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Heroic Individual Moments Mask Zidane’s Systemic Defensive Issues

New column on Casemiro’s recent form, Real Madrid’s defensive frailties, Gareth Bale’s ability to free Modric, and more.

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.

There was a moment in the second half of El Clasico, amid a back-and-forth duel of attacking waves, where Real Madrid were caught in transition, while Lionel Messi — the last person you want attacking you on a counter-attack — acted as the ball-carrier. On his right was an overlapping run from Semedo, who had left Marcelo in his shadow. Sergio Ramos, the man in front of Messi, had to drop back to cover Semedo’s run. Casemiro, the anchor, stepped in. As Messi dropped his right shoulder and cut to his left — just as he had done on Barcelona’s second goal — Casemiro stuck out his right leg and ended the immediate danger.

Recurring theme alert: Casemiro did this a lot in the Camp Nou.

“They had one less [player],” Casemiro said after the match. “But the quality of their players was seen at 2-1.”

When Real Madrid came out in the second half — up a man, and the better of the two teams in the first half — overconfidence, and maybe even complacency, kicked in. An abysmal referee took away from the spectacle, but Real Madrid’s dominance and marginally higher xG for stretches may have masked the fact that their high line in the first half was sloppy, and Barcelona came out in the second half with a certain hunger. One could argue none of this really matters, given what was at stake — but testing your transition defense with your A-team, against a team that has Lionel Messi, is a good dress rehearsal ahead of Klopp’s rock-and-roll gegenpress and counter-attack.

Casemiro’s seven tackles at the Camp Nou raised an important question: “are those numbers actually a good thing?”. More importantly, what does it say about the team’s shape and balance if the team relies on those clean-up jobs? You could extend this question to others beyond Casemiro, too. Sergio Ramos, Raphael Varane, and Keylor Navas have all exerted themselves into brilliant, last-second, heroic defending. The caveat of those stand-out, goal-saving moments: Ramos, Varane, and others shouldn’t be in those situations to begin with. That they are is because Zidane’s scheme can be gung-ho and open with a lack of proper, systematic coverage. And when it’s not open, in matches where Real Madrid see little of the ball, like against Bayern over two legs, they remain vertically unbuttoned defensively, even with 11 men behind the ball.

There is a simplicity to Real Madrid’s scheme offensively, which in turn, provides us with a ton of disastrous defensive dominoes that Zidane gets away with routinely, because black magic is real. Zidane likes to roll the dice and outscore opponents. When Marcelo or Casemiro bomb forward up the pitch, and two of the remaining players (Kroos and Modric) who should be first in line to cover for them are already in the opponent’s final third, someone in the eternal realm watches over the team — casting spells on opposing attackers and giving the remaining, back-peddling defenders an infinity stone. Whatever works.

Casemiro hasn’t had a great season. You could also pull his ear for large stretches of last season when opposing coaches hounded him specifically as the weakest point in Real Madrid’s press-resistant escape-routes. But when he shows up, he shows up for real. If his performances in Paris and Barcelona respectively, are any premonition of which version of Casemiro Zidane will get in Kyiv, Madridistas will be thankful.

Zidane has already predicted the final against Liverpool will be open. There’s no real reason to oppose that belief given the track record of Zidane’s schemes over the past two-and-a-half seasons. He’s unpredictable, to be sure, and often amazes and surprises in the most unlikely scenarios — but his team this season has been less about control and more about chaos. Against Bayern they were efficient in limited time on the ball without being able to get control of the game or exploit the space behind Heyncke’s initial press. They were blown away in the xG metric over two legs, but stepped in at the nick of time defensively, or watched Bayern’s attackers get zapped by the magic wand.

Casemiro leads the team in tackles per 90 minutes, and the only player who coaxes the opponent into more interceptions (per that same metric) is Jesus Vallejo. Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane have fended off barrages of attacks over and over again by combining for an absurd amount of clearances (24 against Bayern, for example; while Bayern’s central defenders combined for seven). The team has, habitually, been spread defensively, and all the aforementioned players have been burdened defensively. Xabi Alonso’s famous adage: “Tackling is a [last] resort, and you will need it, but it isn’t a quality to aspire to, a definition,” has a flipped view on the chalkboard in Zidane’s locker-room. These last-resort interventions aren’t just needed in Zidane’s scheme, they are part of the consciousness on every defensive sequence.

Zidane loves the openness of football. As a player, he relished space, even if he could thrive without it. When he donned the white shirt, he knew how punishing Real Madrid were if opponents opened up. When Manchester United tried to go at Real Madrid in 2003, Zidane annihilated them — both home and away. During his entire tenure as a Real Madrid player, the team was a systemic mess defensively -- a sharp contrast to what he was used to at Juventus. Fernando Hierro (at that age), Ivan Helguera, Francisco Pavon, Aitor Karana and Ivan Campo — none of these defenders were anywhere close to the level of current Ramos and Varane. That galactico team took the ‘we’ll outscore you’ mantra to a whole other level. Their only legitimate way of defending was to hold the ball for as much as humanly possible in the opponent’s half. It generally worked; but post-Makelele everything became unglued and the stars regressed into decline.

Zidane knows the current Real Madrid squad is even better, and knows certain defensive frailties can be masked by winning. The Frenchman has downplayed talk about his schematic changes in the past. In a 7 - 1 win over Deportivo earlier this season, after a disastrous start to the domestic campaign where Real Madrid underperformed their xG by an untold amount, Zidane alluded to how finishing chances changes everything. It does. Tactical issues don’t necessarily disappear, but they get masked, at least. The problems against Bayern over two legs may have been more alarming, because Real Madrid had little of the ball, and little chance curation to go with it as Bayern’s shape defending counters was swift and compact.

Against Liverpool, there may be more opportunities. Klopp’s front-three press masterfully, and Real Madrid has tools to build from the back and break defensive lines on their day. Once they break the initial press, against a Liverpool team that doesn’t always look comfortable dominating possession (see: their loss to Chelsea over the weekend, where Conte’s men hurt Klopp by defending in a low-block and making a ton of incisive runs in the half-spaces), and that should, by default, decompress the flow of the game.

Zidane has also insisted on ‘starting well’ — a cliche, routine statement in press conferences from every coach across every major sport. It’s been easier said than done for him. Real Madrid don’t panic one bit when they concede, as Toni Kroos has pointed out as recently as last week — but they’d much rather put their foot on the pedal and stamp authority earlier in matches. In the Camp Nou, their high line — coupled with incisive runs from Sergi Roberto on the flank behind Marcelo — really punished Real Madrid early. Eventually Zidane’s men coped, grew back into the game, and then had some relief when Valverde lost his two starting right side players — Roberto and Coutinho — at half-time (one due to a red card, the other, due to a tactical shift).

When Real Madrid commit bodies forward without communicating any sort of coverage for each other (something they were much better at doing last year, as the central midfielders were in-sync enough to hedge back and slide behind Marcelo or pin themselves as an anchor if Casemiro left his zone), the defensive assignments become randomized and chaotic -- particularly with the diamond formation where either Isco or Asensio float unpredictability and keep the white shirts guessing where they need to be. There is a randomness to the team’s defensive movements at times.

Liverpool have their own concerns and frailties, but their press and counter-attack is ridiculous. Casemiro will need to have another Camp-Nou-Grinch game, as his interventions were masterful on Sunday:

Real Madrid were set up well here without the ball. It wasn’t until Kroos switched off tracking Ivan Rakitic’s pass-and-move plot where the team had to react. Casemiro’s step-in here to win the ball from behind is not easy.

Other moments like this (which should be made manifest in the Champions League final), where Real Madrid were open and the transition was chaotic, Casemiro had to react quickly:

More quick thinking, Casemiro prevents a potentially dangerous cross-field diagonal ball (if Pique had noticed both Marcelo and Kroos are ignoring their markers on the opposite flank, Barcelona would’ve been gone):

There were interesting and encouraging tactical wrinkles throughout the game. It wasn’t all bad, and most of it was actually good. Zidane would’ve been heartened to see the BBC functioning like old times again. The three of them pressed well and were dangerous on the counter attack. An added bonus with the 4-3-3: Modric is relieved of certain duties helping the right-back thanks to Bale’s (this could also turn out to be Lucas Vazquez) presence on the flank, and he can slide in centrally to pull strings without over-exerting himself.

There are added benefits of having Gareth Bale, a player with high defensive IQ, act as your two-way winger. When he helps win Real Madrid possession deep, Modric can provide an outlet, and the Welshman can use his pace and three lungs to get back up the field quickly to provide the team options on the counter:

The BBC as a whole, in their 45-minute cameo, looked sharp. The work-rate from all three without the ball was ceaseless, and Benzema’s knack for popping up deep to dispossess opponents remains a thing that throws off opposing players:

Long balls are often an underrated mechanism to get out of high-presses, if done correctly. It requires constant movement off-ball to provide the right release-valve and expose space in front of a vulnerable defensive line, which Benzema provides here:

Their energy is contagious, and the three of them download each other’s position to ensure they can unnerve back-lines. Again, take note of Modric’s position here when a right-winger allows him freedom to press higher up the pitch (he did often do this against Bayern in the second leg, but the team didn’t have another presence behind him and the press fell apart):

Pressing requires so much cohesion and recalibration, that if one person switches off for a moment, everything falls apart. Marcelo’s hedge off of Coutinho in the first sequence here leaves Ramos spread thin (reminder, this is Salah’s favourite space to occupy); and in the second sequence, Ronaldo doesn’t register that no one is closing the passing lane to Messi behind him:

It’s hard using any of these signs as a portent to what may or may not happen in the Champions League final. For all the terror Liverpool’s front-three strikes, and for all the alarm bells Real Madrid have shown us this season, Klopp’s team has its own ominous form heading into Kyiv which both Roma and City were able to exploit; while Zidane’s men have that ‘je ne sais quoi’ that gets the job done. Whatever happens, there are probably heart-attacks involved.

“Going to a final is really nice but winning is even nicer,” Klopp said after Real Madrid eliminated Bayern Munich to reach the Champions League final. “We will be ready but it is Real Madrid. You cannot be more experienced in this competition than Real Madrid. I think 80% of their team played all these finals. They are four times in the last five years and still together.”

“They are experienced, we are not, but we will be really on fire.”

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