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A Transition Year Filled With Struggles

Kiyan Sobhani’s column, on Solari’s takeover, offensive struggles, and unexpected decisions

Al Ain v Real Madrid: Final - FIFA Club World Cup UAE 2018 Photo by Francois Nel/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.

When Real Madrid hit rock-bottom this season after El Clasico, amid a horrific transition year which has yet to show its fate, Julen Lopetegui spoke to the press with his usual tone of diplomatic assuage — assuring the media the scoreline (a 5-1 thumping at the hands of a Messi-less Barcelona at the Camp Nou) was not an accurate reflection of the match, and that the team was strong enough to bounce back. He also said the result was not the reality of what happened on the field; and Butragueño, a club director, said the result was “excessive punishment”.

Football has been around for a long time. There is no reason to overanalyze these quotes — the reality of a crisis situation is that those directly involved are expected to stay calm and steadfast. But fans also expect honesty, and as Real Madrid trudged though a historically bad offensive slump under Lopetegui, there were more clear problems than simply ‘not having luck’ — an excuse explained to us in umpteen post-game pressers. Chance creation had virtually come a halt, and the team’s xG in La Liga is currently on pace to be dramatically low — about 30 goals behind the season average of the past five seasons (and this even after Solari’s brief reign where the team has scored 10 goals in six matches).

The players, after that defeat in Barcelona, were much less tactful, and open to the reality of the situation. Casemiro stepped off the field and said “We are a disaster, all of us are playing bad.” Sergio Ramos said “It was a fucked up moment.” Whatever it was, it needed a complete 180 turnaround.

That turnaround seemed improbable, mainly due to the lack of viable options that could conceivably kick this team into gear. A phone call to Conte was made, per source, but the Italian had barriers with Chelsea’s contract, and other personal factors that prevented him from taking on another coaching gig this season. The rest of the big names won’t be available until summer (at the earliest), which leaves a handful of inexperienced coaches from within — with Solari being the most senior (and yet unproven himself) of them all.

As improbable as the turnaround seemed (and still seems), a change almost had to be made. It couldn’t go on like this (in a historically bad way) and there is arguably no bigger kiss of death than getting thumped by Barcelona. The Club had considered waiting until the winter mini-break to officially sack Julen, but there was no sense prolonging the inevitable. Nothing would’ve changed the Board’s mind anyway.

Julen could have turned it around, conceivably — and the players, at the very least, truly believe they could gather themselves, and accepted blame to take the pressure off their manager.

We’ll never get to see if Lopetegui could’ve made that dramatic u-turn — nor will many want to have experienced it anyway. He used six different schemes in the qualifying phase of the World Cup with Spain — all with a high degree of offensive variance. He never could translate that to a coherent, consistent design with Real. The results didn’t add up, nor did the eye test, which saw complete stagnancy at times.

Solari’s reign is perplexing. He’s given the team a jolt in results. Perhaps this was to be expected. Most teams can experience a psychological boost with a new manager before regressing to the mean after a few matches.

The rude relapse for Solari happened in Ipurua against Eibar, before the team left Huesca unscathed while getting outplayed. So much about his team’s play has been unimpressive, even during wins. Yet, many will argue this is what they wanted all along — less possession and more results. Winning without style isn’t always enough at this club; but winning, at the bare minimum, is a requirement. Solari is scraping through, and that eloquence he swoons the media with in the pressers is starting to show a shorter fuse the more he has to put up with the media’s interrogations. One wonders how long he can continue — especially when so many big tests come in January (the new year schedule gets really tight, once you throw in Copa and Champions League knockout fixtures in between trips to Betis, the Wanda, and hosting Barca).

Yet, what can be expected of Solari, and how much can he be blamed if this season turns out as a dud? He’s playing with house money — thrown into the fire as a successor to a failed coach while having little expectations on his own shoulders. He appreciates the rare opportunity that’s fallen at his feet. “We are also here thanks to Zidane,” Solari said after Real Madrid won a third-consecutive Club World Championship. “It will be difficult to match in the future.”

Here’s what Solari has going for him amid the disappointing tactical busts, inability to escape high presses to enter the opposition’s half, struggling to bridge the disconnect between the midfield and attack (inherited from Julen), and issues defending even slow build-ups: he has conjured some kind of positive ethos (excluding the Isco fallout).

Solari never made it as far as Zidane did (he left Real Madrid in 2005), meaning he’s one year removed from playing alongside Sergio Ramos like Zidane did in 2006 — and to be sure, the Argentine will never have the influence the Frenchman did in Real Madrid circles; but he’s been around the club enough for players to know he’s part of the team’s folklore. He’s respected. The kids who played for him at Castilla liked him for the most part, even if the team wasn’t playing well or some players were misused and isolated.

Two tests stand out so far under Santi: A 2 - 4 away win at Balaidos with a short-handed team, and a 2 - 0 win over Valencia where the team played a good first half. Take that for what you will — it’s not much. Real Madrid weren’t good in the second half against Valencia, and their first half stood out only because the standards have hit rock bottom this season. But Solari has gotten a rise in the individual performances of players that Lopetegui only really got with Ceballos.

Luka Modric has looked like himself again (albeit, still finding his feet). Ditto Toni Kroos. Once you add Marcos Llorente into the mix — not only giving Marcos a shot, but also rewarding him with a string of eight consecutive starts is by far the biggest mark Solari has left until now — and Real Madrid’s current starting midfield trio are all in form at the individual level. That, in itself, has balanced the team amid tactical struggles. Llorente’s positioning, coverage, ball-carrying, and press-resistance has all been impressive; while his passing has looked more daring and vertical as he’s grown more comfortable.

(Required reading on Llorente.)

Solari will have players rounding into form that Lopetegui didn’t have. Varane was another who slept-walked for the first few months of the season (and he’s still not fully awake yet). Not everything gets solved when players take an unreasonable amount of time to finally regain their strength from a World Cup hangover, but, at the very least, when individuals are in form, they can mask certain foibles in the blueprint.

“I have found a group in pain,” Solari said when he first took over the A-team. “But eager to start and reverse the situation.”

It’s easy to turn a blind eye to that reversal if you’re a Real Madrid fan, even if you take some solace in Solari’s initial results and charisma behind a mic. He is not as versatile tactically as Zidane, nor is he as commanding a presence. And Zidane had Cristiano. Who is it this season to score the 96th minute penalty, with his cojones hanging out of his shorts, with the team down by three goals, half-buried, with the season on the line? You could think of one or two who should be that guy — but being that guy consistently is different. Real Madrid used to have a bail-out card they could play when their backs were against the wall. That trump card has been swapped for a wild-card — a wild-card that you can’t control. A tactician could conjure a great run with the tremendous resources Real Madrid has; but Solari is probably not the one who can do it.

Here’s what fans tend to forget: Finishing as a runner-up in La Liga and being a Champions League quarter-finalist (just one of many possible scenarios this season) in a season sandwiched between four Champions League titles in five years is acceptable. Even if you’re Real Madrid, and your standards are higher than what we can adequately measure — it’s fine. It should be allowed to be ‘bad’ every now and then. This is, as gloomy as it seems, not even close to the darkest days the club has seen.

You can break down the most successful eras in Club history chronologically: Di Stefano and Puskas; Ye-Yes; Quinta del Buitre; Galactico 1.0; Cristiano and Zidane. The club went into transition and decline after all of those epochs. Maybe the Ye-yes, guided by Gento, were able to pull it together quickly after Di Stefano and Puskas declined (and eventually left), but there is generally an expected drop-off when you lose a certain level of greatness.

When Ronaldo left in July — though, his agent Jorge Mendes confirmed Ronaldo had made up his mind to join Juventus in January, and negotiations with the Italians began behind the scenes as early as when Real Madrid met Juventus in the Champions League — the drop-off was dramatic. There was expectation that Benzema and Bale would experience an uptick in goals to compensate. They did it for a string of three or four games to begin the season before normalizing into what they are — complimentary pieces and quality attackers. They are not — though they both go through scoring streaks — goalscoring assassins game-in, game-out.

Don’t tell any of the current players that — they don’t believe in rebuilding, retooling, or going through a period of transition which doesn’t include lifting silverware. They believe the current crop of players are good enough to take home the ultimate prize. As they should. Whether they’re right or wrong doesn’t matter. They have to believe.

“It’s maybe a bit more relaxed (without Ronaldo),” Bale told the Daily Mail back in September. “I suppose there is more of a team, more working as one unit rather than one player.”

That statement was polarizing at the time, and even more so now that the team has regressed since Ronaldo left.

It’s not crazy to claim what Bale claimed. There are plenty of great teams in European football who don’t have a Messi or Ronaldo level player, and would kill to have Isco, Asensio, Bale, or Benzema in their team. Real Madrid’s resources are world class. But what elite teams do have that Real lack — someone who can put the ball in the back of the net consistently.

Whether Bale has fulfilled his role or not is subjective, too. Has he bought into the team’s identity (a confused identity, to be sure)? Has he helped make this ‘more of a team’? Has he pulled his weight? What’s his weight, anyway? Is it to replace Ronaldo’s goals? If so, he’s failed dramatically. But zoom out and re-check your expectations, and you might consider he’s been fine. Was it fair to assume he’d score even 30 goals (well short of the Ronaldo mark), when he’s only scored more than 20 league goals once in his footballing career, and more than 25 goals overall just once, in that same season?

The idea was simple, but flawed: Ronaldo leaves, and he takes 50 goals with him. That’s 50 goals to make up. It could theoretically be broken down like this: Bale hits 10 more; Benzema 10; Asensio 8; Isco 8; Mariano 8; Ramos 6. That’s probably generous — so you shave off a few and temper your expectations. Then you reverse engineer it: “If we’re going to score less, we have to concede less.”

The expectations to both make up goals elsewhere, and to defend better, have been unmet.

“We won’t talk about hypotheticals,” Lopetegui said about Real Madrid potentially sign a ‘9’ back in July. “The reality is that I am convinced by the team I have. I prefer not to talk about things that haven’t happened.”

The easy solution would’ve been to just sign a goalscorer and avoid gambling on these expectations. But the timeline, and what actually happened this summer, needs to considered when simplifying if to that degree.

“When I signed he still belonged to the club,” Lopetegui said of Ronaldo’s departure. “But soon after he expressed his intention to go.”

Lopetegui counted on Ronaldo when he signed on as head coach. If what Mendes said is true, and Cristiano had made up his mind months prior, then the club thought they’d retain the Portuguese regardless of how he felt, and that he’d eventually forget about being disgruntled when he starts scoring goals in the new season again.

But everything happened so fast, and it happened unexpectedly. Zidane left, to the board’s surprise. Ditto Ronaldo. That leaves you scrambling to make ends meet, trying to scoop personnel you might not necessary want to work with if you have more time and better availability of those you do want.

Per source, Lopetegui did request Rodrigo and Aspas as a fix. The club would’ve had to overpay for Rodrigo, and didn’t see him nor Aspas as someone good enough to displace Benzema. Everyone’s favourites — Aguero, Icardi, Lewandowski, Kane, Cavani — just weren’t for sale. Real Madrid could’ve, and probably should’ve, signed Gonzalo Higuain, who would’ve been a realistic target, but for whatever reason, they didn’t want to bring the Argentine back.

Real Madrid has a solid core that’s been through almost everything together. Remaining from La Decima: Marcelo, Ramos, Carvajal, Varane, Benzema, Bale, Casemiro, Nacho, Marcelo, and Isco. Kroos, who arrived a season later, famously said earlier this year that the team has been through it all together, therefore can deal with impossibly uncomfortable situations based on experience alone. The team should almost have a rhythmic, natural cohesion and flow.

There are times, when you can feel that cohesive electricity sparking:

That kind of peak football just hasn’t surfaced enough. Asensio, when in his groove, can be an answer to breaking defensive lines. In the above sequence, Real Madrid faces a CSKA team they just couldn’t puncture in Russia. This time Asensio looks vertical, roams the pitch, makes off-ball runs in between the lines as soon as he releases the ball, and breaks CSKA completely.

That’s been rare. What Asensio did on that play is something he didn’t do in Sevilla, when the team completely failed to turn on their engine, and desperately needed someone to kick them into motion offensively. When Bale goes into that ball-dominant mode, it’s hard to stop him too. But both Bale and Asensio have been passive too often this season, when they should just be taking over games.

In the first clip, Bale doesn’t provide Vazquez the overload, and opts to hedge back when he should be providing the team with an extra dimension in attack. In the second sequence, Vazquez doesn’t have a half-space run from Bale, who, doesn’t make an effort to get open. Modric pleads with him to make that run after it’s done. Those are little things that will drive a manager mad during a season when the attack is already labouring.

Those little details aren’t magnified as much if Real Madrid is winning all their games and scoring for fun — or at least not playing well but still winning thanks to Ronaldo’s historically great offensive contributions. But in a season where the offensive creativity just hasn’t appeared, passivity in the final third really grinds the attack to a halt.

Maybe patience is required — the same patience that was needed to see the team finally look at the top of their game in Spring time in the past few seasons. But when the team takes time to kick into gear, it’s frustrating for fans to deal with, and ultimately it’s the reason why Real have suffered in the league.

And this season feels, different.

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