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Raw Achraf Is Starting to Cook

Taking a look at some of Achraf’s most underrated qualities, particularly his defensive IQ

Girona v Real Madrid - La Liga Photo by Alex Caparros/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.

There were rightful concerns over Achraf’s rushed development, and the overall urgency to get him into the first team this season. There was no real pressure to sell Danilo — an unfulfilled, yet decent rotational piece — and Achraf was on his path of natural progress at Castilla. It was time for him to graduate Solari’s school of tactical chaos, but it seemed almost clear that he’d take a stepping stone elsewhere, the same way Marcos Llorente and Jesus Vallejo did before joining the A-squad. Instead, Man City cut Real Madrid a big cheque for Danilo, and Real Madrid said ‘OK’ — adding the funds to the rising pile of cash they had acquired for other role players — and took a leap of faith with Hakimi.

When Alvaro Odriozola didn’t arrive from Real Sociedad this summer, Achraf’s spot in the team became more and more real, and when the season started, even the skeptics (*raises hand*) started to accept (forced or otherwise) trust in Zidane’s squad-building decisions. Besides, the Frenchman has earned that right.

What’s surprised us the most about Achraf this season: how much better he’s been defensively than he’s been offensively. With Castilla, Achraf would blitz past defenders so fast he’d leave a trail of smoke and fire behind his road-runner legs. He’d regularly out-pace wingers and full-backs to get into space and put in a dangerous cross. We haven’t seen that version of Achraf consistently yet. His confidence in beating his man with the ball at his feet is low, still, and his crosses have been off the mark. But, get this kid into open water, and few can thwart his incisive runs into space. We saw it against Sevilla when he scored, and throughout the game he made the day miserable for Franco Vazquez and Lionel Carole.

This sequence, from start to finish, all in the span of 45 seconds, is great:

Achraf is barely on the screen yet at the top of this play, but by the time Modric receives the ball and looks up, the Moroccan has already blurred himself up the field beyond Carole’s blindspot. Modric slings the ball up field, and Achraf’s low-driven ball is blocked and cleared, at which point Achraf has already out-gunned Nolito from a handicapped position to ensure Real Madrid remains in possession. Fast forward till the end: It’s Achraf again who hedges centrally to retain the ball again, assuring Sevilla don’t breathe in their own third.

Hakimi has tools — highly encouraging ones. The fact that he’s struggled in some areas offensively, but looked good without the ball overall is a good sign — it means he brings things to the table that are conducive to Real Madrid winning even in games where his offense labours. He knows where to be, and when he’s caught out, his pace can get him back into the correct spots in record time.

How many times have we seen Achraf this season look like he’s about to fall behind, only to laugh at all of us, rev the engine, and turn on cruise control until the deed is done?:

Poor Muriel thinks he’s shaken off Achraf three separate times, but he can’t. Hakimi is like a mini-Dhalsim.

Pace is a good fall-back, but relying on it as your first play can be troublesome. Couple it with IQ, and you’re cooking. Achraf has both. Against Tottenham, and generally in times where we’ve seen Achraf (and the team collectively), most vulnerable, the Moroccan still shows us good things on the defensive end. Against Sevilla, his defensive awareness was something that stood out. He cut off passing lanes, clamped down on man-to-man defending, and anticipated where the ball would go:

There is a lot that goes into defending the flanks: Understanding when to shift forward and when to pull into reverse, knowing when you have coverage and when you don’t, knowing when to double-up on the ball-carrier and when not to, and understanding the delicate art of attacking crosses while monitoring the far-post. You have to be positionally woke while reading the field as oppose to gazing on the ball in a vacuum.

Here you can see Achraf checking over his shoulder to calculate where Nolito is. As he runs to cover, he can track both the crossing lane as well as the man, and is in a great position to snuff out the attack:

Individually, certain players in Real Madrid’s defensive scheme have looked worse than they are. Schematic issues, namely flooding the final third with almost an entire lineup while relying on back-peddling gurus (Vallejo, Varane, Casemiro, Nacho, etc) to snuff out attacks single-handedly have been the biggest culprit. These things are preventable.

Not to extract more than we need to from the Club World Championship — a tournament which, with all due respect, is much lower in analytical value than a Super Cup or Copa del Rey tie — but we saw these issues surface against Al Jazira. Maybe we’re crazy for reading into it, but we do it because it’s not a unique issue to that match alone — it was an exaggerated version of the defensive gambles we’ve seen multiple times this season.

Real Madrid gave zero respect to Al Jazira’s counter-attacking abilities — something we won’t take too seriously given they’ll never go this gung-ho against, let’s say, PSG. They wanted that opening goal so badly amid the VAR confusion and Khaseif’s Morpheus-like reflexes that they neglected what was bound to happen in defensive transition. A packed midfield with elite players such as Casemiro, Kovacic, and Modric should not suffer this badly -- but it did. Again, schematic kinks. Before Real Madrid conceded their goal, it was Achraf who used his pace and reading to drift centrally and snuff out a counter-attack that had otherwise broken-through:

Pull those gambles off, and it looks great. But don’t get there in time, and you’re in trouble:

That was the counter-attack that finally ‘broke’ Real Madrid — all because the team gambled forward, and Achraf, like he had done so well on the previous sequence, didn’t close down the pass this time. Once Al Jazira is through, Achraf can help prevent the goal by doubling-up on Romarinho and helping Varane cut off the inside, but he has no choice but to hedge back as Nacho is not there in time to cut off the potential pass to Ali Mabkhout (#7 in your picture).

Achraf has flaws. We’d be lying to ourselves if we painted him as an infallible future unicorn. He’s not. But we’ve seen enough signs from him, namely his pace and defensive IQ, to be more excited about him than we are skeptical. His rawness is starting to cook.

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