VUSA: Since the restart, it doesn’t seem to matter at all what XI Zidane picks, it always works out. Beyond just ascribing it to ‘black magic’, how would you explain his ability to find new winning combinations week after week?
Om: As with anything, there are multiple factors. The most obvious one is that Zidane, remarkably, has managed to make consistent defense the core of Real Madrid’s performances. The pressing structures have finally been stabilized and, for the first time in the club’s recent history, every player has bought into the idea that clean sheets — not loads of goals — will win them the league. It also helps that Zidane has certain stalwarts who play when fit and available regardless of the rotation, such as Sergio Ramos and Casemiro. Those two are critical factors in maintaining defensive consistency no matter who plays next to them and they are having career best seasons to boot.
The lockdown also matters. While certain players at less financially powerful clubs may not have had the individual facilities and club resources to keep themselves in tip-top shape, every single Real Madrid squad member has a personal gym and was given incredibly detailed fitness and nutrition regimens. Sergio Ramos came out of it saying he feels fitter than before quarantine and players who looked past it — i.e. Luka Modrić — have experienced a mini-renaissance. Karim Benzema has probably benefitted the most, though, as his form took a sharp downturn starting in January thanks to Zidane’s unwillingness to rest him. He looks back to his normal self and ready to carry an offense that is only functional thanks to the Frenchman’s brilliance.
Add in the fact that Real Madrid’s squad is probably the deepest in La Liga — despite certain deficiencies in central midfield and up top — and you have a team that is almost perfectly built to grind out close, tough wins in this post-lockdown scenario.
VUSA: Which particular tactical construction (whether it be the five midfielder lineup he ran against Granada, the 442 narrow diamond, the 433, etc) do you think is actually the one that suits the overall roster the best?
Om: 4-3-3. It’s best suited for Casemiro, who gets to influence more lateral areas against the ball while having two central midfielders cover for his deficiencies on the ball — both of which would be harder in a double pivot. This would still be true in a diamond, but a 4-3-3 is better a fit for our offensive personnel. Simply put, we have too many wingers — Bale, Asensio, Lucas Vázquez, Rodrygo, Vinícius, Eden Hazard, and Brahim Díaz — to play in a formation that doesn’t utilize them.
I also think the pressing in the 4-3-3 is better than our pressing in any other formation due its natural transformation into a 4-1-4-1 on defense, which provides inherently great spacing to ensure thorough vertical and horizontal compactness.
Editor’s note: Seeing Madrid’s bench in the Granada game was remarkable, Hazard, Bale, Lucas, Asensio, Brahim, Vinicius, and Rodrygo all started the game on the bench which, to my view, really gave Zidane limited tactical options in the second half when he needed to make changes.
VUSA: Villarreal have been linked to a move for Oscar Rodriguez. Can you tell our readers a little bit about what he brings as a player and what sort of ceiling he has?
Om: Óscar is genuinely one of the best free-kick takers in the world but that singular quality has made him a tad overrated in certain Madridista circles. To be frank, he is not Real Madrid quality and I would say his maximum ceiling is being a good player at a side challenging for the Europa League spots. So, for Villarreal, he could end up being a useful squad player.
I say this because Óscar’s overall game is more or less standard. He is one of Leganés’ better players when it comes to creating shots and taking players on, but his ability as a passer is nothing to write home about. His passing accuracy is subpar even when accounting for Leganés’ style of play and he is not one to drive teams forward through mountains of progressive actions. He is also rather weak defensively, rating near the bottom of the squad in terms of successful pressures and tackles.
All of this paints the picture of a solid but not spectacular first division central midfielder who can occasionally flip a game on its head from set-piece situations.
VUSA: Last time our two clubs met, Gareth Bale had an extremely active day, scoring both of your goals and getting sent off in stoppage time. Lately, the press seems to care a lot about what he does while sitting on the bench (for some strange reason). Do you see him playing any on the field role in your last two league matches or in your Champions League run in August?
Om: You’d be a fool to try to predict what Zidane does, but I can’t see Bale getting any game time in this crucial stretch — his time as a relevant squad member appears to be over.
VUSA: Eden Hazard has had a disastrous first year in Madrid with health issues. Is there any concern about his long term future at the club with the performances of Vinicius and now Asensio in wide areas?
Om: I don’t think Vinícius’ nor Asensio’s form are threats if Hazard can get back to his normal self. He’s his own worst enemy at the moment, whether that’s his body breaking down or his lack of professionalism to start 2019/20. However, I do think this lost season makes it questionable whether signing him was worth it or not, given that we lost a full year of his prime and he’s going to be 30 next January. I was among a minority of people who were agnostic on his transfer, because I could see the immediate benefits but wondered whether they would be worth potential long-term costs, such as stunting Vinícius’ and Rodrygo’s growth. To add to the equation, Hazard is sublime at things (ball progression, line-breaking, and chance creation) that many of our other players (Vinícius, Isco, Asensio, Benzema, etc.) are good at, if less so. Our biggest need is shot production and goal scoring, which Hazard has no track record of providing in abundance. So, while I think he’ll always have a starting spot secured when fit, I do think the wisdom behind his transfer and overall legacy at Real Madrid is very much up in the air.
Editor’s note: On behalf of the ‘USA’ part of Villarreal USA I’d like to point out that Chelsea seems to have replaced Hazard pretty effectively with 21 year old Christian Pulisic.
From a La Liga tactical perspective, in some ways the Hazard deal is the opposite of what Real Madrid did when they brought Gareth Bale, a goalscorer, into a side that already had plenty of shot production in Cristiano Ronaldo, while sacrificing creator Mesut Ozil.
VUSA: Real Madrid seemed to handle the pandemic financially a lot better than Barca or Atleti, why do you think that was?
Om: Florentino Pérez is a business genius and restoring the club to financial stability has been his single greatest achievement. Our finances will always be in great shape as long as he remains president. I can’t speak to Atlético’s situation out of a lack of knowledge, but it’s no secret that Barcelona’s management is an absolute joke.
VUSA: What do you think will be the biggest deciding factor in the match on Thursday?
Real Madrid’s ruthlessness in front of goal and/or ability to manufacture that one high-quality chance.
Editor’s note: Villarreal has scored the third most goals in La Liga, and since January many of them have come off Paco or Gerard taking advantage of a singular moment in the match regardless of the run of play.
VUSA: Score prediction for Thursday?
Om: Real Madrid 2-1 Villarreal.
Thanks again to Om for doing some Q & A with us on behalf of Managing Madrid. The implications of this match are huge for both teams, and it should be a good one.