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Analyzing Isco and Casemiro Against PSG

New column: The small details against PSG, including dealing with Neymar, the role of Isco and Casemiro, Marcelo’s performance, and more.

Real Madrid v Paris Saint-Germain - UEFA Champions League Round of 16: First Leg Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/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 weekly thing. All previous editions can be found here.

Being at the Bernabeu for Wednesday’s first leg Champions League triumph over PSG was special. The party started hours before the match, and continues as I write this. It was the kind of atmosphere you’d expect from a match like this — one that defines your season so greatly, you can’t afford to be mediocre. The European DNA must boil within you -- or you’re toast.

The margin of error is small. Real Madrid’s 3-1 result may have been flattering for them, given that Neymar (mostly), and PSG threatened on the counter and poked fun at Real Madrid’s repeatedly capricious transition defense, while Keylor came up big in key moments; but it could’ve easily flattered PSG if it ended any other way. The way the Parisians played, the way they were managed, and the way they responded to Real Madrid’s second half surge was an all-too-familiar sight for them. They had difficulty coping with the pace and bowling-ball-like nature of Zidane’s three subs — Gareth Bale, Marco Asensio, Lucas Vazquez — and began to thin out their defensive shape as the game wore on. Their high line in the second half was suicide, as was manifested on Real Madrid’s second goal where Gareth Bale slices Emery’s back-line open with a great through-ball-dink to an on-rushing Asensio. Heck, we even saw a Draxler midfield cameo (an experiment that should’ve ended months ago) while Angel Di Maria, a highly capable two-way midfielder, didn’t see the light of day.

Emery’s not buying any of it. Real Madrid escaped, in his eyes, and rode the back of the referee into the sunset as their 12th man.

“The ref favoured them in the fouls, the yellow cards, and for me it was not a penalty. they tell me there was a Ramos handball for a penalty. Criteria not the same.”

PSG get tested in Ligue 1 more than we think. In the lead-up to this game, they strung together unconvincing performances against Toulouse and Sochaux. That’s normal — big teams struggle during the wear-and-tear of a season. But put to the sword like this? It’s rare. The team stumbled in arguably their two biggest tests this season, against Bayern and Lyon. Emery resurfaced demons and bad habits from both those games -- Lo Celso struggling to string things together as an anchor (against Lyon) while finding it difficult dealing with a high press, the wonky Draxler in midfield experiment, defending counters (against Bayern, and again in the second half against Real Madrid), etc. This team wasn’t that invincible. They had caveats sprinkled into their season.

They’re clearly dangerous, though, and few things in world football are as terrifying as facing Neymar with the ball running at full-throttle. It’s difficult to defend, and Real Madrid often found themselves needing two-or-three bodies to close the Brazilian down:

Collectively, this is a good defensive sequence. Isco stays with Neymar through the whole play. Both he and Nacho lunge in unsuccessfully, but the third hounder, Casemiro, is the figure who puts an end to Neymar’s hoodwinking. Doubling-up and protecting the flanks was always going to be important against the wing trailblazers that PSG has, but the fact that Neymar drew this much attention opened up other opportunities for Emery’s men. PSG welcomed the barrage on Neymar. When one player attracts that much attention, he has the ability to suck-in defenders before exposing them. Neymar was hounded by two-to-three white shirts all over the pitch, allowing him to play passes like this:

Berchiche’s quick movement off the ball is important here. He knows he’s not a perceived threat relative to someone like Neymar, and fully knows that Nacho and Modric will both hedge off him to contain any Neymar danger. Casemiro is already too central to cover the flank. Neymar hits Berchiche (with a lucky bounce), and Real Madrid get exposed. If you’re PSG, it’s hard to extract many positive individual performances, but the reality is, Neymar’s presence alone completely changes Real Madrid’s defensive structure and how much they can gamble.

We often talk about the over-reliance that certain clubs have on certain players. Maybe PSG’s over-reliance on Neymar doesn’t get talked about enough. Over-reliance itself, is not always a bad thing. When you have generational unicorns, you would be crazy not to lean your shoulder on them. But problems arise when other stars in your team aren’t stepping up. Kylian Mbappe is young. He’s great. His ceiling is absurd. He’s also cooled... for now. PSG looks to get the ball up to Neymar quickly and often — watching him do his thing in the process. When Neymar is the only one who can create consistently, you run into problems like this, where the team is stagnant, and Neymar gets dispossessed while you face a counter semi-paralyzed:

PSG’s emphasis on getting the ball to Neymar. Chart via 11Tegen11

Neymar had the third most touches on the field. The only two who saw the ball more were Kroos and Alves. PSG will find Neymar as an outlet continually — as soon as they put their heads up. How Real Madrid defends him will set the dominoes either way.

Neymar, how Real Madrid react to him, and how PSG use him is one of many wrinkles we can dissect from the first leg. There are many more key points and angles to choose from.

Let’s start with the most polarizing: Isco and Casemiro.

Isco’s contributions

Isco was possessed in the first leg. He ran himself into the ground, in the best way possible. Real Madrid pressed PSG high early, and no one did it more exemplary than Isco:

In the span of about six seconds, Isco hounds Kimpembe, Berchiche, and Lo Celso — all while his teammates back him up by cutting off passing lanes. Isco wins a corner. The Bernabeu lives for shit like this. It sets the tone. It’s contagious.

We often emphasize Isco’s IQ without the ball. It’s high. He understands where to be defensively, and the noise that criticizes him in the diamond is mostly directed to the schematic use of him, without faulting who he is as a player. A lot of the things he did defensively in the first leg will go unnoticed, but it shouldn’t:

Offensively, Isco was fluid and direct. Until he ran out of gas and was taken off in the second half, he completed just north of 96% of his passes. He may not be as gung-ho and quick as Bale or Asensio, but what he does, he does it at an elite level on his day. There is room for him.

The Casemiro Rollercoaster

How good Casemiro is will always make him an enigma when trying to explain all the bad things he does. Over and over again, his interventions are key. Over the course of 90 minutes on Wednesday, not a single player on the field made as many tackles (seven) or interceptions (five) as him. Some of his challenges on the ‘thank you and God bless you’ scale were great:

One trait stands out in the above sequences apart from good positioning and awareness: strength. There was a moment in the first half, after dispossessing Neymar, where Casemiro received a pass deep in Real Madrid’s half, and somehow plowed through a tight space on the touchline — bouncing up from challenges like a giant sky-dancer. It’s that strength that makes him an enigma.

There are moments when his durability can’t mask his technical shortcomings with the ball at his feet. Real Madrid sweat it out when Casemiro is the outlet coming out of the back:

Again, it’s the moments where Casemiro doesn’t have the ball in those areas that makes him so important; and it’s the moments where he does have the ball in those areas that make him a liability at times. While his passing range has improved over the course of his Real Madrid career, he needs to be better with the ball in positions like this, where he has time and space to calculate the right pass:

The passing kinks have been present in the whole team this season — not just Casemiro. But those who were giving the ball away similarly earlier this season (Kroos and Modric), have normalized their play and have started protecting the ball better. Casemiro, and Sergio Ramos, have yet to find their range. Casemiro’s not the only player who needs some recalibration with his passing from important areas where the team should (theoretically) easily build an attack. Ramos has been off the mark coming out of the back too:

Emery’s take

What was extracted most from the post-game presser, was easily the aforementioned quote from Emery about referees. This one got swept under the rug: “I think Lo Celso played a great game. And when Meunier came on we dominated on the right flank.”

‘Dominate’ is a strange choice of wording — probably something used in the heat of the moment from a man searching for a rope to pull himself out of a whirlpool. Lo Celo’s situation is what it is — he’s playing in an unnaturally deep role (for him) while Motta misses games. When PSG’s team was getting overrun in transition late, he was having difficulty coping as an anchor. Rabiot, one of his support pieces, lost possession seven times — far and away the highest mark by any player on the field. On the flanks, PSG looked to Neymar so much they missed several opportunities to take advantage of Marcelo’s defensive myopia. Emery’s not off the mark if he implied they did give Marcelo problems, though.

Being in the stadium has pros and cons (yes, there are disadvantages in watching a 3-1 win over PSG at the Bernabeu amid a frenzied atmosphere. You don’t see a single replay, and you can barely hear the referee’s whistle, and in some cases, you can’t hear it at all). One of the advantages: You see every little nut and bolt that you don’t see on camera. One such nut or bolt: Marcelo rarely has an idea of the space that’s open, or the runs being made in-behind him. Either that, or he’s expecting coverage on every single possession to conserve his energy going forward.

The problem here starts when Alves makes a cutting run behind Marcelo freely. Marcelo is neither tracking Alves here, nor cutting off the passing lane to him while Casemiro is occupied by Mbappe the moment the pass is made.

This one, is less subtle (though, after giving the ball away and jogging bag, he does put up his hand to apologize, just to make up for it):

Emery didn’t see the damage his team faced on the other end of the field, particularly post Alves-sub. PSG may have created danger from Neymar, but creating danger and creating clear-cut chances are two different things, any by the end of the night, Real Madrid’s xG was 2.16, compared to PSG’s .95. Bale, Asensio, Marcelo, and Kroos picked Emery’s dominant flank apart. Marcelo had his best offensive game of the season, and when he’s like this, he’s virtually unplayable.

Asensio (rightfully) was lauded for his performance. Gareth Bale’s entrance was more subtle, but his presence changed the dynamic of Real Madrid’s build-up entirely. His off-ball runs with pace were perfect to exploit PSG’s high line late, and it was his pass that released Asensio on Real Madrid’s second goal. Asensio, meanwhile, was completely surgical with his directness, pace, decision-making, and execution. If Bale helped put the dagger into PSG, Asensio was the one who twisted it.

There’s still a lot of work to do. 90 minutes in Paris won’t go by quickly.

Two Quick Observations

Rapid-fire, a couple scattered thoughts.

Play on

Can we fix this hole in our offside rule? Both Ronaldo and Modric should be allowed to get these:

Before and after Marcelo’s goal

The build-up to Marcelo’s goal was peak Real Madrid. That’s the gear we’ve been asking for. The celebration encapsulated everyone’s feelings:

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