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Real Madrid Have Suddenly Become Defensively Compact — Good Timing Heading Into The Madrid Derby

Kiyan Sobhani’s column, on the reasons Real Madrid have put together two really impressive (and almost out of character) defensive performances.

Sevilla FC v Real Madrid CF - La Liga Photo by Quality Sport Images/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.

What a turnaround from Paris. In the last two games, Real Madrid’s defense has been unrecognizable, to the point where they’ve made history by, for the first time since Opta started recording stats shortly after the turn of the century, the team held its opponents to zero shots on goal for two consecutive games. Osasuna petered into utter nothingness offensively with an xG of .11. They were helpless to muster anything out of that game unless they held on to a 0-0 draw. Sevilla were held to an xG of .38 — well below their season average of 1.9 at the Sanchez Pizjuan.

What changed? Two main ingredients that concocted into a zipped defensive structure: 1) Casemiro playing as a pure anchor, reading the game from a defensive position rather than backtracking from an unfavourable situation; and 2) the wing-backs have been more pragmatic with their overloads. You could simplify it further by stating: there are more numbers defending in transition — and even those transition opportunities for opponents have been limited.

Casemiro’s more rigid role in allowing the midfielders ahead of him to press without abandoning their cover changes the entire dynamic of the team. Suddenly, instead of being caught high up the pitch with no one in transition to take over his role, he’s able to read and anticipate from deeper slots, where he forecasts the attack at an elite level:

In the past two games, Casemiro has had a colossal 12 interceptions combined. He’s sat deeper than normal without the ball, and has covered for both full-backs. In games past, the left back doesn’t always have cover on moments he’s caught; but in Sevilla, Casemiro just mopped up everything:

The odd giveaway still throws the entire defensive line into a frenzy, but right now Casemiro’s ball-winning ability and good passing overall far outweighs his blips.

What helps is the relentless hounding from the teammates around him. Something flipped after Paris. What everyone hopes when reflecting at the end of the season on the Paris demolition is ‘wow, that was the turning point. That was the wake up call.’ It’s too early to say, and the season will likely still be volatile, but there was a reaction and appropriate adjustment. Long distance jogger Kroos turned into Usain Bolt on defense against Sevilla, and the quartet in attack — namely James and Hazard — put in an off-the-charts effort off the ball. That has to come from an internal discussion. The ‘intensity’ that Zidane so openly spoke about was something he wanted to emphasize on the field. After the the Osasuna game, Zidane said, about the improvement in defensive compactness, that everyone has been aggressive without the ball.

Both James and Hazard illustrated that aggressiveness against Sevilla. Fans often say “An attacker’s job is to score goals, not defend.” — no coach actually believes this. There are exceptions, where a unicorn like Ronaldo comes around and conserves his energy — but even one of the best goal-scorers in Real Madrid history, Raul, was a relentless defender. He won the ball high up the pitch over and over again, in some of the biggest games in club history. Sometimes your offense isn’t flowing — the touch isn’t right, and it’s not your day. That’s when you need to bring something else to the table to help the team.

James has some slung some surgical passes over his last two starts, but his overall distribution against Sevilla wasn’t great, and his 70.3% passing accuracy was the lowest among starters on the field not named Thibaut Courtois. But his reaction when losing the ball was great:

He’s so good at sneaking up on the opposition’s blind spot just as they’re about to turn:

That pressure was unyielding:

If he doesn’t get this interception right, Banega gets Sevilla clear in the half-space:

24 of James’s 39 passes were forward passes — six more than any other Real Madrid attacker on the field, and more than any attacker on the pitch period. These are the gems the Colombian aims to pick out:

The offense didn’t click entirely, but it was efficient enough. I’ve been calling for an emphasis on defense more than ever since Ronaldo left. Outscoring your opponents is going to be difficult if you’re not creating clear-cut chances, or playing your super-Saiyan Ronaldo bail-out-card. Plug holes, cover players — you’ll win games by being consistently good with a stable scheme. And good defense brings good offense. The winning goal in Sevilla started with a perfect intervention from Raphael Varane. The best chance of the first half was initiated by Carvajal winning the ball at the half-way line and dashing behind Sevilla’s backline. A chance fell to Hazard late because Casemiro stepped into a Sevilla counter-attack to intercept a pass:

Carvajal, apart from a couple obligatory ‘let me completely ruin this attack with a terrible pass’ sequences, unearthed some of his form the 16 - 17’ season. Defensively, he was so good. He also slung one of my favourite passes in football — the one-touch switch to a far-side winger. Defensive splitting:

All this begs a question: Should Zidane roll out the same defensively compact scheme at the Wanda? Atletico are more comfortable with the ball than they’ve been in years past, but one of the biggest Derby performances in recent memory was when Zidane rolled out a 4-2-3-1 / 4-4-1-1 morphing scheme in 2016 at the Calderon, where he came away with three points and a Ronaldo hat-trick. Atletico had no idea where to go as Real Madrid sat back and punished them on the counter through Isco, Bale, and Ronaldo. They could almost copy and paste the Sevilla structure to Saturday’s game. How would Atletico, in a funk, cope?

Against Sociedad, they were paralyzed in their build up as Odegaard and co absolutely blitzed them on the counter. Odegaard consistently found space in between the lines while the three attackers in front of him buzzed around to create passing outlets. Odegaard’s role in that game is not too dissimilar to how Zidane has used James of late.

But one glaring concern is the team’s left-back situation. Kieran Trippier gets up the field a lot. He’s been putting in dangerous crosses while not being that good defensively. On a normal day, he’s exploited by Mendy / Marcelo and Hazard. But will Nacho be enough to keep Tripper and Joao Felix pinned? Nacho, among a field of great performers on Wednseday night, was a weak point. His gamble in the first half gave Osasuna a break; and his giveaway in the second gave them another one. He’s not what he was pre-World Cup. Hazard has been a defensive hound, but I’m not sure Zidane wants him to be deep, helping Nacho, all game.

One last big test before September concludes, and the schedule (theoretically) eases for four games before the Clasico in October. One win at the Wanda, and things look dramatically different than they did just two games ago — where even PSG has scraped three points from two games since. Football is a rollercoaster.

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