In a stifled night of football, Real Madrid and Real Sociedad played out a 0-0 draw in San Sebastian.
Los Blancos’ title defence got off to an underwhelming start as they battled against La Real without ever really threatening them, meanwhile the hosts had by far the two best chances of the night. What did we learn?
1. Varane’s vengeance
Despite winning La Liga, Real Madrid’s 2019/20 ended disappointingly as they were beaten 2-1 by Manchester City in the Champions League. The goals they conceded in that game were almost 100% down to unforced errors from the usually solid Raphael Varane. It was a shocking display and must have eaten at the Frenchman, but he bounced back with avengeance in San Sebastian.
Raphael Varane was absolutely colossal against Real Sociedad, and without him Thibaut Courtois would have been bombarded with shots. The amount of times Varane appeared to make a clearance, or to intercept a La Real through-ball or close down a runner was honestly too many to count. And what’s incredible is he made it all look effortless. Even his desperation block on David Silva had an element of cool to it, until he was left a crumpled heap and replays showed exactly where the ball hit him.
Varane made a team-high 2 clearances, team-high 3 interceptions and won the ball back a team-high 9 times. He was cool, calm and in control. The ghosts of Manchester banished fully into memory, this was Raphael Varane back in the saddle.
2. David Silva’s beautiful swang song
An entire decade passed between David Silva’s last La Liga appearance and tonight. A decade full of success with Manchester City. Tonight he began the match on the bench but when he came on… you could tell he had come onto the pitch.
Obviously City saw the best years of David Silva, from 24 to 34, but whilst he’s not at his peak he still exudes a serenity and vision that no one else in blue and white could even come close to.
From the minute he came on he was talking to his team-mates, directing them about the pitch and looking to take up great positions. He couldn’t quite lift his team-mates to score and wasted a good chance to score by hesitating before shooting, but given he was only half-fit that can be excused. It’s clear that, with time, he will make beautiful harmonies in San Sebastian and we will be privileged to witness David Silva’s beautiful swan song.
3. The Forgotten Man
Whenever the world’s greatest goalkeepers are discussed, the list is a familiar one. Manuel Neuer is usually the first name most people think of (and he’s finally back at that level after injury lowed him down) and the two Brazilians Alisson and Ederson are rightfully touted as well. Jan Oblak is the go-to guy if you know ball, David de Gea gets shouted out by English-speaking media and Marc-André Ter Stegen is the hipster’s choice.
One name that is rarely if ever mentioned is Thibaut Courtois.
And it’s easy to see why, he’s not an exciting personality like Neuer and isn’t a wizard with his feet like Ter Stegen and Ederson and he certainly doesn’t carry with him the sheer likeability of Alisson.
But the thing is, he’s a spectacular goalkeeper and fundamental to the way Los Blancos play. They’d be lost without him.
Real Madrid’s 10-match winning run to the 2019/20 title saw many people credited, mostly Sergio Ramos and Karim Benzema, but the true MVP of it all was Courtois. Los Blancos kept an astonishing six clean sheets in those 10 games and conceded just once in each of the four remaining games.
As much as Madrid’s system was risk-averse, they would still give up chances every single week, and every single week the Belgian was constantly popping up with enormous saves, racing off his line to deny opponents.
And so again vs. Real Sociedad. The Basque side didn’t open Madrid up repeatedly, but on a couple of occasions they cut through Los Blancos like a hot knife through butter and were 1v1 with Courtois. However in none of these chances did you think they were going to score, such is the excellence of Thibaut Courtois, the colossal Belgian who is comfortably one of the best goalkeepers in the world.
4. Operation Mbappé is a risky gambit
Real Madrid signed Eden Hazard last summer for €100m, but this summer has seen no such superstar signing and instead Real Madrid have been shedding big names from their squad. For years they were content to have the likes of James Rodriguez and Gareth Bale sit on the bench and give them an unparalleled strength in depth, but now they’re being sold, why?
Operation Mbappé is the most likely reason.
It’s no secret that Madrid have long coveted the young French superstar, but his move to PSG seemed to rule that out. However rumours of his unrest in the French capital persist, and this coming summer he will be one years away from his contract expiring. Prime time for Madrid to swoop for him. But to finance such a move, Madrid will need serious capital and room on their wage bill, so they’re in containment mode.
However as today showed, not adding to the Madrid squad, especially in midfield or attack where they did look short against La Real, carries with it its own risks ahead of what is going to be a very long season. Madrid dominated the game against their Basque opponents but they couldn’t break them down.
They never looked close to breaking them down, in truth, and the game finished with a disappointing 0-0. The worry is that this is a trend that will continue: after all even when they won La Liga last season it was through attritional play with not many goals or joy. That can maybe be sustained over 10 games, but 38? Operation Mbappé could bring Los Blancos the most amazing reward, but waiting for the Frenchman carries with it a high risk.
5. Zidane turns to the kids
Without a superstar squad to turn to, Zinedine Zidane showed against La Real that he was happy to do something that he previously had shied away from: playing the kids. Real Madrid have an immensely talented youth system but youngsters rarely ever find a path to the first-team. Just this summer they sold Sergio Reguilon who had only shone out on loan with Sevilla. Dani Carvajal was the only starter from their youth system and even he had to leave to break out with Bayer Leverkusen.
But against La Real we finally saw Martin Odegaard get a major chance in a Real Madrid shirt, and then even as he went off we saw two debuts off the bench. First from Marvin Park, then Sergio Arribas. Whilst the latter didn’t get much time at all, the former looked very lively and even had a good chance to get a shot off and perhaps win the game.
The season is long, and if Madrid don’t do any business you can expect to see much more of Madrid’s kids.