The load of negativity I read / listened to during and after Saturday’s draw against Valladolid reached surprising heights (lows?), especially given that it was only in the second match of the season. It was so bad that it felt as though Real Madrid had already lost the La Liga title. Things are not so bleak, but I guess how we got to draw this match somehow generated more ill-feelings than expected.
Of course, the fact that on Saturday we watched pretty much the same players that underperformed last season present us with another dose of lazy ball movement, disorganised press, lacklustre finishing and major tactical mistakes did not help. The loss of two points in another trademark defensive play added the cherry on a cake made of disappointment and frustrated expectations, very similar to many home matches last season.
I only have to go through the whatsapp group I share with a few socios to illustrate the endless list of negative items they obsess with after only two matches. Leaving aside the fact that, to them, nothing really works, midfield is probably their favourite spot: playing with the same three starters that have been used for what now seem ages is a defeat, as it proves that Real Madrid can no longer sign who they want in the summer – Pogba –, but also that Zidane does not know what he’s doing, as he let go Ceballos, Kovacic and Llorente without having proper replacements. According to this pretty representative group of socios, which includes Mourinhistas and Antimourinhistas, Raulistas and Butraguenistas and other subspecies of Madridistas, with the current midfield we can’t win a single thing and we should not bother with any expectations this season.
The midfield issue was aggravated on Saturday, when Zidane decided to “reinforce” the middle of the park with Isco and James. “In 2019, you can’t afford starting those two in a top-level match”, said a socio who, we must clarify, detests Isco. And they also note that this was pretty much Ancelotti’s midfield, only five years older now. If this was Zidane’s revolution, how would the Frenchman go about gradual change?
Carvajal’s poor shape, Courtois hesitant moves under the goal and the team’s lack of bite also give them reasons to complain, but as I said in the opening paragraph, things aren’t so bleak.
Let’s start by counterarguing my beloved socios: you may think I’m nuts, but I believe that we can go to war with that midfield. In these two matches I’ve seen more from Kroos – silly ball losses aside – that in any ten games you may choose from last season. He’s been mobile, willing, accurate and even with that intention to score we miss so often from him. If Kroos keeps it up like this and Case stays fit and with the defensive muscle we’ve seen in the preseason, that’s an outstanding base to build on with other set of players that may be too light to play together (Isco, James) or with specialists (Vazquez?).
We’ve also seen a imperial Ramos; his performance on Saturday was good as we’ve seen from him in the last eighteen months (well, Ajax away until the effing card is comparable). A motivated Bale and a tuned-in Benzema, who has become strangely reliable for a player of his characteristics. No new faces, but glimpses of what may be a very competitive team if your spine with Ramos, Kroos and Benzema is focused on what needs to happen in the pitch.
In my case, the reasons for concern appear in the boxes. Starting with our own, iIf Zidane is sticking with Courtois – and that was my idea too last season – he may be betting on the wrong horse. I honestly believe that during the last six months we’ve seen the Belgian make every mistake a goalie can possibly make. High crosses, low crosses, one on one, distance shots… On Saturday, that through ball should have been his, but it usually takes him so long to leave the goal that it didn’t really surprise me that Guardiola got there first. And that is my question: what is Courtois strength? I know he’s far from his best and that it’s not the best moment to appraise him, but at this point I can’t feel any confidence when he’s on goal, whatever the situation he’s involved in. He’s the club’s man, apparently, but with the current version of Courtois we won’t get far.
And the other concern, and this is hardly news, is upfront. The team took 17 shots on Saturday, 8 of them on goal, and scored only once. We saw too many of these performances last season, and even though Zidane seems to be trying alternatives, the result was as meagre as during the offseason.
Yes, Zidane tried a few things: playing Isco and James, despite their lack of rhythm, gave two offensive midfielders who can score the possibility of combining and exchange positions between themselves. Later on in the second half, the idea of playing Bale on the left and Vinnie on the right generated a sequence of terrible crosses that neither Benz nor Jovic could finish. This alternative did not work as expected and looks a lot better for an away match than for one with a team who’s parked the bus, but in any case the problem is the finishing, not so much the generation of chances.
The best Benzema ever won’t lead us to win these matches every week, and the rest of offensively-gifted players aren’t reliable scorers. We may be at the point of giving Jovic a lot more playing time even if that means that Benz plays a bit closer to midfield.
It’s too early to give up. If the team shows the commitment we’ve seen so far and we get Navas and Jovic more often in the line-up, this season may end a lot better than what we’re hearing now. And never discount uncle Floren: something will happen before the 31st.