The Toll of Winning
After the Champions League win in 2017, Real Madrid was seemingly poised for a dynastic run. The squad was well constructed, and almost entirely in its prime or still approaching it. After dominant wins in both the European and Spanish Super Cups to open 17/18, it certainly felt inevitable.
Then everything collapsed. Ronaldo was sent off for unwittingly pushing a referee. He missed 5 games to start the season. During those games we bore witness to one of the most bizarre finishing streaks of the past decade.
Here’s the shot map from the second fixture of the season, in which Karim Benzema missed 2.76 expected goals worth of chances:
And here’s the short chart from the third game of the season, featuring a similarly inexplicable result:
Getting just 2 points from these three performances is almost unfathomable. You can only imagine how it affected the morale of a team already tiring and a bit complacent after back to back Champions League wins.
Ronaldo’s return didn’t change Madrid’s spotty form. He struggled to finish for the rest of 2017.
The team went from a dynamic attacking side with a deadly crossing approach to a one-dimensional crossing side that had no semblance of structure.
During a successful 2016/17, Madrid frequently switched play to Carvajal, exchanged passes in central midfield, and played through Marcelo in buildup. But the side was relatively unpredictable in the final third. It was hard to defend, and even harder to gameplan for. The team scored in every game that season.
Play in 2017/18 became stale. The team increasingly relied on Isco and Marcelo to combine down the left before looking to cross it in. They exchanged passes in midfield without committing too many players into the box.
The stylistic change is well illustrated by the visual below. The bulk of the over-represented pass types of 2016/17 occurred in the middle third, whereas the following season the left sided area in the final third becomes congested.
Part of this was down to inevitable summer sales. Key bench contributors James Rodriguez and Alvaro Morata were let go. Younger players were expected to fill the void but couldn’t command the same minutes. So the style revolved around key starters a lot more.
Part of this is on Zidane too. He either continued to let the players improvise on the pitch, or encouraged these ineffective practices on the pitch.
Casemiro started pushing forward instead of holding position. Modric’s responsibilities were subsequently stretched, as he had to cover for a lot of players defensively. Around this time he infamously ended up in the right back zone in defensive transition. Isco didn’t really roam as much as he helped Marcelo send in crosses.
The following contoured touch map illustrates this well:
‘Casemiro as a 10’ and ‘Modric as right back’ started as jokes but turned into a crude representation of Zidane’s Madrid.
Madrid’s problems in 2017/18 were a combination of physical and mental fatigue, the terrible run of finishing to start the season, and Zidane’s inability to transmit structure to his team through training.
Of course, the side still won its third successive Champions League. Zidane kept players rested and focused on European ties at the expense of the league. But this only magnified the burnout awaiting after the season.
One of the more overlooked reasons that no team had retained the Champions League before Madrid was the mental and physical toll it takes to win one in the first place. Champions League knockout games are harder to play. Teams prepare more extensively for these games than they would for a league game. Finalists have to train hard for a couple weeks after the season ends, while dealing with six separate, highly prioritized midweek knockout ties from February to June.
The shorter vacation before preseason has residual effects. Defending champions also have to play in the Club World Cup, which takes an added toll heading into the New Year.
This isn’t your average top-flight season.
With this in mind, I’d argue Madrid’s problems in 2018/19 were primarily fatigue. The team’s failure to respond to Lopetegui’s improvements for more than a month suggested the problem ran deeper than coaching. Granted, Solari exacerbated issues as the worst Madrid coach in recent history. Fundamentally, however, the players were exhausted after yet another full Champions League campaign that was followed by a World Cup summer. Even the loss of Cristiano Ronaldo was secondary here. A top goalscorer would only have papered over the cracks. The players needed a break.
Florentino Perez had the same diagnosis.
A New, Physical Approach
This is a new era at Madrid. Or, at least, it should be soon enough.
The previous iteration of the team shifted away from the counterattacking that came to represent them under Mourinho. Florentino Perez wanted to replicate the Barcelona model. After the Champions League win in 2014, the team gradually moved towards a slower game built around Kroos and Modric’s ball retention.
Now, the team needs a more physically dominant approach in line with the trendsetters of the era: Manchester City and Liverpool. Skill must be blended with combativeness, pressing and speed, attributes that have alluded the team as Ronaldo has aged and Bale has succumbed to repeated injuries. The past few seasons, the back four were often more mobile than the midfield and forward line. Zidane is set on making these changes.
The team is now looking for equilibrium in a couple ways:
- Attempting to find the balance between a bloated squad that breaks up after the season (16/17) and one without enough quality backups (17/18).
- Attempting to find the balance between physicality/verticality and patient possession.
In terms of pure talent, the squad is in decent shape.
The goalkeeping spot is one of the main issues. Neither Thibaut Courtois nor Keylor Navas consistently prevent more goals than expectation relative to their peers. Navas once did, but hasn’t consistently shown that form since 2015/16. With that said he may still be better than Courtois, especially with the ball at his feet.
The unlikely scenario here is that Zidane rotates the goalkeepers and they raise their performances as a result. Barcelona pulled it off in 2014/15.
The likely reality is that Atletico and Barcelona get away with performances that Madrid can’t because of Oblak and Ter Stegen’s prowess. Those two, along with De Gea and Allison, are superstar shot-stoppers in their prime.
The difference is pretty staggering from an expected goal standpoint. Real Madrid essentially conceded as many goals as expected the past two seasons, whereas Atleti, Barca and even Valencia conceded significantly fewer goals than the chances they concede would merit.
The difference in goalkeeping should put the difference between Madrid and its rivals in context. Spain’s three best sides declined defensively these past few seasons. Real Madrid’s defensive organization was the worst of the bunch as well. Atletico Madrid had a goalkeeper who could disguise their defensive decline. Barcelona had one too, and they also had Lionel Messi to do the same in attack. This difference stood out in games.
Given this context, I believe Madrid’s defensive personnel are still among the best in the world. In central defense, Nacho Fernandez is the only real passenger. Militão, Ramos and Varane possess tremendous athleticism and ball playing ability for their positions.
Suggestions of Ramos’ decline have been exaggerated. His frequent errors can be attributed to Madrid’s lack of structure. There has been no pressing template at the club since Benitez was fired. Under Zidane the team sent full backs forward, leaving Casemiro, Modric and the center backs to pick up the scraps once the ball was lost. Besides certain games – like the 2017 Champions League Final – teams would progress the ball quite freely till one of the aforementioned names intervened.
The following visual highlights this well, looking at how well teams passed in each zone of the pitch against Madrid compared to league average for that zone during Zidane’s two full seasons:
Benitez’s structure largely stuck with the team throughout 2015/16. Ramos and the team’s ability to survive off crazy defensive interventions peaked in 2016/17, but the structure deteriorated. The following season, Varane was brilliant but the lack of structure proved unsustainable and the defense fell apart.
Ramos takes good care of his body. Center backs age slowly. The Spaniard should play at least one more season in top condition. When he’s finally phased out, Madrid has signed a fantastic replacement in Éder Militão.
Militão was dominant in Portugal. he should allow the starters more rest and eventually fill in as the prototypical modern defender. Tiago Estêvão, one of the best Portuguese football analysts in the public domain, described him as the best center back he’s seen in Portugal.
The squad is well stocked with full backs. Ferland Mendy provides much needed competition to Marcelo. On the right, Carvajal remains a valuable piece but has an even more athletic deputy in Odriozola. Odriozola’s floor seems to be a speedy presence akin to Jordi Alba or Kyle Walker, whereas his ceiling if (admittedly, a big if) he develops technically could be closer to a faster Carvajal.
Up front, Eden Hazard’s signing gives the team a dominant dribbling presence that it hasn’t had since Ronaldo was diagnosed with patellar tendonitis. Looking to prolong his career, the Portuguese stopped taking on opponents and played like a roaming center forward.
In conjunction with Ronaldo’s changing role, Marcelo took up a lot of the dribbling burden after 2014. The Brazilian has been crucial to Madrid’s buildup ever since. But his time as a starter – especially in big games – may be coming to an end.
Hazard’s presence should directly benefit Mendy’s integration into the team. Last season, when Vinicius Jr. burst onto the scene, the more defensive Serge Reguilon was a better fit at left back than Marcelo. Hazard (and Vinicius) mitigate the need for an aggressive, overlapping full back with their 1v1 ability. It’s worth noting that when Ronaldo was still an inverted winger in his prime, Fábio Coentrão played significant minutes over Marcelo as a defensive specialist.
Hazard should also help Luka Jovic fit into the side. Jovic’s challenge is displacing Benzema: a player with one of the best goalscoring rates this century, who also raises a team’s ceiling with his ability to link-up.
José C. Perez created this list with the best goalscorers of the past 25 years, where Benzema ranks 15th:
A lot of the Frenchman’s value, however, comes from his non-goalscoring contributions. Benzema elevates players around him with quick combinations in small spaces. His spontaneous playmaking played a big role in Madrid’s dominant attack over the past decade, an attack that largely lacked any rehearsed positional play. Ronaldo greatly benefited from Benzema. Vinicius benefited from Benzema. Replacing him isn’t easy.
This is where Hazard’s playmaking comes into play. The Belgian’s output in front of goal isn’t exactly elite, but he attracts a lot of defenders with his dribbling in the final third. Benzema’s consistency in front of goal has dropped off since 2016. Jovic was a clean striker of the ball for Frankfurt, and could end up starting if he scores consistently enough.
I think the most likely outcome is Benzema starting and Jovic getting significant minutes as a goalscorer this season. The competition should do both of them some good.
On the right wing, the team will likely rotate between younger players. One of Vinicius and Rodrygo look primed to start there, making goals from midfield an absolute requirement. The club will likely part with Gareth Bale despite his decent output because of his injury history, which has frankly deteriorated some of his former strengths that would suit this team well.
I saved this section of squad analysis for last because it’s the most complicated.
Toni Kroos is untouchable for obvious reasons: being able to slow down the game and dictate tempo is one of the most valuable skills in football. The German’s composure is second to none in the modern game.
A mobile defensive midfielder is a must next to Kroos. The German isn’t committed to sprinting back in transition, and is an inconsistent defensive presence.
The club sold Marcos Llorente – a decision that could be terrible given his stabilizing presence in midfield last season. Llorente was at the point where he deserved steady game time, and Atletico Madrid put in a solid bid and guaranteed more minutes.
So why did the club and/or Zidane feel he wouldn’t get time?
I think they believe in Federico Valverde’s upside. The Uruguayan has the height, combativeness, and speed to play holding midfield. He’s better defensively than Kovacic, faster and a better dribbler than Llorente, and better on the ball than Casemiro. He is theoretically a great complement to Kroos. He makes a lot of interceptions with his speed alone.
Valverde, however, has largely been utilized in a box to box role in his short career at the top. He’s played in Modric’s position more than Casemiro’s. He has a propensity to make powerful runs forward, so he could succeed there, but it’s not what the team needs.
The worst case scenario here is that the club didn’t have a role in mind for Valverde. I am a bit skeptical: the team has stockpiled two players for every position. Furthermore, the club has placed a tremendous amount of faith in Valverde, and based on his appearances so far I wouldn’t be surprised if he made a leap this season.
That leaves Zidane’s faith in Casemiro. The Brazilian was a necessary mainstay next to Kroos and Modric, but his weaknesses on the ball became increasingly apparent over the years. Marcos Llorente’s success last season was largely down to his composure in possession. He didn’t turn the ball over in important areas nearly as often, giving Madrid stability in buildup. The longer Casemiro starts this season, the worse the decision to sell Llorente will look.
What about Kovacic? Once seen as Modric’s successor, he’s now at Chelsea. The Croatian was sold because he couldn’t defend as well as a traditional defensive midfielder next to Kroos, and there are better goal-contributors in advanced areas. Kovacic wouldn’t have gotten minutes. Windows of opportunities come and go in football, and Kovacic missed his chance last season when he could have replaced an aging Modric in a post World Cup year.
Dani Ceballos was loaned out to prevent a repeat of the Kovacic situation. While the Spaniard is valuable, he is neither a defensive nor goalscoring specialist. He should be back to ease out Kroos next summer. The German has already revealed his plan to retire in 2023, and will not command the starting role for too many more seasons.
That leaves the third position in midfield. Post-Ronaldo, and given the Hazard signing, management acknowledges the need for goals from midfield. Pogba, Isco, James Rodriguez and Donny Van De Beek are the names being floated around for this spot.
Pogba would be an ideal fit in Zidane’s new Madrid. He would release the team in transition, make runs into the box, and offer great dribbling. As the 3rd midfielder, he’s a more reliable defensive presence than James Rodriguez. His output would theoretically increase by playing with better players.
There is a scenario where Pogba to Madrid works out, but at the time of writing he’s simply too expensive. Reports suggest Pogba and agent Mino Raiola are unwilling to reduce their wage demands. Pogba’s camp will have to compromise before a move comes to fruition. Madrid will have to sell Bale and James Rodriguez for at least 90 million euros to make it work.
Eriksen has been mooted as a Modric replacement, but the club hasn’t gone for him for a few good reasons. Firstly, like they did with Hazard, Madrid would have to overpay for a player with an year left on his deal. Daniel Levy is a shrewd negotiator. Eriksen has also been run into the ground under Mauricio Pochettino at Tottenham. He may not have enough miles left in his legs for a prolonged, multi-year run. Isco already offers similar end product and defensive effort. At the time of writing Eriksen to Madrid seems unlikely.
The need for goals from midfield, and the fact that Ceballos is under contract, likely saw the club forego Tanguy N’dombele as well. There is no point signing a player for a role that doesn’t exist.
In house, the club has two potential solutions for the third midfield spot in Isco and James Rodriguez.
Much like Toni Kroos, Isco’s press resistance and ball skills are uniquely valuable in the game. Few ’10s’ are so difficult to erase from the game. That level of ball mastery raises a team’s ceiling. He’s a hard worker on the pitch too, willingly tracking back on defense.
The worry is that the Spaniard may not offer enough output. I would argue that he demonstrated his ability to take more shots last season under Lopetegui, and that a failure to do so in a midfield role would be on the coaching staff. Isco can shine in a more structured team.
If Pogba or another goalscorer doesn’t arrive, James should also stick around. Even accounting for his injury history, which saw him miss extended time last season, his goal contributions per-minute eclipse practically the entire squad.
In a squad as deep as Madrid’s the trade-off should be worth it. The team is bereft of final third production. Unlike Bale, Rodriguez doesn’t take too long to return to match sharpness after an injury because his game doesn’t rely on physicality. While he’s hardly an ironman, last season’s repeated injuries were also an outlier in the context of his career.
The Colombian is, in some ways, the opposite of both Isco and Eden Hazard. He’s not the best dribbler, but progresses the ball with few touches. His ball striking ability is among the best in the world. James Rodriguez is quintessentially a left footed Kevin De Bruyne.
Reports about James’ future have been conflicting. Injuries have driven down his price, and the club is looking to sell him to fund one or more of Pogba, Van De Beek or even Neymar. In the event that one of Neymar or Pogba don’t arrive, selling him would likely be a mistake.
Van De Beek is a bit of a wild card. He lacks experience, but excels at making late runs into the box. He profiles a bit like Aaron Ramsey or Dele Alli. Zidane wants him for the same reason he doesn’t want Rodriguez: combativeness and physicality. James is ultimately not the quickest player, and is less reliable defensively than Isco, whereas Van De Beek would be a natural fit in a team needing bite and verticality.
There is a scenario where Zidane sells James and integrates Van De Beek as a goalscoring midfielder. Based on Zidane’s coaching career so far, I don’t see it.
The Abundance of Youth
At this stage it’s clear that Madrid’s transfer policy, especially given the abundance of talent available at the club, is based on sound principles. Most of the recent quirks in the club’s dealings are down to Zinedine Zidane’s preferences and past selections as coach. Players on the wrong side of the age curve have replacements waiting . Players who don’t have a shot at heavy minutes and are capable contributors approaching their prime are let go for the right price. Most importantly, the club is signing a slew of young, talented prospects.
The goal behind the glut of ‘youth galacticos’ is to ensure the club can compete with state-backed teams like Manchester City and PSG in the transfer market. The cost of players has been severely inflated, to the point where clubs have to sign teenagers to get a significant return on investment.
Vinicius Jr, Rodrygo Goes, Brahim Diaz, Martin Ødegaard and Kubo present an extremely talented group of attackers.
Ødegaard was (along with De Jong) the best midfielder in the Eredivisie. His style of dribbling and passing, as a left-footer, reminds me of Ozil and Messi. His production could be like Andres Iniesta.
Vinicius is incredible. It’s not everyday you see any player regularly bulldoze his way through defenses in that manner, let alone an 18 year old. His line breaking ability on the ball is among the best already, giving him plenty of time to work on finishing and passing/vision.
As for Kubo, this is a fitting description:
When signing so young, each player only presents a chance at becoming a superstar as opposed to being a sure thing. Considering the club already has Luka Jovic, and is slated to sign Kylian Mbappe over the next few seasons, it’s unlikely that all 5 of those young talents have a future at the club. Health will be a factor too.
Assimilating and developing this much young talent while winning is challenging but certainly not impossible. It’s a job cut out for a top coach, like Mauricio Pochettino.
On Rehiring Zinedine Zidane, and Perez’s Last Flaw
During his two stints as Real Madrid president, Florentino Perez has grown as an operator in the transfer market. He goes to extreme lengths to ensure Real Madrid end up with the best talent. He’s went from being criticized for selling Claude Makelele after winning a Champions League to being criticized for hoarding too much talent in the first team.
One area he’s surprisingly struggled in is his dealings with managers.
During his first sting Perez fired Vicente Del Bosque in 2003 after he won a league title. He subsequently ran through 5 managers in under 3 seasons before resigning in February 2006.
During his second stint, Perez impulsively fired Ancelotti for struggling with an undermanned squad in 2014/15, and replaced him with Benitez. The appointment was a disaster waiting to happen, as Benitez never got along with the dressing room.
The hiring of Santiago Solari, at the time considered a poor coach even at Castilla, was pretty bad as well. Solari ended up being the worst Madrid coach in recent history by a decent margin. He stuck to a rigid 4-3-3 throughout his time at the club, and froze out both Isco and Dani Ceballos. Lucas Vazquez was infuriatingly favored on the right over Marco Asensio. Vinicius broke out and played well, so Solari aptly played him week-in, week-out till he finally got hurt against Ajax. Luka Modric – at age 33 and right after making a World Cup final, mind you – played more minutes last year than he had in any individual season dating back to 13/14.
Perez’s control of transfers has overruled every manager but Jose Mourinho. Even Zidane has had power struggles in this regard. But the president used to go a step further and influenced team selection. Del Bosque and Benitez were likely victims of pressure to play an excessive number of superstars. Benitez put out an uncharacteristically attacking lineup in the 4-0 defeat to Barcelona, for example.
Perez’s latest mistake was not hiring Mauricio Pochettino for 2019/20. The Argentine was ready to join in 2018 but Zidane resigned right after he signed a new deal. Then, Perez got hasty and rehired Zidane instead of waiting till the summer. Poch – fresh off a Champions League final – could have been prised away from Tottenham.
It certainly feels like Perez was a victim of nostalgia. He is particularly fond of both Jose Mourinho and Zidane for their largely successful tenures at the club.
In rehiring Zidane, Perez focused on the positives. Zidane’s ability to get buy-in from superstars is pretty impressive. He convinced Ronaldo to adopt a resting plan. He juggled a loaded squad in 2016/17 like few could, allowing the players to dictate style and rotating them heavily. At their apex, Zidane’s Madrid overloaded midfield and played the ball wide before crossing it into the box. Guardiola’s Manchester City, broadly speaking, do the same. The fatigue was a real mitigating factor by 2017/18. Zidane’s resignation spoke to his ability to gauge the squad’s level. No coach knows the club as well as him.
There was also an element of winning bias: looking at results over process. To be fair, my optimism lead me to do the same during the initial stages of Zidane’s reappointment.
I now lean towards saying Zidane’s success was down to the work of previous coaches and the absurd quality of players. Benitez’s defensive structure only came to fruition when Zidane convinced his players to track back, but it was still Benitez’s structure. The organization disappeared after a preseason under the Frenchman.
Relying on players to self-organize on the pitch only works with world class players in their absolute prime. I’ve been over how unique the first 18 months of Zidane’s tenure was before. He empowered superstars and they obliged with unpredictable quality in an unprecedented manner. But this team needs something different.
Zidane’s drills are said to be outdated in the modern game. When he first hired fitness coach Antonio Pintus and had the players run more, it looked like a suitable move for a squad that hadn’t trained hard enough under Benitez. In retrospect, it was emblematic of his approach. The optimal, modern approach to training adopted by coaches like Guardiola abandons running without the ball. Fitness work is now built into ball drills.
Zidane succeeding with this team feels unlikely. His insistence on controlling transfers has only invited more pressure from the Bernabeu faithful. I think a scenario in which he meets expectations by the end of the season is all but impossible. If dismissed within the season, Allegri or Mourinho may take up the job.
Guti, one of the most impressive youth team coaches in recent Castilla history, would be an impressive appointment. Long term, the club would be safest with either him or Pochettino.
Above all, one thing is clear. Nothing is simple at Real Madrid.
Special thanks to Cheuk Hei Ho for creating visuals for this piece. He publishes many more visuals on twitter @tacticsplatform.
All expected goals figures are courtesy Understat.