After a tumultuous start to the season which saw a change in coach and faltering form, Real Madrid are finally getting into gear under Santiago Solari
Something seems to have changed in Solari’s Real Madrid, a hot mess before Christmas but a team that has been playing better and better over the last few weeks.
Nobody really knows what has happened, although there might be a few explanations here and there. The relatively low-profile of the opposition could be the Occam’s Razor we’re looking for, but Real Madrid’s improvement over the month of January can’t be driven by easy fixtures single-handedly.
There’s something deeper at work here, guys.
The player who best embodies Real’s sudden metamorphosis was Karim Benzemà on Sunday. From zero a few months ago, to hero at Cornellà, a true masterclass from the Frenchman to score twice and be an active part of every single important play by Los Blancos throughout the game. He was brilliant. Maybe not to the point of being “the best number 9 in the world” as Lucas Vázquez gleefully stated post-game, but brilliant nonetheless.
Luka Modric also seems thankful for that sweet Christmas break, as he has become once again the key player in the midfield. A spectacular run through the middle, piercing Espanyol’s defence like a hot knife through butter, was the prelude to the 0-1. He ran the show without hiccups, patiently and with that trail of class he leaves behind when he feels comfortable on the pitch.
Big hitters returning to form
Getting two of his biggest players back in form is good news for a Solari who has always been heavily supported by Sergio Ramos, a captain both at the back and lately scoring important goals for the team. He has scored ten to date, a tie for his best season ever in that sense and we have only crossed the halfway mark this year.
Right now, Ramos looks and feels both powerful and confident, at the top of his game. Maybe it’s true that his competitive attitude has been dormant for most of the season and suddenly activates when trophies (Copa del Rey’s semifinals are ninety minutes away) are so close they can be smelled.
With Thibaut Courtois more or less being as reliable as expected, the manager suddenly has a key player in each line performing much better than they have in the first stretch of all competitions. The backbone of the team is finally working properly. And he has been lucky enough to risk it and play youngsters such as Sergio Reguilon or Cristo or (who else?) Vinicius Junior and the kids have complied with solid performances.
Vinicius’ case is particularly interesting, as he usually shines when the team has a grey day and suffers more when other players are inspired. Against Espanyol he had a bad day but the overall team work more than compensated for that. He’s only 18, after all. By the way, he stated on Monday that he would like to play one day alongside Neymar Jr, “at Real Madrid or with the national team”.
Maybe Gareth Bale is the only (and biggest) question mark remaining. On Sunday he came in and had immediate impact after scoring Real’s fourth goal. It was his 100th goal with the white shirt in almost six seasons, a pretty decent average for someone who has spent quite a fair amount of time injured and on the sidelines. Criticism, however, will surely catch up at some point: fans and press just won’t let go how utterly expensive his signing was back in the day topping $100 million.
All in all, the way Real Madrid have quietly managed to reinvent themselves and come out of a tricky January relatively unscathed is quite impressive. Conquering LaLiga seems impossible if Barça keep winning weekend after weekend (they’ve won now eight of the last eight), but Copa del Rey and the obvious Champions League showdown against Ajax in the next couple of weeks seem two pretty transcendent opportunities to show if they are back on track… or if the train derails once and for all.