The Basques dominated the game from start to finish and there was no period where Los Blancos looked like they would gain control of proceedings. What did we learn?
1. The Boy King of the Bernabeu
Real Madrid signed Vinicius Junior a year ago, paying a then-record fee for a teenager who hadn’t even played a minute in the first-team. The signing was seen as Los Blancos desperately trying to avoid a repeat of the Neymar situation, where Los Blancos lost out on the Brazilian superstar to Barcelona – because no one could even be sure what he would offer in the Flamengo first XI, let alone the Madrid one.
Well he moved in the summer, and has slowly been bedding in. Today, with injury and woe forcing his hand, Santi Solari turned to Vinicius to be his side’s left-winger and their thrusting presence with the ball. This was to be the man who Madrid looked to in the final third.
That was, on paper, an absurd thing to do. And in the end the result did sort of bare this out as Madrid got humbled 0-2 by their opponents. But in terms of his individual performance, what we saw from Vinicius Junior was incredible. Time and again, these World Cup and Champions League winners all looked to this unproven teenager to be their leader.
What was more incredible was that Vinicius looked capable of carrying such a burden. He tore through the Real Sociedad defence with incredible ease, he found his team-mates well, he pulled great saves out of Geronimo Rulli (and he could, perhaps should, have won a penalty). Although he obviously tired in the last 10 minutes, what is apparent now is that after summer departures and a figurative abdication from the expected heir, the Bernabeu has found a new (boy) King.
2. La Real’s hot and cold counters
Everyone knows that Real Madrid are, well, not very good. But what was so remarkable tonight was that Real Sociedad made them look not good. In Imanol Alguacil’s first game in charge (of his second spell as boss), the Basque side ripped Real Madrid’s “defence” asunder.
This was an absurd sight. Even with “world-class” defensive midfielder Casemiro on, La Real breezed through Los Blancos on the break with insulting ease. Once the Brazilian departed every single attack from La Real at least managed to reach the Madrid penalty area.
So why was this game only 0-2? Well despite the dynamic excellence of David Zurutuza, Adnan Januzaj, Mikel Oyarzabal, etc. on the break; they lacked a cutting edge to make their opponents suffer. So attacks petered out with disappointing regularity, and the match played on a knife-edge (until a bit of composure from their striker made it 0-2) when it should have been over by half-time.
3. Marcelo’s ratio has reversed
Marcelo has always been a bad defender. His struggles at the back are nothing new. Even when he was at his most resplendent, his ratio of good attacking:bad defending was always heavily weighted in favour of his attacking. He wasn’t just a good full-back, he was a transcendent type of playmaking force for Real Madrid.
Starting attacks from deep was genuinely one of the things that Marcelo contributed most to the Madrid side. He was as important a playmaker for them as Luka Modric was. In addition to that he flew up and down the left, allowing whoever played left-wing to cut infield and shoot to their heart’s abandon.
Now he can’t do that, not with any consistency. There is the odd moment (e.g. his goal in El Clásico) but for the most part, he’s a spent offensive force. And that in turn makes him a defensive disaster. He gives the ball away in dangerous areas like it’s going out of fashion and then fails to track back adequately. Without his offensive power to cancel this out, he’s nothing but a liability and it made perfect sense when Santi Solari removed him in the second half.
4. Willian José: what could have been
In the summer, when Julen Lopetegui was denied the chance to bring in a genuine world-class replacement for Cristiano Ronaldo, he asked for striker Willian José as a cut-price alternative. Willian is far from world-class, but is a proven goalscorer with enough creativity to function in a side like Real Madrid. He’s shown he can play in a possession system, and a countering system, and moreover he likes big games too.
Why did Los Blancos say no? Nobody knows. But it was poetic that tonight, Willian José was the chief orchestrator of Real Madrid’s demise. As Karim Benzema fluffed a sitter from four yards, Willian José buried a penalty with supreme authority to open the scoring and then produced a beautifully weighted cross for Ruben Pardo’s goal to close the match. He won them the game.
It’s hard not to wonder what could have been for Julen Lopetegui had he been allowed to sign Willian José (who had 27 La Liga goals in the two seasons preceding this one).
5. Real Madrid have serious issues
Where do you even begin? Well, there’s not one superstar who’s pulling their weight. Gareth Bale looks utterly uninterested in being Real Madrid’s new talisman even though he has all the ability if not the ligaments to do so. Isco’s form has dropped off a cliff. Without Luka Modric’s genius, Toni Kroos and Casemiro are suddenly being exposed in ways they had prayed would never happen. Raphael Varane has the mother of all World Cup hangovers and this in turn has made Sergio Ramos’ lack of defensive consistency a major issue.
Even Dani Carvajal, who has so often been Madrid’s consistent presence and tone setter, has been wracked by injury and looks a shadow of his former self. Marcos Llorente brought a sense of order to midfield but he’s gotten injured, and whilst Vinicius has skill he is very young to heap such pressure on. Meanwhile Dani Ceballos can’t seem to get selected consistently, which is odd as he’s great.
They wrecked Spain’s World Cup bid this summer and have already ruined the elite coaching career of Julen Lopetegui, twice in four months as it turns out! Then there’s Santiago Solari, who has been carefully curating his coaching career, starting at the bottom and slowly working his way up. When all their choices turned them down, Los Blancos thrust Solari into a role he was not ready for with a beaten and broken squad that would never do their reputations justice. Have they ruined Solari? Perhaps not, as he could vanish to Argentina in order to rehabilitate himself, but the chaos that Real Madrid leave in their wake is kryptonite to promising careers at this point.