coax them into an errant pass:

Bale is high up the pitch in the above sequence (a clip pulled from mid-September). He can scan passing lanes from virtually anywhere on the field. But put him in a role where he has more to do, and you give him a better feel for the game. Some players thrive on being cold and still pop up to score without a bother (Ronaldo and Icardi, for example). Others, like Bale, will grow into the game if they’re warming up in different facets of play. And as I wrote about here, Bale’s offensive numbers are actually better from the wing than they are up front, despite having more defensive duties on the flank.

There was an expectation of Bale to step up and provide more goals in Ronaldo’s absence. It’s a completely fair and reasonable assumption that Bale will take some kind of offensive leadership role. And until now, he’s disappointed overall.

Maybe it’s time we reassess who Bale is. Maybe he’s not a goal-scoring assassin (that the club still desperately needs to sign in the summer) — but rather a complimentary piece who does more than score goals.

Regardless, the team needs more from Bale. Being beta is not enough.

Marcelo’s gambles

We are now in year 13 of the unforgettable Marcelo experience. It’s been an incredible ride. In this time span, we’ve learned who he is — he’s the greatest offensive full-back in the history of the game, and a player who won’t improve defensively at this point of his career.

And that’s ok. You make that trade everyday. One strange wrinkle though, is Real Madrid’s general lack of preparation for his style of play. Why not have a better covering scheme?

We know that Marcelo almost never hedges towards the ball-carrier at the right moments:

That was actually one of Real Madrid’s better defensive sequences to mask Marcelo’s surges. Ramos is there to double-up and snuff the attack. Marcos Llorente (surprise), is in position right away to cover the half-space in case it goes there. When the team is spread more thin, and / or doesn’t have a traditional defensive midfielder to read the lanes, Marcelo’s positioning causes problems in a team that doesn’t always have its central midfielders in position to get back.

One recurring problem is defending in transition when Real Madrid has a set-piece. This stems from last season, and still lingers; and somehow none of Zidane, Lopetegui, and now Solari, have figured out how to get bodies behind the ball after flooding the box. Marcelo already struggles defending normal take-ons. Don’t put him in positions where he has to choose between passing lanes, closing on ball-carriers, and marking outlets:

Real Madrid have had these issues for years. In every year of the three-peat, we say “The team can’t make these mistakes against (insert big team here) if they’re to make a run”. They find a way anyway. But, as the saying goes, when you lose the best player in team history, the margin of error will grow smaller.

We said it at the beginning of the season: If you’re going to cope without a pure a goalscorer, you have to, at the very least, reduce the amount of chances you concede. Back-peddling after a set-piece is not a good starting point.