Solari: Real Madrid boss finding winning formula at LaLiga giants
With three Clásicos, the Ajax tie and a Madrid derby coming up, Santiago Solari's Madrid are hitting form at a crucial point of the season.
After months of ups and downs, Real Madrid are starting to take off. Their 3-1 Copa del Rey triumph at Girona on Wednesday was their fourth win in a row - the third time they have put together such a run since Santiago Solari replaced Julen Lopetegui (who never mustered more than three on the trot). What makes this sequence different, however, is that Los Blancos have been producing performances to go with their victories.
Little by little, Solari has begun to find the formula for success and has shaped Madrid into the kind of team that he wants them to be. And he has managed to do so just as the season reaches a crucial juncture: between now and 5 March, Madrid have three games against arch rivals Barcelona, two against Ajax in the last 16 of the Champions League, and one against near neighbours Atlético.
An assured figure
Solari took over after stepping up from the 'B' team, Castilla, who he was finally starting to steer in the right direction. He arrived in the role as a coach with a reputation for being something of an intellectual, but raised eyebrows when in his first press conference as Madrid boss he made use of rather more low-brow vernacular, declaring: "The plan is to go to Melilla and show some balls."
In time, however, his facility of expression has shone through and allowed him to establish himself as an effective defender of his club's interests, as evidenced by his cutting response to Pep Guardiola's failure to include Madrid among the top sides of the past decade. "I think the omission of Real Madrid is deliberate," he retorted in the wake of the snub. "But we are not going to argue about one decade or another when Real Madrid is the best club of the century, and in history."
Faith in Vinicius
If there was one thing that particularly drove a wedge between Lopetegui and the powers-that-be at the Bernabéu, it was his handling of Vinicius, who he relegated to the Castilla squad and gave just 12 minutes of first-team football. Allying patience with the courage to give an 18-year-old his chance, meanwhile, Solari has allowed the Brazilian to blossom, with three goals and eight assists in 1,000 minutes. He has shown complete confidence in Vinicius and, despite Gareth Bale's return from injury, the indications are that the youngster will hold on to his place.
Backing for Benzema
Lucas' effectiveness and hard work
Even with Bale and Marco Asensio back fit, Solari's trust in Lucas Vázquez has not wavered. Indeed, only Benzema and Sergio Ramos have been given more game time than the Galician - who has featured for a total of 1,456 minutes - under Solari. It is not only the winger's effectiveness (four goals and four assists) that appeals to the Madrid boss, but also his defensive commitment. After all, he has won the ball back more times this season - 93 - than any other attacker in the squad.
A message to Marcelo
Marcelo began as a starter under Solari, but his constant defensive lapses and poor all-round displays ended up seeing him lose his place in the team to Sergio Reguilón. Since then, Solari has preferred Reguilón in LaLiga, with the Brazilian restricted to Copa del Rey duty - and now showing green shoots of recovery. The message from the coach was clear: nobody is guaranteed a game.
Strong stance on Isco
With just 21 minutes of action to his name since Solari took the reins, Isco has barely played under the 42-year-old; indeed, he has been the 21st-most used member of the squad. Solari's lack of enthusiasm for the midfielder as a player has been compounded by the Andalusian's poor attitude during the Argentine's tenure, which the coach has punished with a firm hand that has reinforced his authority over the dressing room.
Llorente back in the picture
Another player who had been a fringe presence under Lopetegui was defensive midfielder Marcos Llorente, who featured for just 11 minutes under the former boss. Admittedly, it took an injury to Casemiro and a bad defeat at Eibar - in which Dani Ceballos was used at anchorman - but Solari has handed the youth product his shot, and he has responded. Llorente is, just behind Casemiro, Madrid's second-top ball winner (recovering possession once every 11 minutes), and is also chipping in with goals, one of which came in the Club World Cup final.
Ready to give Castilla youngsters a go
Since his promotion to the first team from Madrid's youth academy, Solari has been quick to bring some of the club's young talent with him. 21-year-old Javi Sánchez was drafted into the seniors in the middle of a defensive shortage and performed well, while Cristo González (21), Fran García (19) and Álvaro Fidalgo (21) have also been given their debuts under the former Castilla coach.