I don’t have astronomical talent – at anything, really, and certainly not at any sort of athletic endeavor. So I can’t pretend to know how difficult it is to stay at peak competitive levels after reaching the pinnacle of your sport. I imagine it must be hard to keep putting in Herculean effort when you’ve already become one of the best in the world and won everything there is to win. God knows I eased up in my own piano practicing after a few measly competitions.
On the other hand, I wasn’t making millions of dollars off of my ability to tinkle the ivories. I suspect that if I was, I might have had a tad bit more motivation to stay in tip top form. Who knows, though - maybe after the first 50 million and ten first place finishes my devotion to the task may have waned and left me looking like Real Madrid’s admittedly tired but also decidedly mediocre looking midfield and forward lines.
The word that continually comes to mind when watching recent games (or at least the most family friendly of such words) is complacency. I see it when Toni Kroos’ movement looks nonchalant rather than simply effortless as in years past. I pull my hair out watching Bale unenthusiastically jog up the field with the ball only to turn around and lay it off laterally. I bear disgusted witness when Benzema sends tame effort after tame effort at the opponent’s goal. And that’s not even touching on Modric, whose poor form I firmly believe is down to his exertion over the summer and the lack of a proper off season.
By contrast, the lesser lights who seemed destined to ride the bench have been playing with the vigor many of the starters seem to lack. Ceballos has been like a lit fuse when unloosed upon teams in the second half, breaking down opposing defenses and changing the course of the game. Odriozola, despite an underwhelming performance today, has generally been up to the task at right back, continually finding a way to get off a good cross after creating minimal space on the wing.
Today’s game only adds to the disparity between the youngsters’ energy and the staid approach from some of the veterans. Reguilon was absolutely man of the match at left back, entirely out of the blue. I know lots of Madrid fans were high on his potential and pushing for him to get a run with the first team, but his performance against Valladolid exceeded even those high expectations. It’s always fun listening to Ray Hudson’s exuberant praise of players, but it’s extra gratifying when it’s for a home grown talent possibly on the verge of making the leap to first team standout (admittedly only while Marcelo is out). Regui did literally everything right today, combining well with Asensio down the left in the first half and contributing a team best 5 key passes to go along with 95.5% pass accuracy and 9 crosses. The fact that only two of those crosses were accurate doesn’t paint the full picture of the way he swung dangerous balls into the penalty area all game long.
And then we come to Vinícius. The 18 year old has been the focus of much consternation on all sides, from those who bang the drum insisting that he start every game to the group preaching patience as the undeniably talented player acclimates to the level of play in La Liga. My usual response to this situation would be to take a cautious approach in bringing him along bit by bit over the next few months. But these are not normal times at the Bernabeu, and the malaise in attack in the first months of the season has made it clear that the team could use a jolt in the arm. Vinícius supplied exactly that, looking positive on every touch and venturing up the field whenever given a sliver of an opening.
The first goal came from an agile cut-in from the left side by Vinícius, followed by a stung shot which, despite the fact that it was clearly headed well wide of the goal, took a wicked deflection off Olivas and squeaked past the outstretched fingers of Jordi Masip for the score we had all been holding our breath for. It wasn’t a beautifully worked goal, nor was it a display of exceptional skill or accuracy, but it had what so much of our play this season has lacked: audacity. The audacity to believe that you can stride into the opponent’s penalty area and wreak havoc and possibly even - gasp - score a goal or two. None of this should be particularly audacious for a team overflowing with talent like Madrid, but the complacent approach from our first choice players has made that kind of aggression look remarkable.
Vinícius helped create the second goal as well, laying the ball off for Benzema at the edge of the area before Nacho clumsily brought him down, allowing Ramos to score from the spot and kill the game off. It was nice to see both players point to the shirt, with Vinícius kissing the badge and bowing in introduction to the fans, as this clearly meant something to these players after the trials and tribulations of the last month.
Despite the flattering score line, this was not an encouraging game for the first 83 minutes, as Madrid produced the same frustrating build-up without resolution that we watched throughout Lopetegui’s tenure. Fortunately for us, the luck that Julen lacked was all in Solari’s corner as two stunning strikes from Valladolid hit the cross bar and a lucky deflection gifted us the goal that broke the deadlock.
They say it is better to be lucky than good, and while there is an element of truth to that, I tend to believe you create your own luck, or you at least have to put yourself in a position to take advantage of this luck. This is what our younger players have been willing to do that the bigger names have not, and it is the primary reason why I’m hoping Solari continues to trust the youngsters going forward. They may commit a few more errors and make some questionable decisions, but playing it safe hasn’t gotten us anywhere this season, and to make up the early point differential with Barcelona we are going to need an aggressive effort, not merely a safe one. The best case scenario would involve the improved play of the young guys inspiring our established stars to up their own games, so that we can take advantage of all the talent we currently possess. I still think we are a signing or two away from really challenging for the top, but if we can get the most out of the pieces we do have, we will be well on our way. The kids really are alright, and at the moment they are our best hope.