With yet another defeat to Barcelona in the Santiago Bernabeu – the fifth in six matches –, it’s the first time that Real Madrid have lost three consecutive home matches since 2004. Let’s finish the brutal statistics intro with the most hurting one for Real Madrid fans: after 87 years, Barcelona lead the head-to-head stats with 96 wins vs 95 for Real Madrid.
That said, let’s draw conclusions from these two clásicos and ponder what awaits Solari and his players for the rest of the season:
- Solari’s high press works, but it’s not enough offensively
The best scoring options for Real Madrid in these two clásicos came off steals in the final third of the pitch, something worthy of praise given Barcelona’s ability to play from the back with minimal errors. Solari has been able to motivate his players to defend high for much longer stretches than most of Real Madrid’s previous coaches. The team looked much better positioned in defence than in offence (more on that in a second), and that had a lot to do with the good performance in the Copa del Rey defeat and with a handful of chances on Saturday night. Even the least defensively-minded players, such as Bale or Benzema, showed commitment and effort. This in itself, if preserved, will win a few matches during the rest of the season, but it’s unlikely to be enough for a Champions League title challenge.
- With the ball, Real Madrid are limited and predictable
Solari changed Julen Lopetegui’s ball possession approach to build a more direct side. The main difference between one side and the other lies in the position of the two forwards on either sides of their 4-3-3s: Lopetegui wanted his forwards (Bale, Isco) to cut inside, and Solari uses them (Vazquez, Vinnie) on the very edge of the pitch. The advantage of Solari’s approach is that it frees up space for Kroos and Modric to join the offence. The drawback: the passing options for the midfielders have been cut down to through balls to the back of the opposition’s fullbacks, something that can be well defended when that is your prevalent offensive weapon.
Solari’s change in offensive strategy comes with a key change in personnel: Isco has been ousted, and with him, most of Real Madrid’s link-up play. Now it’s Benzema who has to run acres to connect midfield and forwards, leaving the opposition’s box empty of his potential threat. Yes, at times Lopetegui’s approach clogged the middle of the park with Isco, Benzema and Bale all playing out of position, and Modric coming forward. Solari has now gone to the other extreme, and especially in Saturday’s clásico we could see bizarrely how Casemiro got the ball in link-up positions, to of course lose it just as quickly.
The team, now predictable when they have to build from the back, is desperately asking for a middle ground between the two approaches, but even if Solari ended up using Isco for 15 minutes, that seems unlikely to happen again this season. Without that, this offence will not win a Champions League title.
- The lack of a reliable scorer will cost this team the season.
Not that we did not know this before these two clásicos, or rather since Ronaldo gone, but the matches vs Barcelona only made it more obvious. Even with all their positional and personnel issues in offence, the team did create enough to score at least a couple of goals in each contest, but ended up empty-handed after 180 minutes. It feels tiring to say this, but Benzema is not a scorer, and even less when he spends more time roaming in midfield than linking up near the box. Vinicius is no Gerd Müller either, and even though he has plenty of time and footballing sense to improve, scorers are usually naturals, so it’s hard to imagine him becoming a reliable goal scorer for Real Madrid.
The decision not to bring a top level striker will come back to haunt Real Madrid, and this was written in stone since Ronaldo left, especially because in no small part the club led him out without having prepared a replacement. This is the biggest planning failure in recent times for Real Madrid.
- Lucas Vazquez is Real Madrid’s most valuable player… to Solari at least.
What other conclusion can one draw if Vazquez is the only starter rested on Saturday? Of course, Lucas is key for Solari’s high press, but it seems a bit misguided to grant him that status, when other players such as Kroos and Casemiro already looked exhausted during Wednesday’s Copa del Rey match, and performed well below their standards on Saturday. Solari’s lack of rotations in these two matches was ill-advised, and the most damning consequence could be a Champions League exit at the hand of Ajax, as he’ll have to field an extremely tired side after two very demanding matches and a very scarce use of his bench.
- The revamp looks clear… even if Solari is not the man for 2020
The names are all there: Marcelo, who can now go in peace as Reguilon has proven. Isco, victim of a silly fight with Solari which has hurt the team more than it would seem at first sight. Bale, who’s lost the trust of the stadium with his indolence and his lack of respect for his team mates. Even two starters like Kroos and Casemiro look under fire because of their poor form at such a key moment of the season. And of course, plenty of bench players such as Mariano or Diaz who arrived at the worst possible moment.
The shame is that, in pure Real Madrid fashion, all these exits will take place in a hurried, unplanned manner, which is far less than this cohort of players deserves. They’ve been the core of an extremely successful side, and a final lacklustre season, as this one appears to be, should not make fans and club forget how important this squad has been for Real Madrid’s history. Let’s hope the club does this as well as possible.