For the first time since Zinedine Zidane took over, Real Madrid have lost two matches in a row. More than the defeats, the way in which they have happened is what should concern the French coach. This team succeeded because of their dominating midfield, but is now losing and looking completely overwhelmed because of that same midfield.
During the final third of last season, Casemiro, Modric, Kroos and Isco drove most opposing teams crazy. Zidane’s answer to Gareth Bale’s umpteenth injury was to include Isco in the line-up, and his work rate, coupled with his ability to support the trio with an extra pass everywhere on the pitch, changed completely the way Real Madrid played. Ball possession with real scoring intent saw the team win La Liga and the Champions League titles with outstanding performances.
What we saw on Wednesday night in Wembley was the worst performance of that four-man midfield since they have played together. Despite having had more possession, more shots on goal and some wasted chances, Real Madrid rarely dominated proceedings against the Spurs.
Casemiro only looked like his old – perhaps younger – self for a few minutes, but quickly morphed into the ineffective, soft midfielder we saw last weekend in Girona. Modric rarely influenced the match, something that is becoming recurrent. Kroos probably played his least effective match in a white shirt, and Isco, without the support of the trio and accumulating more minutes than even since he joined Real Madrid, looked more frustrated than focused.
Things only got worse in the second half, when Zidane decided to pull Casemiro back to the centre of the defence, flanked by Sergio Ramos and Nacho. He’s used that alternative before, and it´s never worked out. The team loses Case’s bite in the middle of the pitch, and the three centrebacks do not protect the flanks any better than a more traditional back four.
The cherry on the cake of Real Madrid’s poor performance was precisely its flanks. At their apex last season, Marcelo and Carvajal were two additional midfielders when required, two wingers in other situations, and in general a threat for any opposing defences. At Wembley, Marcelo’s display was again disappointing, inaccurate in his passing, ill-advised in his decision-making and subpar in his defending. The young Achraf is simply a copy of Carvajal before the latter went to Germany: energetic but still naïve in his passing, and shy when moving forward. After plenty of poor crosses, his best pass came from his left foot in the dying minutes of the match, which speak volumes of his difficulties in finding the unmarked team mate. Achraf crosses more than passes the ball, and that is the difference between a decent fullback and a Real Madrid one. However, this kid has enormous potential and it’s unfair to put him in this situation, with such an amount of pressure on his shoulders.
Benzema and Ronaldo were also far from their best, disconnected from the rest of the line-up, but the key to this team in on midfield. Lack of decent service will starve any forward, and that’s where Zidane needs to start. And the endless sequence of high crosses, the sign of desperation of this team, can’t seem to stop in the last three matches.
Borussia’s draw at home makes things easier for Real Madrid, but the squad needs to react now. Otherwise, La Liga will be almost lost in December, and the last sixteen round of the Champions League will feel like an almost impossible challenge
This scribe was tempted to watch the match at the closest watering hole, but the outside sign announcing the match (“Toltenham”, for God’s sake) and the obnoxious nature of the owner, an obsessive Atletico de Madrid supporter probably bitter after Tuesday’s draw, made it sensible to stay at home.
Man of the match
Harry Kane. Even though he did not score, he looked the part and showed that he can make the difference even if he does not make the scoresheet. Outstanding.
Wine of the match
New section! Quick tips on Spanish wine, usually different from the classic Riojas or Riberas, whenever I stay at home to watch any game.
For this coldish evening, I went with a less-known product, Bernabeleva Arroyo del Tortolas 2014. It’s a Grenache from Madrid, and even though the result of the match tasted like sour grapes, the wine helped to make it more palatable.
You may have not heard anything about wines from Madrid, but they do have quite a long tradition. Old Grenache vines with modern production methods have improved the product quite a lot in the last decade. This one is delicious, and deserves a strong recommendation. However, given the result, it won’t be making this section anytime soon.