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Checking In On Real Madrid As We Approach The End Of Hell Week

Real Madrid are two-thirds of the way there, and Lucas Vazquez’s injury twists one more knife into a team already decimated with injuries. How will they line up on Wednesday?

Real Madrid v FC Barcelona - La Liga Santander Photo by Angel Martinez/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.

Two major rivals — one on the European scale, the other a domestic adversary — have been on the menu in the span of five days. Welcome to hell week! We endure one of these periods almost every season (and often twice). Sometimes hell week extends to a full 18 days, as it did in 2011. This is child’s play, and Real Madrid have, until now, shown no mercy beating up two of their younger brothers in their quest for the double. On Wednesday the trilogy concludes. Put your gloves on.

The way the first leg of the Champions League quarter-finals against Liverpool unfolded was surprising. Maybe the scoreline itself wasn’t, but there was a pleasant awe in the manner Real Madrid put their foot on pedal. Liverpool, leading Europe with the moss aggressive high-press on the continent (1265+ pressures in the attacking third), barely bothered Real Madrid’s build-up play while Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane weren’t even on the field. Their midfield melted in the face of the Casemiro - Luka Modric - Toni Kroos triangle, and almost every attacking threat they posed was met stride-for-stride with a heroic intervention from Eder Militao, Ferland Mendy, or Casemiro. Jurgen Klopp’s men did not register a single shot in the first half — a feat they had not achieved since 2014 (in a group stage game against Real Madrid, no less).

Through eight Champions League games this season, Liverpool’s pressing numbers in Europe were less spectacular by every metric, and against Real Madrid, they only had 31 pressures in the attacking third — their second-lowest pressing output of all their Champions League games this season, and 11 below their season average in the Premier League.

Some of their efforts didn’t compute to that of a team that had sat on the European throne as recently as 2019. And that, is understandable. The COVID era has lots of variance, a ton of unpredictability, and almost everyone, not least Liverpool, is playing Russian roulette with squad health week to week.

That explains some of it, not all. Even the greatest teams will go through funks. Once you get in the habit of winning, one swift defeat can lead to a habit of losing. What Liverpool experienced in the first leg looked half tactical, half psychological. They looked overwhelmed by the occasion — reactive to Real Madrid’s Champions League aura. They looked scared, panicked. The un-pressured giveaways from the back came not just from Nathaniel Phillips and Ozan Kabak, but from everyone, including the senior players. Could it be that Real Madrid, even at a tiny training ground like Estadio Alfredo di Stefano — not big enough to impress Klopp — have special, invisible powers that are birthed every spring in the Champions League?

That might play a part. The more scientific answer is that Real Madrid were really good, and Liverpool’s dire defensive shape coupled with them vomiting the ball prolifically played right into Real’s hands. Eder Militao raised the call in the last-minute absence of Raphael Varane, and both Vinicius Jr and Marco Asensio gave Zinedine Zidane the necessary ammunition to exploit the space behind Liverpool’s defensive line. Casemiro’s coverage in Zone 14, while hovering over to both flanks to put a blanket on Liverpool’s breaks, was foot-perfect. Any particles left over from Trent Alexander-Arnold’s soul that Vinicius didn’t dispose of, Ferland Mendy vaporized.

There was an efficient, almost business-like nature to Real Madrid’s first leg performance. They recorded their lowest possession total of the Champions League this season (45%), but with an xG of 2.2 (second only to the Atalanta second leg and the Borussia Mönchengladbach game back in October) — feeding further into the idea that Real Madrid don’t need teams to give them the ball, but sizeable opponents who dare to give them space.

This wasn’t only about Real Madrid being good; or Liverpool only being bad. It’s not black and white, it’s grey — a bit of both. Toni Kroos leads the Champions League in progressive passes (89), progressive passing distance (4697), passes into the final third (107), pass targets (729), and touches (884). Liverpool gave him space — a cardinal sin. Kroos is arguably the best passer in football history. If there is one guy you don’t want to allow time and space to dictate from anywhere on the field, it’s him. They treated the German like he was Shaq pulling up from half court.

That won’t happen again. Liverpool will be, or at least have to be, a hungrier side. They will have to unearth their aggressive press again, make Mendy and Casemiro more uncomfortable than they were at Estadio Alfredo di Stefano, and put Zidane’s build-up through a hotter test. Against Real Madrid, Klopp’s men neither pressed well, nor closed passing lanes or compensated with a compact block. They died without picking a poison.

Again, that’s only one side of the coin. It was incredible to watch the Casemiro - Kroos - Modric midfield rewind the clock. They have been gaining momentum since the new year and recreating the synergy they had up until 2018.

And why rewind at all? Before the first leg, there was talk about this trio being past their peak (Lucas Navarrete and I tackled the entire KCM narrative on the Thursday pod), but two of those generals are currently in their peak. Kroos and Casemiro have never been as good as they are now. Modric, a bit older, is still playing some absurd football.

Without question, Liverpool have formidable midfielders, who, on their day, can go toe-to-toe with anyone. Thiago can dictate tempo like few others can. That one of his first touches of the game off the bench against Real Madrid was a wild giveaway seems like a testament that something was off with Liverpool as a whole. Should they get it together for the second leg, Real Madrid can find comfort in the way the Casemiro - Kroos - Modric kept shape defensively:

Kroos and Modric cover passing lanes, and Casemiro is ready to pounce at the top of the box if any player breaks through just behind them. In the unlikely scenario that the Brazilian gets beat there, the defensive triangle remains in tact, and someone else covers.

Real Madrid did not enjoy that same defensive efficiency against Barcelona though, who had multiple outlets in between the lines, usually in the form of Pedri and Ousmane Dembele. Capable deep-lying vertical passers like Sergio Busquets and Lionel Messi will feast on openings like that. It was surprising that Real Madrid didn’t zip those channels up despite having a fourth midfielder in Fede Valverde also on the field. Fede plays more narrow than a traditional right winger. Real Madrid’s midfield can’t allow Liverpool the same kind of space it allowed Barcelona over the weekend.

Barcelona didn’t capitalize on several sequences where Real Madrid gave them the option to — but the danger was there, and Barcelona came close. The threat level varied on those sequences where Blaugrana shirts snuck into good avenues:

Barcelona’s build-up is methodical. The aim is to get in good positions offensively, and from there rely on off-ball movement and individual brilliance to carry them to the finish line. They will not always punish you with those runs directly, but through multiple dominoes falling after their cutters receive the pass behind the midfield and other options open up:

Here, both Pedri and Messi are available behind the lines as Casemiro, Kroos, and Modric jog back. Both Barcelona players receive the ball during the sequence, and it leads to a cross at the far post:

It will be interesting to see what Zidane does with Fede’s role at Anfield, or if he’ll roll with Fede at all. Against Barcelona, the Uruguayan did drop deep often, but also had an obligation to provide offensive runs more than any other midfielder. As a fourth pillar, Fede is not a roamer like Isco; nor a pacy winger like Asensio. He’s a hybrid who doesn’t switch flanks.

But Fede does provide you with stability and coverage. He will still cover for the right-back, make important runs (see: Real Madrid’s opening goal against Barcelona), and his narrow positioning does give you compactness:

(Even on the above play, Barcelona split a pass between Fede and Casemiro with ease.)

Fede does have the natural ability to rotate quickly to defend overloads on the wing, even from advance or central positions — an asset Zidane might look to against Liverpool. Klopp will be looking with glazed eyes at Alvaro Odriozola (likely to fill in for the injured Lucas Vazquez). Real Madrid struggled defending Barcelona’s left-sided punches (they did so even with Lucas Vazquez on the field, but Barcelona also have one of the strongest left-sided attacks in the world). Whether it’s Fede or Asensio on the field helping Odriozola, Real Madrid can not allow Andrew Robertson the same kind of space they allowed Jordi Alba:

Both sequences were rewound far enough to circle back to the initial theme: Look at how much space Real Madrid allowed Messi between the lines on both plays. Zidane’s men were caught off guard — almost surprised to see the Argentine there — when the pass was made. From there, Barcelona’s movement and passing punishes you.

Maybe that’s fatigue — a theme Zidane made sure to emphasize in the post-game press conference. It was part of an explanation of how difficult the second half was. And perhaps another was the rain, because even with fresh legs on the field, and a 3-5-2 shape to secure the lead, the team struggled. Give credit to Barcelona here too. Their pressure was relentless.

I do wonder how much Zidane will trust Odriozola in a game like this. The Spanish right-back was throw into Clasico on a whim, but that decision may alter after Zidane has a couple days to marinate what might, if anything, work better. Mendy has played the right-back role with both France and Real Madrid. It is not his best role, but it’s something he can play in a pickle. He can hold his own defensively there, but there won’t be much onus on him to contribute the other way. Zidane could roll with Mendy on the right and Marcelo on the left with four at the back. Alternatively, he could also shift to a 3-5-2, with Mendy as the left center back, Marcelo as the left-wingback, and either Asensio or Rodrygo as the right wing-back.

(From a pure defensive standpoint, I would trust all of those options over an Odriozola - Asensio right-wing dyad.)

Klopp faces the same conundrum many managers face against Zinedine Zidane: Planning for the unknown. Zidane is a shape-shifter. He is, as Bruce Lee would be it, like water — adaptable and versatile to its environment.

It doesn’t always work, but more often than not in big games, Zidane has got it right. Wednesday he faces another difficult test. His team is decimated with injuries, and the latest blow to Lucas Vazquez has further complicated his quest.

Hell week will only be conquered if Liverpool are knocked out of Europe this week.

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