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January Observations: Part Two

Kiyan’s latest column: On the contagious defensive energy of Sergio Ramos, Fede Valverde’s positioning, Odriozola’s overloads, Vinicius’s gung-ho approach, and more.

Real Madrid v Girona - Copa del Rey Quarter Final Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/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.

Part one can be found here. Here’s part two:

The captain, providing energy

Individually, a lot of Real Madrid’s players have taken their time to wake up from their Decimotercera slumber. Ramos is one of them. Ditto Varane, Modric, Marcelo (among others — but those veterans are the face of it). They eventually wake up. The team goes through this nearly every season, which allows them to recoup form just in time for Champions League booby-traps — but buries them in the league title race far too early.

No one is claiming Real Madrid is ‘back’. This season feels different for obvious reasons we’ve discussed to death. But, it’s nice to finally see Modric looking like Modric again, or Ramos stepping up — leading his team by example with his work-rate and important defensive interventions:

That intervention came within the first 30 seconds of the game against Sevilla, after a Real Madrid giveaway. It may not seem like much, but it set the tone — flipping the script from the Sociedad game where an early giveaway led to a penalty. Ramos was brilliant against Sevilla — he won six aerial duels and had four interceptions. His energy was contagious:

That gets measured as a tackle statistically — nothing more. There’s an intangible jolt, though. When Ramos runs across the field to keep the ball in play after stopping the counter, it’s not an other-worldly physical feat. But, being at the Bernabeu, the response to that play was deafening. We spoke about that moment among the journalists after the game as a standout juncture — only because it represented what fans have been thirsty for amid this disappointing season. That play fed into the team’s collective energy and roused the stadium.

It was a good sequence — not a great one. But these are desperate times, and that electricity trickles into the the team’s nervous system.

Quiet, solid Fede

Nothing Fede Valverde does particularly stands out. Don’t let that fool you. He doesn’t dwell on the ball, and knows where the ball is going before he gets it. He zips it to his target without holding the ball, covers well defensively, and none of it is flashy. He provides a bit more tracking than Kroos (who is more of a presser and hounder than a back-tracking midfielder) to cover surging runs from either Marcelo of Reguilon:

There are several hype trains leaving this season. Vinicius and Llorente have already departed. Sources say if you didn’t buy a ticket already, you’re out of luck. There were a few seats remaining on the Marcos Express, but I bought them all. Valverde doesn’t get headlines, and to be sure, jumping the gun with him at this point makes little sense, but he’s been subtly efficient, and his stock is rising. It all started with his impressive Champions League debut against Plzen at the Bernabeu, where he picked up the ball right away and looked vertically with his first touch.

He could have done better at the Benito Villamarin providing outlets for Modric who was in a pickle with the ball, but the entire team struggled in that sense, and Solari has a collective problem to solve when it comes to holding the ball in tight spots.

Odriozola’s offensive runs

Usually nothing good happens when you provide Real Madrid with a high line to attack. You can somewhat mask it with a good press, but in Girona’s case, their press just wasn’t good enough to compensate or shield their backline. Bale has feasted on those naive schemes in the past, and with him out, Vinicius has taken that mantle (and even raising the call). Odriozola’s speed is just one more weapon:

Odriozola needs to cut that back to Benzema. Even if the pass is tight, it’s a gamble he needs to take. On a previous play, a nearly identical sequence sees him find Lucas Vazquez for an assist.

Despite getting his pocket picked on Girona’s first goal of the game, he had a couple defensive sequences where he prevents a goalscoring chance based on pace alone — recovering from an advance position in record time. Achrafesque. That’s one of his better traits — but he needs to work on being in better sync with his defensive line. Sometimes he’s hedged too far when there’s no coverage, and other times he’s behind everyone, stifling an offside trap.

But he needs to do better when space is limited. He had a field day against Leganes in the first leg of the round-of-16, but was taken out of the game away at Alaves and Leganes when the defenders dared him to dribble past them:

Against Leganes and Alaves away, if he wasn’t getting dispossessed, he was putting in a cross to a tightly marked short player (like Vinicius or Lucas), or hitting a blind cross when no Real Madrid players were in the box. Some better decision-making sees him recycling possession to move the defense around a bit. Maybe Mariano and / or Bale returning and throwing around players in the area would help too.

Dani Ceballos, off-ball android

Nothing new. Ceballos just always knows where to be:

Gung-ho Vinicius

Is it possible to talk about Vinicius too much? Probably not. It’s actually entirely possible to devote every bullet point of this column to the Brazilian attacker, who never runs out of energy to take players on; nor does he lose confidence when dispossessed. He just attacks, attacks, and attacks — without conscience. He was raw — still is — but he’s starting to cook. Bad decision-making is churning into coherent build-up. He’s not a selfish player. Against Girona he slung six key passes. He looks for the square pass when he cuts in from the left continually.

Only one option for Vinny when he gets the ball, and that is to drive forward:

And when the ball leaves his feet, drive forward again to give his team offensive options:

That’s his offense — relentless in his pursuit to punish napping defenders, and keeping them honest and guessing. Defenders have to be on guard at all times. If there’s one defender in his wake, Vinicius can skin him with a shoulder feint and some speed. Send multiple defenders over to help guard him, and he’ll cut inside for a square pass or diagonal switch to an open player. If Bale can mirror that on the right (you just never know if you’re going to get passive-Bale or Alpha-Bale from one game to the next), and you shouldn’t have many problems creating danger.

Not paying enough attention to celebrations

I don’t pay enough attention to celebrations. I consider myself as well-connected to this club as anyone out there. I study the team for a living, watch more game-film than anyone should, have formed connections within the club, and immerse myself in its history.

I know next to nothing about player celebrations — not since becoming a journalist, anyway. Maybe it’s due to the fact that I either leave the room celebrating, or just start typing away frantically at my notes while looking at replays to dissect the goal.

Sergio Ramos did a funky Raul / Cristiano Ronaldo hybrid celebration in the Club World Cup where he did the full roundhouse-spin while pointing to the back of shirt. It blew my mind. Apparently it’s something he’s done before.

Against Girona, I learned that Ramos and Vazquez have a handshake:

It was nothing new, I was told. But after some research, I’ve discovered that the handshake has actually evolved, and its current form is a simplified dap of the following previous iterations:

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