Real Madrid have wrapped up a 35th La Liga title, and are now through to the final of the Champions League, with the evergreen Karim Benzema and Luka Modric the driving forces for Carlo Ancelotti.
After a third successive Champions League title, Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure for Juventus was meant to signal the end for a team that had scaled the heights of European football.
The annus horribilis of the 2018-19 season seemed to reaffirm such sentiment, but with Real Madrid now claiming a second La Liga title and making the Champions League final for the first time since that departure, it seems even more irrational in hindsight.
That this season’s Champions League final appearance comes after last season, where they were the proverbial hair’s breadth of making the final – with Zinedine Zidane’s 3-4-3 in the first leg and early heroics from Edouard Mendy in the second leg – only serves to reinforce that.
How have Madrid been able to sustain their level among the best in European football and keep fighting for silverware on multiple fronts despite such a seemingly transformative absence? How have they won this season’s La Liga title with such ease? How have they progressed to the Champions League final against who many consider the best team in Europe?
Despite a severely weakened Barcelona and a supposed closing of the gap to the rest, Madrid can still reach 90 points this season. Much like their last appearance 2017-2018, their gauntlet-like run to the Champions League final serves as a contrast to Liverpool.
In reality, Real Madrid’s three successive Champions League triumphs during Zidane’s first spell in charge were largely due to the ideal balance of their midfield, comprising of Toni Kroos, Casemiro and Luka Modric.
To use but one example, bring into perspective how could they nullify Liverpool’s ability to press in both that 2017-18 final and then again in the 2020-21 quarter-final over two legs during Zidane’s second stint.
It bears repeating. Liverpool under Jurgen Klopp – a great pressing team that squeezes the opposition into submission, consistently forces errors and is tactically transforming football before our eyes – were eventually rendered inert on multiple occasions.
At Madrid’s core though, the collective did and continues to flourish via the creative and incorporative link between Modric and Karim Benzema, both with and without the ball. It is something Carlo Ancelotti has specifically leaned on this season but in a burgeoning era of automation and systems, they are the system.
The thing that maximises the duo’s technical proficiency is their ability to improvise and embrace risk in the exploitation of space. If automation was football’s equivalent to the legend of developing a pen in space, the link between Modric and Benzema is the comparative pencil – just as effective, far more practical.
In a way, it was fitting they did eliminate Manchester City to get to this point. With that ability to improvise and the responsibility they hold in decision-making as the game unfolds, Modric and Benzema represent the very antithesis to Guardiola’s weight-of-numbers implementation, both on and off the pitch.
Real Madrid’s very first possession in the second leg was like a window into that collective functionality – Casemiro wins the ball and feeds Modric, who scans to see Kevin De Bruyne pressing onto Kroos as the ball is travelling to him, before he ever-so-slightly waits and then shovels a pass into the retreating Benzema, who then releases Vinicius.
The two possess an interpretation of space that, as a collective, Manchester City have not possessed under Guardiola, especially as Sergio Aguero’s increasing submission to injury coincided with Bernardo’s place on the periphery. While Bernardo’s scope has increased, however much they spend, Manchester City’s has been and will always be defined in Europe by Kevin de Bruyne’s final ball and what has to go into maximising that.
To paraphrase the famous quote by Guardiola’s assistant Juanma Lillo: “Tell me your midfield, and I’ll tell you how your team plays.”
Granted, that reliance on the two creates volatility. When the two are on the pitch, they give Los Blancos distinct flexibility. Without them, the collective is without a reference point and the relationship between defence and attack is compromised.
Viewing Madrid through this prism makes a lot of other aspects relating to them clearer – the ability to feasibly play Lucas Vazquez at right-back in Dani Carvajal’s absence, the varying shifts in form from the likes of Vinicius Junior and Kroos this season, or the differing fates of Eduardo Camavinga and Martin Odegaard upon attempting to integrate them into the midfield. That said, Camavinga has been excellent in this Champions League run when called upon from the bench to kill games.
On that latter point, within this context, Camavinga earning more scope at Kroos’ expense instead of Modric does not become much of a surprise – because while Benzema has elite comparisons in the form of Robert Lewandowski and Harry Kane in terms of profile, Modric has always been one of a kind.
This is especially in an era that has witnessed the simultaneous compression and expansion of the pitch, along with the reality it is always been a more complicated thing to advance and play between the opposition’s midfield and defensive line – for both coaches and players in general – than to retreat.
Midfielders as complete as Modric, possessing the effortless ability to blur the line between the elegant and the practical, simply did not exist before him – at least as a central midfielder and not as the conventional second striker or number 10.
At the incomprehensible age of 36, the Croatia international is still unique, still elite. He leads Madrid’s midfielders in all competitions this season for chances created in open play per 90 minutes (1.1), expected assists (0.18) and trailed only Camavinga (1.5) for dribbles completed (1.4).
Only Kroos (12.5) bettered Modric (9.5) for passes into the final third per 90 in all competitions, but the German’s passing represents an increasingly singular role in Madrid’s midfield. He is a world-class distributor, but it is maximised as a result of the spaces that Benzema and Modric create.
The net gain of his world class final ball in relation to the inertia off the ball he provides in both offensive and defensive senses is a trickier question to answer now, and Camavinga’s continued impact off the bench feeds into that.
No player is more relevant in this regard, however, than Vinicius. His own progression has also accelerated upon that basis. Benzema and Modric’s ability to collapse opposition defences leaves the opposition full back on Vinicius’ side isolated, and the 21-year-old can be destructive when he has the momentum to dribble.
This all matters because it creates a cumulative impact on how Madrid score their goals. In all competitions ahead of Saturday’s win over Espanyol, Vinicius topped the team for dribbles completed per 90 (3.0), chances created from open play (2.3) and expected assists (0.23).
This goes some way to explaining Benzema’s dramatic increase in rate of goal scoring, especially comparing 26 goals in 30 league appearances and 43 in as many games in all competitions, to his tally of five La Liga goals in 2017-18.
Much like Modric, 34-year-old Benzema has the capacity to be flexible as that central striker, and to do what the game requires of him in any given moment.
The reference point Benzema and Modric provide has been the primary dynamic in this season’s title win – Carlo Ancelotti’s first La Liga success. They can win games in an instant but collectively, the consequent ability to manage games and keep applying pressure from either winning or losing positions, on the back of both territorial and positional superiority, has been critical.
Ultimately, intelligent footballers gravitate towards one another and it is one of most profound and beautiful aspects of the sport. While Madrid will eventually go on without Benzema and Modric, their interaction – which has built a worthy title winner and contender on the continent this season – has only underlined that.
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Design by Matt Sisneros.