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Examining Marcelo’s Regression, And Three Other Observations

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Kiyan Sobhani’s column this week: On Marcelo’s on-field value, Bale’s Tottenham return, Mayoral’s development, and thoughts on Koeman’s Barca.

Valencia CF v Real Madrid - La Liga Santander Photo by Pedro Salado/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.


Let’s bang out four observations this week:

Marcelo’s on-field value

Since 2018, Marcelo will occasionally churn out a good offensive performance — the kind that reminds us of peak Marcelo, where he creates solutions to difficult problems that involve breaking down a defensive block or packed flank. Marcelo will eel his way through defenders, and create a cut-back that didn’t exist seconds prior. He will even, on much rarer occasion, perform a defensive feat like the one he staged in last year’s Clasico on Lionel Messi, where he’ll have everyone wondering why he can’t do that more often. (Watch that same Clasico, and you’ll notice other defensive lapses, or that Varane was just as important on that defensive sequence as Marcelo was.)

Those moments of brilliance, (nay, transcendency, at his peak) are either long gone, or too few and far between for him to be a reliable option for Zinedine Zidane. A quick cost-benefit analysis: His defensive fragility outweighs what he brings to the table on the other end of the field. For years, that wasn’t the case. It is now.

Some defensive instincts come naturally to great defenders, but a lot of what makes great, or even good or ‘adequate’ defenders is effort. It is sad to see players never address a weakness over the course of their careers. We often look at a young player who struggles at something, and say, ‘well, he has time to get better at that’. Sometimes there is a corner turned, and other times, the weakness stays on course for a decade and only gets magnified. Marcelo’s defense was never passable, and it never got to a point where his presence on the field would still be tolerable if he ever lost his offensive wizardry.

Marcelo remains multiple beats behind a play when tracking his man. Sometimes he recognizes what’s happening, but doesn’t react. Sometimes he’s just late, or hopes the play will move on unpunished. As Matt Wiltse wrote about yesterday, Marco Asensio has a similar trait. As does Toni Kroos. The way Marcelo defends means there is more onus on players like Asensio and Kroos (or whoever players on the left ‘in front’ of Marcelo) to be more active defensively — especially in a team that doesn’t press as much as it should. The margin of error for even attacking players is reduced when your wingback does not react well to defensive discomfort.

This play against Valencia didn’t go punished technically, as Soler re-took the penalty and scored, but the VAR replays gave us plenty of time to let the Marcelo haze marinate:

Against Valencia, Marcelo wasn’t any worse than the team’s other attacking players. He did have moments of press-resistancy, and his cut-backs to the top of the box were a (the only?) source of offense. But these last few years of Marcelo have dragged out, and if Zidane though it was too soon for Sergio Reguilon, then next summer will probably have to bring out a different evaluation of the Brazilian left-back who has given Zidane so much.

Barca tracker

I have been throwing more opponent analysis into these columns. I’m always fascinated with Barcelona. They will probably appear regularly in the mishmash of observations I put out this season.

They are now 10 games into two major competitions, and I would cautiously say they are exactly as advertised: Highly variable, vulnerable, and offensively talented. You never truly know how any game will go. They are the Real Betis of old: Someone will carve them, they will also carve. It is a carve festival. When they faced their less-talented doppelgänger, Real Betis, last weekend, no one should’ve been surprised had that game gone 2 - 5, the other way.

Ronaldo Koeman has stabilized certain things. He has yet to sort out their defensive issues. Some of their problems are similar to Real Madrid’s: Has-beens declining at an alarming rate, trouble defending in transition while relying on a great goalkeeper to bail them out, and even the most docile of opponents will go to town on them. The game against Dynamo Kiev at the Camp Nou was remarkable. Kiev were missing 13 players, and Marc-Andre ter Stegen had to go into God-mode just to ensure a narrow victory.

Antoine Griezmann is slumping through the worst season of his league career. He’s hit career-lows in key passes per game, shots per game (only last season’s Barca stint was marginally lower), and dribbles per game. He has just one assist to his name so far, and is underperforming his xG for the first time since the metric started getting recorded in 2017. His one number that’s at a career-high: Passing accuracy. That might point to safer, less-daring passes.

It will be interesting to see how Barcelona cope the next four months without Ansu Fati, a fountain of youth and offensive production sidelined due to a Mensical Laceration. Ousmane Dembele, their best replacement as a like-for-like menacing, speedy dribbler, has been good in limited minutes. Can he remain healthy? Pedri is good, but in the post-Neymar era, doesn’t bring the same flair and absurd agility that Fati brought. Griezmann will have to unearth something, or Messi over-reliance will have to experience another uptick — something that Koeman has tried to deviate away from.

A check in on Gareth Bale

Was there a honeymoon phase for Gareth Bale’s return at Tottenham? If it was, it’s over, and if it did exist, it was the exact moment he was introduced for the first time, in the 72nd minute, against West Ham back on October 18th, where he strolled on the field, and walked into taking a free-kick which he hit tamely into Lukasz Fabianski’s arms. That moment would’ve been 4000% cooler had fans been in attendance — the emotional rollercoaster of a thunderous roar followed by a massive ‘OOOOOOOH!’ after he hits the dead ball.

Bale does shoot tamely now. There is less ‘meat’ behind his shooting leg. His wind up generates a breezy fling, when it used to spawn a powerful hurricane. He is losing a step. A player that has relied so much on his physical attributes has been waning. He could contribute so much defensively in the past, but suffers some anxiety going into 50/50 challenges with fear of what it might due to his legs, as his agent Jonathan Barnett, has previously alluded to.

Tottenham have been great. They have surprised, and Jose Mourinho has played an entertaining, attacking brand of football. Son Heung-min and Harry Kane are on fire. Reguilon has not missed a beat (I thought he might, in a non-Lopetegui scheme). Bale hasn’t been bad. Spurs fans have gotten most of what Real Madrid fans got since 2018: Sporadic moments where you remember he’s on the pitch, but the promise of more. Bale scored the winning goal off the bench against Brighton on November 1st — set-up by Sergio Reguilon, of course. He has not taken advantage of space that has befallen him much, yet.

And that’s where fans hoped he might thrive — in the vast vacuum of space. Part of losing a step physically is that Bale doesn’t fly into those channels like he used to.

“I repeat, seven years is a long gap,” Jose Mourinho said of Bale in late-October. “Which player in the world is the same as he was seven years ago? Sometimes they are just different players.

“You look for example at Ronaldo and Messi and compare them to seven years ago. I think it happens with the majority of players. For sure, he is a different player.”

Bale used to burn wing-backs effortlessly when there was no coverage behind them. This is against Ludogorets, earlier this month:

Bale still contributes. Again, he hasn’t been bad. The hope of a return to Tottenham as a destination that could bring him back to a certain level, could’ve been overblown. Bale will still get to his spots, and can be a good cutter in the box which opens up space for others:

Football in 2020 is insane. There are games every day, in multiple competitions. England has an extra competition (money related), that they have to worry about. The rate of muscle injuries is off-the-charts. Tottenham will need Bale. As Mourinho stated a couple weeks ago, Bale hasn’t missed a minute of training yet. A start!

Borja Mayoral, trudging through

It’s been five years since Borja Mayoral left Castilla as a young, promising, multi-faceted striker who could do more than just score. An eternity later, Mayoral has bounced around in what is now his third country. He’s 23. The Castilla promise has evaporated, but he can still be a serviceable player for a mid-tier team.

One of my favourite measuring sticks of a young player’s development: How much do I notice them on the field? If a young forward is missing lots of chances, I spin it: being that involved is a good thing. So many players don’t move actively enough off the ball to get into those open spots.

It is staggering how many times you can watch Mayoral play, full 90, without taking notes. He does not have a huge off-ball motor, and does not pop up into many goalscoring opportunities — a root-cause of his low goalscoring numbers. He does not create enough, nor does he break lines to make up for it, either.

Mayoral has not improved much since leaving Castilla. Wolfsburg was a well-documented dud. Levante, over two years, was ok. He was not playing at a high enough level to displace Jose Luis Morales or Roger Marti in his first season, but did grow into heavier minutes in his second stint, and even become the team’s second highest scorer with eight goals last season. He can get into streaky spurts on occasion, where he scores the ‘bulk’ of his goals at a time, though he is not scoring enough to say either way.

Mayoral’s idol is Karim Benzema, a player he models his game after. Benzema is a vibrant master of connecting the dots. Mayoral has a long way to go to reach that level of influence on the pitch. When deployed as a pure 9 with Roma, giving Edin Dzeko rest, he dissolves into a ghost — lost and unsure of which run to make.

But Mayoral persists along. He scored a brace in Roma’s 5 - 0 thumping of CFR Cluj. He’s still young. It will be interesting to see at what level he lands.