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Fede Valverde’s Energy and Off-ball Movement is Ridiculous

Kiyan Sobhani’s column this week is on Fede’s ability to cover ground, and three other observations including Carvajal’s season, Javi Hernandez, and Reguilon’s offensive leap

Club Atletico de Madrid v Real Madrid CF - La Liga Photo by TF-Images/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.

Four observations this week:

Fede Valverde covers ground

When we say Fede Valverde covers an insane amount of ground within a short time, this is what we mean:

Did you catch it? Let’s freeze three frames.

That’s him with the ball at his feet as the deepest outfield player:

Eight seconds later, he’s the highest player on the pitch:

Eight seconds after that, he’s tracking back to win the ball:

That sort of movement throws defensive lines out of whack. Players arriving in the final third from deeper positions are hard to track and will generate good attacking opportunities. Some of that movement can be chaotic at times — but Fede isn’t the anchor in this formation, and has good coverage as Zidane signals him forward.

This is all by design. Zidane has publicly lauded Fede’s ability to move constantly and cover ground. “He’s asking me to improve my physical condition in order to press, go and return,” Valverde said to the Uruguayan press during international duty.

“[He also asks me to] try to arrive in the [opposition] penalty area and he always jokes that I shoot at the goalkeeper because I do it in training, but bit by bit I’m going to get used to it.”

Zidane has asked for more intensity ever since Real Madrid lost in Paris, and Fede fits the mould he’s looking for. The Uruguayan wins 2.4 of his 3.4 tackles per 90 mins — the fifth best on the team behind Ferland Mendy, James Rodriguez, Casemiro, and Carvajal (four others with relentless off-ball motors). Fede will get into those spots that Zidane wants him to, and even shoots at the goalkeeper like Zidane predicted:

Again, it’s his movement without the ball. As soon as he releases the pass, Valverde moves into the box, taking advantage of Granada’s terrible communication and defending on cutting runs.

His passing and positioning still needs polishing, but Fede has a unique skill-set, and plenty of time to improve his game.

Carvajal at left-back was a good fix

When Real Madrid rolled into the match against Granada without Marcelo, Mendy and Nacho, the theorizing began on what Zidane would do without his only natural left-backs in the squad. Bale at left-back? Militao? 3-5-2? Turns out having Carvajal simply swap flanks would work just fine. (And this is the solution that was ultimately expected.)

One of my favourite wrinkles to Carvajal’s game this season (which is not new, but heavily emphasized by Zidane now), is the freedom to gun down the pitch after he wins possession deep. Zidane’s scheme has been riddled with pass-and-move sequences this season to create numerical superiority in the final third. The last thing defenders expect is for a wing-back to join the attack and act as a target in the box:

Carvajal has made those same runs from the right this season — getting himself into the box as confused back-peddling defenders try to track an attacker they weren’t expecting to mark. His run to the center is what allows Kroos to receive the ball unmarked — with just enough time and space to make a caressed one-time pass to the onrushing left-back.

Carvajal as a left-back is a stopgap — a band-aid which patched a freak occurrence. But his performance there was fine, and it’s nice to know there wasn’t a big drop-off from that position (in, a very important caveat: a tiny sample size against Granada). He can cut in for his crosses from the left, get up the field, and shut down wingers who go at him:

Carvajal is an intelligent defender — he’s been solid defensively (with a few blips) during his long-enduring slump in form offensively. The season didn’t start out well for him, but he showed signs of life in September.

Javi Hernandez, an up-and-coming prospect

As I mentioned in last week’s mailbag, there is not a whole lot to be excited for in Castilla bar a few names — but Raul’s team has gradually improved, and will likely be in the playoff race by the end of the season. Players like Baeza, Fran Garcia, Sergio Lopez, Gila, and Pedro have stepped up. Franchu is always dangerous and has taken a leap defensively. You could argue the most exciting of them all is Javi Hernandez, who has taken Javi Sanchez’s mantle of commanding the backline.

Hernandez is versatile, and a multi-dimensional prospect. He’s a beast in the air — just a couple inches shorter than Sergio Ramos with a knack of getting to loose balls first. He’s a threat on set pieces, and mops up crosses about as well as any defender I’ve seen come through Castilla the last few years.

He can also play as left back or at the base of midfield. Like Saul or Casemiro, he’ll leave his post and arrive at the top of the box to sting a shot from long range:

He can also step into midfield while tracking an attacker’s runs to intercept a pass:

How you do in Castilla only means so much — we know this by now. But it’s interesting to keep an eye on these guys, and Javi Hernandez is a new exciting prospect to follow.

Sergio Reguilon is a serious offensive weapon

These pass-and-move sequences from deep are often the answer to breaking defensive lines:

Reguilon’s offensive game, namely his dribbling and movement, has been refreshing to watch this season:

Reguilon has been unchained by Lopetegui this season from an offensive standpoint. He plays a unique left-back role that we don’t see often in football unless you’re Pep Guardiola using Philip Lahm. Reguilon is often the underlap — the narrow player who makes runs down the half-space while the winger alongside him goes wide, and the center-back — often Carrićo — covers for him.

That offensive freedom has seen Reguilon take a jump from last season, where he was mostly a defensive solution under Santiago Solari to Real Madrid’s uncovered, gung-ho wing-backs. He’s improved nearly all his offensive metrics since last season: dribbles completed, key passes, and shots per game.

Reguilon was good offensively last season — it’s just that Lopetegui has him more of a focal point now, which makes his ability pop. He’s a ball-carrier and good dribbler. He gets into good positions offensively, or gets his team out of a tight spot consistently:

(The first sequence resulted in Joan Jordan scoring from a direct free-kick.)

Reguilon is proving to be a two-way stud. He’s been arguably the best left-back in the league until now. If you don’t move Marcelo this summer, you can’t lose Reguilon — loan him out for another year.

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