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.
Real Madrid returned from quarantine last Sunday to grind out a less-than-comfortable win against Eibar, where they went through the motions — outplayed in the second half in the gruelling landlocked heat of Madrid. They then blew Valencia out of the water in their second game, and they will have to win again, and again, and again — likely until mid-July. Unless Barcelona collapse, there isn’t going to be a remaining game where Zinedine Zidane won’t circle it as a ‘final’.
It’s hard to know how much of Real Madrid’s second half at Valdebebas is applicable to the remainder of the season, or how much momentum from the Valencia game will carry over to the quest of winning the 34th title. The Spanish heat isn’t going to go away anytime soon, but match fitness will continue to improve. Every team is affected, and there is always the glaring case that Real Madrid had better resources (financially, and of the squad-depth ilk) to be least affected by the pandemic and heat. Next matchday, after two games under the belt, is pivotal: A trip to Anoeta after Barcelona dropped points at the Sanchez Pizjuan. You either capitalize or bust. The needle has to be moved at some point.
Maybe the second half against Eibar was overblown. It is an unwritten rule: You can’t judge anyone too harshly upon returning during a pandemic. Arguably the greatest left-back ever, Marcelo, needed a glucose spike to get up on his feet in the second half. Cooling breaks and five subs still have teams treading water from a physical standpoint. Eibar exerted everything they possibly could in the second frame and still conjured a measly .48 xG by the end of it. They made a run, and didn’t come close. Zidane will live with that.
During quarantine, I picked Real Madrid to win the league despite being second-place. I stand by that. Failure to do so is just that — a failure. The season didn’t start in July. The team had ample opportunity to pounce on a vulnerable Barcelona side, including a game against Real Betis after doing what they were supposed to do a game prior — win the clasico. You have to keep going, keep digging. This is a marathon. Stop digging and you’ll be doing the same thing you’ve done nine times in the past 11 seasons: watch the champion lift the trophy from your TV, thinking: ‘next season will be different.’
Healthy offense — something Real Madrid haven’t consistently had since Ronaldo left (and even then, a 17-point deficit in the league when Ronaldo was in the team pointed to some inherent tactical flaws) — helps. On Thursday, Real Madrid got a combined 12 shots, 10 key passes, and nine completed dribbles from Benzema, Hazard, and Kroos. The passing, from top to bottom, was good. Like a snowball, with each passing minute in the second half, Real Madrid found it easier to zip the ball to open outlets in dangerous positions. The defense clicked. Everyone looked significantly sharper in that second game back.
The last point about the defense is key. In the two games back, Real Madrid’s defensive line has more than held up. Eibar’s mini-surge in the second half was still the most the team has been tested over the course of two games. Valencia were virtually a zero in attack. Rodrigo’s shot which hit the post on the break was the closest Albert Celades’s men came to scoring. They did not have a single shot in the second half. Their total xG was .16. Real Madrid have conceded the least amount of goals in La Liga this season, and their xGA remains top of the league along with Atletico’s.
The foes on Sunday, Real Sociedad, are running through an unfortunate slump. It could be argued that no team in the league has had their momentum stalled from the COVID-19 pandemic more than them. They had gone into March undefeated in 10 of their last 13 games. Since returning, they’ve earned just one point over two games — looking sluggish and leg-heavy upon return. Against Osasuna, they were vulnerable defending the flanks. Against Alaves, they were overrun defensively, and only registered one shot on goal over the course of 90 minutes: A header from Robin le Normand from an in-swinging corner.
Throughout the two games, Martin Odegaard has looked uncharacteristically poor. He’s been making the wrong decisions in transition and has let defenders sneak up in his blind spot to pick his pocket.
(If you had to pick one player to hit the ground running upon returning from quarantine it would be Odegaard. He has young legs, and his fitness levels have been lauded by the Real Sociedad training staff all season. He’s due to hit his stride again.)
Maybe that gives us some premonitions. Real Madrid is flying; Real Sociedad is sliding. Gerard Pique turned to his Diego-Lorijn-super-jinx powers after a draw at the Sanchez Pijuan on Friday, putting pressure on Real Madrid. “I think it will be very difficult to win this league, as it does not depend on us,” Pique said. “I don’t see Madrid losing many points. It will be difficult.”
We’ve been watching this sport long enough to know how this works. Nothing is guaranteed — even when Barcelona seemingly want to hand it you. Real Madrid don’t always jump with two feet when the opportunity arises. Barcelona dropping points often foreshadows an imitation game from Zidane’s men. One week is different from the next. La Real can bounce back — they have the ammo to do so, and have already proven it against Real Madrid this season once (and arguably twice).
In a league game in November, Real Sociedad lost 3 – 1 at the Bernabeu, but went toe-to-toe with Real Madrid until Fede Valverde scored a fortuitous game-winner in the second half. Real Sociedad dealt with Zidane’s press and escaped it — getting Martin Odegaard the ball in open water behind the midfield. Peak Sociedad is one of the best press-evading teams in the league. Only two teams in Spain — Barcelona, Celta Vigo — make more passes out of a pressure situation this season. Martin Odegaard is an orchestrator of said evasion, dropping deep into the team’s build-up phase to act as the escape route.
Real Madrid were vulnerable in transition in the first half of that game, and relied on crosses from the right (Modric, Rodrygo, and Carvajal combined for 14 crosses in the first half alone) which Real Sociedad picked off.
Nearly three months later, Real Sociedad went to the Bernabeu and cooked Real Madrid for four goals while knocking them out of the Copa del Rey. Alexander Isak had the game of his life, and Mikel Oyarzabal licked his chops going up against Nacho on Real Madrid’s right flank. (The all too important caveat here is that Zidane fielded James and Nacho on the right wing — a nightmare for coverage — and Eder Militao was spread thin.)
That win from Real Sociedad in February came at an interesting (and familiar) juncture: Real Madrid were in good form for several months running, setting records defensively along the way. That’s the lesson: Things turn quickly. The second half against Valencia can quickly turn into a distant memory.
Real Sociedad have not hit their stride yet since returning from football, but if they do, they are lethal in their build-up. If your press isn’t dialled in, or only half-hearted, Aguacil’s team will rip your heart out and behead your press with a few vertical passes and patient movements. Real Madrid left it to February to have their worst defensive game in months before getting bounced from Copa. They can’t let it happen again on Sunday with the league on the line.
Odegaard is such a key figure in Real Sociedad’s build-up, that it’s hard to see the team meet that same level of sharp-shooting when his form falls off. The Norwegian has been well below his season averages in key passes, passes into the final third, shots, and other offensive metrics in the last two games. Against Alaves, he attempted a measly 20 passes. He has not had a single key pass over the course of two games. He has completed just one dribble. If La Real are to have a chance at claiming a Champions League spot (or even staying alive in the European zone), Odegaard has to morph back into a supernova.
Real Madrid’s way of going into survival mode that night in February was to rely on Militao mopping up the space behind Nacho (and even Marcelo on the far side) that James wasn’t in position to cover — buying time for Nacho to recover, or sliding in behind Ramos to track a run. On the offensive end, the burden was on Vinicius to break lines. (Vinicius was ridiculous that game, and polished his performance with 11 completed dribbles, five key passes, and an assist.)
Real Sociedad have not been good helping Zaldua, Muñoz, and Monreal on the flanks in the last two games, but they will get wide when they have the ball through Oyarzabal, Januzaj, and Odegaard. Militao (or likely Varane on Sunday) will have to be ready to provide coverage. Real Madrid play a higher line than Osasuna and Alaves which could suit La Real:
It’s worth noting that things stacked up against Real Madrid quickly that night. Marcelo was a defensive nightmare, and made several mistakes. Ditto Ramos who kept his lapses going after gifting La Real a goal in the second minute. Carvajal and Mendy may mend (sorry) some of the defensive issues on the flanks. Zidane also fielded James and Brahim together in attack. The state of both teams should be wildly different on Sunday.
One key matchup will come down to Hazard vs whoever (Zaldua is suspended) on Real Madrid’s left-hand side. Hazard is finding his bounce, and as good as Zaldua has been this season, Aguacil’s collective shape covering for him has been a sieve. Vinicius torched Gorosabel in February. Mendy and Hazard were key going at Zaldua back in November. Will Zidane mirror Hazard with Asensio on the right to go at a fragile Monreal / Muñoz? Even a non-traditional winger like Fede could blitz one of those left-backs while providing good coverage.
Real Sociedad don’t play with traditional wingers. Not many teams do these days. But their transition defense on the flanks has suffered as a result in the last two games. Wilian Jose has found himself on the left in certain sequences, and his legs look like they weigh two tonnes each while running back. Oyarzabal is often the outlet. Odegaard tucks inside. The width that Zidane goes with will be interesting. Without Isco, the case for Asensio on the right looks more and more intriguing after the Valencia performance.
Sunday is going to be fun — possibly nervy. The win over Valencia has provided some good energy and momentum heading into a pivotal game where a win puts Real Madrid back into first place, with destiny returning to its gauntlet.