January has come to its conclusion, and Real Madrid have passed all their tests and continue their unbeaten run. Along the way, Zidane’s men won a trophy in Jeddah, and won games that they didn’t necessarily play well in offensively, but got the job done regardless. The defense didn’t even suffer a dent.
Now it gets really interesting. The first test in February is a Madrid Derby, and then it only gets more difficult with Pep Guardiola coming to town — among many other pivotal stretches.
Here are some thoughts from the crew.
What was the most standout moment of January, and why?
Kiyan: Casemiro’s brace against Sevilla. The team needed him so badly in those two moments. The offense wasn’t clicking. Lopetegui won the first half-tactical battle. The team needed to unearth something unexpected, and Casemiro took it upon himself to make dangerous runs into the box.
An easier answer to this question would be to just simply state Fede’s last ditch tackle on Morata, or the team’s dominant performance over Valencia — but there was just so much at stake against Sevilla, that grinding out a victory over one of the best teams in Spain felt significant.
Matt: The stand-out moment has to be Fede Valverde’s last man tackle on Alvaro Morata in the dying minutes of the Super Cup final in Saudi Arabia. It was a sacrifice the Uruguayan had to make which ultimately allowed the team to go on and win their first bit of silverware and start 2020 with a “feel good vibe”.
Lucas: It’s the win in Getafe for me, Real Madrid struggled yet they somehow managed to get a 0-3 win. Those are the wins you need in order to compete for the Liga title. A competitive team must find a way through even in those games and that’s what Madrid did.
Rob: This will be a common answer, but it’s easily Fede Valverde’s tackle on Alvaro Morata in the Supercopa final. This was a game saving tackle because there’s a good chance that Morata scores on that run. He took one for the team by taking that red card. Even Simeone recognize that it was the right choice. It’s not only a defining moment for Real in January, it’s a defining moment of his young career.
C-Trick: Isco’s performance against Valencia in the first leg of the Supercup was a breath of fresh air and easily one of the most enjoyable highlights of this past month. This is primarily because the Spaniard has become somewhat associated with a slower, more stale Real Madrid offense that rears its head far too often. Seeing him being at the heart of the one of the team’s better performances and notable wins brought back memories of how instrumental he was to Zidane’s first managerial chapter at the club. Otherwise, Isco’s appearances in other matches haven’t rivalled or replicated the splendour from the win against Valencia and if anything have continued to support the case that other configurations produce more reliable and dynamic performances.
Om: Winning the Super Cup on penalties against Atlético Madrid, because it brought back a certain memory of winning on penalties against Atlético Madrid in a slightly more significant cup final.
Kristofer: The last game against Real Zaragoza was strangely standout for me as it dawned on me that this team is now 20 games unbeaten, an unthinkable feat just 12 months ago. And its not just that Real Madrid are now unbeaten since October, but its also the manner that they have achieved the feat, there is a sense of comfort and dominant in every game Real have played over the last month that has been absent from any long unbeaten run I can remember, particularly in the Zidane era. The Real Valladolid win was another standout moment for obvious reasons.
Fede Valverde hasn’t started the last couple league games. Coincidentally, the team didn’t look sharp in either of those two matches. How much are these two things correlated?
Kiyan: The team has not missed him defensively — they limited both Sevilla and Valladolid’s attacks. If the team has looked sluggish, it’s mostly been offensively.
And while Fede Valverde’s tactical profile doesn’t scream of ‘attacking saviour’, his absence was still felt. Valverde has contributed a lot this season offensively, which I wrote about in my Five Pillars piece this week. Without him, you don’t get as many surgical runs in the right half-space which frees up passing lanes for Carvajal and Modric. Valverde is also an underrated ball-carrier, and just his movement in general creates space for others. None of this will show in the numbers, but there is definitely some correlation with the team’s struggles and him being on the bench.
Matt: For me, Fede Valverde is one of the first names on the team-sheet in a must win game. There is little doubt in my mind that the team’s lack of sharpness and edge is correlated to when Fede is not on the pitch. He brings a much needed dynamism, hunger, and freshness to the midfield which we were crying out for all last season. He eats up the ground with his long legs and endless engine. As an added plus, he has adored himself to the fans with his never say die attitude.
Lucas: 100%. Real Madrid need Valverde and while, as I mentioned before, they have found a way to get the wins, Valverde’s absence could’ve cost the team a few points this January. Madrid can’t rely on set pieces for the rest of the season though and Valverde simply needs to keep being an undisputed starter even if that means benching Luka Modric. His intensity and physical presence in the midfield rejuvenates the whole team and you can easily tell that everyone picks up the pace when he’s on the field.
Rob: It certainly is a bit concerning seeing that Valverde hasn’t really been starting as much as of late. It seemed like he had started to replace Modric as an every match starter before the most recent run of matches. However, I don’t think he is the main reason why they’re not playing as sharp. Modric has been fine when starting instead. I think it mainly has to do with an always changing lineup with Benzema just coming back from injury and Bale’s whole injury situation as well. There’s been a lot of lineup juggling from Zidane.
C-Trick: Valverde’s impact on the team has been very well documented so far this season so his absence certainly contributed to the sluggishness the team displayed in those games. More precisely, his impact has been missed far more on the offensive end. Real Madrid has actually matured on the defensively and are able to – largely in part thanks to the heavyweight displays of their backline – put together strong and solid defensive showings with different compositions of players such as their complete shutdown of Real Valladolid. However, with the flatter and non-penetrative style of the Casemiro-Kroos-Modric midfield that has featured in those games, his energy and vertical runs provide such an important contrast when he plays. It’s not so much that he was missed because no one else on the roster can offer that attacking intensity, it’s simply that the other options Zidane is using in midfield in leagues games (i.e. James has been injured/secondary) are inferior to Valverde in this regard.
Om: Given that Real Madrid seemed to lack sharpness on the offensive end, I wouldn’t say that there’s too much of a correlation between Valverde’s absence and how Madrid have played. His ball progression numbers don’t stand out (he makes less passes to the final third and less forward passes than Casemiro) and he creates at mediocre rates (0.12 expected assists across all competitions). Valverde offers some value going forward with his threatening ball carrying ability and aggressive offensive positioning - which pins midfield lines back - but he doesn’t move the needle decisively in attack (at least with how he’s deployed - there’s some credence to the idea that his passing is limited in Zidane’s system). Defense is where he’s made the bigger impact, thanks to his immense engine, work-rate, speed, and defensive skills. Next to Casemiro, he’s stabilized Real Madrid’s transition defense and made Los Blancos harder to penetrate in organized blocks. Which makes it all the more impressive that Real Madrid have looked fairly stable against the ball without Valverde (in the last few games), signifying that the team has steadily been getting stronger as a collective.
Kristofer: Probably alot. Fede Valverde is the personification of sharpness. He never stops running and taking that sort of energy out of team is inevitably gonna make your team look a bit flatter, particularly when your options to replace him aren’t anywhere near like for like (Modric doesn’t have the legs to play such a game, Toni Kroos has never been known for his mobility and even Isco at his best couldn’t be described as a similar to Valverde).
Outside of the obvious — Benzema, Casemiro, Kroos — who do you expect to be the team’s MVP for the second half of the season? Is someone going to step up that we might not expect?
Kiyan: I have three names, all of which are player we can ‘expect’ to be huge in the second half of the season: Eden Hazard, Sergio Ramos, Thibaut Courtois.
If I were to pick a more unexpected name, I’d stick with my ‘unsung hero’ prediction from the beginning of the season: Ferland Mendy. He’s been so good in the first half of the season, and his presence against Manchester City against Mahrez or Bernardo Silva will be a big matchup.
Matt: If Eden Hazard can stay healthy he will be vital to this team’s success. The Belgian was started to click into a higher gear just before his injury and hopefully he can pick up where he left off once fully fit.
Once again, I also have to mention Fede Valverde – his role in the second half of the season will be crucial to Madrid’s chances at silverware.
Lucas: Courtois, he’s also been a pivotal player in the first half of the season, I would even put him ahead of Kroos, quite probably. I know his September wasn’t great but Real Madrid simply wouldn’t be leading the table without some of his stellar performances, even though some of them went unnoticed. It might sound crazy, but Courtois is in better form than Oblak and Ter Stegen right now and that’s great news for Real Madrid.
Rob: I expect the MVP outside of the three players mentioned would be Thibaut Courtois. He has been phenomenal this season after he was pretty well dragged through the mud last season by this fan base. An additional shout has to be given to Varane and Ramos who have also stepped up their level of play from last season. But, Courtois has saved Real Madrid some goals several times this season and I expect that to continue.
C-Trick: Cheating a little as I will respond to the question exactly as worded. While Hazard is by no means a dark horse candidate to be the team’s best player, he is my pick to make the difference for the club if he can stay healthy.
Om: I’m surprised there hasn’t been more talk about the season Sergio Ramos has been having. Age seems to have brought greater maturity to our beloved hothead and he’s arguably still in his defensive prime as a result. He’s in my top 5 players of the season so far and I only expect him to get more important as we move into the business end of the season.
Kristofer: Thibaut Courtois has been my player of the month and I think he’s gonna be a standout star for the second half of the season. There are alot of big teams coming that are going to challenge Real Madrid’s defence in way it hasn’t yet and I think the Belgian shot stopper will be a key in facing those challenges.
Give me one wild prediction that most people will laugh at
Kiyan: Gareth Bale will scoring yet another Champions League Final winning goal.
Matt: Brahim makes a later cameo to score or set-up the winner in a crucial CL knock-out match.
Lucas: Casemiro will end the season being Real Madrid’s second leading scorer in La Liga. Come on, you asked for something wild, right?
Rob: I think this Real Madrid team is more than capable of winning a treble this season. They’re at the top of the league currently. They’re still in both the Champions League and Copa Del Rey. They’ve shown this season that they’ve hit a complete turnaround from last season. And that’s with their big signing Eden Hazard out for a good two months or so and a myriad of other injuries at different instances. This is a top team that has proven they are serious this season and can win multiple trophies.
C-Trick: It’s not necessarily silly and is certainly becoming a more common opinion but with enough opportunities, Mariano could displace Jovic as the main secondary option.
Om: I wouldn’t bet on it but I can forsee a situation where Luka Jović doesn’t come good this season. As I predicted would happen in 2019, Zidane benched Jović for Benzema as long as he could because the Frenchman naturally solves Madrid’s offensive issues (in addition to the fact that he was on fire). Jović is a fine player, but his outside-the-box game is limited to some deeper movements to play lay-offs and controlling aerial passes. Zidane, so far, has struggled mightily to tweak his offense for someone without the all-round skills of Benzema, and it’s possible Zidane doesn’t figure out how to do so/chooses not to do so. Benzema is ready to come back into the lineup, after all, and I don’t think Zidane is averse to pushing his favored striker to the limit, physically.
Kristofer: By season end, most people will think Luka Jovic enjoyed a better campaign individually than Eden Hazard courtesy to the Serbian finally clicking with his teammates and Hazard’s trouble with injury.
How are you feeling about the upcoming Derby?
Kiyan: Atletico and Real Madrid are currently experience two opposite states: Zidane’s men are flying; and Simeone’s men are low in confidence. There are reported fueds in the coaching staff among Simeone and Burgos, they’re spiralling in the league, and are without Joao Felix. Having said all of that, their defense still remains one of the best in Europe. I think this is either a draw, or a marginal Real Madrid victory.
Matt: The derby is always tricky – Simeone’s side somehow always wriggle their way out with a point. In the league, we have not won against Atletico at the Bernabeu since 2012. Given the offensive struggles of both sides and the tough stalwart defenses, I think this ends a dull 0-0.
Lucas: I think Real Madrid are the favorites here and that worries me a little. Zidane’s men should have what it takes to destroy this version of Atleti, but Simeone and his players always manage to make it tougher than it should be in the first place, so I’m not entirely confident about Madrid’s chances and I believe that they will have to give their very, very best to beat Atleti.
Rob: I’m very confident about the upcoming El Derbi in that I’m confident Real will at least not lose. Atletico have shown this season that even though they’re a top 4 side, they have little to no offensive threat. They’ve been dreadful in producing goals this season and that’s with signing a €126 million striker. They’re great defensively, so they can force a 0-0 draw as they have twice this season in 90 minutes of play of the Derby. Real do both: they score and they’re great defensively. Real are at home so that can also boost them to getting three points this time around.
C-Trick: Confident, nervous, and mostly anxious. I am eagerly awaiting match day and for the game to begin because as vulnerable as Atletico appear at the moment, the derby is never fully predictable. Despite their struggles, Diego Simeone’s men are a very capable team and can do damage. Things just need to click for them to disrupt Real Madrid’s domestic plans this season. That being said, Los Blancos are heading into this affair with many promising signs including a great run of results, the possible return of Hazard as well as the recently recovered James.
Om: I feel like another bland draw is coming. Both Madrids’ defenses are solid and both offenses are uninspiring.
Kristofer: I am very much looking forward to our customary scoreless Madrid derby, I’m sure it will have some thrilling yellow cards and several Mexican waves.