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January Observations, Part One

Kiyan’s latest column, on Vinicius’s defensive efforts, Solari’s sporadic press, Marcelo’s regression, and the 3-5-2.

Real Betis Balompie v Real Madrid CF - La Liga Photo by Aitor Alcalde/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.

Part One. More observations coming later this month. Let’s go:

Marcelo, left-wing experiment.

There is no real reason to read too much into this, as it only appeared in one half of football, and will probably not reappear again unless a dramatic situational circumstance presents itself. Still, it’s worth noting that Marcelo as a left winger has only really made sense in theory, and the eye-test with this experiment still has deep flaws. We saw the team’s discomfort on the left-side when Zidane rolled with Theo behind Marcelo last season, and it didn’t look any better on Wednesday against Leganes when Solari fielded Reguilon and Marcelo together.

Marcelo’s bread-and-butter is providing overloads, carving paths on the left flank or cutting inside against helpless defenders who are already thinking about how to mark other attackers in the area. Getting the ball in these situations is not how he punishes teams:

It’s easy to fall into the trap of overanalyzing things. All that clip is is a misplaced pass from a position Marcelo doesn’t normally find himself in. But his passing was horrendous the entire match, and he looked lost getting the ball as an outlet high up the pitch in transition. He only completed 78% of his passes, and because of his positioning, Vinicius was even higher up the pitch — even more isolated when he should’ve been receiving the ball where Marcelo was getting it.

Almost everyone at Real Madrid, bar three-to-five players, is underperforming. Marcelo’s performance in the first half against Leganes was not only due to his positioning. Even at left-back, his season has been riddled with misplaced passes, bad defensive positioning, and overplaying the ball in deep areas. He’s fallen off a cliff. Under Solari, he’s regressed even more, as he’s playing more conservative. He’s not linking up in the final third as much, and asking him to defend is like asking a shark to go vegan. The best Marcelo is one who has freedom to feast, with players covering for him. (To be sure, Llorente was covering for him brilliantly until he got injured.) But at left wing, he takes away the space of an extra attacker who he can combine with; and having Vinicius as your highest man up the pitch rather than on the left wing where he can do his most damage had bad offensive consequences. Marcelo is also not a great presser, and sometimes makes the wrong gambles. If he’s doing this as a winger, there are more opportunities for the opposition to break the first line.

Vinicius JR, defensive pest

He is more than an offensive menace:

Against Betis, he had two other instances like the one below, where he races back to win the ball from a naive opponent:

Vinicius’s most obvious talent is always looking vertically — either dribbling past defenders, or with quick pass-and-move sequences with a teammate ahead of him — to catch defensive lines napping on the left wing. But he also has 2.2 tackles per 90 minutes — the most of any attacking player in the team (not named Brahim Diaz, who has an eight-minute sample size).

It will be fascinating to fast-forward Vinicius’s career two-to-five years from now to see how he’s refined his decision-making. He’s already developing quicker than anticipated — sliding into the team as an important player amidst Real Madrid’s injuries and offensive woes. At 18, he’s the only one who dares to take players on constantly, without fear of getting dispossessed. If he loses the ball, he goes at the next player with the same confidence. Those are all good signs of his mentality. Sometimes it backfires — but it equally provides Real Madrid with a spark and flips them into a state of offensive consciousness when they’ve been far too passive at times.

Vinicius’s defensive effort now puts him into an entirely different category of attackers. He has a ceaseless motor who fights without the ball. There is something about him that Real Madrid fans should be cautiously excited about. It’s not just talent that he has — he has the right mentality too.

The Betis experiment

The entire Betis game almost deserves its own, full observation, because of it’s unique tactical blueprint, successes, struggles, and polarizing nature.

That first half in the Benito Villamarin was probably Solari’s most impressive tactical flex so far. People will complain about the possession stats — but they won’t complain about the fact that Real Madrid held Betis to nothing defensively, had more shots, more shots on target, more chances, a higher xG, and were the more dangerous team offensively. Fede Valverde’s back-heel attempt to Benzema on a breakaway doesn’t even show up on Real Madrid’s xG chart, otherwise, the gap would’ve been bigger.

That’s not to say it was pretty or historically notable, because it wasn’t. The second half was a huge regression (a lot of that had to do with Betis’s uptick in counter-pressing and Benzema’s counter-attacking absence). Real Madrid didn’t dominate this by any means.

Just because you play defensive, doesn’t mean you’re good defensively (see: Mourinho’s Manchester Untied, towards the end of his arc), but in this particular match, against a surprise 3-5-2, Betis circulated possession, created overloads, made runs in the half-spaces — and still, they couldn’t conjure a good look.

Even early in the second half, before the collapse, Betis couldn’t wind a way through. Gear up for a long clip, where Betis keep circulating possession, trying to get Real Madrid to budge, before continually returning to their left flank to find an opening. Keep an eye of Carvajal, Varane, Casemiro, and Modric, who ensure everything remains airtight:

There was coverage everywhere.

Far more concerning is that after they conceded, Real Madrid’s switch flipped off. Within two minutes, they went from defensive security, to chasing three points and facing counters — outnumbered in transition.

Equally concerning: The team still hasn’t found a way to escape a press.

This has been an achilles-heel for a while now. Solari hasn’t found a solution, but he hasn’t been alone. Real Madrid struggled dealing with high-pressing and counter-pressing under Lopetegui in the Supercup against Atletico, then again against Girona, Alaves, and Barcelona. The issues resurfaced under Solari against Valladolid, CSKA Moscow, Rayo Vallecano, Eibar, Huesca, and, hold your breath, Kashima Antlers in the Club World Cup.

Can’t fail those tests in the Spring, as the yearly saying goes.

Solari, finally implementing a press (sporadically)

Solari is not known for his pressing. He rarely had Castilla pressing high, and we didn’t see the A-team press much under Solari when he first took over. That’s changed, gradually, as the Argentine has implemented it sporadically.

Real Madrid is a strong counter-attacking team (on paper, when everyone is healthy), but it also has too many capable pressers and technically-gifted players not to press every match. It’s a tool that should be used as often as possible, and the team resources lay to waste if this weapon remains hidden from its opponents. It’s encouraging that Solari has recognized how efficient the team can be in the final-third without the ball.

There is some good cohesion behind Benzema in the below sequence. As the Frenchman leads the line, Modric and Kroos take the central channel, while Vazquez and Vinicius take out the full-backs. If Diego Llorente plays it back to goalkeeper Rulli, Benzema is there to make it uncomfortable. The defender is short on outlets. He gets it wide to Elustondo, who eventually kicks the ball out of play:

An efficient press solves so many problems. If you do it right, you prevent counters, or putting your defenders to the test more than needed. Drown opponents in their own half, and you also have less pressure on the other end when building from back. Fans resonate more with this kind of stuff (rightly or wrongly) more than they do with defensive football. Having the majority of the play in the final third is generally what fans want to see.

It’s been on-and-off under Solari. We saw it throughout the game against Sociedad, in the first half against Betis, and vs Valencia in the first half. We saw it only sporadically against Rayo, Huesca, Leganes (first leg), Roma, and Eibar.

But get it wrong, and risk getting carved and annihilated. All it takes is for one player to switch off or miss a rotation for the defensive scheme to crumble and turn into dust.

Seriously, the consequences are cataclysmic:

Real Madrid do almost everything right here, with the exception of maybe Lucas hedging off his man rather than cutting off the pass to the flank, and Varane should’ve marked Oyarzabal as soon as he saw Carvajal leaving his post — leaving Willian Jose in an offside position with Ramos lurking. But that’s the perfection required — it’s a test of endurance and cohesiveness. The punishment is cruel.

We are still far removed from the team’s best pressing, which we really saw peak in the 2016/2017 season. We are not actually that far removed, in theory, but somehow Solari needs to unearth it consistently.

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