The Madrid Derby is nearly upon us. It’s felt interminable, but the Saturday evening kickoff between Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid will prove to be big tests for both sides. I talked to Om Arvind (@OmVArvind) of Managing Madrid to get his thoughts on some of the key talking points as we continue our buildup to the big game.
Well, Om, it's almost here. How are you feeling generally with the Madrid Derby just a day away?
I am really scared to be perfectly honest. I have never been particularly confident about playing Atlético away from home since the Mourinho era, but this match is freaking me out in particular, as I’m getting the 2014/15 ‘4-0’ vibes due to our current injury crisis.
Kroos, Pepe, Morata and Casemiro are going to miss the derby, while Benzema is struggling to recover from a previous knock. If Benzema proves to be actually fit by tomorrow, then my heart will rest a little easier, but I am almost certain that he is being rushed back (this is an historical problem for Madrid and the media only started talking about a comeback for Benzema right after Kroos went down injured – suspicious).
So if Zidane is smart about easing Benzema back into the team, it is possible that we could go into the derby with no proper striker, which will derail our progression into the final third due to a lack of a focal point to play off. Even if Benzema is likely stuffed into the squad, I wouldn’t have any reason to be more optimistic, since he will most likely be playing at half his capacity due to not being fully fit.
How much will Toni Kroos be missed in this game and what do some fans not appreciate about him?
Toni Kroos will be an absolutely massive miss for Los Blancos. He sets the tempo of Real’s play like no one else, is supremely accurate and prolific in his passing, and possesses the capability to play in defensive midfield.
The last quality is particularly important, since without Casemiro we have no one who can play as a single-pivot defensive midfielder, something that might force Zidane to make a tactical shuffle away from the 4-3-3.
But even if he does try something more structurally sound, like a 4-4-2, a double-pivot of Kovacic and Modric still won’t be particularly tight defensively, making it still all too easy for Atlético to penetrate us through the center.
But while Kroos’ ability to play as a DM is important, perhaps his most underrated quality is his press resistance. I made a video and wrote an article about it recently for Managing Madrid, and it basically outlined the three ways in which Kroos works to defeat opposition presses.
The first quality is his most underrated, as few pundits or fans realize the non-negotiable importance of “scanning,” a skill well summed up by analytics expert Ted Knutson.
It has also been heavily validated, so before we go too far, check out this link and this presentation + paper from the Sloan conference back in 2013.
“The results show a clear positive relationship between visual exploratory behaviors (scanning) that are initiated before receiving the ball and performance with the ball. The best players explore more frequently than others and there is a positive relationship between exploratory behavior frequency and pass completion. The impact of exploratory behaviors is the largest for midfielders performing forward passes.”’
Kroos always engages in this activity, enabling him to take a first touch that un-balances his marker, thus giving him half a second or more to make a decision.
Kroos also has the ability to play pinpoint vertical passes through an opposition press, a skill probably unparalleled by any other midfielder.
But it’s his last press resistance quality that makes Kroos such a special player, as he can affect the entire team’s ability to defeat pressure through his off-the-ball movement. He usually does this by overloading presses and playing one-twos to progress Real into the final third.
Considering that Atlético Madrid are probably the best pressing side in Europe, Real Madrid will surely feel the absence of Toni Kroos throughout the entire starting eleven.
However, Luka Modric is back, and he's pretty good too. Gabi said earlier this week that Modric is Real Madrid's most important player. Do you agree with that assessment?
It definitely used to be the Croatian, especially in the Ancelotti era, since we were lacking midfield depth in the right areas and Kroos was still growing. But now Kroos has matured to a level where he’s a better distributor than Modric, and now we have depth in midfield that can communally replace the Croatian’s skillset when he’s unavailable (Casemiro is better defensively – there was a point in the Ancelotti era where Modric was arguably Madrid’s best starting midfielder at defense – and Kovacicis capable of replicating Modric’s offensive presence), so I would say his importance has declined virtue of the rest of the team improving.
Nevertheless, Modric is still the best midfielder in the world and he provides the best balance of skills on this Madrid team, so having him back vs. Atléti is a massive boost. He will certainly be able to replicate all of Kroos’ press resistance qualities (one could add his ability to dribble out of pressure as another type of press resistance he possesses) to an extent, which eases my mind a little bit; but he could get overworked in the process.
Atlético Madrid enter this game having lost two of the past three in LaLiga, and Madrid have built a six-point advantage over Atlético in the table. Will victory Sunday knock Atleti out of contention and strengthen further Madrid's league title credentials?
I think a Real win could go a long way to ensuring that Atléti are knocked out of the title race, but I would hesitate to make a bet on that. This season’s La Liga has seen its parity once again increase, with teams like Alavés and Las Palmas sitting mid-table after some excellent results against top sides. So even with a nine-point deficit I’d say that Atléti still have a chance to make up ground, because Real could easily lose a lot of points in the second half of the season.
As for whether this win would further cement Real Madrid’s title credentials?
I am not really sure about that to be honest. While beating Atlético Madrid with an injury-weakened XI has to be a marker of Los Merengues’ quality, it also doesn’t erase the fact that Real have rode their luck quite a few times this season. We have often gotten through matches based purely on individual talent, so it is pretty hard gauge just how good we really are at the moment.
We will probably get a clearer picture as the sample size increases, because I have a hunch that Los Blancos’ point tally is yet to regress to the quality of their performances.
Do you think that tactically, Zinedine Zidane will approach this game like May's Champions League final, wherein his team ceded possession and might have lost if their opponents had taken advantage?
I am nearly 100% certain that Zidane will approach this game conservatively. If he decided to sit back and counterin the Champions League Final with a full strength squad, I can only imagine that he will look to hunker down even further when he is missing his only pure defensive midfielder in Casemiro, his master of possession in Kroos, and his best defender in Pepe.
What's your prediction for this one?
I think Los Blancos will pick up a 2-0 loss, though I can easily see Atléti scoring more. Like I said in the beginning, I’m getting that 2014/15 ‘4-0’ vibe, so I’d be honestly surprised if we nab a result in this one (hopefully I’m wrong).
However, I do tend to be a bit of a pessimist whenever Real play big games, so there’s obviously a chance I’m being too negative.