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Just How Good Is This Finalized Roster?

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Kiyan’s column, on Real Madrid’s ceiling, exciting things from the opening games, things to worry about, Gareth Bale, and Dani Ceballos

Girona FC v Real Madrid CF - La Liga Photo by David Ramos/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.

KO — by Finn


Julen Lopetegui’s philosophy in the post-Ronaldo era is clear: There is no replacing a unicorn with one, simple, straightforward signing, so the output needs to be distributed, the play needs to be controlled, and the defense needs to be zipped up. The team now needs to tighten up its tactical scheme to prevent goals — and in turn decrease the need for massive goal-scoring spikes — or widen the circle of goal-scorers. Ideally both.

“There are only two ways of doing that: scoring more goals spread across more players or letting in less goals,” Lopetegui said when downplaying the pressure on Gareth Bale’s shoulders. “That’s a responsibility the team has as well.”

No one on the team wants to be continually reminded of how difficult life is without Ronaldo. They acknowledge his greatness, but have not lost their confidence in continuing their absurd dynasty. Ronaldo and Zidane are gone and will forever be remembered for leaving at their peak. The midfield core remains. The defensive line remains. Depth is boasted in almost every position, and the team swept away Thursday’s UEFA Player of the year awards. Three of those four award-winners are still in the team. No other club can say that.

“Throughout history we have gone through cracks and have continued to win,” Ramos said mid-August. “We will have to leave this to us and Real Madrid will carry on, no matter what happens Madrid will not stop winning.”

It is easy to measure, statistically, what gaping holes Ronaldo leaves Real Madrid with: Goals, and an absurd amount of them. Less easy to measure (and possibly to replace): Timely goals, and psychological hikes. It’s not about who can score 50 goals against Getafe and Girona. It’s about scoring one goal in extra time, in a hostile stadium when the odds are against you and your team is playing below par. That’s when greatness arises. There is no statistical measure that computes Ronaldo’s body language when the team has gone down three goals to Juventus in the Bernabeu. That’s what Ronaldo brings you. That’s what Barcelona fans were desperately hoping for from Messi when the team was getting blown out of the water in Rome.

(This aspect of Ronaldo is underrated. Mentality amid adversity in general, is an underrated aspect of the game. You hear a lot of “If Real Madrid play as badly as they did against Juventus against Liverpool, then they’re going to lose.” That’s not how football works. There is a lot of grind over the course of the season — a lot of adversity and bad football exists before the trophy arrives. Real Madrid’s opponents last season — Liverpool, Bayern, Juventus, etc — all had bad moments during their own season. It’s all about responding. A lot of it is through tactical adjustment, but the collective belief systems is an integral part of success, and Real Madrid has had this in their blood over the past few seasons.)

So sure, in theory, you replace Ronaldo’s goals by taking out a clipboard and start writing the team’s potential goal-scorers while attributing numbers to them. Gareth Bale, 30 goals; Karim Benzema, 20 goals; Marco Asensio, 15 goals; Mariano Diaz, 20 goals; Isco, 13 goals; Sergio Ramos, 14 goals (yolo alert: 32-year-old Penalmos to take a leap), etc. Boom. It’s not inconceivable. The question then arises about leadership in tough matches. Are there enough alpha-cojones for the team to feed off of in May and June?

Why not? Sergio Ramos is one of the greatest leaders in Real Madrid history (maybe he’ll sleepwalk through certain games in La Liga, but no one doubts his big-game presence and much needed leadership when the stakes are high), Marcelo spurs ingenuity and belief, Modric has all the experience and class in the world (and has had visible moments where the team looks to his chilled blood during chaos), and Gareth Bale has a knack for scoring big goals.

That’s where the belief system stems from. Ronaldo didn’t leave a team of scrubs, he left a team of legends who have won without him in other international competitions. There’s a past-precedence to get excited about, and a logical thought-process behind letting (a player who wanted to leave) walk. (Real Madrid fans will be tired of hearing about Ronaldo, but I’m not sure if there’s a way to not talk about the best player in club history, only a few months removed from his departure. He will probably be among the discussion even at the end of the season, whether for good or bad.)

Lopetegui will downplay Bale’s role in all this to the media — probably for the better — but there is a case to be made that an entire season hinges on his shoulders. The team is covered in midfield. It’s thin at the back once you get down the depth chart. It’s stacked with creators. There are two reliable goalkeepers (the Keylor - Courtois debate is such a ridiculously good problem to have). Mariano’s return (and impressive goal-to-game ratio, as well as his efficiency last season where he outperformed his xG) provides a really nice cushion in attack. But under-discussed: It was Gareth Bale who was perceived as the ‘signing’ to replace Ronaldo — full-stop. He barely featured last season when Ronaldo did. He is the only player ‘on the market’ in attack, when healthy, who has a case for being a top-five player (that game-changing presence is something that is really important to win titles).

Beating a dead horse alert: There is no replacing Ronaldo. The closest players to the Messi - Ronaldo throne — Neymar, Mbappe, Hazard, Kane, Salah, De Bruyne — were either not on the market, not the right fit, or expensive. When healthy, Bale belongs on this list. The gamble is essentially on his health — but that’s an easy gamble to take given the climate of this summer.

“I am delighted with the team I have here. We have the challenge of reinventing the team without a player such as Cristiano Ronaldo. I want to make this team even better than before,” Lopetegui said in pre-season. ”We have a squad chock full of excellent players, including Bale, and we want to have a good, united side.”

Lopetegui is also not banking on a scheme that over-relies on one player alone, and that’s the ultimate vision that he’ll want to carry out. Once you create a system where players are interchangeable within a certain tactical set-up with defined roles, players can shift in and out. There will be drop-offs in talent if Bale (or any important player) goes down, but it’s about lessening that blow with a cohesive and unshakeable understanding in Julen’s vision.

Real Madrid don’t want situations where Bale puts the team on his back. Lopetegui has stated this frankly. He’d rather Bale pushes his teammates to be better. And if he’s not available — then ‘no big deal’. Asensio shifts to the shoulder of the defensive line and continues to be an important outlet while joining the counter-press, and Mariano slides in. Just as likely, Isco shifts higher up the pitch or Lucas Vazquez gets significant minutes. Not having Bale is not ideal, but Lopetegui wants to create a system where the over-reliance is hedged towards the team’s set-up; rather than one player.

And while Lopetegui has stated this summer that it’s not about Bale putting the team on his back; it’s impossible to deny his game-changing ability. ”We are convinced that Bale is going to have a great year and we expect a lot from him,” Lopetegui said in August. “We will work together for him to reach top form.”

Florentino Perez and Jose Angel Sanchez could’ve done things differently, to be sure — but sometimes you play the cards you’re dealt. They could’ve kept Cristiano Ronaldo (it would’ve required a lot of arm twisting, a big salary spike, and even then, it could’ve been futile given his tax issues in Spain and Florentino’s understandable unwillingness to join the legal battle). They could’ve splashed an absurd amount on Eden Hazard as ‘the replacement’ — which wouldn’t have been like-for-like and would’ve aroused a situation next season with Asensio and Isco that existed with Kovacic this summer (and James and Morata prior).

They could’ve done a lot of things differently this summer and preceding ones. They didn’t. There is sometimes a sense from fans that things are easily remedied into a bulletproof formula. But the board is not sitting in the office twiddling its thumbs. Behind the scenes there is ceaseless activity — dealing with player requests and agents, getting on the phone to inquire about other stars, budgeting, and planning for the future. The club could delegate transfers to fans to lessen the workload, but they’d go bankrupt within 30 seconds.

So they build — onwards and forward-looking. No time to sulk, no time to deal with protests, no time deal with pitchforks about the number seven jersey. Instead they’ve been strategizing with pragmatism, building from within, and taking a leap with the talent they’ve stockpiled in years past.

In years past, the main criticism had been ignoring the young blood in the ranks and losing Madridismo. Now that there’s been emphasis on balancing the big signings from years prior with talented youth, the club has been labelled as losing their touch in the transfer market and overhyping their kids. There is no situation where they’ll ever ‘win’. The only solution is to block the noise.

Girona FC v Real Madrid CF - La Liga Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

Yet, we have no idea how this team will cope with everything. We have promising and worrying signs from the first two La Liga matches. Maybe the team just eviscerates everyone, and the legacies of Modric, Ramos, Marcelo, and Bale get taken to a new level. Maybe the team tanks, has defensive calamities, and underperforms their xG even worse than last autumn. But the doom-and-gloom created by certain media and pockets of the fanbase doesn’t exist within the team. There is an opportunity to win more Champions League titles immediately, become a more consistent team domestically, and there is a real chase to win that treble that has been long awaited.

Eliminating drop-offs from the starting XI is one way to achieve that consistency. Zidane had that luxury in the 2016-2017 season with the depth he had. It was hard to sustain keeping those role players happy; but Lopetegui has something similar now with Odriozola, Courtois, Mariano, Llorente, Ceballos (the latter two to have higher usage this season, presumably) and the usuals: Nacho, Vazquez, Vallejo. Again, a lot of these drop-offs will have to be masked in the collective scheme, because we know Ceballos and Llorente are not Kroos and Modric, etc.

It’s hard to take away too much from the opening domestic games. Momentum will swing, for good and bad, all season. There will likely be underwhelming wins, bad losses, over-the-moon manitas filled with rainbows, and everything in-between. We haven’t seen Modric and Varane get into the team full-swing yet. We haven’t even seen Mariano and Courtois, yet!

But there are a few things that we can safely assume will continue to improve, given that they’re part of Lopetegui’s identity (possession and counter-pressing to mask defensive transition issues being the main one). One thing that fans will really hope is a good omen is Bale’s form and health. He’s not only been healthy, but he’s been far from a passenger. He’s looked involved this season while looking shy at this point last season. Last fall, he passed up clear opportunities to cut in and shoot one of his famous slingers, or make a run past a high defensive line — all in exchange for a tame short-pass. This season, Bale has responded to the Alpha-Bale bat signal. That has to continue beyond these two wins.

“I’m not going to talk about Gareth’s past,” Lopetegui said. “Just the present I saw, and we are pleased with his attitude, his work, and his aim.”

Reportedly, Ryan Giggs has been working with Bale to overcome his injury issues, and help him prolong his career while staying in top-gear. Whatever works. Giggs would be the one to prolong one’s career.

This season could be a very bumpy ride, though, given what we saw in the first half against Girona. Real Madrid’s glaring weakness last season was a systemic frailty that left Ramos and Varane abandoned. Getafe had zero chances to exploit this potential flaw because Real Madrid controlled the game and counter-pressed at every opportunity. They didn’t have that same control or efficient shape without the ball in the first half against Girona. The response was great, though, with Isco and Asensio doing more defensive work and the press going to a higher gear.

There will be expected growing pains and in-game adjustments.

With Real Madrid, it’s always more complicated, though. Expectations are always high and untempered. Losing is not an option, growing pains have a short leash, and ignoring the noise is not always easy. If Lopetegui plays really exciting football, and Real Madrid do everything right except for passing the final hurdle, ultimately losing La Liga by a hair, getting eliminated in the Champions League in the semi-finals, and losing the Copa del Rey final to let’s say, Barcelona or Atletico — should Lopetegui lose his job? Again, we’re not discussing a normal club here.

We may even see a world where this is not the final roster for the season, if things get desperate enough in the winter time. Though, that scenario is unlikely, given the complications that can arise during the winter window, and with the amount of quality cup-tied players there are — with so many others not being available. It would be more likely we’d see Vinicius promoted full-time than seeing an exterior signing come in. Mariano’s signing makes things less urgent.

And Mariano’s signing was more of a cause-of-circumstance. The club correctly exercised their right of refusal on Sevilla’s interest. If that didn’t happen, it’s likely Mayoral would be relied upon. Now the club has the ideal scenario: They missed Mariano greatly in La Liga last season, but now get him back as an improved player for a reasonable price. It’s likely we wouldn’t have seen Mariano’s leap last season had he stayed in the squad playing limited minutes. Now Mayoral has the chance to go somewhere on loan and be better than he was in Madrid — purely because of more playing time and confidence.

This could be the season of leaps — or at least it needs to be. Sometimes you just have to dig deep beneath the rubble to unearth that latent talent. How exciting would it be if Dani Ceballos — the Betis version — reemerged? If you get Betis-Dani, it’s like a new signing. He’ll play a big role this season as a rotational piece. Two seasons ago he was one of the best midfielders in La Liga and almost single-handedly ripped Barelona apart. That version of Ceballos is not that far away, and almost no one in the opening game against Getafe understood the counter-press as well as Dani did.

Ceballos didn’t have the greatest passing game against Getafe, but he knows this scheme well, and Lopetegui trusts him with it. When he lost possession, he swarmed opponents and retained the ball. The work ethic, talent, and understanding of what Lopetegui wants to do is there. The rest will come. What Ceballos did without the ball against Getafe is essentially going to be Real Madrid’s bread-and-butter this season, and something that should’ve been more prevalent last season. It’s about switching play, providing outlets, and demoralizing opponents before taking the ball from them.

“We are playing differently, with another type of passing and longer positions,” said Ceballos earlier this season. “That is what the coach has asked of us from the first day.”

People harp about Spanish bias from Lopetegui; but others have harped about not enough Spaniards in previous editions too. It’s not about shifting towards one nationality or another — it’s about available players who fit the scheme. Losing Kovacic was not a choice, it was a by-product of not being able to grant him a starting role over Modric or Kroos — a reasonable stance to take. Ceballos is here. He’s happy in his role. He understand the system. He’s Spanish. Great. It’s not any more complicated than that, and naturally, a club will be heavier in Spanish players if there is an emphasis in grooming young talent from close to home.

It’s less about nationality, and more about talent and brains. Modric, Kroos, Bale, Benzema, and others fit the movement that Lopetegui wants like a glove. All of them have high IQ without the ball.

Real Madrid fans won’t want to hear it, but: This season will be about development as much as it is about winning. Winning won’t take a backseat to the prioritization of making a youth product better, but there will be some inclination of growing the trajectory of the team’s fringe players. For someone like Ceballos, this season is as much a tryout as any. He needs to make the decision to bring Kovacic back almost impossible for Real Madrid next summer. Easier said then done. We’re talking about Mateo freakin’ Kovacic — the man who starts on any team that doesn’t have Modric and Kroos / Rakitic; and is fitting Sarri’s scheme almost seamlessly.

Against Getafe, in a tiny sample size, Ceballos gave the ball away a couple times without being pressured. He also had the third-best pass completion rate of any starter not named Ramos or Kroos — mostly a by-product of the tremendous outlets and space he had (although he is a good distributor, generally). What stood out most is his ability to position himself to immediately close down opponents.

Sometimes Ceballos will win the ball or help act as a cover shadow while another white shirt regains possession. Other times he may not win the ball back, but he’ll force opponents backwards:

Those are just basic things Ceballos gets: Under Lopetegui, you’re never stagnant. You’re a vertical outlet, a distributor with range, and a hounding vulture.

Before Real Madrid signed him, I had written about (and discussed at length on the pod) that Ceballos was the type of player you’d love to go to war with but hate facing in battle. He’s feisty, talented, and has a chip on him.

In moments like this (off the bench in the Super Cup against Atleti), his relentlessness can be invaluable:

That type of effort will have to run deep in the collective veins of all the midfielders and attackers. And it’s not just Ceballos who has that ‘buy-in’ mindset. We should expect the same from anyone who plays in the front six. Bale’s understanding when it comes to pressing has been documented for years, and he’s continued looking sharp doing so this season. Players will give the ball away — it’s just a thing that happens. But it’s the response which is always important, and here Bale immediately reacts to losing possession while Kroos closes the ball-carrier on the far side and Marcelo is already preventing the vertical run:

This is routine stuff. There were moments where Zidane’s team pressed incredibly well in the past few years — but it peaked in the ‘16-17 season and then dropped off last season. It needs to be consistently good this season to ensure waves and waves of pressure and recycled possession hit the opponents until they’re grasping for air.

It requires energy and cohesiveness:

Against Girona in the first half, there was a disconnect between the front four and double pivot. Casemiro and Kroos were isolated; while Isco, Asensio, Bale, and Benzema left a huge gap by all playing interchangeably off the shoulder of the defensive line. The dominoes: zero counter-pressing, and thin transition defending. (Kroos’s tendency to jog back defensively doesn’t help; although he has been a key figure in organizing and backing up the attackers in a cohesive press behind them.)

In the second half, among the adjustments, was finally a good press, which gave Girona a lot of discomfort:

And in another instance, Nacho presses before tracking the run on the flank, Benzema presses the ball-carrier, Asensio cuts off the central passing lane, and Kroos grabs that player in case it goes there:

This is where Real Madrid’s pressing ultimately needs to be on a consistent basis. For Real Madrid specifically, it’s an underrated tool they need to unleash game-in and game-out, because it sets the tone of what they want to do: establish ultimate control, put their foot on an opponent’s throat, and dictate play. They want to be the bullies. The dominoes from a good press are limitless: better attacking sequences, limited defensive blows, and more chances to kill a game and demoralize opponents.

It will take time. It will have plenty of moments of frustration. We’ll see what the verdict is within a few months. Until then, there are things that need to be rectified even if there are things to be excited about. The team struggled immensely when pressed by Atletico and Girona, and elite press-resistant players like Marcelo, Kroos, and Isco just couldn’t cope with Atleti’s press on the left-hand side specifically. Casemiro was unnerved greatly in Girona. The vertical defending has been loose on occasion. Again, whether good or bad, the sample size either way is tiny.

“The key to success has been that we have always been [a family], and we have felt part of that family, Ramos said before the season start. “The loss of such an important player is negative, but that is not why we are going to stop winning.”