In the midst of a season of distinct ups and downs – more downs than ups, if we’re to be honest – Real Madrid’s recent uptick in form has been inconsistent but encouraging nonetheless. Since Solari’s appointment, the team has won seven of eight and maintained a goal differential of +14, positive signs despite a distinctly underwhelming 3-0 loss to Eibar in which the squad looked about as bad as we have seen them look in recent memory. That performance was followed by the 0-2 win in the Olimpico over Roma and this 2-0 victory against Valencia, the latter of which contained the best 45 minutes we’ve seen from the squad perhaps since our last master class against Roma at the start of our Champions League campaign. The question, then, is why – what exactly made the first half against Valencia such a success despite the solitary goal scored (especially considering the fact that it was an own goal)?
The answer, it seems pretty clear to me, is contained in two words: work rate. Yes, we looked more assured in possession than we are used to seeing under Solari, and yes, we had noticeably better performances from players who had not been firing on all cylinders (looking at you, Modric and Carvajal), but the dedication from all eleven players to be all over on the pitch, making incisive runs on offense and covering for each other on defense, made that first half the exhibition of our potential that it was.
The increased work rate was most immediately noticeable among the front line. Benzema seemed to have an extra boost of speed in his boots, popping up all over the field and even making tackles just outside our own box. Llorente, as everyone has already pointed out, seemed to magically appear as an outlet everywhere he was needed. At one point, within about 90 seconds he went from just outside the Valencia box, laying it off for Bale, to just outside our own penalty box, mopping up. He was like a security blanket all over the pitch, keeping panic at bay and maintaining order in midfield.
Llorente wasn’t the only one, though. The whole team was selectively applying pressure at opportune moments, and they were doing an excellent job of covering for each other. In one sequence, Modric was the one pressuring Valencia’s goalkeeper and Varane was well inside the Valencia half to cut out the pass from Neto. Ramos was another one who appeared to be everywhere at once, venturing up field so far that it would make me nervous but making key interventions and stifling Valencia’s attack. The adventurousness of our defenders was provided cover by the fact that Carvajal is an absolute rock on that right hand side, snuffing out attacks any time they enter his proximity. When he is as effective offensively as he was in this game, he is on a whole different level and damn near the best right back in the game.
Watching the first half I kept thinking, “This is the best I’ve seen [x] look in a while,” and you could pretty much fill in the blank with just about anyone out there. Lucas Vasquez had an exceptional game, and not only because he scored the second goal to seal it. Reguilon continues to look more and more confident with every passing game. The defense in general made a number of pinpoint passes on clearances which, followed by some good one-touch passing, worked the ball into the attack quickly before Valencia’s defense could get itself set. Bale even looked great in the early going, especially when he was playing a little deeper on the left, providing a slightly different look than we’re used to lately. Unfortunately, he moved over to the right side later in the first half before mostly disappearing in the second half. If anything, it just proved that he needs to keep his man bun glued to that left touch line and roam the pitch wreaking havoc. And apparently he also has a decent long throw on him as well. It would be hilarious to see him surprise someone with that at a key moment.
I’m not enough of a tactical genius to explain just how they managed it, but players seemed to be showing up all over the pitch as needed without leaving us overly open at the back. It reminded me of a classic motion offense in basketball where players have the freedom to roam and find their most effective position within a loose framework. At least in the first half. Perhaps that’s just a function of the aforementioned work rate everyone seemed to be putting in. That may also explain the slide in form we saw in the second half as tired legs started to catch up with us and Valencia were able to slice through our midfield, often bypassing it altogether.
Whatever the mechanism behind it, it was incredibly encouraging to witness such a strong first 45, even though what followed was not up to the same high standard. Regardless, the result was a positive one against a side that usually plays us very close, and it gets us to within five points of the Catalan leaders. While I’m not entirely convinced we’ve seen the last disappointing performance a la Eibar, I am distinctly more hopeful that we are moving in the right direction after this game. Getting the guys to play with that level of commitment is the necessary base on which to build a successful season, and if this game is anything to go on, we have a hell of a decent base.
Postscript: Bravo to Thibaut Courtois for those two saves he won’t even get credit for thanks to off side calls. One legitimately saved a sure goal had it been reviewed, and combined they restored a lot of confidence. I have always been in Navas’ corner, but if Courtois keeps performing like he did in this one, I don’t think anyone will have room for legitimate complaint.