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.
On February 26th, Real Madrid’s season will hit a sharp turn as they host Manchester City. (A mammoth tactical preview of that heavyweight clash will go up the week of the game.) It will be the official start of the apex of the season, where every possibly gear needs to be hit and Zinedine Zidane’s big guns — ammo loaded and a few spares in his holster — will need to be firing as he juggles a Clasico sandwiched in between two legs against Pep Guardiola.
It is worth noting how drastically this movie has flipped since the start of the season. Ask most analysts in September who would be the favourite if Real Madrid drew Manchester City later in the season, and there would be a unanimous shrug in favour of Guardiola. Take that same poll now and the reaction would slightly lean towards Real Madrid, if not 50/50. The bookies still have Manchester City as favourites to win the whole damn thing. The bookies may lose some money.
Around the same time last season — in the first week of March — Real Madrid’s season ended. That will not be the case this season. Even if they lose to Manchester City and Barcelona, they are still in the thick of the title race. There is a lesson here somewhere: This Zidane guy, the third most successful manager in Real Madrid history despite making his coaching debut in 2016, is probably good at his job.
Zidane inherited virtually the same core that both Julen Lopetegui and Santiago Solari had. He is dealing with the same, post-Ronaldo—mortem as his predecessors. The squad differences: Rodrygo Goes, Eder Militao, Ferland Mendy, and Eden Hazard. Of this season’s starters, only two — Mendy, Hazard — weren’t in the squad last season. Reguilon was last season’s Mendy. Hazard has barely played. Zidane has done what Lopetegui and Solari couldn’t do: Compete at an elite level.
Few thought Fede was this good. Even those who saw his potential didn’t foresee him morphing into the superglue that shrink-wraps the team’s shape into a defensive buffer while affecting the team’s offensive movement and production. Fede was in the squad last season. Zidane has unearthed him in a way only he knows how.
Now the Uruguayan has breathed life into a midfield trio — the Casemiro - Kroos - Modric triangle — that got scraped and unapologetically stomped to the curb last season. Valverde covers ground the way peak Modric did and gives the Croatian room to rest. He helps Casemiro defensively. He’s mobile and throws defensive schemes into whack with his runs into the half-space on the right. Real Madrid may still sign a midfielder next summer, but Zidane getting this kind of production out of Valverde has lessened the urgency of signing someone like Pogba as the team gets ready to transition from Modric to Odegaard in a year or two.
The team is not in the clear yet. First place in February means nothing. Barcelona haven’t been at their best, and maybe they eventually find their feet under Quique Setien. The last two games, eye-test wise, has been an improvement for their standards this season. Manchester City is wounded and Guardiola no longer has a domestic trophy to fight for. That’s dangerous to play against. Their offensive ceiling is that of a supernova, which could mask their defensive issues. All of these ‘feel-good’ vibes could come unravelling by March.
But Zidane has rejuvenated the team’s midfield which will give them an extra dose of confidence heading into this tough stretch. That smooth control of the game, the one Real Madrid had at such an incredible level, boasting one of their best midfields in the club’s history in 2017, has shown signs of a reboot this season. That almost seemed unthinkable after last season’s disintegration. Zidane has reinserted the soul stone into half the team.
And let’s be clear: Real Madrid have never had this version of Casemiro before, ever. He is arguably the best defensive midfielder walking the planet right now. He is gutting attacking midfielders in transition. He has even lifted the team offensively when the team needed someone with cojones to propel the ball into the back of the net. He’s turning into a leader. Everyone talks about the decline of Modric, but as one cycle ends another begins. Players decline, players arise. This transition is fun.
But here’s the ultimate story: Eden Hazard has barely played. He got to near-peak-Hazard level against PSG before having his momentum shattered and his foot cracked by Thomas Meunier. Hazard raises the team’s ceiling to that of a Champions League contender. He’s a superstar that can break any defensive line.
Hazard gives the team contagious confidence on the ball. He sucks in defensive attention more than any other player in the team — freeing up space for others. When he got the ball on the left against PSG and started combining with Isco, Marcelo, and Benzema, it’s as if PSG were inhaled into whirlpool on that flank. Hazard’s presence so far has not thrown away the team’s defensive shape either. He helps on both ends and works hard to release the team from pressure or double-up with the left-back on attackers.
Zidane hasn’t had someone like Hazard since Ronaldo left. He has yet to really feel the joy of building a scheme around one of the most capable superstars in the world this season. No doubt he was excited to plot a blueprint that gets the best out of Hazard all summer. Just when he thought he had it down to a science against PSG, Meunier took that away from him. Now he’s had time to percolate Hazard’s return for over two months, and just in time for Manchester City. Real Madrid’s xG of 3.21 against PSG was its third highest all-season — and highest in the Champions League — against a difficult opponent. It’s no surprise Hazard was the one pulling strings, giving us a pin-sized-hole-view of the team’s offensive ceiling with him there. The damage the team did that day would probably have been even greater if Hazard doesn’t get injured.
Eden Hazard is not known for his defense. He was not signed to zip up Real Madrid’s backline. But his defense is an underrated side-effect of his presence. Under Maurizio Sarri at Chelsea, Hazard’s defensive pressure regains jumped up to an elite 2.6 per game — up from 1.2 the season prior. Sarri had him pressing higher and winning possession in the final third. This season under Zidane, Hazard is averaging 2.8 recoveries per 90.
He’s also been tracking well this season in a limited sample size. He’ll cover for wing-backs who get caught:
Hazard’s defense is a nice by-product of his ability to bend games into his favour with pure talent and will. He has a nice balance of grace and efficiency:
Hazard still completes more dribbles per game than anyone in La Liga not named Lionel Messi. That number should hold when he comes back. It’s what he’s so good at. Sometimes when the lines are tight, you need someone to flex. Hazard does that. Putting a body on him is often the only way to stop him getting from north to south:
Luka Modric and Gareth Bale outside-of-the-boot passes remain my single favourite pass in football. I can find some room in my heart for Hazard’s one-touch flick and move sequence:
Hazard had a rough start to the season. He showed up to pre-season visibly out of shape, which affected his performances on the pitch. His touches were off. Even when his touches sharpened, his passing was sluggish. He was leg-heavy in front of goal. The one constant that remained was his defensive effort. By the time the PSG game rolled around, he rediscovered his bounce.
And the case for an incoming peak-Hazard is there: He’s 29, and according to him, he’s enjoying football now more than he has in previous years. For a player who treats this game like a job, the more motivated he is to perform under a childhood hero (Zidane), the better he’ll be. He is coming off his best season ever — and that was a season filled with angst under Sarri.
“When you meet Italian coaches like I did, you are less happy,” Hazard said last month. “They are more rigid and repetitive. You (now) find pleasure in victory. I spent three years with Italian coaches so to rediscover this pleasure again makes me happy.”
“In training, we are always using the ball... there’s movement and mini-matches,”
Hazard probably oversimplifies it, and whatever Sarri did, it technically produced the best out of the Belgian. But for Hazard, simple means fun and freedom. It means offensive support. It means football in its purest form which involved fluidity. Under Sarri, Hazard was a one-man show offensively. Willian did not show up every match. Hazard often played as a false-9. Against Manchester City, his entire job was to receive the ball in isolation near the half-way line and carry the ball 40 yards to create a chance. (He even excelled in that role, but it was taxing.) Help didn’t arrive in the-final third until Sarri found room for Callum Hudson-Odoi on the wing. Things are different now. Hazard didn’t have a Benzema to feed off of at Chelsea last season.
Real Madrid can provide Hazard with an offensive ecosystem that didn’t exist for him last season.
Now the question is what the environment will be exactly, from a tactical perspective. We’ll see Real Madrid’s full-strength line-up (in the eyes of Zidane) against Manchester City and Barcelona soon. Hazard will be involved in both if he’s healthy. Who else? Karim Benzema is a lock. The third attacking slot could go to one of Real Madrid’s wingers, or it could go to Isco who shape-shifts Zidane’s scheme entirely. Bale has mended his relationship with Zidane and the board. His exclusion is not a foregone conclusion, yet. Bale brings defensive security on the right wing, and has the ability to receive diagonal switches from the left to take advantage of an isolated defender. But Hazard and Isco together on the flank soak up defensive attention to create that room on the weak side.
There are so many interesting wrinkles to consider. Manchester City play a high line which suits a winger like Bale or Rodrygo to blitz. Premier League teams have torched Guardiola’s transition defense this season. It seems like we’re so far removed from Bale’s big-game performance at the Camp Nou where he was one of Real Madrid’s best players. He can not only latch onto those through-balls on the high line, but is also a quick passer to catch the line napping:
Bale spreads the field and creates space for one of the midfielders to make a less obvious pass down the throat of the central defenders:
Isco is still the more likely option. Isco and Bale together worked against Barcelona because Hazard was out. If Guardiola had to guess with a gun to his head, planning for Isco in a packed midfield is his safest bet. Isco has made the right pass in all the big games this season. He gives you a higher-level of press-resistancy:
It will be hard for Zidane to bench Isco and Fede when Hazard comes back. It’s easier for him to relegate one of the wingers to the bench. But Zidane will also have to take a long look at the two games against Atletico this season where Simeone put the diamond, and Isco, to a standstill. Guardiola and Setien will no doubt have taken note of those scouting reports.
“Having him between the lines is important in keeping possession,” Zidane said of Isco after the win over Osasuna on the weekend. “He put in a great performance, like everyone else, and I’m thrilled for his goal. He’s an important player and he’s technically crucial on the pitch. I really like him and it was a fantastic game from him today”.
The diamond blitzed teams in 2017. In 2018, it was an imbalanced sieve. Hazard and Isco have similar profiles, but the former is more devastating offensively. Playing both together gives Zidane an interested dynamic to work with. It will be interesting to see what he goes with on February 26th.