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.
Three observations this week.
Achraf Hakimi as a midfield winger
That’s four straight games now that Borussia Dortmund head coach Lucien Favre has deployed Achraf as a winger: Against Inter Milan, Borussia Mönchengladbach, Freiburg, and Slavia Prague. He’s split those advanced positions into both sides of the field: twice on the left, and twice on the right.
It is not his best position, and Dortmund have no shortage of zippy wingers — Jadon Sancho, Marco Reus, Thorgan Hazard — they could player there instead. Their alternative at right-back once Hakimi takes a winger slot at times is Manuel Akankji — a makeshift wing-back who’s looked shaky.
But in those aforementioned games, Achraf hasn’t looked half-bad as a winger, and even had two of his best games of the season as a left winger — scoring twice against Slavia Prague from that position, and then scoring again against Freiburg the following match. His biggest test — on the right wing against Inter Milan in the Champions League on Wednesday — was less straightforward, but interesting to reflect on now.
Putting Achraf out wide in an advanced position gives Favre interesting options. It allows Sancho, Brandt, and Hazard to play more centrally, and relieves Sancho specifically from a stationed right-wing role. Against Inter, Sancho roamed freely without worrying about deep defensive duties helping his right-back. He’d come over to the left to help Hazard (who wasn’t having any luck on his own against Inter’s water-tight defensive scheme), or swing the ball out-wide to Achraf on a cross-field switch. It also generally allows Favre to put his three favourite wing-backs — Achraf, Lukasz Piszczek and Raphael Guerreiro — together.
Dortmund didn’t have much space to work with against Inter. Some of the defensive sequences from Antonio Conte that night were masterful — reminiscent of Atleti in the 2015 - 2016 season. No matter how much Dortmund recycled possession they were unable to persuade Inter out of their stance. On the left, Hazard was paralyzed, and it didn’t help that he had Nico Shulz — who had a nightmare performance on both ends of the field — behind him. Most (any) of Dortmund’s magic came through quick switches to an open Achraf, who had limited space but could use his pace and quick 1-2s to make something happen:
But even on rare Dortmund breaks, Inter recovered well to close him down:
What’s interesting about this new-found role, is that we’re seeing Achraf in unprecedented positions for long sequences. Look where he moves to once he releases the ball at the top of the play — moving centrally in Zone 14 before getting the ball back on the left:
Achraf had 100 touches against Inter — the most of anyone on the field — but didn’t conjure anything significant offensively against an elite defensive opponent. His best position is still as a wing-back where he can provide devastating overloads. He may have a future in a Jesus Navas type role as a wing-back who takes advantage of good coverage and underlapping runs zipping ahead of him.
Rodrygo Goes, cool and composed
Rodrygo was a surprise figure in Zinedine Zidane’s starting XI against Galatasary — in a must-win game with pressure on both manager and team to pull through. Zidane trusted Rodrygo over James Rodriguez and Vinicius Jr. (and various other possible schematic shuffles). It worked.
Rodrygo looked quiet compared to others as most of Real Madrid’s attack was funnelled through the opposite flank where Toni Kroos, Karim Benzema, Marcelo, and Eden Hazard siphoned counters. But Rodrygo was good. He passed all his defensive assignments, and though he wasn’t part of the combined 12 key passes that Kroos, Benzema, and Marcelo conjured, his composed nature in attack acted as a release valve in tight spots.
Plus Rodrygo wasn’t that quiet. He still had two more touches (in three more minutes) than Hazard. Off the ball, he was there when Carvajal was caught:
Some of his work-rate off the ball confirms one simple thing: This kid works hard. It brings us back full-circle to something we tend to overemphasize: That ‘Lucas Vazquez plays because he works hard’. You know who else works hard? Almost everybody, including spicy wingers who bring a dose of flair to the attack, like Vinicius and Rodrygo. Zidane can roll with those young creative players who improve your offense, without having to worry about a defensive drop off.
Zidane choosing Rodrygo over James for a game like this could’ve been down to the Brazilian’s ability to blitz past defenders on the right — giving him the most ‘Bale-like’ alternative he has on the bench. Some of Rodrygo’s silky shoulder drops and change-of-pace dribbles are awesome, and give the attack a quick jolt while the defense scrambles recovering from a break in formation:
There is a nice composure to him as he reads passing lanes and calculates a path to get himself open, and in turn, find open players:
Within seconds of the game kicking off in Istanbul, Rodrygo’s press was backed by Fede Valverde expertly cutting off a pass fully knowing that’s where the ball was going to go. The Brazilian then peels off the shoulder of the wing-back for an early chance:
It will be interesting to see how Rodrygo fits in the puzzle now. Bale might be the de facto starter when healthy — but it’s anyone’s guess when that is on any given day. Vinicius has not been as effective as hoped on that side. James can excel there in a 4-3-3 — but his fit there is tricky if Zidane wants a more traditional two-way winger. We likely won’t see Marco Asensio until next season, and Brahim seems behind in the pecking order. We may see Rodrygo more than initially anticipated.
Sergio Reguilon has bite
After a mini blip in September, Sevilla are surging again. The only match they haven’t won since that back-to-back loss to Real Madrid and Eibar was the 4 - 0 loss to Barcelona at the Camp Nou, where, to everyone’s surprise, they actually played well enough to win, but unfortunately were relying on Luuk de Jong to finish the chances they were creating. They’ve lost just three games all season, and sit just three points back of Barcelona at the top.
Their defense still needs patchwork, and they still don’t have a reliable goalscorer — none of that sounds promising, to be sure — but hey, they have Reguilon! If you make my column two weeks in a row, you’ve done something right. What continues to be exciting about Reguilon is the leap he’s taken offensively, but revisiting that game in the Camp Nou brought me to some of his intangible traits: his fight, his hunger. It was cool to see him go back-and-forth with Messi and Suarez last season in the Bernabeu. He doesn’t back down. We got another taste of that Suarez - Reguilon duel again in October, where, even though his team lost, Suarez held his own against Suarez and Barca’s left flank:
Only Lucas Ocampos completes more dribbles than Reguilon per 90 (among qualified players) on the entire team. Only Ever Banega slings more key passes per 90. Reguilon is like (a poor man’s) Marcelo — a left-back who acts as the creative fulcrum of the team.
Reguilon has seen a statistical jump this season in: key passes, long balls (his cross-field switching after cutting inside has been great), and successful dribbles.
He continues to read the game well:
Reguilon starts off narrow defensively, and just as Sergi Roberto thinks he has space to burn the flank, Reguilon picks off the pass.
What happens to Reguilon after this loan spell remains one of the more intriguing decision Real Madrid have to make next summer.