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Four observations, including the arrival of Mateo Kovacic

On Kovacic’s goat levels, Varane’s passing, Benzema’s workrate, and Llorente’s presence in midfield

Real Madrid CF v Real Sociedad de Futbol - La Liga Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images

These observations — where I look at Real Madrid’s history, its players on loan, Castilla, tactical tidbits, and other relevant thoughts -- are now a regular weekly thing. All previous editions can be found here.

Four observations

Mateo Kovacic, box-to-box and in our hearts

It’s been a while since Mateo had his own observation in my column — all the way back to his monstrous performance at Camp Nou. And that’s not on him — he hasn’t played consistently since Kroos’ return from injury, even if he deserves better. If you zoom out and look at Real Madrid’s season up until now, Kovacic has been one of the team’s most important players, and certainly among the most consistent. It’s him that slots in with no drop-off when Kroos or Modric are injured, and it’s him that allows the team to float during adversity.

Kovacic is no longer a prospect, he’s here and ready to go — filling big shoes and filling our hearts too. Last season, among players who played above the league average in minutes, Kovacic was tied for third (alongside Mascherano and Pique) for highest pass completion rate in Spain — slinging just north of the 90% mark. The two above him? No surprise — Kroos and Modric. This season, although he’s down to sixth, his completion rate is actually higher (91.1). There is no reason why Kovacic can’t hover around that mark or higher for the entirety of his La Liga career if he continues to play the way he is.

He is the epitome of ‘taking pressure off your teammates’. Seriously, he just does absolutely everything without hesitation or fear. I would give my life for him.

Look at him double-down on the flank to take away Zaldua’s lunch money before providing an outlet for Nacho, taking the ball upfield like Poseidon and launching a counter attack out of seemingly nothing.

These are the plays that break schemes.

Remembering how good Varane’s distribution is

When Varane took La Liga by storm in 2012 — snuffing possession from Messi, bullying Cesc, and scoring goals against Barcelona — everyone was enamoured not just by his pace and defensive abilities, but also his passing. It’s nice to be reminded of just how good he is on the ball, or just how sharp his vision can be. Against Sociedad, it wasn’t just his nine clearances and two interceptions that stood out, but also his passing, specifically rainbow darts like this:

Nacho miss-controls the pass, otherwise Real Madrid go from 0-100 real quick.

Benzema does work hard, contrary to popular belief

Look — I get the criticism dished out to Benzema for missing chances. He’s in a slump since the match in Lisbon. But that match in Lisbon wasn’t that long ago, and it would be nice if fans had a longer leash when it comes to asking for beheadings.

Criticize the lack of goals, sure. But can we please stop saying he doesn’t work hard? Watch him from an aerial point-of-view when he doesn’t have the ball and you’ll know what I mean.

Marcos, the nucleus of Alaves

This may have been Marcos Llorente’s best match of the season, and it came against an incredibly difficult opponent in Atletico Madrid. But Alaves made Simeone’s men look not-so-difficult in the 0-0 draw. Yes, Atleti have been in a slump, but just as much as they have struggled, Alaves have looked impressive. Forget that they’ve already taken off a combined five points against Atleti and Barca this season while going undefeated in three matches — the eye test as the season progresses really is something. They hold their own in almost every game with their watertight scheme and pragmatic attack, and if they go down, they do it throwing as many jabs and uppercuts as they possibly can.

Against Atletico on Saturday, Pellegrino’s men had over 60% possession, 11 more shots, and 120 passes in the attacking third. That truly is something for a team that generally doesn’t have the ball and patiently absorbs waves of attack.

As I’ve mentioned before, because Alaves doesn’t have much of the ball in general terms, Llorente’s passing rate is often subdued. Vertical outlets aren’t always present (which is the devil’s advocate to fans who look at all of Llorente’s horizontal passes on the dashboard and scream for more Kroos-like distribution), and Llorente tends to distribute it to whoever is hovering around him after he retains possession.

But give Alaves the ball and bask in the Llorente show. He was the nucleus of Alaves’ possession on Saturday, completing 77 of his 86 passing attempts.

Alaves look to Llorente as the chieftain, the one who will compose the team and bring serenity when the air starts sizzling. These are my favorite types of players — the ones who always want the ball in midfield. These are the engines.

Nothing to report on Castilla this week, because..

Sam Sharpe and I will be recording a long overdue Castilla podcast sometime Tuesday night to share our thoughts on Odegaard, and how Castilla are coping without him. We’ll link you up here when it’s published.

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