Champions League

Sublime Switching Is What Makes Real Madrid Special

Switching isn’t inherently new in football. In the beginning of the 1974 World Cup final, Cruyff famously switched with Holland’s right center-back (Rijsbergen) before making his run to get the penalty that eventually became the first goal. Cruyff was essentially the right center back for the first two minutes of the game. Michels’ total football was in fact predicated on switching. Any player could play out of position provided another took his place thus preserving the team’s organizational structure.

A Necessity in the Modern Game

It’s precisely why Cruyff started his run from the center-back position. However, Michels’ switching was ephemeral, theoretical and not particularly matchup oriented. It was mainly about (offensive) fluidity and organizational structure. Nowadays, basic switching is necessary in modern football, especially on the defensive end. Offensive players have more freedom to move as they please on the pitch and their dynamism means they can drift out of position to create goal opportunities. For example, full-backs and center-backs have to rotate to close basic 1-2 gaps and dribble penetration from elite wideout players: think Marcelo tracking Arjen Robben/Messi even when he drifts inwards from the right wing.

Offensive switching however has been lagging behind in the last 20 years. It’s understandable given that offensive players tend to be bad at tracking back defensively, and too much chaos on offense can create gaps on the pitch that elite teams will pick apart in the Champions League. This not to say that switching on offense doesn’t happen or hasn’t been successful in modern football. Barcelona circa 2004 has had a combination of switch-prone offensive players in their system: Etoo/Ronaldinho, Messi/Henry, Messi/Villa. We just have not seen anything close to Michel’s 1970s Ajax and Netherland revolution on that end.

Zidane’s Four Man Diamond

Which brings us to last night’s Champions League clash between Real Madrid and Juventus. Cristiano Ronaldo’s brilliant second goal rightfully stole the show and got all of the media’s attention, but Real Madrid’s switching in the midfield was what caught my eyes. Zidane opted for a 4-man diamond in the midfield, reminiscent of the 2000s AC Milan.

Nominally, Isco was playing as the number 10 role, think Rui Costa/Kaka. Modric and Kroos were the central midfielders (as Seedorf and Pirlo were) and Case was playing the bulldog role Gennaro Gattuso played brilliantly back then. What makes this 4-men midfield remarkable though is their ability to switch everything on both ends. There were a total of 6 possessions with Casemiro on top of the diamond, Kroos and Isco on the side and Modric playing in front of Varane and Ramos. Modric himself was involved in many possessions in which he was the number 10. Isco and Kroos played interchangeably on the side of the midfield, each covering for the other when necessary. It was truly remarkable to watch.

Unprecedented in Recent History

What makes this switching different than anything we’ve seen in recent football history is obviously personnel. It would not be a stretch to say that Real Madrid played with 3 modern trequartistas last night. Kroos and Modric are classically trained number 10s that have been playing a number 8 role at an elite level in Europe for the last 6 years. Kroos currently plays the central offensive position for Germany while Luka Modric literally wears the number 10 for both Real Madrid and Croatia. Isco started his career as a winger so he’s comfortable being the wideout midfield.

Casemiro remains the only suspect offensive player of this bunch. His first touch can still be laughably bad and I’m still not sure he’s an elite passer. However, he’s strong and deceptively fast, which means he’s a perfect player to launch counter attacks when needed. He also has the ability to shoot well from distance and make crucial pocket passes under pressure. Last but not least, he’s excellent defensively and he’s such a smart player that he cleans up most of the mistakes his offensive players make. He deserves his spot on this roster and I love that Zidane is rewarding him with opportunities to lead on offense.

This Real Madrid team clearly does not play up to their level most of the time. They clearly don’t have the systemic aesthetics a team like Barcelona or even Bayern Munich has. There were times in the beginning of the season I wasn’t even sure if Zidane knew what he was doing. However, he deserves an immense amount of credit for making them so fluid on both ends of the pitch. What makes this team special is the fact they have transcendent versatile offensive players in the midfield added to Cristiano Ronaldo’s brilliant precision in front of goal. This lethal combination is why I believe Real Madrid should be the favorite to win a third consecutive Champions League.

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