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Eight observations to close the season, featuring the last of Marcelo, Fede’s growth, and more

This week, Kiyan Sobhani’s column highlights the issues with Real Madrid’s high-press, Antonio Blanco’s debut season, Marcelo, and more.

Real Madrid v Villarreal CF - La Liga Santander Photo by Diego Souto/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.

Here is my final ‘observations’ column of the season. Rest assured, I’ll do them during the Euros too.

Marcelo’s final (?) cameos

Imagine having (probably) the best offensive left-back of all time as your back-up left-back. Seems like a decent luxury — something that any team would be crazy to turn down, in theory, anyway. But Marcelo has declined enough that even as a back-up, you just can’t play him in certain games. Against smaller teams, Ferland Mendy’s tracking has been important defending transition opportunities as teams explode out of their low-blocks, and against bigger teams who give you space — well, Mendy’s transition defense becomes even more essential. Marcelo could, in years past, be so good offensively that he’d trump his defensive deficiencies. Not anymore.

We all want Marcelo to succeed. He is a football legend, a loveable figure. He epitomizes why we love football. He moves with flair. He’s a leader.

It’s been bittersweet seeing his final Real Madrid cameos. He didn’t have many great moments, but did have good games against Getafe and Eibar. Against Getafe, he played as an inverted left wing-back in a 3-5-2 (though most of his success came on the left wing in attacking positions, rather than what he provided with his movement centrally). In that game, where he played alongside Ferland Mendy, who played as a left center-back, the Brazilian had 93 touches and a game-high five key passes.

Zidane expressed in December of this season that he was “hurt” by leaving Marcelo and Isco — two players instrumental to the team’s three-peat — out of the lineups so much. He’s unearthed Isco sporadically, and has tried to find ways to deploy Marcelo in schemes that won’t expose his defense. The 3-5-2 with Mendy tucked inside as the LCB is a way it can work sometimes, though it’s not a go-to solution you can roll with consistently.

There isn’t much time left on Marcelo’s contract, and next season, if he stays, it will be even harder to incorporate him into the team. These few cameos of Marcelo are all that we have left of him in a Real Madrid shirt. Breathe it in. You’ll miss him when he’s gone, even if only for what he’s done in the past.

That’s why the Eibar performance put a smile on my face. Marcelo’s touches on the ball were classy and silky — like we remembered them. His crosses were dangerous. He even had some nice combination play with Isco. Those two formed a beautiful two-man dance in 2017. Now their synergy is fleeting, if not gone.

Against Eibar, Marcelo even had an interesting symbiotic relationship with Mendy. When Mendy would move forward on the overlap, Marcelo would hedge back and cover as the left-back. I have not been a fan of Marcelo being deployed as a left-winger (in years past, that has not worked well for the Brazilian, even at its peak when Jose Mourinho deployed him ahead of Fabio Coentrao), but I liked the understanding he had with Mendy in a 3-5-2 as a left wingback.

Admittedly, the performance against Eibar was hard to sustain, and was a rarity. In a proceeding game against Getafe, the Brazilian was deployed as an inverted left-back again, and suffered regression. Facing a high press in the second half, Marcelo was a liability with the ball at his feet — and we’ve almost never had to say that about him at any point in his career. Bordalas’s men picked the ball off of Marcelo multiple times and surged towards Real Madrid’s box. Against Cadiz a game later, Marcelo, apart from a couple wrong passes in transition, wasn’t as distressed, but Cadiz did little to make life difficult for him, even if they tried.

Real Madrid have Miguel Gutierrez, and Sergio Reguilon is a buy-back away. Marcelo is an expendable asset. You wonder how much time he has left, and if he’ll see out the remainder of his contract.

Multi-functional Fede Valverde

It seems like a year ago now, but not only a month (and change) has passed since a young Fede Valverde went to Anfield, played as a make-shift right-back in an elimination game, and was one of the best players on the field. It’s worth revisiting!

There is a ruthlessness to Fede, but not in a rotten way. He is quiet, but not timid. He is fearless, with more bite than bark. He outwits you, but you don’t know it’s happened until after it’s happened. He has a visceral feel for the game — a knack to pop up in your blind spot and pick you apart. He is a silent genius — a ninja off the ball and a torpedo when he gets it.

Fede summoned all of those virtues in his right-back appearance against Liverpool. He was quick to close crosses from his side, denied Andrew Robertson and Sadio Mane on several occassions, and his step-ups out of the back were foot-perfect. The right touch out of pressure, and slight shoulder-drop, allowed him to crack Liveprool’s press and even break their lines completely with runs down the flank. Real Madrid don’t escape Liverpool’s press at Anfield on multiple sequences if it’s not for Fede’s press-resistancy. On one occasion in the 46th minute, he sent Vinicius on a breakaway with an absurd, one-touch, left-footed diagonal zinger that Xabi Alonso would applaud.

It wasn’t a perfect performance. Fede was burned by Mane at the start of the game, and took some time to settle. I’m ok with those imperfections given the circumstances.

Antonio Blanco’s early fit

One of the silver linings of a team decimated with injuries and a midfield run into the ground: We get to see cameos from youth prospects. I almost feel sadistic saying that, and also this: One my favourite things in sports is seeing ‘what we got’ with players who are thrown into the fire because a team has no choice. Even if it’s tiny sample sizes (and to emphasize, I’m aware that we can’t project a players’ career based on limited minutes), I like to see how the kids do mentally in those situations.

I like what I’ve seen from Blanco. His body language has looked confident. He’s not shy to receive the ball, play an incisive pass, or put in a strong challenge. He’s involved, active. I’m not sure he’ll be a lone anchor for large stretches of his career like a Casemiro or Rodri; but he’ll work in tandem with his midfield wing-man in a double pivot. He’ll have to work on some of the natural feel for the game — when to gamble, where to be. Pressing out of sync or too aggressively, mistiming a tackle, or a gamble at the wrong time can leave his team in a tough spot:

In the first sequence, his gamble is disastrous (or at least, it would’ve been if a team better than Osasuna can punish him). He has to get that aggressive header absolutely right, otherwise there is a plethora of space behind him to exploit.

On the second sequence, he has to know that he is the direct recipient of that Eder Militao pass. Nacho puts his arms out as if to say ‘why aren’t you controlling that pass?’. Blanco recovers well.

Those things could come with time. He’s still young enough to develop those instincts. Defensively, his coverage on the left for Marcelo has been reliable:

Blanco has also been reliable dropping into the box to clear crosses at the far post when Marcelo is nowhere to be seen, and has put in deadly-accurate crosses into the box himself. (He had a small hand in playing one of the four crosses in Militao’s aerial onslaught against Osasuna.)

Against Osasuna, Blanco had a game-high three tackles, and played the most passes of anyone on the field (82), while having the highest passing accuracy of any Real Madrid starter.

A big question: What happens to him next season? He — along with several other quality players that Raul Gonzalez currently coaches — have outgrown Castilla. Will he join the midfield depth chart, or go out on loan? I’d like to see the latter.

Eder Militao, covering space

Who would’ve thought: Reps matter. It seems like a simple solution to getting the best out of a player: play him! I realize that’s an oversimplification. Not everyone who gets a fair chance shines right away. If they don’t, depending on the size of your club, you may not have the patience to endure the growing pains. You also can’t deploy every player you have when the goal is to put out the best XI that gives you the best shot at titles. Militao’s situation would’ve never arose had Raphael Varane and Sergio Ramos not gotten injured. No one likes injuries, and as the season closes, the backline is unfortunately more decimated than ever — but the silverest of linings came when Militao put down a worthy tryout in his bid as a future Real Madrid defender.

He’s been more than handy, and so reliable covering multiple zones around him as he’s forced to leave his central role to cover for gambling wing-backs and fight off teams who look to take advantage of Real Madrid’s high line:

Militao has a natural defensive instinct which allows him to put pressure on the dribbler while cover shadowing the run behind him:

That second play might not look like much. Some would even mistake Militao stopping the ball with his heel as clumsy. But that’s a subtle interception that prevents a break for Sevilla’s Lucas Ocampos in the box. As Ivan Rakitic darts away from Luka Modric, Militao tracks him, but also recognizes that Ocampos has already calculated a 1 - 2 vertical sprint beyond Odriozola. Militao hedges off Rakitic instead of suffocating him, and cleans up the through-ball.

Zidane juggled the backline as best he could given the injuries (with the formation against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge being a stain on the run). Militao helped the team lift some heavy weights. He deserves the recognition.

Doing everything wrong against a superior Chelsea

One of many cardinal sins Real Madrid committed against Chelsea in the 2nd leg: not tracking or rotating quick enough defensively on the switch. Mason Mount is already a force when defended properly, and Zidane’s men let him operate without much resistance. The three-man backline was more spread out than a three-man backline should be. Eder Militao and Vinicius Jr struggled getting to the switch in time, and Luka Modric, usually reliant filling in defensively on that side, couldn’t gather himself physically, and was gassed tracking any off-ball runs, and generally treaded water catching up to Mount and N’golo Kante in transition.

It has been discussed many times by numerous analysts and media: Chelsea let Real Madrid off the hook. They merely eliminated them by being a far better team. An utter humiliation was on the cards if Chelsea were more clinical, and made better decisions to take advantage of Real’s ‘defending’:

Even slower build-up sequences, where the defense had time to set, were difficult:

One simple half-space run by Timo Werner drags Vinicius and Sergio Ramos into a vortex and opens up space for others.

Three seasons in a row now Real Madrid were eliminated in the Champions League with inferior tactics. Questions need to be answered.

Nacho was robbed by Luis Enrique

Nacho playing at this level again is a treat. He took a dip after the last World Cup, as did many Real Madrid players, and it took him a while to have the same impact as he did in 2017 again — but he’s unequivocally back. Nacho seeped back into the Spanish National team discussion as he rose the call in Ramos and Varane’s respective absences. This is the Nacho we remember: Stronger than his frame deceives, reliable coverage, flying ninja tackles sweeping the ball away cleanly.

Look at him erase Alex Berengeur’s run:

Luis Enrique was at San Mames that night to see Nacho score not only the winning goal of the game, but make several good defensive reads. Not that this game needed to confirm it: ‘Nacho por Seleccion’ was a no-brainer, and Lucho’s decision can’t be explained logically.

(For those interested, I did explain what happened today.)

Odegaard’s last (?) Arsenal dance

Martin Odegaard received a standing ovation as he left the field for maybe the last time in an Arsenal shirt against Brighton on Sunday. He played the 10 role — the same position his former manager Ronny Delia told me is where he is destined to play at his best.

If it was his last game at the Emirates, it was a good send off. A classic Ø game: playing with flow and bounce, available between the lines on every build-up, and playing the incisive pass like a surgeon threading his subjects. He slung an assist to Pepe that showcased all of the above.

Odegaard’s off-ball motor is relentless and wide-ranging, making him hard to detect. The moment you fail to do so, he’s receiving the ball exactly where you don’t want to face him:

Odegaard is a ‘modern’ 10, not the traditional one we grew up with. He reads passing lanes deep, drops to help the team evade pressure, roams into both half-spaces, and orchestrates every pressing sequence Arsenal have.

That role doesn’t currently exist at Real Madrid (though it has sporadically, but not consistently since the 2017 - 2018 season). Between Luka Modric and Toni Kroos, Zidane has those roles covered. It remains to be seen how a new manager — should that be the case — will see it.

Odegaard still hasn’t hit his peak from the 2019 - 2020 season, where he was among the top three in the league in sheer volume of passes into the penalty area. His good performances have coincided with hitting full stride with his health. His dips at both Arsenal and Real Sociedad had to do with slow starts returning from injury. Putting together a consistently healthy season remains a concern moving forward.

Disunited pressing

There were 11 teams in La Liga that attempted more pressures in the final-third than Real Madrid this season. That is a strange place to be for a club the size as this. Zidane’s high-press comes and goes. His versatility with his tactics is a strength, but when certain tactics are applied only some of the time, it’s hard to sustain rhythm where you can do it like clockwork — with efficiency and synergy.

Some of that will have to do with the prolific line-up turnover due to injuries, and players like Modric being run into the ground. But Real Madrid does have the personnel to be a high-pressing team, and again, it will be interesting to see if another manager might incorporate pressing and counter-pressing more in order to generate better transition opportunities that previously weren’t unlocked in the face of low blocks.

But not all presses are good, and pressing all the time is not a recipe for success for everyone. Zidane has been strategic about it. He implemented one against Chelsea in the first half of the first leg, but called his men back in the second half due to Thomas Tuchel digging a knife and fork into it like he was eating thanksgiving dinner. Real’s press was aggressive against Villarreal too, and the yellow submarine played out of it comfortably in the first half.

Villareal are a good build-up team. They were sixth in opponent passes per defensive action in La Liga. They have come a long way since getting torched at the Camp Nou at the beginning of the season. If you press them, you have to be on point on every rotation. If one player is late, the entire defensive scheme collapses.

The players weren’t on the same page against Villarreal. Some of that will be down to the lack of match practice, and some of it will be down to players who’ve been in and out of the lineup not operating at the same wavelength. A lot of it will have to do with players switching off in a single moment.

The press did improve towards the end of the first half, and overall Real Madrid were lucky Villareal were so poor in the attacking third (a special shoutout to Carlos Bacca).

This was just one minute after Real Madrid’s press broke down on the opposite side of the field from a Miguel gamble:

Casemiro is late on his press, leaving both the man and passing lane open. Asensio is marking neither passing lane, and should be the one tracking Alfonso Pedraza down the flank. Those are frustrating, avoidable defensive sequences. A sigh was heard on my side of the screen.

Those are the reasons Zidane is more conservative with his pressing, especially during such a grinding season. Here’s to better squad health, one day. (And for selfish reasons because it’s my favourite brand of football, days filled with relentless counter-pressing, waves of attacks, and a 30% increase in goals.)

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