I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw the line-up for the Sevilla match. It was pretty much the same group of players who had performed so poorly against Paris Saint Germain just four days earlier, with the only change of Ramos instead of Militao. Specifically the midfield / forwards combo, who had looked so out of
synch in Paris leaving spaces galore for the opposition, remained intact. I expected some changes for the match in Sevilla, especially because Real Madrid had not won there in five years and the locals were leading the standings.
After seeing the line-up we should have suspected that Zidane knew something we fans ignored. Supporters often tend to forget that the coach sees his players every day of the week, so most decisions are usually explained by data, performances and behaviour that we don’t have. We judge match after match and believe that those 90 minutes every few days are enough information for our drastic opinions, but we’re missing key inputs.
On top of that, there’s this extremely wrong idea of Zidane as a coach that has managed to win three Champions League titles on the back of Cristiano Ronaldo without having a clue about tactics. Of course, if Zidane were such a simple, unsophisticated coach it would be impossible for the team to defeat some / most of the top clubs in Europe, as they did during those three magic seasons, even with Cristiano Ronaldo – just ask Juventus.
So the French manager decided to repeat his line-up in Sevilla despite the underwhelming Paris display and his own disappointment with the now world famous team’s “lack of intensity”, and he got things right. The midfield / forwards combination looked tight, physically imposing, “intense”, to use Zidane’s lingo. Even though they didn’t manage to generate many scoring chances, Sevilla had none, and Real Madrid’s high press was the source of the handful of occasions the team enjoyed.
Again, this was no match for amateurs. Sevilla were doing well, are an extremely physical side and Lopetegui’s work in tactical terms is already apparent. If they can find a reliable finisher, they will do very well this season, but they do give the impression of an extremely well organised side that lacks some creativity, some invention, and a lot of punch. Winning in Sevilla means to suffer for 90 minutes and leave the pitch exhausted. That is exactly what the squad have done.
What changed in just four days? The most relevant thing is that the team kept its shape in pretty much every moment of the match. Bale and Hazard tracked back non stop, and by that I mean that we saw then ran back to help their respective fullbacks both in the first few minutes of the match and in the last five, when they looked done. The effect of their work on the rest of the team, and especially in how tight the lines appeared, is huge. Additionally, Kroos, Casemiro and James defended as well and as synchronised as any trio of midfielders we’re seen play for Real Madrid in the last year, which is saying a lot.
Of course, Ramos’ comeback also helped. The last six defeats of the team have happened without Ramos on the pitch, and the skipper showed why he’s so important for the club. Finally, Carvajal looked hesitant for 60 minutes, mixing great interventions with ill-advised fouls that could have cost him a red card. However, his cross to Benzema’s head was pure silk: it’s obvious that the kid will now feel a lot more confident than what he has in the last few matches.
Zidane does need a consistent structure to be able to compete this season, and this line-up could be a beginning. I still believe that whenever the front four don’t feel like tracking back – and that is likely to happen a bit too often when you have Hazard, Benz and Bale among those four players — the team will struggle. This approach may work with inferior opposition, but it could struggle against more illustrious rivals who can take advantage of its downsides by making that threatening 4-2-4 shape appear.
But the fact is that their next match, Osasuna at home, looks like a great occasion to keep testing this formation and add a couple of players off the bench, such as Fede Valvere, who did very well in the few minutes he had this evening.
This is just a reminder: Zidane will make mistakes, but most of his decisions tend to make sense. In some cases, we only need to give him a couple of matches to understand his reasons.