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Real Madrid’s Turnaround Is Complicated — There Are More Problems Than One

There is no single solution to this mess. There are a ton of questions to answer, and addressing them all at once is not easy

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Levante v Real Madrid - La Liga Santander Photo by Jeroen Meuwsen/Soccrates/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.

Somewhere in-between Real Madrid’s 2-2 draw against Celta Vigo and their 2-2 draw against Numancia back in January, Real Madrid held a closed-door meeting for 50 minutes — no press, no leaks, just a candid discussion.

They had just come off of a tactical disintegration in Balaidos. The already defensively-frail Marcelo was overburdened and steamrolled — Casemiro, Kroos, and Isco watching on in horror as the team’s lack of defensive coverage was apparent. Kroos, for what it’s worth, had a specific assignment, but there was a clear lack of undefined roles that night — a problem all too recurring during this season of torment. The little good sprinkled throughout that game, namely Gareth Bale reigning the offense while doing solid off-ball work, and Luka Modric remaining one of the team’s constants in whatever he’s asked to do (even if his energy should be conserved for other important team-symphonizing work), was understandably pushed aside to address the real problems of the team.

They immediately followed that meeting with a 2-2 draw against Numancia — an annoying blip that had its own problems. The first real test post-meeting for the A-team was the following match against Villarreal. The first half was respectable. The defense looked more organized and less gung-ho, and Real Madrid were unlucky not to score. But at half-time, there was a sense of danger creeping in. The longer the game went scoreless, the more the pressure was going to build, the more turbulent Real Madrid’s scheme would become, desperation would kick in, and sound-positioning would be thrown out the window. And, that’s exactly what happened. The Bernabeu grew restless, old habits creeped in, and the pressure cut through the players, as Villarreal cut through Real Madrid accordingly. That goal Zidane’s men conceded that day — it’s the same goal they concede perpetually this season.

50-minute meeting be damned. Fast forward almost a month, and the team’s problems still skulk over them like a dark, relentless cloud. “If we knew that we would have fixed it already,” was one of Sergio Ramos’s candid quotes after a late collapse against Levante. It’s not that the closed-door meeting was a near-hour discussion without any solutions to fix; it’s that the problems are so numerous it’s hard to sharpen the focus on just that one problem. If one thing was wrong, it would’ve been amended already.

“We must be closer together, not leave so much space and be more of a block,” Ramos said. “We should not point to any line in the team.”

After Real Madrid took apart Deportivo 7-1 (in what was a very good performance all-around, even if Depor are a walking train wreck), Zidane said the difference was not tactics (it was, to be sure, at least one of the main differences), and that it was down to finishing. Finally finishing chances was a huge part of Real Madrid’s back-to-back La Liga wins during that stretch. They outscored Depor and Valencia 11-2 while their xG was just 3.18 + two penalties — a completely flipped script from other matches this season.

There was a sense that, if in every game, Real Madrid started to become lethal in front of goal again, things would normalize — if Real Madrid was winning games, then there was no need to push up the field without proper coverage. Maybe this is truth, if we see it happen game-in game-out — but seeing Real Madrid still concede while being ahead, with no need to be out of position defensively against Levante was another wake-up call. The amount of chances Levante had to equalize before actually doing it was troubling. In one instance, Roger Marti was unmarked at the far-post to the point it was unthinkable he missed his chance. Real Madrid were winning at that point, and it was late. Choosing to be in the right spots defensively is routine for a lot of teams, but for Real Madrid, it’s been abnormally difficult.

On Tuesdays’ Churros y Tácticas Podcast, I listed off, verbatim, a series of tangible things Real Madrid need to dramatically change if they’re to salvage their season against PSG. After some discussion ensued, I landed on this quote which I made up on the spot: “It’s one thing to go into the PSG game and flip a switch, but it’s another thing to go into the PSG game and knowing which switch to flip”. I stumbled into that revelation, and was met by a raucous applause by Diego who undoubtedly stood up from his seat and named all his children Kiyan.

Over the course of the season, we’ve broken down a multitude of problems on this website through columns and podcasts. Smoke-screen statements from the coaching staff and players about finishing chances and not knowing how to fix things are fine so long as there is a more analytical approach, along with detailed film sessions behind the scenes.

We have no evidence of this happening, but it would be naive to think real problems aren’t being addressed in private. Yet, for fans, it’s distressing that the problems persist. The problems in defensive transition appeared against Betis, Tottenham, Las Palmas (unpunished), Al Jazira (clear asterisk), Barcelona, Celta, Villarreal, and Leganes. Each one of these games had clearly undefined roles. Last season, Kroos and Modric would cover for Casemiro’s bombing runs (which were unexpectedly conducive to Real Madrid’s offensive versatility and efficiency); whereas this season Casemiro will often be in positions high up the pitch and Kroos is already hedged forward — leaving Modric on the right-hand-side helping the right back and Marcelo drowning in a tide-pool with no lifeguard. Isco has a high defensive IQ as shown in the past, but, as we’ve beaten to death already, his boundless job keeps the team guessing on every single situation that the ball is lost. If there is no counter-press in place to immediately react to a loss of possession (spoiler: there isn’t), the team will get sliced unapologetically. Counter-pressing has a prerequisite: cohesiveness. When you’re neither defending, counter-pressing, or in position to stop a counter, you’re digging your own grave deep below the earth’s mantle.

Fans often ask whether ‘x player’ is good enough for Real Madrid, and whether they should be replaced or not. It’s semantics at this point. Blaming individual players without context is dangerous. When Zidane’s team has the same problem game-in game-out, regardless of who’s playing, there are deeper problems. Casemiro or Llorente, Kovacic or Kroos, Marcelo or Theo (and so forth) — these discussions in the context of this season are secondary. The team suffers anyway.

Theo Hernandez is a phenomenal talent. He’s a powerful, robust, and athletic full-back who caused all kinds of headaches to opposing flanks last season (with an inferior team surrounding him). Marcos Llorente held his own in that same scheme, organized his team, barked instructions, and distributed at a high level while reading passing lanes instinctively. Levante, a team that went on a surge against Real Madrid to equalize the game, wish they had a Theo or Llorente. They don’t. Yet, they executed their plan and exposed Madrid’s current tactical frailty.

To be sure, personnel questions will come this summer, and they will come strong. Zidane has a flurry of fringe and talented young players whose developmental goals are not being met; and question marks loom over certain elephants in the room, like Ronaldo and Benzema, who the board may be hesitant to commit long-term to given their age and decline. Aces are out there who could immediately help the team this summer, and the club will want to avoid losing out on another James Rodriguez for the sake of coddling an undroppable superstar who’s not the same physically as he once was. Keeping someone like Ronaldo around is not the same as keeping someone like Modric around — the latter has happily expressed taking a backseat as a mentor as he ages.

As always, dealing with a legend like Ronaldo is ridiculously intricate. In the past, legends just didn’t get a proper send-off. Retiring in Madrid is rare for a superstar. Zidane’s final game and goodbye was an anomaly that Raul, Casillas, Redondo, Figo, Hierro, Morientes, Guti, Pepe, and many others just didn’t get to experience. Ronaldo’s contract runs until 2021, where he’ll be 35 and a shadow of his current self, even. He and the club may mutually decide he leaves on top, avoiding a situation like Raul’s where the fans started to turn on him after he prematurely went through a steep decline and stayed with the club for years after. (There was no Twitter back then, only forums. Raul was on Benzema-level slandered. Take my word for it.)

It’s delicate, and Real Madrid will want to avoid doing anything behind Ronaldo’s back (for the love of God, don’t do anything behind his back. Transparency is important). But answering all these questions of personnel in the summer time, again, is just part of the equation. Other factors, mainly a tactical identity (which is in some ways overrated as tactical versatility is also important, but having a defined internal plan on both ends of the field to mask your weaknesses while maximizing your strengths is not) in order to put out a consistent product which doesn’t torch your players alive regardless of who’s out there, should be primary. Zidane has earned a chance to steady this ship (I explain why here), but there has to be a realization that great players can’t always mask tactical chaos.

Zidane just might be the hardest manager to gauge. He’s almost unreadable. If there was ever a person to call an enigma, it would be him. He led the team to one of best seasons in its history, and immediately followed it with one of the worst. We’ve seen tactical brilliance from him, and also tactical disaster. Some of his most sparkling tactical blueprints in the biggest games last season were not replicated — one-offs that brought success in a scheme that was short-lived. He is, in many ways, undecipherable.

But he’s our undecipherable, unreadable, tactical enigma banana. Hedging towards continuity and seeing him find success again in the long run may be worth keeping him around for. (It may also be not.) Is the gamble really that big? Losing is inevitable, and improving on last year’s success is almost impossible — now the waiting game is such: which way does he regress to the mean? He’s either last season’s coach, or this season’s. Next season, we’ll know for sure, if he’s given a chance that is.

One of Zidane’s most lauded attributes last season was his emphasis on stockpiling and grooming youth. It took a while, but he eventually dug Kovacic out of the dog house and made him a key cog in big games. Asensio’s pattern was similar. Both of these players are still among the best in the world at their position and age, by the way — it would be crazy to not have them part of the plans moving forward. Zidane’s genuine interest, both in his job-vision and emotional investment, in Castilla, is real — and it hit home with a lot of fans. The success of younger players last season, Castilla product or otherwise, carried over into the summer where Llorente (a top-5 La Liga DM last season), Ceballos (the best player in Spain’s U-21 team over the summer), Vallejo (one of Bundesliga’s best defenders) all joined the team — among various other young talents. Giving up on these kids now would require a tremendously short leash — but these kids also have to leapfrog multiple players in their respective positions to get any playing time. The balance of trust, continuity, rhythm, and player development is tricky to harmonize.

The pool is deep. Castilla’s three best players last season, Martin Odegaard, Aleix Febas, and Fede Valverde, are all on the outskirts of a bigger outlook. They all need to be groomed carefully. Of the three, Odegaard shines brightest — he’s Heerenveen’s best player this season, and a new stepping stone in La Liga would make sense for him. People often forget about Martin when looking at Real Madrid’s immediate future. Big names surface every week, but it’s not inconceivable Odegaard’s return is the big ‘signing’ two years from now. Febas is a box-to-box zealot who plays regularly at Zaragoza. He’s 22, and doesn’t dominate the ball the way he did with Castilla, but another stepping stone for him, and he may develop into a Dani Parejo-like ceiling (albeit, his playing style is more similar to Kovacic). He’s an asset. With Valverde, the situation is most knotty. He’s not playing enough with Deportivo, and Real Madrid will have to learn from the Mayoral situation — get him out of his loan spell immediately and send him off for a stint where playing time is guaranteed rather than simply bringing him back. Fede had a decent chance of making the Uruguay World Cup squad, but it’s diminished with his lack of playing time under both Pepe Mel and Cristobal. Maybe Zidane calls up his old buddy Clarence Seedorf and asks him for a favour. There is a crazy-good talent on his hands there and Deportivo could, um, use him.

Fede’s (and Aleix’s) main enemy is that for the first time in Real Madrid’s history, the club is abnormally deep at their position. But one of them may grow into the depth chart as Modric ages. It’s something to watch. With talent coming through the ranks, at the very least, the team will capitalize on flipping them for money. Playing divination on this kind of thing is always difficult, and at a club like Real Madrid, the priority should be looking for pitch success first. It’s theoretically a ‘good problem’ to have, but developing and managing these assets correctly is not easy, and getting it wrong is always on the cards.

If Real Madrid’s train-wreck continues into the Champions League, against PSG or otherwise, the board should at least consider the future vision when evaluating what to do with Zidane. It may or may not be difficult to find a coach like Zizou who cares about the long-term grooming of Real Madrid’s lagoon of gifted kids, but someone like Mourinho for example, or any manager whose appearance is clearly transitory, may not be as emotionally invested in a long-term blueprint the way Zidane is.

The Frenchman has gotten a lot of things wrong this season. He’s trusted his new players mostly in Copa games, in which he brings them in cold, and into a fire. Ice melts in that situation, I think. These players don’t have chemistry with each other, nor do they have enough experience to mask the lack of familiarity and tactical lawlessness. Those team-selection issues, along with a multitude of tactical wrinkles, has ravaged the team on and off the pitch.

Certain things, though, he’s gotten right, in hindsight. When he was criticized for rotating so heavily last season in La Liga, no one could say a word when they saw the final results in June. When fans and media scoffed at Kovacic’s lack of playing time after Zidane took over from Benitez, they eventually saw Mateo’s gradual integration in 2016. It’s possible Ceballos is in a similar position — learning the ropes behind-the-scenes like Kovacic did until his time comes.

All of this sets us up for a crazy-interesting summer. Many questions to answer, many meetings to be had, and many anticipated solutions when the World Cup concludes in July.

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