Wind the clock back to July 2nd, 2020. Real Madrid were in a pickle. It was almost the 80th minute and the match was still scoreless. Getafe had successfully neutralized Madrid’s offense with their long balls and relentless pressing. Despite growing into the game, Zinedine Zidane’s side looked short on ideas and Barcelona were breathing down their necks in the table.
Then, Dani Carvajal was brought down in the box. The referee pointed to the spot. Penalty! Ramos converted and Madrid proceeded to lock the game down. Three points in the bag.
This is how Zidane’s men created chances that night; solid, but unspectacular outside the penalty:
Imagine the same crunch time situation, but against Real Sociedad or Athletic Bilbao. Imagine Vinícius or Marcelo winning the penalty instead of Carvajal. And then you get an idea of how Real Madrid won La Liga in July. This wasn’t some free-flowing galáctico outfit. This was the Grit and Grind Los Blancos — resembling their crosstown rivals more than recent iterations of themselves.
Some may claim that all the penalties were a fluke. I would argue that they were more a symptom of Real Madrid’s territorial dominance. Armed with Europe’s state of the art, one-man ball progressing cyborg in Toni Kroos, Madrid had been boxing opponents into their own halves, only to struggle with the final ball throughout the season. By the end, they decided that forcing defenders to repeatedly tackle runners in the box was a viable way forward. It was effective and pragmatic — like most of their season.
That’s not to say the offense was optimal. Far from it. In fact, I would say that it was borderline unacceptable and only redeemed by the fact that this was one of the greatest defensive units in club history. Two years removed from having access to the leaping abilities of Cristiano Ronaldo, the team still floated bucketloads of crosses into the box.
Dani Carvajal was a key culprit. The Spaniard had a fine passing season, but there is a depressing compilation waiting to be made of all the crosses he played to the far post positions that Ronaldo used to occupy.
The manner in which Zidane won last season was both impressive and bizarre. On the balance of things, it was just about par for the course. There’s a reason Kiyan Sobhani said that it would have been “inexcusable not to” have won La Liga. Madrid are loaded to the rafters with talent relative to the rest of the domestic competition.
After the City defeat, the pressure to reach a new level is on. Zidane was out-coached in build-up on both sides of the ball that night. The pandemic means that Martin Ødegaard is the only addition this offseason; Florentino Pérez is redirecting all of Madrid’s money to the Kylian Mbappé and Eduardo Camavinga trust fund. If Madrid are to improve this season, it will largely come down to their work at Valdebebas.
To better understand why expectations are so high at Madrid, we will have to go back to November. After a rough start to the season, Zidane had his charges firing as well as anyone in Europe. Madrid put four past Getafe and racked up a multitude of chances against Paris Saint Germain.
Then, Thomas Meunier’s challenge broke Eden Hazard’s ankle.
Thus, the story of Real Madrid’s season is a two-pronged one. The defense — and Thibaut Courtois — have been rejuvenated since October. Madrid, as a result, have had a good floor basically all season:
The offense, however, has been one big “what-if” ever since Hazard’s ankle injury. Madrid routinely struggled to win games and never rediscovered their prior ceiling:
Put it all together and you get the big picture:
Breaking down the before and after numbers is important because Real Madrid were hinting at being able to return to Ronaldo-era heights before the injury. I made this visual during La Liga’s winter break:
Real Madrid looked like genuine Champions League contenders in those early couple months. In the seven La Liga and UCL games before Hazard went down, an otherwise gritty Real Madrid averaged 3 expected goals (xG) per game, creating at least 3 xG in four of those matches. Two of those fixtures — a 5-0 win against Leganés and 2-2 draw against PSG — saw the team produce their best offensive performances of the season. Madrid only hit the 3 xG threshold once outside that seven-game spread.
I tried (rudimentarily) adjusting for the defensive strength of Madrid’s opponents in La Liga by ranking them via expected goals conceded per game for the whole season. While the differences between a lot of Madrid’s opponents were small, this does seem to suggest that (penalties down the stretch of La Liga notwithstanding) the team did have other periods against relatively easy opposition where they still didn’t create:
I think it’s safe to say that Hazard made Madrid’s final third offense a lot less laborious. He was a piece rather than a focal point, but his talent opened up spaces for others, allowing for an impressive offense. The team were generally able to progress the ball all season, but they were only able to turn that progression into shots in the fall:
Not everything positive was the result of Hazard’s impact, though. Madrid did face one of their easiest run of fixtures at the time (i.e. playing Galatasaray). And some of the stats are strange. Per understat, Hazard put up a pedestrian 0.28 non-penalty expected goals and assists per 90 minutes before the turn of the year. He hardly contributed to the team’s actual end-product during that peak; for example, he only finished with 0.12 expected assists and 0 xG in that drubbing against Leganés.
It is also safe to say that Hazard has not been the same since he got injured. His value back then was best articulated by José C. Pérez, who described his game as combining the pausa and combination play of Isco with the directness of Vinícius. When Zidane plugged either of the latter two into the lineup, he lost something. Isco took away the team’s directness; Vinícius played on a completely different wavelength to his teammates.
Back in November, there was genuinely a big gap between Hazard and Vinícius in the way they impacted the team’s offense. Even though Vinícius has come a long way, I’d like to think that a large gap still exists when both are healthy. But the health factor is something that cannot be ignored. Vinícius — and even Rodrygo for that matter — were more useful to Real Madrid than the Hazard we’ve seen post-injury, who didn’t even look ready to take on defenders in the summer.
Combine this tricky injury situation with Zidane’s inconsistent attacking coaching, and you have a recipe for things to get...messy. Offensively, Zidane has always allowed his players to give into their tendencies and move into their preferred spaces. He empowers them to find solutions on the pitch. However, when his personnel aren’t bonafide superstars, this approach can backfire.
This may be why Zidane is counting on Hazard so much and is why the Belgian started against Manchester City. Zidane needs Hazard fit and confident if the team are to reach a new level and be favorites for the Champions League. The former Chelsea star probably needs more reps and game time to be able to rediscover his prior form per Dr. Rajpal Brar.
In the meantime, with Benzema turning 33, Madrid’s young attackers will still be key. The returning Martin Ødegaard should help the offense. Om Arvind has already provided a detailed breakdown on how he can help the team. I will only add a couple bits from a piece I wrote for StatsBomb in April:
In La Liga prior to the restart, Ødegaard played 26% of his passes forward to Isco’s 15% and only 9% backwards to Isco’s 14%. They completed a similar number of dribbles, but Isco drew fouls at double the rate. Ødegaard released the ball faster, meaning that he completed more deep progressions.
The Norwegian is arguably a better fit for the team because he operates on Madrid’s sparsely inhabited right wing:
Vinícius and Rodrygo also showed very promising signs of growth when La Liga returned. I am very high on the former. He is a less polished and quicker version of a young Neymar in the way he can reach the box at will. I think he has a very high ceiling as a shot creator on the ball who can also make devastating runs without it. I look forward to him terrorizing more defenders going into the new season.
From an offensive coaching standpoint, I think Zidane could borrow a lot from Pep Guardiola — specifically in the final third; cutbacks into overloads instead of aerial crosses, pinning center backs, and more automations in build-up rather than relying solely on the intuition of your players.
I would be a little worried about build-up play if Ramos were to miss more than a couple games. Unsurprisingly, Madrid came up with their worst performances of the season in the games where Ramos was suspended (PSG and Manchester City away). Casemiro, in particular, is hugely reliant on Ramos’ generational technique to bail him out in possession.
Incidentally, Marcelo also missed both the games where Casemiro was exposed. Before last season, I predicted that the Brazilian would continue to start over Ferland Mendy. I still think that a fit Marcelo raises the team’s ceiling in attack. Mendy is tidy in build-up, but is primarily dangerous when he runs in-behind the last line of defense. Marcelo is much more valuable against deep defenses and offers far greater ball progression. He started in Madrid’s Clásico win and was part of an incredible team performance against PSG.
But Marcelo and the likes Modrić are not getting any younger. Their more spritely counterparts — Mendy and Valverde — will have to eventually replace the old guard, which might make it harder for Madrid to progress the ball like they used to:
In that case, Zidane also has the option to borrow tactical adjustments from Jürgen Klopp. In fact, that’s where I thought Zidane was heading last offseason; accepting that the team wouldn’t have the same technical superiority and, instead, looking to improve the defense, attack spaces in transition, and create sheer chaos through pressing and long balls.
Madrid pulled some of that off last season, but the biggest difference right now is that Madrid prefer to defend in a mid-block and don’t press cohesively. They haven’t quite embraced the chaos like Liverpool and lack great pressing triggers. If Zidane wants to dominate with Mendy and Valverde in the team, further evolution towards a physical style may be appropriate.
Unfortunately, in these circumstances, I do think that Zidane’s ability to revive Luka Jović will be difficult. To borrow, again, from my piece from April, it is worth noting that Jović is nothing like Benzema. The Frenchman is one of the greatest combinatory forwards of all time; he finds time and space on the ball against any opponent. Jović, however, hardly contributes to build-up and was used to playing a much more vertical and risky style at Frankfurt. Given Eden Hazard’s health status, Jović may need a lot of time this season to find his groove.
You could use a lot of adjectives to describe Real Madrid’s scouting department, but stupid is certainly not one of them. Jović doesn’t profile like a Benzema replacement and I don’t believe that he was intended to be one. He would be a much better fit next to other runners and it would make a lot more sense if he was purchased with Kylian Mbappé in mind. But Mbappé isn’t here and won’t be for at least one more season. The Bernabéu waits for nobody.
Nevertheless, Zidane was as much at fault as Jović was last season. The Serbian hardly played and rarely featured in important fixtures. He also hit the post half a dozen times when he did play. Think Zidane treated James and Bale harshly? Rodríguez started a Champions League game against PSG. Bale started a Clásico and against Sevilla. Jović didn’t come close to playing in either of those fixtures. The system needs to adapt to Jović as much as the other way around.
This issue opens a whole new can of worms regarding whether Zidane even likes what he’s seen out of Jović in training. Still, I think Benzema is a huge factor here. When accounting for full bodies of work stretching back to 2013, Benzema ranked only only three places behind Messi and Ronaldo in one impressive model (which I had the fortune of peeking behind the curtain of) that estimates how players add goal probability to their team.
The additions of Ødegaard, along with growth from Vinícius and Rodrygo, Asensio’s health, and general roster continuity, should offset whatever decline we see from Benzema and Ramos even if Hazard never recovers. But whether we see a Madrid firing anywhere near the levels of November 2019 remains to be seen.
For Zidane, 2020/21 is about his coaching. La Liga is the minimum expectation. If he rejuvenates the offense, Madrid are set for the next few years. If he doesn’t? This season could turn into one long, desperate wait for Kylian Mbappé. As is usually the case with Zidane, I think he will land somewhere in-between.
I believe a fully fit Real Madrid can win the Champions League. But with the games coming thick and fast this season, fitness will be at a premium and may prove to be a factor that is out of the Frenchman’s control.