Newly appointed head coach Santiago Solari seems to have rejuvenated Real Madrid ever since he replaced Julen Lopetegui only a few weeks ago.
Since the switch, the team has been in impeccable form, with handing a manita to Viktoria Plzen in the group stage of the UEFA Champions League being the most recent display.
After Wednesday night’s European victory, Solari has now coached the team in all three of their major competitions (including LaLiga and Copa del Rey) while boasting a perfect record with 11 goals scored and zero conceded.
Let’s take a look at what’s changed in the team from their last UEFA Champions League appearance (apart from the man in charge).
Better Player Positioning
To the surprise of many, the new head coach opted to make some big changes to the lineup. Thibaut Courtois, Alvaro Odriozola, Sergio Reguilon and Dani Ceballos started the match while veterans Keylor Navas, Luka Modric, and Isco sat on the bench.
As a result, the defensive line was adjusted the most for this match as three of Madrid’s first-choice defenders, Marcelo, Dani Carvajal and Raphael Varane, were all ruled out due to injury.
However, while the unconventional lineup may have caused pre-game stress for some, Solari selected a group that showed to be strong in positional awareness on the pitch which helped claim a crucial three points.
During the first 20 minutes of the match, Real Madrid did have a lot of positioning issues at the back as Nacho, Ramos and Casemiro routinely felt pressure from the hosts.
As a result, there were many opportunities for the team to go down a goal within the opening five minutes as many of the defenders placed themselves out of position and these errors created pockets of space for Viktoria Plzen to attack.
Eventually, the team was able to settle down and properly place themselves in familiar positions within the Czech Republic team which helped produce their five-goal haul.
Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema hovered near the top of the box throughout the game and were continuously looking for balls from Lucas Vazquez, Odriozola or Reguilon who were always looking to create space off the wings.
Toni Kroos and Ceballos worked in the middle while Casemiro shifted in and out between midfield and defensive duties with Nacho and Ramos when necessary like he has done so much in the past.
When on the counter-attack, the forwards were moving well with Kroos, Ceballos and Casemiro, pulling everyone towards the goal and dragging the defenders with them opening up space to attack. Once they got closer to the net, Madrid took 67% of their shots in and around the 18 yards box.
Regaining Midfield Dominance
While the positioning of the players was central to the overall result of the match, the most noticeable change that occurred at Doosan Arena was Madrid’s ability to dominate the midfield as they have so brilliantly done in the past.
Solari’s decision to rest Modric, who has been unusually out of form since returning from his adventures in the 2018 World Cup, meant the majority of the pitch was dictated by Kroos and Ceballos who each had one of their best games so far this season.
Throughout the match, Kroos had total control of the ball. He completed 88 passes with 95% accuracy, maintained 96% personal possession of the ball and had six key passes during the first half alone. Additionally, he had two assists and one goal to his name.
Kroos played much better than he did under Lopetegui because he was able to get back to playing in his familiar role rather than dropping back and helping the defence as Casemiro does.
The German’s midfield partner, Dani Ceballos, also proved to be playing with better form as he maintained 90% personal possession and made more passes than his veteran teammate: 94 completed with 95% accuracy.
Together, the two took complete control of the pitch and contributed to the teams overall 62.3% possession of the game.
The pair’s ability to regain control of the midfield after being so disoriented during the beginning of the season was key towards Real Madrid’s victory and was simply exquisite to watch.
While looking at the statistical outcome of Solari’s management is key to understanding Real Madrid’s successful night, a big part of the victory comes down to the enthusiasm of the players.
As mentioned above, a big change for Wednesday’s game was the player selection.
Between a handful of injuries, a new coach and the desperate need for a victory, Solari took a chance on starting some third-string players, yet the team as a whole embraced it.
Throughout the game, youngsters such as Odriozola (22), Ceballos (22) and Reguilon (21) were invited to use their youthful playing style to make an impact on the game from the start and they did just that.
When it came time to make substitutions, Javi Sanchez (21) and Vinicius Jr. (18) also made their way onto the pitch for Ramos and Benzema respectively.
All five of the young Real Madrid players made an impact on the game and played with the talent they displayed when first under Solari with Castilla.
The older players on the pitch such as Kroos, Casemiro and Nacho also played a huge role in improving the team’s spirit as they supported and embraced the youngsters.
Tonight there was no arguing between players, no signs of frustration or defeat. Real Madrid was once again omitting the ideals of a family on the pitch.
Each and every one of the players looked inspired, encouraged, and most importantly, happy. Having these emotions resurface in the team will only continue to lift spirits and positively influence future games.
Overall, the victory over Viktoria Plzen was just what the team needed to really start regaining their form. Solari’s introduction as interim head coach has certainly revived what was a dreary, messy, and un-inspired Real Madrid squad into a team that is rising in both confidence and performance.
This is a Real Madrid squad who looks like they want to play football. A Real Madrid that wants to win. They are hungry to get a good result in all their competitions and are proving they are still a force to be reckoned with. The players are once again playing in unison, putting on some of their best performances and are encouraging development as a team.
Whether or not Florentino Perez decides to keep Solari as head coach for the rest of the season or not; Solari has sprung Real Madrid from their disastrous run and re-awakened a team that once again feels purpose after successfully finishing Matchday 4 at the top of Group G.