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.
Seven of the 11 ‘finals’ have been played. All seven have been won. Over the course of those long and often gruelling battles — extended minutes, cooling breaks and all — Zinedine Zidane has used 22 different players. Players have gone down, schemes have been shuffled, hockey subs have been made. Winning has remained a constant.
No one has benefited from taking a break from football more than Real Madrid. The physical contours of the team may not be at its peak, but the mental condition has taken the shape of a focused Champions League run. Win at all costs. Find a way. Grind it out. Whatever superpower that animated Zidane’s men in the Champions League has latched on to this league run too. It is almost strange how a team that looks so physically exhausted also looks so spiritually rejuvenated. Sometimes the mind transcends the body.
Make no mistake — this is a run of merit. Uninspiring victories become inspiring when you zoom out and scan the team’s off-ball shape. Real Madrid is playing defense at an all-time level. In the past seven games, the average xGA is .46. That’s absurd defense — better than their season average which was already a league-best. They’ve allowed nothing, and on rare leaks, Thibaut Courtois comes up big, or a swooping act of coverage intervenes.
They have passed all their big tests on the schedule with one (Villarreal on the 15th) remaining. Win against Javier Calleja’s men, and Ramos has one of his hands on the 34th league title.
Championships aren’t always pretty. Once you enter the clutch, you have to unearth every last drop of sweat to muster the remaining fuel in the tank. The attack has looked different at every corner. Eden Hazard hasn’t been able to extend himself physically every game, and the only constant presence in the attacking line has been Karim Benzema, who has amassed over 2800 minutes this season (a team high). The team struggled to create chances when they went face-to-face with an elite defensive team in Getafe. Zidane’s defensive scheme, and Ramos’s cojones, were the resistance.
On Friday, the team will host Alaves without both Sergio Ramos and Dani Carvajal — two of the most important defensive stalwarts and important attacking puzzle pieces the team has. Militao looked great against Athletic Club, coping well with being spread thin to cover for the black hole between Ramos and Marcelo in the half-space on the left side. Ramos looks like he could use a break based on his defensive performance in that game. Carvajal’s absence could be felt just as much, if not more. The team will have to rely on either Ferland Mendy or Lucas Vazquez to fill the void at right-back. Mendy has a 45-minute sample size at that position against Eibar. Vazquez has a tendency to play as a right-winger out of habit when he plays as a wing-back — leaving holes behind him. He needs to be paired with a two-way winger who covers. Alaves are in a spiralling funk, but catch them on a certain day, and they’ll tear you up on the flanks like they did against Real Sociedad mid-June.
Real Madrid’s Offense
In Eden Hazard’s first game back upon returning from quarantine, he was an offensive fireball. He sucked in defenders and freed up space for Marcelo and Benzema. His offensive guile created goals against Eibar and Valencia. He raises the offensive ceiling of the team, but his influence has waned. Zidane tried to incorporate both Hazard and Vinicius together against Mallorca, and the Belgian got lost in a central role as Vinicius was taxed with the duty of offensive carnage from the left. Hazard then played through pain against Espanyol. He will likely miss Friday’s game due to an ankle injury.
The fall-back now is to embed Vinicius on the left when Hazard can’t play. (Although, with Zidane’s unpredictable mind, it could just as easily be 25 other players.) Vinicius gives you production without a huge drop-off in the left-wing synergy with Benzema, combines well with either Marcelo or Mendy, gives you an uptick in defensive coverage (although Hazard has been a solid pressing pawn and cognizant of the left-back’s defensive positioning), and most importantly, the line-breaking dribbling to catapult a stagnant offense into motion.
Vinicius gives you a dip in finishing as a direct replacement for Hazard (not that Hazard has been a monsoon of goals, but historically he is a composed finisher in-and-around the box who gives you 15 - 20 goals per season). But Vinicius brings you pure chaos which leads to opportunities. Shot-generation and rebounds are statistically proven to create goals. (You might not need a study to tell you that). Bring on the chaos!
(The Hazard - Vinicius two-man dance may yet still need time, and a truly healthy version of Hazard before we judge the two as incompatible.)
‘Chaos’ is a cop out for bad offense. But it is welcome. Real Madrid are getting enough goals because their defense has been so good. Lean the wrong way defensively, and you’ll need more than scraping by with 1 - 0 wins thanks to a central defender who works for Nick Fury in his spare time. Ramos will not be available against Alaves. Penalties can be delegated, but his runs into the box within the flow of the offense (a new tactical wrinkle this season) can’t. Those runs don’t bring Real Madrid many goals anyway, and you shouldn’t need a Ramos bail-out card to get you a win against an Alaves team who have conceded 51 goals this season.
Zidane’s offensive scheme has relied on the flanks, and the team will try to find an opening for a cross as its Plan A. He’ll ask his team to shift the flow of possession from one side to the other, over and over again, until the defense melts.
That sometimes works, but it has its perils. It’s predictable. Good defensive teams can double-up on the flanks, and shift their defense as needed. Getafe plugged the wings. Athletic had a cross-clearance festival by styrofoaming the box with defenders.
Patient defensive teams can waltz alongside your side-to-side passing:
Some of Real Madrid’s offensive issues are overblown. Some of them are clearly not. They are a better chance-generating team than people give them credit for. (They lead the league in xG, and have little relative trouble in creating enough goalscoring opportunities through sheer volume of attacking sequences — even ones with low probability. But that system worked much better when Cristiano Ronaldo was around to outperform unimaginative offensive schemes.) The team’s biggest issue is just putting the ball in the back of the net. Real Madrid and Barcelona have a near-identical xG (66.51 and 65.31 respectively) — but Barcelona have scored 17 more goals. (Real Madrid have a game in hand.)
Keep an eye on Rodrygo in the above sequence. He is thwarted by two Athletic defenders, but at least dares to be incisive.
That’s where Real Madrid can go from laboured, hard-on-the-eye offense, to something with verve and offensive potency. Rodrygo is too good to swing the ball around and wait to get open for a cross. Give him the ball and let the boy cook:
Most good defensive teams, particularly ‘smaller’ opponents, will hedge into a low-block, or shift into an aggressive, hounding medium block like Getafe — quick enough to press high but get to their defensive spots in transition. Zidane would like to exploit teams in transition more, but that is difficult to do against most teams who don’t allow transition at all. Zidane has opted to mimic those transition attacks by pressing high and intercepting passing coming out of the back. (More on this later.)
He’s had limited opportunities to catch high lines. Rare moments do arise, but the passing to hit wingers on the run needs to be better:
Right now Real Madrid are top of the league. They have scored 64 goals in 32 games, and have had a far better defense than Barcelona. That should matter just as much as having an inferior offense! But it’s hard to sustain a Ramos game-winner when you’re juggling Hazard’s injuries, a high-variance of lineup changes, and relying on Benzema dropping deep to pick-pocket players or help the midfield with build-up and ball progression. If goals from midfield dry up, there is an over-reliance on a non-traditional striker to carry the team’s offense.
Real Madrid’s defense
Real Madrid currently rock the second-best defensive record in the club’s history at this juncture of the season. This should be front page stuff. I have followed the team since 1998, and the defense has never been this good since I’ve started watching games live. Sure, the bar is low, and there really only have been two solid defensive eras since ‘98 — but this is still impressive enough that it’s on par, and even slightly better than Atletico Madrid, who are infamous for being impermeable. If you want to extend the comparison to other leagues, from a pure xGA standpoint, Real Madrid are also mathematically better than Inter Milan, Juventus, Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, and Bayern Munich. No goalkeeper in Europe’s top-5 leagues has more clean sheets (17) than Thibaut Courtois. Casemiro is second across the top-five leagues in tackles won, and fourth in interceptions. Both of those players have been huge in saving the team in rare moments where the defense breaks down. They have responded to the bat signal.
Think of how ugly some of these wins have been. The criticism of the team’s offense and narrow victory over Getafe was loud. But what did Getafe do with the ball, as well as they defended? Real Madrid ate up any attack Bordalas’s men took all their might to corral. Valencia — the proclaimed bats that supposedly turn into gargoyles against Real Madrid looked like mice trying to pass a football in Real Madrid’s half. It’s been staggering how easily Zidane’s men have thrown other La Liga teams around defensively — like bullying a younger sibling. That kind of defensive coordination, movement, and synergy zaps the offensive zest from opponents.
The defense starts in the opponent’s half. Last-ditch heroics have not been relied upon as much in these past seven games. The team’s shape has been bolted together through an underground, invisible magnetic pulse. Players get to their spots, cut passing lanes, and hound ball-carriers on the flanks. The wingers have stepped up for interceptions in key areas (another avenue of transition offense), and the step ups from Sergio Ramos in particular as he canters into a vertical pass have been masterful.
Real Madrid have shown that they can be elite at this stuff over the years. It’s just been sporadic. In the past seven games, there’s been a special focus on the little details that spur chances created from balls won high up the pitch.
Not everything has been perfect. There were defensive slips against Athletic where Sergio Ramos had an uncharacteristically bad game defensively. Ramos looked like he had just woken up, and tumbled out of bed and into the Basque suns in an early kick-off. He let Iñaki Williams slip behind him, gave the ball away, forced long-distance diagonal switches when better vertical passing options were ahead of him, and misread several runs. Militao — not for the first time this season — did well to cover both sides of the field, coping well with being spread thin:
Militao had to be alert enough to sprint to the opposite side and outgun Iñaki taking advantage of Real Madrid’s high line:
Those are the heroic moments — the same ones Varane showcased in a ridiculous defensive highlight reel in the Clasico back in March. Casemiro, too, has come up with big challenges in the box — a couple of them have actually led to goals the other way.
To come up with an air-tight defensive scheme you need a bit of everything: swift defensive rotations, constant communication, and the occasional miracle save, lion-hearted tackle, or luck in the shape of a botched chance from an opposing striker. (Do not underestimate the psychological tax that comes with being cold in front of goal against a good defensive team. Teams often freeze when they get a rare chance to score. There is a pressure that comes with knowing you may not get another chance all game.)
Real Madrid will live with the odd chance conceded when they have all of the necessary band-aids to patch over normal imperfections that naturally come with the sport.
Football IQ helps. Rarely do you see a pressing sequence where Luka Modric or Karim Benzema don’t bark out orders to every white shirt around them. Benzema is vocal on every opposing goal-kick. Modric rallies the midfield pressing behind the forward line. In one sequence against Getafe, Benzema sprinted towards goalkeeper David Soria. Just before he began his dash, he ushered Vinicius to follow him and close the passing lane to his right. Vinicius looked at him and ignored him — continuing to walk around the half-way line. Benzema was furious. Vinicius is a good defensive winger, but had a lapse in judgement in that moment. Benzema’s veteran leadership ushers all the young players under his wing and keeps everyone accountable. Vinicius finished the game with six defensive pressures.
There is always a case for Real Madrid to defend higher up the pitch. Casemiro and Kroos have some of the best pressure numbers in Europe. Isco is a hound. Kroos may struggle defending in transition, but he’s a reliable presser. Now that the transition defense has been sorted (*knock on wood), Zidane has been able to find a nice balance defensively.
Checking in on my prediction
Just before Real Madrid returned from quarantine to face Eibar, I predicted they would win the league despite being second in the standings. It wasn’t about feeling confident that the team would leapfrog Barcelona — it was that it would be inexcusable not to do it, against a rival in turmoil both on and off the field. It was clear that Barcelona were going to drop points as they have all season. It was also clear that Real Madrid had the resources and depth to benefit from the quarantine and five substitutes more than anyone in Spain. How could you go to sleep this summer not living up to the title of a champions in such a season?
I will conveniently double down on that call now, even if I won’t believe they will be champions until I physically see the final whistle at Butarque blow on the last matchday, with Real Madrid still on top. I would wait to see one more hurdle knocked down before getting comfortable: That Villarreal game on the 15th. Villarreal are in form, but their open style of play may also invite a Real Madrid blitz.
It would be super inexcusable to let the title slip now, after seven consecutive wins. The team is deep enough to see this out. They should. The leap from 31 league titles to 34 has been too slow.
.@KiyanSo discusses what's different about this season's defense.— Managing Madrid (@managingmadrid) July 10, 2020
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