As Napoli became the latest team to discover this week, if you want to be successful against Real Madrid there’s one thing you need avoid at all costs: letting them have attacking set-pieces or corners.
Sergio Ramos’ dramatic double intervention on Tuesday’s Champions League tie was predictable, because Los Blancos – and Ramos in particular – are arguably the world’s most dangerous team when it comes to converting dead ball situations. Ramos, of course, is the scorer of the most famous goal in his club’s recent history: his stunning header in the 93rd minute of the 2014 Champions League final against Atletico Madrid tying the game at the last possible moment and setting up Real’s much longed-for tenth European crown.
And there are plenty more recent examples of the skipper’s impressive ability to net crucial goals from free-kicks and corners, including another Champions League final goal against Atletico last year, and the heroic captain’s late equaliser at the Nou Camp in December’s Clasico against Barcelona.
It’s not just Ramos, though, because other Madrid players to have scored from set-pieces in recent weeks include Karim Benzema (vs Eibar), Cristiano Ronaldo (vs Las Palmas), Alvaro Vazquez (vs Celta Vigo), Raphael Varane (vs Benfica) and Pepe (vs Osasuna).
So it’s clear that although Ramos is the leader of the pack, the Madrid team as a whole presents a major threat whenever they have the chance to throw the ball into the box. Some people aren’t impressed with this. Social media channels in the last 36 hours have been awash with complaints – mainly from Barcelona fans, funnily enough – that Madrid’s way of winning is lucky, boring and not real football, as though classily caressing the ball into the net after a slick five-man passing move is the only valid way of scoring.
That’s nonsense, firstly because it overlooks the fact that in order to score from a corner or free-kick, it is first necessary to have corners and free-kicks – and they can only result from a passage of attacking pressure. In the first half against Napoli on Tuesday, for example, Madrid didn’t have the opportunity to demonstrate their penalty box prowess because they didn’t spend any time near it. They were being outplayed.
At half-time, though, Zinedine Zidane switched to a 4-4-2 formation, pushing Gareth Bale into a deeper midfield position, and the results were instant as Napoli struggled to execute their passing game and Madrid started to exert some attacking pressure.
That improvement in play resulted in two corners, which resulted in Ramos’s heroics, which resulted in the reigning European champions securing their place in the quarter-finals. As with penalties, scoring from set-pieces doesn’t happen by chance, and generally implies that the scoring team is in the ascendancy. Such success also requires two more ingredients: players who can deliver quality balls into the box, and other players who can attack those crosses.