Very few times can one see the ceiling and the floor of his / her favourite club in just one match, but that is exactly what happened on Saturday at the Santiago Bernabeu. Zinedine Zidane’s team presented us with an opening 45 minutes in which everything seemed to work out, to then relapse into that sequence of doubts and childish mistakes we’ve grown accustomed to witness since the train derailed at some point last season.
Yes, we saw heaven on Saturday, although rather than a divine, celestial side this season’s version looks a lot like a less convincing version of Zidane’s 2016/17 squad. The tactical disposition at times resembled a 4-2-3-1, in which Kroos and Case led the midfield, while in front of them Vazquez, James and Vinicius exchanged positions and generally terrified Levante’s line of five at the back. Up front, Benzema kept going, as decisive as he’s been of late, so the 3-0 at the half made many of us feel like there was hope for the season. Not only the team was creating and taking scoring opportunities, but also some players who had struggled recently looked back in shape. Carvajal had recovered his top speed and defensive focus, while Vazquez participated well and seemed as confident as that kid who nonchalantly took the first penalty in Milan’s shootout.
It’s important to insist: what this first 45 minutes brought was hope rather than certainties. Of course, the ball was moving a lot faster than in previous matches, and James was especially relevant in the team’s even flow. He knows when to accelerate a play and when to pause and change sides, when to play first touch and when to take some time, and that is something really hard to coach, a skill this Real Madrid only enjoys when either the Colombian or the artist formerly known as Hipsco are on the pitch. As Kiyan tweeted, James brought some sense to the side and that limited the number of high crosses, because better passing options developed for the team’s offense. This was a lot more entertaining than the universal flood of crosses this side at times favours.
Yes, the offensive improvement was impossible to ignore, and the three goals and other few chances told that story well. But don’t forget this was Levante, a traditionally tough defensive team that in the last two seasons has decided to play more carelessly – and less violently, one would also say. They were the second worst defense in La Liga last year: only the relegated, bottom-of-the-table Rayo Vallecano did worse. So yes, two relegated sides defended better than Levante last season. Scoring against them is hardly something to brag about.
Even with that in mind, during halftime myself and the surrounding socios were happy: this was a formation which, with the additions of Bale, Hazard and / or Modric here and there could probably work against more egregious opposition.
And then the second half happened.
Yes, Zidane’s team could have scored another three or four in the second half. With Levante’s iffy defense wide open, chances mounted, but the team ran out of accuracy. That is the first thing to conclude after this frustrating second half: Benzema is no Cristiano, and unless the rest of the team chips in – something we repeated until exhaustion last season and did not happen, by the way – they will struggle to score consistently.
And then there’s the rest. We should probably start by the ominous gap in the defensive midfield position. Casemiro’s absence generates such a hole in the middle of the pitch that even if Zidane’s idea to use Vazquez in a more destructive role sounds almost senile, the lack of alternatives to the Brazilian speaks volumes of the (wrong) summer decision-making by club management. I won’t write about this for the third consecutive week, don’t worry.
With not only Casemiro, but also Ramos out, the spine of the team disappeared, and Levante patiently built their chances. Their mutation into a team of runners and gunners has improved their offense quite a bit, and they can kill you at the break or in set pieces, so they did a bit of each in the second half.
When Casemiro left, everyone started to look a bit worse, especially at the back. Carvajal starred in two awful mistakes, the kind that usually would have you benched for a couple of weeks. Vazquez lost all the confidence he’d shown in the first half. Vinicius couldn’t score to save his life -- or ours for that matter. Marcelo, the veteran Marcelo, lost his composure with two ill-advised decisions that only added stress to his younger teammates. Kroos’ passing lost the intent of the first half. Only James kept some sort of consistency, and Cortuois made that save we all were expecting since he arrived, one that means points. The rest of the team looked rattled, out of their game, and why not, terribly tired.
That is the team’s floor this season, one that is eerily similar to that of the previous one. Conceding easily against inferior opposition at the Bernabeu, missing glorious chances to put matches away, driving their fans nuts with bizarre mental lapses… Well, at least last season we had a couple of defensive midfielders.