Cristiano Ronaldo 2016: A new reality for Zidane

Cristiano Ronaldo 2016: A new reality for Zidane

Since Cristiano Ronaldo’s explosion onto the scene with Manchester United and his birth as an offensive pillar, the Portuguese is mainly identified for his ability to score a huge amount of goals.

The variety at his disposal when it comes to finishing, the quality of his movement and his determination to score have created the firm conclusion that he’s a born goal scorer who will, sooner or later, leave behind the left wing to become a central forward.

Every year the debate comes back, and if he has demonstrated during the last few seasons that he’s still able of making differences on big distances, then the last year of competition played under Zinedine Zidane’ orders let us think that he is now only capable of doing so regularly.

More than a matter of position, it’s a matter of distance that exists about Cristiano Ronaldo in 2016.

We have seen this season – notably against Borussia Dortmund in the Bernabeu and against Barcelona at the Camp Nou – in games where Zidane opted for a deep defensive line and counter attacks, that the Ballon d’Or 2016 winner isn’t a threat over big distances and that this kind of approach has lost weight. Cristiano himself knows it well and he has taken a series of decisions to maximize his performances.

Arriving as a winger with an important level of participation in the play, Cristiano has gradually diminished his involvement in the circulation of the ball, to the point where he appears regularly isolated. His presence in the passing combinations has decreased and his ability to offer the last pass has followed the same path. He’s now less present in the play and less decisive in associative terms, which is the first strong sign that the Portuguese has been distanced from creative tasks.

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La Liga season 2016-2017 represents the first 18 games of the league. The line is a reference: 1 key passe created every 20 successful passes (20%)

In addition to this, Cristiano has also decreased his volume of dribbles. He came as a player who was very inclined to try and unbalance the opposition with the ball at his feet – but he’s now using dribbles as a punctual tool. His efficiency fits what he’s been showing since joining Madrid (between 40 & 55%), but his physical evolution and notably the loss of agility have culminated in him leaving such tasks to others.

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La Liga 2016-2017 represents the first 18 games of the league.

If he has clearly distanced himself from creative tasks, it is also because Ronaldo has instinctively got closer to the goal. There is strong evidence of this when we look at the distribution of his attempted shots per zone. There was a time where Ronaldo tried more shots from outside the box than from inside – to a point where it annoyed a lot of fans. But no more. Since the first season under Carlo Ancelotti, the European Championship winner has inverted the trend and expresses himself mainly inside the last 18 meters. We can also see a progress in terms of volume inside the last 6 meters, which is a sign that Cristiano is now more focused on one thing –  finishing.

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The season 2016-2017 represents the first 18 games of the league

Aside from this trend, we can see that Ronaldo maintains a volume of shots faithful to what he’s been showing since joining Real Madrid. A projection for the current season has him a little above 100 shots. In terms of efficiency though, Cristiano’s numbers let us to think that he’s on the way down. As the seasons 2013-2014 & 2015-2016 shows, he isn’t clinical by nature. He managed to go above the 25% conversion rate once (a goal per 4 shots without a penalty), and has demonstrated over the years that he needs sheer volume to express his goal scoring talents.

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La Liga 2016-2017 represents the first 18 games of the league. Shots and goals in the box and don’t include penalty.

This need for volume and his recent evolution are certainly the reasons Zidane decided to go with a different attacking mode than his predecessors.

In 2010, Mourinho built the offensive system of his Real Madrid around Cristiano’s ability to impose his law on big distances. When he arrived in 2013, Ancelotti took a similar path and gave even more importance to the Portuguese movements in the game model of Madrid. In 2016, Zidane adapted too and has decided to attack in a way that allows Ronaldo to express himself in something he’s still a reference: with crosses.

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The season 2016-2017 represents the first 18 games of the league. Line is a point of reference: 1 successful crosses every 4 crosses (25%).

Real Madrid cross the ball frequently. Since his arrival in Madrid, the team attempts more than 20 crosses per game. But we can see that there is a bigger focus on that point since the 2013-2014 season in which Real Madrid also improved their efficiency in that exercise. More than the evolution of the volume though, it’s the evolution of the importance of crossing in Real Madrid’s style that is so remarkable.

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The season 2016-2017 represents the first 18 games of the league.

For the first three seasons with Real Madrid, the Spanish club used crossing as much as through balls. But then things have taken a different direction. Since the first season of Ancelotti, the base of Real Madrid’s attacking style is clearly crossing. And with Benitez and Zidane later, Real Madrid reached a point where the team produced almost six times more assists with crosses than with through balls. More significantly, last season, the team created more assists from corner kicks. And this season, the current European Champions are proving more productive with corners AND free-kicks than with through balls. Clearly, the space game is at his lowest point at Real Madrid.

This huge fall in the utilization of through balls to the benefit of crosses is obviously linked to Cristiano Ronaldo’s evolution who, as mentioned earlier, has seen his ability to be a threat and score from distance being greatly reduced in the last few seasons. The Portuguese is much less capable in that context and the coaches adapted in turn. In addition, we also have to remember that during that period the club sold Gonzalo Higuain, Mesut Ozil and recruited Gareth Bale. Which constituted a big change in the offensive style of the team.

In order for that idea to become a viable and working plan, Zidane also took the decision to push Bale, Benzema and Morata closer to the box. The goal? Create an overload of attacking force with the conviction that, sooner or later, one of the crosses will be converted into a goal. This change is particularly obvious with Benzema.

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The season 2016-2017 represents the first 18 games of the league. This involve every offensive players of the five big leagues who have participated to at least 50% of the games.

If for Bale and Ronaldo, the volume progress is small (5% for the Welsh and 13% for the Portuguese), Benzema has almost doubled the amount of chances he takes inside the box between the seasons 2014-2015 & 2015-2016. Which clearly shows that Zidane wants to populate the box to improve Real Madrid’s number of chances. The numbers for the current season aren’t as high, but they still mark a difference with the seasons played before Zidane took the team.

This big presence in the box explains pretty well the plan: Put big numbers of great strikers in the box and cross. And the conversion rate let us think that it’s also a great idea. Bale went from 18,5% to 34% (!), Benzema is stable around 27% and Ronaldo went from 27% to 17%. Even considering the important fall of Ronaldo’s efficiency and the abnormal jump of Bale’s, the numbers present a fantastic offensive trio only challenged by MSN during last season. For the current season though, it is less convincing. Bale, Benzema & Ronaldo present of volume of shots clearly take them far from the rest but their conversion rate doesn’t fit elite players. At least not after 18 games in LaLiga.

In front of the unavoidable transformation of CR7, who has let room for CR9, Zidane opted for a offensive plan that aims to maximize this new version of the Portuguese. And for that plan to become viable, he has pushed Benzema & Bale in the box, where they’re showing tremendous quality. In addition, he’s counting on great crossers in the three axis of the pitch and he can rely on the nature of his midfielders, inclined to stay behind the ball, to form a recovery net for the crosses which are cleared. Overall, this has led to every piece of the squad having a role in the team and a team capable of playing the same way when big players are missing, including Ronaldo.

The decisive part of the season will challenge the solidity of this plan again. But after a year of coaching Real Madrid, it is clear that Zizou has adapted very well to his squad as well as his biggest players. And this is principal mission.

 

Real Madrid 2016-2017: Review of a discreet transfer window

Real Madrid 2016-2017: Review of a discreet transfer window

By winning the Champions League only six months after having taken charge of Real Madrid, Zidane showed that he was capable, at least in the short term, to unify a group around goals while setting up a solid collective foundation. To do that, he had to seduce and convince a squad whose depth and quality is unquestionable. So much so that the French coach actually had all the tools he needed to build a tough and fighting team that was comfortable when defending without needing any extra player.

Indeed, Real Madrid didn’t need to enter the winter transfer market to find elements like Nacho, Casemiro or Lucas Vasquez, who proved to be very valuable. Those players were already available since the summer of 2015. And the wealth of the squad doesn’t stop there. On the night of the UCL final against Atletico Madrid, Zidane used his best starting XI but still had Danilo, Isco, James Rodriguez and Rodriguez and Jésé Rodríguez at his disposal.

In this context, it’s very easy to understand Real Madrid discretion during the transfer market of this summer. By improving the squad primarily put together by Florentino Pérez in 2009 and then balanced by José Mourinho during the following three seasons, the Spanish club has reached a point where there is no doubt about its ability to face any challenge. Real has a squad with at least 17 players who have the quality and the experience to start any football game. So the point is to now improve the squad, with small changes, while keeping it young. To put it simply, it’s not about building the team any more, it’s about getting closer to perfection.

With that in mind, the club at the end of 2015-2016 needed to change the way in which two positions were covered: the left-back and the number 9 positions.

When looking back, it’s clear that Real Madrid took a certain risk by not signing a natural left-back to cover any potential absence of Marcelo. At that time, the squad counted on Alvaro Arbeloa, who has played numerous games at this position, as well as Nacho, a centre-back who came up through the youth ranks and showed a certain versatility since joining the first team. However, neither of them was equipped to perform as a modern left-back, offering width as well as contributing offensively. With Arbeloa’s departure, it was then crucial for Real to not play with fire for a second season.

On paper, the task wasn’t simple though. Marcelo is clearly an unquestionable starter because of his enormous quality, so it’s about recruiting a left-back who is perfectly aware that he will be a replacement, but who is also a valid option to call upon several games, big ones among them. Looking at the market, few players fit those criteria, and the fact that Real decided to trust a recruit from Mourinho’s time is telling. Coentrao, despite playing three seasons with Real, never really settled down or convinced enough. Blocked by Marcelo and not really appreciated by the local press, he still managed to perform in a fair amount of big games for Real, such as the 2014 UCL final against Atletico. So the idea of giving him another shot made sense. The Portuguese left-back knows most of the squad, the club, and la Liga well. The only concerns are about his injury and his state of mind as he goes into a new season as Marcelo’s substitute. If Zidane proves capable of keeping him focused and motivated though, Real will get a backup left-back that would draw blushes out of more than one starting player in the Champions League this season.

In addition to the left-back position, Real Madrid also needed to address the question about Karim Benzema’s back-up. Last season, the club decided to design the squad in a manner that allowed Jésé to be the first option to replace not only Cristiano and Bale, but also Benzema. The facts though showed that the new PSG forward wasn’t capable of assuming such responsibilities. The manner in which he interpreted the N°9 position meant that Real never really had the point of reference that the team needed. In the end, both Benitez and Zidane used different options, notably Ronaldo and Bale, with differing levels of success.

After a season in which Benzema took part in 27 of 38 League games, Real had to find a more rational replacement. Here too, the recruitment wasn’t easy. On the pitch, it needs to be a Number 9 with specific behaviour and clear qualities. Comfortable with his back to goal, capable of working as a target man, inclined to move from inside to outside to open up the central space for Bale and Ronaldo, offering a threat when attacking space and of course, being capable of producing goals. All of that while assuming the role of a backup, with the status that this implies.

Just as in the Coentrao case though, Real Madrid had a great card to play to fill this need: Morata. The player fits very well in terms of profile although there are some legitimate doubts about his ability to contribute enough goals. Then there is the question about the size of the role. After two seasons playing for Juventus during which he exploded and displayed an excellent level in the Champions League, the Spanish forward certainly felt like he was capable of being a starter – and so did plenty of clubs around Europe. There was certainly a dilemma for Morata, torn between the dream of playing for Real Madrid and the desire to play in a place where he would be considered a big player. On that front, Zidane couldn’t really make promises, but the club did sanction a decision that should be perceived as a sign of trust: the sale of Jésé Rodriguez. By turning the page with the former canterano, Real Madrid then allowed Morata to see himself as a backup for Benzema but also a clear option to replace Ronaldo, who at 31, has promised to be more careful with his physical condition. Whether this will be enough for Morata remains to be seen. But it looks like an encouraging move from Real at a point where the player is probably still not sure about his decision.

The absence of Ronaldo coupled with the injury of Benzema (troubled by a hip problem) is certainly why the club also felt that it might be a good idea to keep Mariano Diaz around to complete the Number 9 options. The ex-Castilla striker seems determined to try his luck, at least until the opening of the next transfer market, and his profile is definitely an interesting one. It allows Zidane to count on a real goal-chaser, enormously linked to attacking space and capable of finishing moves with a lot of variety. Mariano, at several levels, reminds one of Chicharito Hernandez, who was a decent joker under Ancelotti two seasons ago.

Against all odds, Real also decided to keep the very young Marcos Asensio this season. The young attacker convinced Zidane, and his unique profile is a good addition to the squad. It’s difficult to make a prediction about what role Asensio will play this season though. He’s clearly an attacking player who participates a lot and is brilliant from an associative point of view but isn’t really good at scoring goals, despite what we’ve seen in the first games of the season. So even if he gives Zidane the option of calling upon another left-footed attacker to complete the forward line, he still remains a player whose ability to impact a result should see him consigned to a secondary role.

Beyond the way Real treated those two priorities though, we can question the decision not to sign a player similar to Casemiro to play in front of the defence. During the preseason, Zidane had the young Marcos Llorente, who came up through Real Madrid Castilla, at his disposal. But the kid finally decided to leave on loan to newly promoted Alaves. Zizou also talked on several occasions about the fact that Real needed to sell before making any additions, so it might be a case of lacking an option because the club isn’t keen on or capable of making certain changes. However the Frenchman also talked about the fact that he has players like Toni Kroos or Mateo Kovacic to perform in front of the defense, and the fact that he doesn’t seem too annoyed by their different profile is interesting. It implies, between other things, that the Real coach doesn’t really want two destructive players to perform that role and his happy with wider options.

In the end, Real approached the transfer window really well, not just from a financial point of view but also because of the quality they’ve brought in. The two positions that needed clear reinforcement have been addressed with excellent options and the club also decided to offer Zidane a couple of additional options to complete the attacking line. In fact, the means of the club and the quality of the planning since Mourinho’s tenure are so good that the European champions didn’t really have to enter the market. Mariano was promoted from Castilla, Asensio and Coentrao came back from their loan spells and Morata was only a clause away from the Real Madrid squad.

The real question actually concerns the way the club decided to balance their group and make room for big players before the end of the transfer window. With the obvious influence of the UEFA sanction that forbids the club from making any new acquisitions during the next two windows (Winter 2016-2017 and Summer 2017), Real opted for a very packed squad, with the potential risks that this implies. Because in the context of Zidane having the entire squad at his disposal, big players could not only be benched but left out of the match sheet altogether. Just imagine it: Zidane starts a similar line-up as the 2015-2016 UCL final and the Real bench comprises Casilla, Danilo, Pepe, Kovacic, Isco, James Rodriguez and Morata. This implies that, if everybody is available, Ruben Yanez, Coentrao, Nacho, Lucas Vázquez, Asensio and Mariano wouldn’t even be able to participate in the game in any capacity. Of course, such scenarios are rare and the Real Madrid calendar will certainly encourage Zidane to rotate, but it remains a possibility. And in this example, the players with the lowest market value were left out, and that isn’t necessarily the case.

This leads us to wonder: Is it feasible and manageable for a coach to handle such a big squad? To keep everybody involved and motivated? Or did Real Madrid, worried by their transfer ban, push the concept of a super-squad too far this time ? We’ll know soon enough. One thing is for certain though: if Zidane fails, it won’t be because he doesn’t have the players to succeed.

Real Madrid squad 2016-2017:

Full squad

A CPU as deeplying Midfielder

A CPU as deeplying Midfielder

Briefly after winning their 10th European Cup, Real Madrid declared its intention to take a new direction. Carlo Ancelotti and his squad were still celebrating their huge success, proving themselves the best side against every opponent in the process. Yet behind the curtains, Real Madrid’s board was working on producing a big change. And so, without any sign of doubt, the Spanish club said farewell to the most unbalanced midfield trio of his recent history and decided to sign two playmakers. The first one, who was key to this new direction, was Toni Kroos.

The German midfielder arrived from Bayern Munich after playing a season under Pep Guardiola who had profoundly affected him. Indeed, the atypical number ten who regularly drops deep and makes himself available throughout the entire width of the pitch to create numerical advantage is gone. Kroos is now a player of constant participation who doesn’t get away from the build up phase. In many ways, he becomes Bayern Munich’s Xavi Hernandez.

In that sense, Real Madrid’s goal seems clear. Replace the extremely destabilising and unpredictable Angel Di Maria with the very reliable and cerebral Kroos. Putting it simply: chase chaos and make room for order. Everything seems to move in the right direction, but just a week before the end of the transfer market, Xabi Alonso, the central midfielder and extension of Ancelotti on the pitch, leaves the club. Circumstances aren’t clear, but in short Ancelotti and Kroos find themselves in a complicated situation. There is no time anymore for Kroos to make transition progressively to the deep-lying midfielder role, like we could anticipate it. The number 8 must learn it the hard way….and right away.

Kroos, having zero experience in this position, therefore views this forced mutation like a challenge. The German midfielder has already displayed a superb ability to learn new things with Guardiola, but this new role (mediocentro in Spanish) is probably the most complex in the game. This due to his strategic position on the pitch and the number of different tasks he’s supposed to perform.

If we define the very basic part of this role, we can see that:

– In the build phase: He must make the link between the defence and the rest of the team after recovering the ball, choosing the right option based on the position of the 21 other pieces.

– In offensive phase: He must offer a passing line behind or in parallel to the ball, in a coherent manner with the ball circulation, with of course, taking into consideration a possible loss of the ball.

– In defensive transition: Perform the adequate task (press, cover a teammate, make a tactical foul, support a particular zone).

– In defensive phase: Cover the central area in front of the defence, depending on its occupation by the opposition and behave as an integral piece of the defensive system until the ball is recovered.

All of this, of course, in adaptation with the style and approach of the team. Clearly, it’s a key position. A football team, whatever its ambition, can’t handle a central midfielder making poor decisions without suffering big consequences. Has Kroos the qualities to play in this position?

After a season and a half, with a first period of assimilation of eight months, we can respond yes. The path was difficult, sometimes costly, but the German understand the role and even more importantly, identified himself with it. Let’s see:

From the first moment of the build up phase, Kroos shows that conceptually, he fits naturally in his new role. His mobility is total and his availability, excellent. He offers a passing line at practically any height and on the entire width of the pitch. If the team intends to out-pass a zonal marking or an aggressive pressing unit, Kroos makes himself available, facing his teammate with the ball. If it’s necessary, he takes the position of a centre-back. Even after a simple throw-in. The player has taken full responsibility of the construction of the play. Being there when the build up starts from very deep or when his team is already close to the center. Kroos is a constant passing line for his defenders. With the ball at his feet and facing the game, Kroos displays his best qualities. His reading of the game is sensational, to the point where it’s extremely hard to see him making a poor decision, and his passing technique is close to perfect.

His right foot is super precise and his left foot is nothing short of excellent. He can send a tense ball in the central zone to serve a teammate who is offering a passing line, send a through ball behind the back of the defence and make a diagonal pass with his right or left foot if it’s the only way to make the move progress. Most of the time, his teammate receives the ball in such good conditions that a simple first touch without changing the orientation of his body is enough. It’s very impressive. Even more for a player who’s passing is so complete.

If Kroos sees a good passing line between the opposite defence and midfield, he acts on it without fear. And if he sees a run behind the back of the defence that can end up with a goal, he has no trouble to acknowledge it with a pass. When he sends a ball to a player feet, the ball can sometimes arrives a bit slowly but never too fast. When passing into space however, it’s the opposite. In particular when the space is in front of him. The pass tends to be a tad tense and that’s the main reason of his rare failures in this exercise.

Beyond his passing talent though, Kroos remains a very limited player with the ball. He doesn’t have any particular sophistication or technique to use it. And so he drives the ball forward only if he clearly sees a good opportunity or plenty of space, relying on his ball protection technique, which is the shield of his footballer identity. Even when he drives the ball on an average distance, he tends to stop his run when there is a new obstacle. Toni is aware of his limits, technically and physically, as well as the dangerous aspect losing the ball and reacting in consequence. In possession, he’s a very responsible midfielder. An element of extreme reliability when building the play.

Even if he doesn’t have any limit in terms of passing, Kroos has a clear predisposition to make his team progress together. When passing from the back, he tries to involve his full backs to make the defensive line progress and then look to combine with his midfielders to win more space in front of the opponent. If he sees that his team positioning is good, he maintains a passing line behind the ball, moving through the entire width of the pitch to occupy the free spaces. As an old student of Guardiola, Kroos thinks about setting his team in order and prepare well before looking for the breach in the opposite team.

This well marked approached, mixed with his enormous ability to offer a passing line in build up phase makes him a very influential player. Indeed, by being so much involved in the first passes and then imposing his particular vision, Kroos naturally determines the football of his team. In absolute, it is a good thing. A player who systematically takes the right decision in the initial phase allows his team to control games. Problems appear when he’s not involved by his teammates and that his team loses the ball poorly. Then, his limitations show.

In defensive phase, we can verify two things that are clearly suggested before losing the ball. The first, is that Kroos is slow. In his body mechanic and in terms of running pace. His acceleration is decent, but beyond 5 meters, it is easy to see how much running on average and big distances, even in advantageous situations, ends up by seeing him finishing behind. To this slowness, we can add a rigidity of the body. When he needs to change direction, being naturally or aggressively, he has problems. When he needs to turn around himself fast, he suffers enormously. In all the situations where he’s forced to evolve with his back to the opposite goal with a certain amount of pressure, we can see him limiting his intervention to a sideway or back pass. Toni isn’t equipped to make himself facing the goal quickly or eliminating an opponent with a dribble and this handicaps quite seriously his possibilities of performing higher on the pitch. The second point is that the German isn’t intense by nature. Understand here that it’s very rare to see him pushing his level of mental and physical involvement to the maximum.

With that in mind, his behaviour in terms of press clearly seems like an anomaly. That a player with such physical and technical characteristics spends so much energy on this exercise isn’t rational. Indeed, Kroos plays his moments of highest intensity in two different contexts: When he’s in position of the last defender, forced to run to his goal and when he’s pressuring an opponent. In itself, the first case isn’t surprising. In extreme situations, players tend to surpass their nature and give everything. The second case though isn’t extreme at all, and here the explanation lies without a doubt in the season he spent working with Guardiola. The Spanish coach, in addition to transforming his game, has implemented strong concepts of press and the least we can say, is that the Real Madrid number eight has integrated them.

So Kroos displays the attitude of a very aggressive player when defending and pressing. He gives a particular attention to the phase of reading the game and goes out with determination to steal the ball. It it’s not possible, he tries to force a back pass. And if his opponent is in a good position to make the ball progress forward, Toni still tries to harass them. He presses with intensity and purpose. Despite his effort and implication, his success isn’t particularly good though, for the simple reason that it depends on the rest of his teammates. Defence is a collective concept and the press belongs to the defensive phases. In that sense, a lot depends on the context and the execution of the entire team. Kroos, having played under three different coaches since joining Real Madrid, has shown we can see him winning the ball back, and forcing a bad pass as much as failing to do so. In the worst cases, the German encourages the progression of the opposite team and destabilises the structure of his team. And that’s probably the point that explains why he doesn’t seem to convince everyone in his new role.

When the Real Madrid midfielder is beaten after a failed tentative press, his effort to get back into position is inconsistent. In many situations, he tries to recover at average speed, keeping an eye on the evolution of the move. He displays a behaviour completely opposite to the one he shows when pressuring and that can leave his team very exposed. Why such a contrast ? We can point to two main reasons.

First, we must look at it from a mental and physical point of view. The limits of Kroos in that aspect are a clear problem and he’s aware of it. As mentioned above, he’s regularly beaten while running against an opponent, even when starting from a better position. In that sense, the defensive interventions which require a sprint and one or several aggressive changes of direction constitute a group of effort that the player doesn’t seem always disposed to commit. Then there is a potential barrier on the mental side. Kroos knows that he’s naturally disadvantaged and decides to limit his involvement to a tentative of press and not much more. The second plan is more linked to the nature and formation of the player. Kroos is a creative player without intensity that was playing as Number 10 two seasons ago. So he doesn’t have any natural predisposition or academic formation to go beyond this like any other deep-lying midfielder would do in order to defend, because it’s his job.

In any case, the weak effort he offers after a failed press has an impact on his team, in addition to the strong image that it leaves. Most of the time, his partner in the double pivot and the centre backs manage it well, but it remains something with negative impacts. With such a small margin of progression physically, the player doesn’t have much choice. He must learn to suffer more or refrain from his aggressive approach in order to adapt further to the needs of his team. Without that, they’ll continue to suffer. Beyond that troubling and important point, the behaviour or Kroos in defensive transition is relatively good, though limited and with room for improvement. He’s capable of offering a good cover for a full back or centre back as long as he’s not forced to run very quickly to his goal and that the distance to cover isn’t too important. If it’s there is a risk of one on one situation in with a lot space, he tends to force one of the centre backs to swap with him. If he’s too far to press in that phase, his natural reaction is to step back with his defence and try to form a defensive structure. When an opponent enters his zone, the German doesn’t hesitate to try to steal the ball and displays a good technique. His timing is good when it comes to releasing his foot. He rarely goes to the ground but doesn’t look afraid to do so. In addition, we can mention serious progress in terms of focus. The player doesn’t disconnect unless he’s let completely out of the move (failed press).

In defensive phase, his positioning is good but has plenty of room for improvement. Kroos is in the right zone but rarely in the ideal place and collect the ball behind his back remains an option for his opponents. Clearly here, his lack of experience plays an important part. And of course, his natural tendency to get out of position to press when the defensive phase is too long is also a problem. He lacks patience in that phase. Generally, he moves well according to the move of the team and can provide help in the wings if needed. If the moves enters the box, he follows without invading. He doesn’t display impulsive gestures or seem particularly pressured emotionally in that situation. He remains cold and sends his feet only if it’s a clear option for him. With that in mind, he also tends to position himself as a passing line in front of the ball when his team hasn’t yet clearly recovered the ball. He can seem a bit too eager to move forward. When it’s finally done, he then offers his best version. An mathematical reading and decision taking of the situation. Mentally Kroos is quite well adapted to his position. Cold, focused and very cerebral. It fits well.

In the offensive phase, the player shows a mix of his qualities and limits. He’s a permanent passing line in parallel or behind the ball that participate actively to the build moves thanks to his passing abilities. He knows how to accelerate, calm or recycle possession of the ball. If he’s pressured though, he tends to suffer and can occasionally lose the ball after a poor first touch. The slowness of his body and his total lack of virtuosity with the ball makes him a player that can be neutralised, at least in terms of his passing influence. In that case, we can note that Kroos knows how to create space for his teammates if he’s man marked. At his pace, he knows how to attract a player into a trap and open a space for his team. So he maintains a certain level of contribution, even without the ball. His shooting technique is excellent. He can use any surface of his two feet very well and has a real talent to elect the correct way to approach the shot. In his new role though, he finds it very hard to get into positions that allow him to do so. And that is probably the main and only negative loss he suffers when playing as a deep-lying midfielder.

The German never really attacked space, and his time with Pep and Ancelotti didn’t change that. Unless he clearly sees his team with big trouble to surpass the first defensive line, he remains quite deep on the pitch. Even when used in a more advanced role, Kroos shows that he feels like he belongs to a deeper role. He drops deep to participate actively to the build up phase. In addition, he’s also a great free kick and corner kick taker, as in all the exercises that involves shooting the ball. He knows how to give effect to the ball and offers a great precision. Especially when hitting a target at the second post. In defensive free kicks and corner, he participate by contributing to the zonal defence. But among a group of players who are very intense by nature, he’s very rarely the first one on the ball.

In conclusion, after a year and a half of experience in that position, there is no doubt that Kroos is now a deep-lying midfielder. His behaviour in the construction phase, even when asked to play higher, presents him as player who completely belongs to the base of the game. Kroos identifies himself as the link between defence and the rest of the team, behaving as a bridge during the entire game. He doesn’t illustrate any type of movements or attitude suggesting that he should evolve higher. On the contrary, his limits – physical and technical – are big arguments against another change of position. Kroos is a fantastic passer, very involved, without any fantasy, who plays football slowly. There is no other role on the pitch that favours him more than deep-lying midfielder in terms of space and time. The only negative point, that looks like a parasite in his game, is the contrast he shows between his aggressive approach when pressuring and his inconsistent application after it. But as seen during his recent evolution, it is safe to say that this problem has an expiration date. Kroos is a very cerebral footballer who is still learning his new job and the most likely scenario is that he’ll end up correcting it soon. When this is the case, he’ll probably seem much more convincing to the public.

Recognize their quality

Recognize their quality

For his first game as Real Madrid coach, Zinedine Zidane made a few changes from Rafael Benitez’s preferred team. He selected a slightly different starting line-up, tweaked the position of several players, and it was also possible to notice a few changes in terms of collective instructions.

In brief, Real Madrid tried to build their game by using short passing, avoiding long balls as much as possible and overall the team appeared more aggressive without the ball and less direct with it. There, they regularly holding the defensive line before moving toward the goal.

Is this enough to explain the 5-0 victory against Deportivo La Coruna? Not really. In fact, these new instructions were executed slowly and poorly. The build-up phase was untidy, the pressure disorganised and the ball circulation never really reached a tempo that could realistically unbalance the opposite defence. All logical, of course. After five days of work it couldn’t be anything more.

What can really explain this large victory against a good Depor side though, is the change in attitude. By attitude we’re not talking about intensity or distance covered, but about behaviour when having to decide what to do with the ball. Clearly, Real Madrid players seemed more inclined to keep the ball and combine, in the process putting themselves in dangerous situations frequently with more desire to rely upon on their technique. It may sound like a small thing, but it isn’t.

During the very short Benitez era, the squad never seemed connected with their coach and his vision of the team. The Spaniard doesn’t lack knowledge in terms of tactics or mechanisms to build a team. However, his instructions never seemed to reach the players. At a certain point, some of them have even critiqued his approach and vision in public

Clearly, the initial impact of Benitez was complicated. By replacing Carlo Ancelotti, beloved by the players, and coming from an uninspiring spell with Napoli, Benitez started his Real Madrid adventure with low credit in the locker room.

In addition, there is little doubt that some of his public interventions didn’t help much. But beyond his troubling lack of communication and a perplexing trajectory as a coach, what was certainly the main cause of his rejection was the message he tried to put across with his football.

In itself, playing direct football or trying to control the ball isn’t good or bad. It isn’t convincing not the contrary. It clearly depends on the players at your disposal. And if it’s clear that the Real Madrid squad is dominated by offensive associative players (from the left-back to the number nine), the wealth of the squad and the possibilities that it offers allow the team to play different types of football.

The problem though, is when the squad at your disposal takes on a diminutive character, or even witnesses a negligence of its talent. Indeed, by some distance, it’s clear that despite good intentions, Benitez made a series of decisions conveying poor confidence in the talent he had at his disposal.

Let’s recap a little bit some of those decisions:

-Collectively we have seen Real Madrid try to play a direct football, often jumping the line of defensive minded midfielders, and completely giving up the control of the ball in order to focus on space control close to its goal, almost always after taking the lead.

-Individually, we have been witnessing the isolation of Cristiano Ronaldo, taken away from the build up and elaboration phase of play, in turn being reduced to a finishing role. Isco and James, equally, were reduced to less central roles and often performed as wingers. In addition, the organisation of the team and the preparation of the offensive phase lost a lot of focus with the entrance of Casemiro, replacing Toni Kroos, this encountering an unavoidable consequence on the style of the team.

All these decisions, collective and individual, that by nature, have pros and cons, without a doubt upset a group of players which, already against a change of coach, ended up by rejecting the football professed by their new coach.

Now, we can criticise their professionalism, point out their attitude and recall that they are players under contracts, but in the process, let’s not forget that all the players who were already here during Jose Mourinho’s era and later with Ancelotti, showed a level of determination and commitment of the highest level. In truth, the problem isn’t the lack of seriousness, it’s the lack of conviction.

Asking a group of fantastic players to give up the control of the ball and adapt to a rival of historic dimension, when they have barely lived together and didn’t win anything as a group is complicated but doable.  Asking a group of exceptional players to give up the control of the ball and adapt, when they are convinced of their quality as they have won the biggest trophy for a club  and proved that they can play a football that fits their technical abilities while winning every game has very little chance to seduce them.

That’s the key: Seduce the players. Get them on board. Without that, there is no team or competition. Benitez, sadly, has somehow failed to do this, but Zidane, who knows the squad very well, seems aware of the importance.

And this here, is probably the most encouraging point for Real Madrid. Not the final score, not the fact that Isco and Dani Carvajal have both started Zidane’s first game, or even that Gareth Bale has scored a hat trick. But rather the fact that the new Real Madrid coach, the novice that he is, has taken an important step to fulfil the most fundamental part of his job.

He has recognized on and off the pitch, their tremendous quality.