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Know Thine Eternal Enemy: Q&A with Managing Madrid

Om Arvind of SB Nation’s Real Madrid site answered some pressing questions ahead of Saturday’s derbi.

Club Atletico de Madrid v Real Madrid CF - UEFA Champions League Semi Final: Second Leg Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

General feeling(s) going into this Madrid Derby?

I honestly don’t know how to feel. Both Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid are struggling in their own ways this season and both really need a win on the weekend. That’s a perfect recipe for a perfectly unpredictable game. I do believe Real Madrid have the edge, but I absolutely refuse to underestimate Diego Simeone and his men. The combination of those sentiments has me feeling a bit excited and also a bit apprehensive. I know that if we win this derbi, it can be the catalyst that really kicks our season forward like in 16/17. I also know that if Atlético win, our part in the title race will be over, which will no doubt be huge motivation for los colchoneros.

Many Madridistas seem to believe Real Madrid are experiencing a rather poor start to the season. Is it still too early to draw conclusions or are there serious issues here?

Basically, Real Madrid’s initial poor LaLiga results were down to bad finishing. Real Madrid were creating a ton of chances and our forwards simply weren’t putting the ball in the back of the net. It didn’t help that Cristiano Ronaldo was out due to suspension for a while, but even when he came back our goal scoring troubles failed to disappear. At this point in time, Cristiano has a goal to expected goal ratio of 1 to 5.45 and Karim Benzema’s ratio is 1 to 4.17.

But in the match against Girona, the problems became tactical. Zinedine Zidane began to completely lose the plot and our effective pressing was replaced by an amateurish defensive structure that left gaping compactness issues. It didn’t help that teams simultaneously began to figure out how to exploit ZZ's diamond formation, which was most evident in Madrid’s humiliation against Tottenham.

There’s also the issue of complacency. It’s normal for players that have won everything for a couple seasons to feel comfortable and entitled to success, which leads to a lack of effort and a general decline in performance levels. We can clearly see that with Madrid at the moment, who failed to raise their game even after the defeat to Girona (even though Zidane’s boys openly promised to turn the ship around).

And then there’s injuries — BBC haven’t played together in ages and Mateo Kovacic is also out — though this isn’t probably as big of a contributing factor given the amount of depth we still have in a lot of positions.

There’s also a bunch of other small stuff (like losing Álvaro Morata) I could talk about, but then I’d never stop. So yeah, let’s just end it here.

Gareth Bale looms large over this derbi. How will the Welshman's absence impact this match and his longer-term future at the Bernabéu?

The presence of Bale in the starting eleven would force Zidane to ditch Isco and the diamond, likely moving Real Madrid back to a 4-3-3. That would be a positive change, given how we’ve struggled in that shape recently, and it would allow us to defend in a more optimal 4-1-4-1 (as opposed to a transitional 4-4-2/4-1-3-2). Aside from that, his sheer quality would be useful in one of the tougher matches Real will have to play this season. I bet he could terrorize the shit out of Juanfran if he swaps flanks with Cristiano and his ability in the air would also be a plus.

But without him, we will likely use a 4-4-2 diamond (unless Zidane quits being stubborn) with Isco in the side. That’s not an awful formation when played to perfection, but Madrid aren’t perfect right now, meaning Atlético will have their chances.

Gareth is a brilliant player when fit, but he’s not fit enough to be worth the investment anymore. I’m not sure Florentino sees it that way, but you never know. If Bale just never gets going this season, the Madrid hierarchy might finally say enough is enough.

Deportivo Alaves v Real Madrid - La Liga Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Isco IS set to go, however. I would argue that he is fast becoming Madrid's most important player. Would you agree?

No, not really. Zidane may have designed the 4-4-2 diamond to get the best out of Isco, but as soon as Bale is fit, Isco is shoved out of the lineup, which doesn’t really scream "incredibly important" to me. I’d also hesitate to name him as more important than other midfielders like Toni Kroos, who controls Madrid’s tempo, decides the direction of our attacks and often leads our pressing actions.

Isco’s skill set is fantastic, but it can be replicated by Marco Asensio, and I don’t think Madrid loses a massive amount of functionality without Isco in the side. It’s not like where, if you remove Benzema, suddenly it becomes difficult to link a flat midfield to the final third, or if you remove Ronaldo and suddenly it’s difficult to find someone who can score consecutive hat-tricks in the Champions League, or if you remove Marcelo or Dani Carvajal and suddenly it’s insanely difficult to play this high-volume crossing game that Zidane relies on so much.

One could argue that removing Isco causes Real Madrid to lose verticality and presence in-between the lines, but that’s only true to a certain extent. Yes, having Isco and Real Madrid in a diamond forces Real to engage in central play and yes, Isco has sometimes provided los blancos with some much needed advanced positioning, but he’s so inconsistent with this feature of his game that sometimes he doesn’t provide that advantage at all. Zidane lets Isco roam all over the place, and as a result, you’ll often see him receiving the ball two yards from Keylor Navas, with no one replacing the space he has abandoned in-between the lines.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Isco and he’s a brilliant player, but most important? Not even close.

Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo have been criticized for their form thus far this season. What have you made of their play and will they heat up against Atlético?

I think both have been generally good over the course of the season. It’s a bit different with Benzema though, since he started the season strong, but has since seen his form drop off a cliff. Ronaldo is similar in that he started strong like Benzema, but different in that he hasn’t let up (he’s also banged in six goals in the Champions League).

It must be weird to see me saying positive things about the two considering their goal scoring record, but a lot of that is down to bad luck. I think Ronaldo has hit the woodwork four times this season, and until recently Benzema’s finishing was down to similar misfortune. But that’s not the only reason I assess their seasons more leniently than others. They’ve also been creating for teammates and looking extremely involved in Madrid’s attacking patterns. Before Karim hit a rut, his link-up play was gorgeous and he was making all of his teammates better. For Ronaldo’s part, he's looking like more of a complete player than in his past two seasons, having created two key passes per 90 in LaLiga (for comparison, Messi is at 2.3 p90 and Benzema is at 2.4 p90).

Based off this, I think Ronaldo will heat up vs. Atleti. His form is strong and even if he doesn’t score, he’ll likely create a couple chances and assist a teammate. I think Benzema may have a tougher time given that he’s done almost nothing well recently. However, he did banish his poor form last season by destroying Atleti’s defenders in the Champions League, so anything is possible.

Prediction time.

Atlético Madrid 1-1 Real Madrid. It’s a lazy prediction, because I honestly have no idea which way this is gonna go.