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Six Observations

Kiyan Sobhani’s latest column: Scattered observations including Isco’s form, dealing with pressure, Odriozola’s season, and more

CD Leganes v Real Madrid CF - La Liga Photo by Denis Doyle/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.

A regular feature of my column. Once a month(ish) I do a note-drop of scattered, under-the-radar observations that caught my eye:

Eibar, copy & pasting their formula

The most recurring tactical problem of this season remains Real Madrid’s inability to deal with any sort of competent pressing scheme. When Eibar eviscerated Real in Ipurua earlier this season, they gave La Liga a blueprint to unnerve them. Huesca and Rayo immediately tried to emulate the high press against Madrid in the ensuing games, and ultimately came up (just) short — but not before uppercutting above their weight.

Too many teams like to shrink into low blocks against Real Madrid. Eibar dare to be more. They continued their pressing game in the Bernabeu and Zidane’s men had no idea how to cope:

That was within the first three minutes of the game, and it was a recurring problem. Like the two legs against Ajax, Real Madrid’s wing-backs would get the ball in a tight space, and there weren’t any viable outlets to pick out. Central midfielders are tightly marked, the flanks are plugged, and a cross-field pass to an open defender is risky with a forward marking the passing lane. Being forced to think ultra quick can induce the wrong decision.

Eibar carried their shape with the flow of the play. Even in midfield, Modric was swarmed:

Isco makes a short pass to Modric — routine stuff. Modric should be expected to get out of that spot with a shoulder feint or vertical pass. You’ll see at the end of the clip that Gareth Bale doesn’t lend a hand to the Croatian — he opts to stand idly on the wing instead of running deeper to show for the pass. Modric doesn’t have the vertical route, and opts to safely pass it back to Isco. Only when he gets to that stage, Eibar’s forward who was pressing high runs back to dispossess him. He wasn’t there initially before sneaking up on Modric’s blind side. It all happens so quick.

Eibar are not Liverpool, but they’re among the best pressing sides in Spain. Real Madrid faced the pantheon of pressing in last year’s Champions League final against Jurgen Klopp, and struggled getting a foot-hold in the first 20 minutes. They weathered it — but they also had their most press-resistant players in form. They can’t continue to struggle like this so badly against teams they’re expected to beat on a weekly basis if they’re to dethrone Barcelona’s remarkable consistent domestic dominance.

Isco’s form is recoverable

Isco had a rough start to the game in Butarque. Defending deep on a throw in early, Nyom and Bustinza passed circles around him; then Marcelo played him a short pass which the Spaniard received with a hard foul as Omeruo went through his back. Isco picked himself up, and was active on both ends of the pitch until he came off the field.

A lot of has been made about Isco’s form, which, to be clear, isn’t anywhere close to his 16 / 17 season. But sometimes fans like to drag out the narrative that Isco has a habit of decelerating Real Madrid’s attack, and applying that potboiler to every game he plays. Whether he does slow the game or not in any given game doesn’t seem to matter.

Real Madrid’s attack was laboured against Leganes, and looked dead — as lifeless as it generally has this season. On rare occassions Mauricio Pellegrino had his line hedged high, Marcelo was looked off when he was open for a diagonal switch that would’ve broken Leganes. That was a collective problem. Isco did his part in trying to move it quickly to catch the defensive line napping:

The bar is low. Isco doing these small things is nothing fans should be celebrating — it’s only to provide some context. There have been a handful of bright spots in Real Madrid’s season — Isco doesn’t qualify as one of them. He’s not a complete cast away on a deserted island neither. He’s probably somewhere in between, and his form is recoverable. Per 90 minutes, only Kroos slings more key passes in La Liga among qualified players on the squad. Only Vinicius completes more successful dribbles per that same metric; and among attacking players, only Lucas Vazquez puts in more tackles.

We don’t have the elite version of Isco right now. He may never get back to that level from two seasons ago; but it would be naive to think he’s far enough away from it that we don’t see that line-breaking version of Isco again.

Sergio Ramos distribution

Ramos’s emergence as a leader this season has been a nice story. His leadership isn’t anything new, but as Ronaldo and Zidane departed, the Spanish defender did take onus on his shoulders to take penalties (and convert them), and never shied away from anything on and off the pitch. He defended his teammates and coaches publicly, and constantly brought it upon himself to do the right thing. In a season Real Madrid found it impossible to deal with high pressing schemes, Ramos tried to marshall the lines as best he could. No defender in La Liga hits more accurate long balls than Ramos in La Liga other than Anaitz Arbilla — and Arbilla has done it in a in a sample size of 500 less minutes.

Those long balls are key to breaking a press, provided that Benzema (the usual outlet up top) can get free. That was nearly impossible to do against Ajax; and it’s been generally difficult to do this season. Sometimes Ramos forces diagonal switches when un-pressured. When it comes off, it’s eye candy. Often enough, it’s disastrous:

It’s not easy finding Benzema in space from a long pass:

Other times, Ramos will find his mark, but the pass barely makes it to his teammate. Even then, it’s a difficult position for the outlet to escape the swarm of opposing shirts:

In a vacuum, Ramos does well in the last two sequences. He ranks 11th in Spain among defenders in accurate short passes per 90 — a respectable number. Some of the passing when there is no pressure around him looks bad; but he does tend to find his mark. But beware of the deceiving stat of passing accuracy: Defenders play much simpler passes than other outfield players, and their percentage will shoot up as a result.

Another caveat: a lot of Real Madrid’s passing struggles are representative of the team’s dysfunction. A bad pass is a symptom of an underlying disease the team has yet to find a cure for. Ramos, Varane, Casemiro, and others don’t have it easy when it comes to build-ups. They are not blameless, but they are sometimes alone having to get out of tight spaces deep — all in addition to being spread thin defensively.

Still, Ramos is an anomaly, and his long range passing ability is an asset against organized pressing sides.

The Spanish defender will miss the next three-to-four games for Real Madrid. Get those old legs some rest, and give Jesus Vallejo some burn to see how the latter handles himself for the remainder of the season. One of Vallejo’s biggest traits at Eintracht Frankfurt was his ball-carrying ability and vertical passing when attackers ran towards him. Give him a run of continuity to show his worth in a rare, injury-free window.

Alvaro Odriozola, two-way threat

It’s been a quiet season for Odriozola, but he’s been respectable in his Real Madrid debut year. Things to work on: Being in sync with the rest of the defensive line to avoid keeping attackers onside, relying on more than just pace (he was more confident burning wing-backs with some trickery last season at Real Sociedad, and his completed dribbles per 90 this season are the lowest of his young professional career), and not collapsing when defending cross-field switches.

His ability to reach balls just before they go out of play before calculating a cutback has been a weapon almost anytime he plays:

He’s still getting used to taking a backseat in terms of usage. Real Madrid use their fullbacks a lot, but in Sociedad, Odriozola found himself in the interesting situation of being the team’s heartbeat and focal point in attack — all from the right-back slot. He was often the one breaking defensive lines or playing the key pass. He’ll grow into Real Madrid’s offense the more he gets comfortable and establishes himself as an important player. When he goes into that mode, he can win possession deep, and within seconds, carry the ball up the field into an attacking position:

His pace helps him cover so much ground. Even on moments where he’s hedged inside to help his center back, he can dart out wide and recover to dispossess opposing wingers:

Odriozola is almost 66% behind his minute tally from last season — but expect his usage to go up in the next couple years.

No man’s land

Real Madrid are not a consistent pressing side. Under Zidane in the past three years, they either chose not to do it and read passing lanes instead; press high and unnerve really elite opponents into coughing up possession; or neither, which is the worst place to be:

Real Madrid didn’t have a traditional anchor against Celta Vigo in Zidane’s return. Kroos played the deepest of the midfield-trio behind Modric and Isco. There is no excuse for the disorganization that befalls the pitch on the above sequence.

Usually the defensive shape of the midfield is overseen by the defensive midfielder. You could pin it on Kroos for forgetting he’s an anchor and not a left-CM for once. He’s hedged too far towards Isco, who has his eye on the wing. But the midfield is not narrow enough, and the most dangerously-positioned player — Yokuslu, the one highest up the pitch for Celta right behind a press that might as well be in no-man’s land — is completely unmarked.

Labelling it all on Kroos is harsh. Modric has zero awareness of what’s behind him — but he should be calibrated enough to drop deep while asking Benzema to press Lobotka (Modric’s marker) instead.

Real Madrid’s press is still not consistent or elite — although on occasion it is. Some rhythm and consistency in efficient pressing from game-to-game could do them a lot of good when it comes to frequently generating high-quality chances and winning the ball in key areas high up the pitch. Real allow 8.48 passes per defensive action (PPDA) this season in La Liga — more than Eibar, Bilbao, Real Betis, Barcelona, and Getafe. There is room for improvement, especially if you’re not going to be a full-on counter-attacking team like Atletico Madrid or Valencia that likes to sit in deeper blocks.

Opponents packing the flanks

When Solari took over Lopetegui’s post, he unearthed Zidane’s favourite banderilla from his ammunition toolbox: The merciless crossing. Zidane has brought it back with him now. The presence of Ronaldo is long gone, though, and with Mariano out of the picture, and Bale either out of form, on the bench, or doing the crossing himself, only Benzema remains an aerial threat — and the defense shifts their collective attention to him.

Real Madrid cross 21 times per game domestically — fourth most after Eibar, Real Valladolid, and Sevilla. That number is down from 24 last season (and 28 last season at home), but keep an eye on it rising now with Zidane’s return.

Opponents know Real love playing on the wings. Two teams that packed the flanks to disrupt the flow of full-back overloads, or central midfielders waffling over to the wings to find a cross: Alaves and Valladolid. From there, they could counter Real Madrid who already had their wingback and CM out of place:

Even when Odriozola and Reguilon are back in the below sequence, the midfielders are caught, and both wings die a heinous death:

Too often do Real Madrid’s defenders get left hanging.

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