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Real Madrid’s Issues Are Beyond The Chosen Starting XI

Kiyan Sobhani’s column, on a hopeless performance in Paris that stems from deeper issues beyond the names on the pitch

PSG v Real Madrid Photo by Mustafa Yalcin/Anadolu Agency via 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.

There is a theory among some circles that once Real Madrid get their full roster back to health, everything falls into place — all the holes will be plugged by Luka Modric, Isco will stabilize the team’s control, and Ramos’s leadership will keep the entire defensive line in check. Maybe health is the answer, but maybe the issues lie deeper than the selection of personnel. When Huesca, Eibar, and Rayo Vallecano (among many others) ran circles around Real Madrid last season and imposed their offense on a struggling backline, there was always an excuse: The team is still finding its feet under Lopetegui, Ronaldo is gone, Modric is tired, Zidane can’t be expected to improve this team until the 2019 - 2020 campaign starts.

During pre-season, it was just pre-season. And it was. We don’t expect friendlies to be a premonition of how the team steps up in the clutch when it matters. But something floated around even then: That once Casemiro returned from international break, the transition defense would get zipped up.

What are we clutching at, here? How can results be so dependant on the individuals available, and how can the importance of said individuals differ from game to game? Fast forward to spring, during the apex of the season. One would hope injuries are done and dusted, that the whole team is healthy and match fit. Relying on a perfect scenario like this is dangerous. Real Madrid’s opponents are regularly missing important players — it doesn’t make the headlines. Yet, they regularly show up and outplay Real. Scheme trumps everything.

In Paris, Zidane rolled out what most fans wanted — he squeezed in the team’s four best attacking players available, with Casemiro and Kroos behind them. We are not foreign to this kind of formation working. Zidane has used the 4-2-3-1 sporadically, even in big games, and it’s clicked. But roll through the film-reel from Wednesday night’s bloodbath, and you’ll find the team was a defensive mess. Players were routinely late on their rotations. Confusion and collapse ensued. The team, with all its attacking talent, created virtually nothing to compensate for the chances they were conceding. That team, on paper, is equipped to press high and keep the ball in the final third. They did neither. Kroos, James, and Hazard — all players who are better pressing than they are at tracking and defending deep, were strained into doing the opposite.

The team was caught in the worst place you can be without the ball: neither pressing nor securing passing lanes:

One long sequence to illustrate how badly Real Madrid botched their defensive assignments. The entire team sleepwalks during PSG’s build-up from the back. James, Kroos, and Casemiro all take their time organizing the midfield line while Tuchel’s men are already plotting the attack and zipping the ball around. They are, presumably, surprised at how easily they can just press ‘x’ to the next open player. Finally, they move Real Madrid around the pitch long enough that James presses with two open players behind him. Everything breaks.

This is on everyone. There is no effective communication between the team’s anchor and the rest of the midfield cogs. Everyone made mistakes on Wednesday, from the players to Zidane. In isolation, none of them are culprits — they are the results of a team in desperate search of confidence and identity. The team has played six different schemes in six different games this season. On some nights it will work — over a 40-game league stretch it’s difficult to sustain momentum on the backs of these confusing blueprints.

This page wouldn’t load properly if I were to post every bewildering defensive sequence, but here’s one more:

As I mentioned on Viva La Liga on Thursday, Sevilla, just around the corner, beat Real Madrid at the Sanchez Pizjuan 3 - 0 last season in similar style. They paralyzed Real Madrid’s build-up with a compact defensive line and isolated the attackers from the rest of the team’s build-up chain. It does not get any easier after this.

In the post-game presser, Zidane said the team lacked intensity. That’s an easy way out. As Eduardo Alvarez said on the post-game podcast, it’s not that there wasn’t effort. Sometimes mistakes and confusion can give off that illusion, but James, who was pinned for being defensively frail, didn’t lack effort:

On the rare moments that Real Madrid opted to press, good things happened, including James spearheading the charge:

Real Madrid could’ve been more intense or aggressive in their pressing — but they weren’t by design. But where Zidane is right about his post-game analysis is apparent in the goals Real Madrid conceded. Kroos let Di Maria slip into the box on the first goal, and took the easy way out on the third goal by ignoring Thomas Meunier — hedging off him to press instead of tracking when the ball-carrier was already covered:

You can make mistakes — every team does regularly. But those mistakes weren’t masked by any offensive production. Apart from a Bale surge in the first half, the only thing Real Madrid could conjure was between Benzema and James. The former’s effort in dropping deep to win the ball, and the latter’s incisive passing came and went as quickly as they appeared. These sequences were nice, but not abundant enough:

This play in particular, consisting of James’s verticality and off-ball run (minus the failed one-touch shot) was what the team needed more of:

Casemiro, who I’ve been critical of in waves, was an instigator on occasion too, and in the last two matches, has looked comfortable on the ball. Levante didn’t pressure him, but PSG did, and some of his touches when pressed were pure eye candy:

This pass, a one-touch bullet, was absurd:

That’s a quick highlight reel that doesn’t extend much beyond those clips — and the bulk of promising attacks all came before half-time. Dani Carvajal in particular stumbled upon fortuitous positions where he could release an open player in transition — but his passing failed him on three notable occassions where he misfired routine passes. In the second frame, the team withered, and each passing minute was like one more nail into the heart of an improbable comeback. Someone should’ve checked Real Madrid’s collective pulse mid-way through the second half to make sure PSG weren’t beating up a dead corpse.

The rest of Casemiro’s game was classic Case — long-ball giveaways (some unchallenged), but spectacular and important defensive recoveries. Even the misplaced passes weren’t entirely on him. With some, he looked for something that would eventually break PSG when outlets were difficult to find. The entire team struggled finding groves in between Tuchel’s bulletproof setup.

The commentators on my feed felt encouraged that Real Madrid showed signs of life at the start of the second half by holding possession. That ball-hoarding was frivolous. Zidane had no answer for PSG’s defense.

By the time this ball circulates around and back to the left hand side here, Kroos gives it away. Zidane often asked Carvajal and Mendy to tuck inside to show on the inside channels. Here it backfired:

Sometimes we exaggerate the whole ‘this is a pivotal month for Real Madrid’ thing, seemingly spewing it out every month on the schedule. But this one, as well as October, is huge. Sevilla will be a test. Ditto Atletico. October concludes with a Clasico — that’s the game where Florentino gets his measuring stick out. A turnaround is not improbable; but pulling out some of the deep-rooted problems requires more creative tactical ideas, and a vision that everyone can buy into.

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