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The State of Real Madrid’s Wing-backs, and Other Observations from Real Madrid’s Season

Kiyan Sobhani’s latest column: Eight observation from this season.

Photo by Octavio Passos/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 thing. All previous editions can be found here.

Sorry for the column hiatus. I took a break to focus on my book. I’m back. Let’s go.

Lucas Vazquez, right back

Real Madrid generally has no concern about right-back options moving forward. They have Achraf Hakimi on loan — we all know how that’s going — alongside Dani Carvajal and Alvaro Odriozola. In two summers they’ll have to choose who to ride with out of those three — or, maybe they can march forward with all of them, relying on Achraf’s switch-ability between the flanks. Until Achraf returns, assuming he does, the team is still well-stocked at that position, especially when you throw another character, Lucas Vazquez, into the discussion.

We don’t have a ton of sample size of Lucas as right-back to draw definitive conclusions about how much he should (or shouldn’t) play there — and that’s probably a good thing given that it’s not his natural position; but he’s played there in a pickle before. In January of 2017, Vazquez played as a right-back against Malaga — providing some great overloads, diagonal passes, and crosses. But his winger-like tendencies were ominous, as he was exploited defensively, forgetting that there wasn’t a wing-back covering him even when facing a slow-paced offensive build-up.

He had similar issues against Viktoria Plzen, where his positioning saw him caught out and unable to recover in time on three separate occassions in the first half when the visitors threatened. That part of his game, if he’s deployed at right-back sporadically, will probably remain. Maybe he can transition into a semi-regular wing-back in a 3-5-2 the way Jesus Navas has morphed into with Sevilla — but Vazquez is much better defensively when he’s asked to act as a two-way winger to support the full-back’s runs; or helping by doubling-up on the flank.

Despite Vazquez’s reliability over the years, it’s intriguing that he’s been chosen over the projected understudy at the right-back slot more than once. Last season, when Real Madrid hosted Bayern in the Champions League; Zidane started Vazquez over Achraf when Carvajal was injured. We saw Lopetegui start Vazquez over Odriozola once, while preferring Lucas as the team’s wing-back in the 3-5-2 shuffle off the bench in the Clasico. Achraf was a low-risk promotion last season; but Odriozola’s backseat was strange, given he was a 40m investment and an already established La Liga player. Solari has trusted him more.

Maybe Odriozola (not being known as a defensive bulwark) doesn’t solve the defensive issues the team had in that last string of poor defensive performances before Lopetegui was jettisoned. Against Alaves and Espanyol, his speed got him on the end of some brilliant defensive interventions; But he also had some naive errors, kept players onside, and dribbled into opponents. Overall, his dribbling ability and trait of getting in accurate crosses in tight spaces has been encouraging. He’s ‘The Flash’ for a reason. But Nacho and Vazquez aren’t turtles — and even amid their bad positioning, Lopetegui had no solutions to help his wing-backs. Bale’s position has been higher than normal for a few months — stemming back to the Zidane era; and not he nor Modric were in sight to help Nacho in the Clasico. Against Plzen, Vazquez also had the difficulty of looking for a stagnant Bale to provide an overload, and there was nothing — despite Modric’s on-field protests.

For a team that has relied so heavily on its full-backs in the modern era, overloads like this, which Vazquez has provided well in his limited time as a wing-back, are always important:

Something that got lost during the disastrous in-season wave of bad performances, results, and firing of Lopetegui was how well the team switched the play at the beginning of the season. As Real built-up heavily on the left through Isco, Kroos, and Marcelo; one of those three was able to paralyze the opposing defense by switching it to a wide-open Carvajal. All that good stuff kind of just waned as Real Madrid regressed.

The disappearance of all that switching is hard to explain. Quick, diagonal switches came easy to Lopetegui’s men early on against Leganes, Getafe, and Roma. Opponents became more compact in their schemes once the scouting report got out — but that doesn’t explain the sudden stagnancy of the front-three and lack of vertical play and switching. The switches completely vanished against Alaves, where Abelardo’s men denied Odriozola and Nacho space (in a correlation with the team’s struggles, Real Madrid generated an absurdly low .45xg at Mendizorroza). Marcelo hit some great switches in the first half to Lucas and Benzema against Plzen; but we haven’t seen those defense-splitting passes often enough since Roma.

That incisiveness, confidence, off-ball movement, and quick vertical football needs to return, and the early returns under Solari have been (cautiously) good. There are still plenty of capable world-class players on this team to save the season. Someone needs to help unearth their form.

The Reguilón experience

In five appearances this season, Sergio Reguilón has been one of the team’s most reliable players. A five-game sample size is what it is, and he’ll have his struggles, but the eye-test with him until now has been good. Offensively, he’s provided more than Nacho. He combines well with the left midfielder to conjure quick one-twos and accurate crosses, sees a lot of the ball go through him as Real Madrid funnel possession through the flanks, and he’s been reliable defensively. Against Celta Vigo he pocketed Hugo Mallo until his half-time injury.

There is almost non-existent data (or enough to form a conclusion) through his two La Liga appearances other than encouraging signs. In those two cameos, his three key passes per-game are the best of any defender in the league, and he’s trustworthy reading passing lanes:

Reguilón was easily one of Castilla’s best players last season. His two-way presence on the left flank was part of the reason why the team’s defense looked so solid; while so much of Castilla’s (albeit little) offensive production came through the left with Quezada combining well with the left-back.

Solari’s somewhat surprise appointment is a good omen for Reguilón, and probably for the team’s wingback situation overall. With Marcelo’s injury — and much-needed sporadic rest throughout the season — Sergio’s development is huge, as Nacho has looked like a liability this season in terms of offensive production. Since the World Cup, his ability to beat defenders or provide efficient overloads just hasn’t manifested itself, and Reguilón looks like a really good option if he continues the path he’s started on.

A good indicator of a player’s ‘readiness’ is always how comfortable he looks from the start. Reguilon has shown no signs of nerves. Ditto Javi Sanchez (who put in a really important defensive intervention in the second half against Celta amid a makeshift defensive line) and Mario Hermoso, who’s another Castilla graduate playing well at Espanyol. These Castilla defenders haven’t been bad — especially when you throw Diego Llorente and Achraf into the mix.

Odriozola, no cover + adjustment

Wing-backs again, I know. It’s just such a big part of Real Madrid, and so much of the team’s result hinges on whether the flanks are efficient or not.

Most famously, the defending on the flanks in the Camp Nou was a disaster — but problems behind full-backs have been skittered throughout the season. In Real Madrid’s emphatic win away to Plzen, before the goal-brigade began, Odriozola was caught with no cover. Once things settled, Casemiro was the one coming over to help throughout the game — but before that, Plzen created three good opportunities from that space. Sometimes it was through Real Madrid’s high-line where Odriozola was chasing a player. In the below sequence, when Odriozola didn’t have someone doubling-up on the wing in a slower build-up, it was chaos. This stuff is preventable:

Kroos isn’t in a position to get to the cutter in time, so he opts to close the cut-back to the top of the box instead — allowing the Plzen attacker to square it near post.

After about half hour, there was an adjustment made.

Casemiro went on to have several important defensive interventions that night, helping Odriozola in the process. It was a subtle — yet nice — change. It was an adjustment we never saw in el Clasico.

Welcome to the big stage, Javi Sanchez

No one is happier (other than Javi Sanchez, and probably his immediate family members) for Javi than me. He’s looked too good for Castilla for at least a year now. Javi is composed with the ball at his feet, is a good distributor, can be a ball-carrier if needed, and has a calming presence about him. He has not looked out of place so far upon being promoted (on a case-to-case basis) this season.

Again, he had a crucial intervention late when Celta gained some momentum at Balaidos and looked great against Melilla (admittedly this is a very low bar). But those who’ve watched Castilla regularly aren’t surprised at how well Javi reads the game:

Real Madrid often plays a high line. When possession is lost, you need your defenders to step up efficiently to snuff counter-attacks.

Javi is 21. He is by no means a finished product nor is he a sure thing. But if he keeps playing this way he may lessen the blow of not having Vallejo around regularly, or naively staying out of the center-back market in the last two seasons after losing Pepe.

It’s nice to see Javi Sanchez rewarded for his good play.

Pressing under Solari

The fluctuation in Real Madrid’s pressing over the years, under three different coaches now, has been interesting, and even frustrating. There does not seem to be any specific pattern or degree of predictability to it within the over-arching scheme. Zidane often implemented it masterfully, and other times kept it in his pocket. Even Lopetegui, who is known as this counter-pressing guru, never truly actually implemented juego de posicion to its core. Some days Real Madrid retained possession quickly and swiftly — other times none at all. Some games Real would press in a disjointed manner and get blown away; and in other matches, they opted to press efficiently after the hour-mark, finally stifling the opposition’s build-ups when they hedged back prior.

Solari is not one that presses consistently. His Castilla teams were good defensively, but with more traditional, route-one methods: plug the flanks, field an anchor surrounded by box-to-box midfielders, and put numbers behind the ball. That is an overgeneralization, to be sure, as we did see sporadic pressing, but it’s not something he aggressively enforces. In his first string of A-team games, we’ve already seen Real Madrid drop deeper without the ball, with Benzema spearheading the team around the half-way line while midfielders close passing lanes behind him.

Real Madrid allow 10.38 passes per defensive action in the opposition’s half under Solari — the seventh most of any team in Spain. That’s an uptick from 8.95 under Lopetegui, where the team ranked as the sixth most aggressive pressing team in La Liga.

But sometimes, that narrative shifts in moments where the team seemingly wants to throw a different look at their opponents — as was the case against Valladolid, where Real didn’t press in the first half before clicking into another gear in the second.

First half:

Second half:

When the team dies, Casemiro reacts

Casemiro, the ever-polarizing figure -- the player that causes the fanbase to curl in their chairs when being pressed deep in his own half — continually remains one of the best counter-disrupters on earth. When the team suffers a mechanical failure and borderline just dies in front of him, he shines:

These tests that Casemiro faces throughout a match are almost unfair. Many thought he might perish into irrelevancy during Lopetegui’s possession-based scheme — that the team might not need him if the emphasis is on keeping the ball and winning it high up the pitch.

It wasn’t entirely unfounded. As we noted during our debut-video for School of Real Madrid on the team’s offensive struggles, Casemiro, as a more-defined anchor this season, would often be the player dropping between the center-backs to help with the build-up. It’s not really his game (though you could argue it should be, given his position), so you’d see Kroos drop back as a second outlet to help with the deep-lying playmaking duties, thieving an extra player from midfield who could get behind the lines. When you have good passing central defenders in Ramos and Varane, having two players drop deep and frustratingly search for outlets isn’t necessary.

Against Girona, Barcelona, and Alaves, Casemiro really struggled holding possession when he was pressed. He had his frail moments with the ball against Roma too, but that game was so comfortable for Real Madrid that one mistake here and there wasn’t a big deal.

(You could stretch his bad passing and ball control to other games too — but we really can’t single that out to just him. Almost everyone has been uncharacteristically bad passing out of the back this season. Kroos gifted a goal in Moscow, and the entire team was awful at the Camp Nou.)

But take him out, and you’ll see issues that can arise if you don’t have the right scheme. Real Madrid have experimented playing without Casemiro in the past, with 4-2-3-1’s with two of Kovacic, Modric, or Kroos as a double-pivot, and the transition defense looked just fine in those situations. But a less-natural anchor won’t have the exact same feel to the game, and against Valladolid when Casemiro (who was ironically, the most likely player to score in that match until the change) came off for Isco, you saw Valladolid put in unchallenged counter-attacks where Casemiro would’ve been. It really depends on the situation, the scoreline, and the scheme. If you play without a traditional anchor, you have to mask that void in other ways.

Turns out, that all those who were worried about Casemiro’s role in a counter-pressing scheme (which has been inconsistent), can relax. He and Ceballos have been the best at this trait — both quickly flipping possession back the right way when the ball is lost.

Love him or hate him (I hope you don’t actually hate him, because he’s a genuinely fantastic person), it’s hard to see Real Madrid without the Brazilian.

Running out of ideas

A good sequence (that was apparent throughout the entire match, and not unique to this particular moment) that illustrates why Real Madrid had a string of bad offensive games under Lopetegui:

Real Madrid do nothing particularly wrong in this sequence. They actually do most of the things they should be doing. Asensio and Ceballos move behind the lines, there is quick switching, and there is an activeness without the ball. But CSKA defended well, and stifled the wing-backs while also plugging channels centrally — a similar blueprint to what Croatia adopted in the first half of their recent 3 - 2 win over Spain in the UEFA Nations League.

Some of Lopetegui’s offensive woes were down to bad luck and good defense — but there was also a lot of stagnancy that he didn’t rectify too. Here’s to hoping Solari can figure out those low-blocks a bit better.

This Gareth Bale handshake

Throwing in something random so no one takes me too seriously. It’s cute that Casemiro is not on the same page as Bale the way Varane is.

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