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Seven Observations From February, ‘Hell Week’, and Zidane’s Return

Kiyan Sobhani’s latest column, with special emphasis on Real’s defensive shape

Levante UD v Real Madrid CF - La Liga Photo by Alex Caparros/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.

I did not get a chance to write one of these in February — so we’re taking this one back a little:

Two-way winger Gareth Bale

No one really had any concrete idea of what Zinedine Zidane would do with Santiago Solari’s fringe players upon his return. I mean, there was a hunch — it was only logical he’d unearth dusty Champions League winners Isco, Marcelo, and Keylor Navas. But bringing back those players could’ve been a gradual process. He could’ve returned and read things differently than he once did. The story goes: Zidane brought them all back right away, and sent a message while doing so.

While Isco and Marcelo were winners of Zidane’s return, many perceived Bale to take a hit. The Welshman may still turn out to be the fall guy (the season can still twist and turn, Vinicius Jr and Lucas Vazquez were missing, and it’s unclear exactly what the hinted “changes” from Zizou’s press conference are), but it was encouraging to see Zidane put Bale not only in the starting XI, but also in a position where he can thrive. (As I’ve written about before, this hasn’t always been the case for Bale under Zidane.)

Bale was involved, and a clear standout against Celta Vigo. Even before he swapped flanks with Marco Asensio at around the 21-minute mark (a switch that had both players performing at a high level), Bale was active defensively and hitting diagonal cross-field switches to Marcelo. His three successful tackles don’t paint the entire story — if he wasn’t pressing defenders into kicking the ball out of play, he was hoodwinking midfielders into bad passes, or tracking back to help Alvaro Odriozola and Marcelo.

Lobotka carries the ball far too easily up the field here — unchallenged and unbothered until then end when Bale wins a goal-kick. The Welshman continued that defensive support when he switched flanks:

Real Madrid’s press was sporadic against Celta, and not at its best. The team’s loose and wimpy shape below allows Celta to pick out an easy outlet that breaks the entire midfield line. Bale combines well with Modric to win the ball back before Celta’s attack threatens:

For obvious reasons, this version of Bale is much-improved from the rest of his season. When he came on in the second-leg against Ajax, he was narrow defensively, which allowed Ziyech an unfathomable amount of space to receive cross-field switches and attack Carvajal. When Bale got the ball, he carried it in a non-urgent manner when there was space to attack, and even ignored overloads from Reguilon. That version of Bale needs to be buried deep beneath the earth’s mantle.

Relentless defensive effort from Vinicius Jr

Vinicius’s defense appears in my column — drink.

Every game, without exception, he’s relentlessly pressuring opposing defenders trying to build from the back; or he’s sprinting deep to help his left back:

Levante switch the play, and Vinicius slowly hedges over to ensure there are no passing lanes open to Levante’s central midfielders. Simon, a very quick player, makes a dash down the flank hoping to catch Vinicius napping — daring him to get into a foot race as he dribbles down the wing. Vinicius matches Simon step by step and forces him backwards, then intercepts it when the ball comes back. He’s switched on during the entire sequence.

Everything.... — everything — you read about Vinicius is about his offensive danger. It’s why I’m unapologetic about prolifically promoting his defensive IQ. He’s improved in a few facets of his game within just a few months of arriving as a teenager. You’d imagine his trajectory continues north because he has the right mentality for it. He meshes well with teammates, and does not take the easy path of being lazy and letting the attention get to him. He matches every bit of hype with diligent work.

Vinicius continues to be a nightmare for back-peddling defenders when the Brazilian is dribbling up the pitch. His final offensive action needs polishing — his knack for cutting in and taking aim for a far-post curler is well intentioned but defective for now. His square passes after cut-ins are more efficient from a team standpoint. Can he aim for 20 goals per season in his peak? He won’t need to replicate the statistical unicorn that preceded him — as long as he can continue to be a reliable creator to go along with a Robben-like goalscoring output, he’ll be a menace for years to come. Vinny already has 12 assists this season (seven of them in the Copa del Rey, which skews his stats a little).

“We’re delighted with his progress. He’s getting lots of help not just in matches, but in training too,” Santiago Solari said before Real Madrid’s loss to Girona.

”Lots of credit must go to Vinicius but also to his team-mates for the advice they’re passing on, helping him to improve his game.”

Before getting injured, Vinicius was the offensive heartbeat of the team. His energy zaps teammates into a state of motion, and he’s starting to zip the ball faster to its destination. Against Nelson Semedo in the Copa del Rey 2nd leg semi-final, where Vinicius was tightly-marked, the Brazilian kept it simple and efficient, hitting quick vertical passes before moving into space again. With every forced corner kick, he’d rile up the crowd and lift the Bernabeu to its feet. All of that effort makes him beloved.

It’s hard to measure what Vinicius brings statistically. With him, it’s one of those things you just trust the eye test, and the process you see unfolding on the pitch. When he transitioned into a full-time starter, the team’s xG dropped off slightly since the Lopetegui reign (xGA has also risen, despite what we see as an improved defensive structure under Solari when the team started winning — but that’s a different discussion not entirely related to Vinicius, and looking at all of these stats requires a complete and holistic analysis), but his ability to drop his shoulder and burn defenders on the wing has been a useful tool for Real Madrid’s offense.

Before the collapse

It was difficult making sense of just how badly Real Madrid let the Copa Clasico slip through their fingers. They were ahead on aggregate, and 19 minutes later, they needed to score four goals. Once Suarez scored his first goal, Solari’s men had plenty of time to continue their initial game plan — and they almost equalized through a Sergio Reguilon diving header — but instead started conceding counters far too prematurely.

It’s impossible to ignore how dramatic the drop in defensive shape was from Suarez’s goal onward; but there were enough noteworthy defensive performances throughout the team prior to that, mainly from Lucas Vazquez, Karim Benzema, Luka Modric, Casemiro, and both wing-backs, to help form a collective shield.

Lucas Vazquez was very active defensively:

Jordi Alba has not been an easy player to deal with over the past two seasons. You can see him trying to dash behind Vazquez and Carvajal in the first sequence. He’s been doing this over and over again against La Liga teams who know the run is coming, but are too late to react. Vazquez tracks him like a hawk the whole way, and takes out the threat. You could see a clear drop-off in defending those overlapping runs in the first half of the league Clasico.

The second sequence is masterful. Lionel Messi has made a career of dribbling past several players while sucking other defenders into his ball-carrying runs, only to lay off a pass to an open player at the last second. Vazquez has to calculate when to hedge off of Alba and take a gamble on Messi before the pass goes out wide to Suarez. Not only does Lucas come away with the ball, but he starts a dangerous counter-attack, leaving five Barcelona players high up the pitch.

Clutching at something positive from the league Clasico

There were a handful of things (if that) which gave you some positive vibes from the league Clasico, namely: Valverde and Isco’s energy off the bench, Reguilon battling like he’s been a Clasico combatant for three centuries, and the team limiting Barcelona to virtually nothing offensively in the second half.

Credit the team’s counter-press which pinned Ernesto Valverde’s men in the second half, and also appeared in the first half:

Barcelona treaded water coming out of the back, yet never looked like conceding. It was a movable object bailed out by a stoppable force.

Struggling against Blind

With Real Madrid’s season on the line, Ajax playing at an incredibly high level over the course of two legs, Solari’s men struggling to create clear-cut chances while remaining vulnerable on the counter-attack and high-pressing, and two injuries to his starting wingers in the first half; Daley Blind was an underrated story-line defending Ajax’s left side:

Blind stays on Benzema’s heels here before getting goal-side and outmuscling him off the ball. He was great doubling-up on the flank when Nicolas Tagliafico needed a wing-man on the flank; and when the Ajax left-back would provide an overload on the wing, Blind would cover that left side on his own.

The wings were suffocated against Ajax, and Real Madrid found little room on the right once Ajax settled into the game after Varane threatened with a dangerous header off the cross-bar from a right-sided cross. When Modric hedged over to combine with Vazquez and Carvajal; Tagliafico and Blind denied any crossing opportunities, and prevented runs into the half-space between them.

Ajax allowed Real Madrid 22 crosses on that horrific night — six below Real’s season average at home in the Champions League. Anything they did allow, they gobbled up. Of the 22 crosses, only six were accurate. Blind had nine clearances — a game-high — on his own. When he wasn’t disturbing Real Madrid’s slow-tempo build-up, he was great defending in transition.

Frustration when pressing

Solari’s team really broke down mentally towards the end of his coaching tenure. While there was a certain intensity and high level of pressing in certain games during Real Madrid’s mini run against Sevilla, Barcelona, and Atletico; the level of play dropped significantly afterwards. In a loss against Girona, where Real Madrid looked completely underwhelming, the team really lost its sense of cohesiveness:

This sequence is telling of the team’s emotional state. Kroos goes over to press Douglas Luiz. There is no midfielder backing him up to close the passing lane behind him; and it’s Kroos again who has to run over to the left side. You can tell the frustration in his body language once he sees the pass go beyond him without a fight. Benzema’s controller just dies midway through the play, and Girona get into the box.

The other extreme, a failed counter-press where Casemiro goes for a spectacular tackle and gets it wrong; leading to yet another good chance for Girona:

Either way, there was (and is) a strange sense of defensive insecurity that perpetrates through the team.

Side note: How impressive was Portu in that match — going toe-to-toe with Odriozola and beating him for pace twice?

The ridiculous freneticism of Ajax

Even during their mini-run, the worst part of Real Madrid’s play was how badly they’d get paralyzed during their build-up when opposing teams would run at them in a cohesive manner. When that’s your weakness, playing against a team like Ajax on their A-game is a nightmare. Ten Hag’s scheme was suffocating. Reguilon and Vinicius struggled finding space and outlets on their wing:

There was no relief on the opposite flank:

Casemiro does not typically thrive in these situations:

The wild thing about the four sequences above: They all happened within the first four minutes of the match. I could’ve tortured you even further with clips — but you get the idea of how much Real Madrid struggled dealing with Ajax’s press.

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