Before diving into the numbers, the following is a preamble to set the stage. Positional combos were introduced in this article and the first edition of the statistical best eleven was published here. Those articles contain the background and detailed explanation of the methodology utilized to derive the line-up. The basis of the analysis is the net differential goal and shot on target numbers for when certain groups of players (by positions) are on the field together. It borrows from the concept of plus-minus which is a popular stat in sports like basketball and hockey.
The Classic Back Four
Zidane has shown minimal signs of deviating from his preferred and Real Madrid’s main defensive unit for over a decade now. Ramos and Varane are unquestionably the manager’s primary center back pairing. Carvajal also has full ownership of the right back position with the only area Zidane seems to be exploring potential alternatives for being left-back. The two most played defensive line-ups this season to date are Carvajal-Marcelo-Ramos-Varane (D02) and Carvajal-Mendy-Ramos-Varane (D121) with the former accumulating 433 minutes and the latter 427 minutes.
The Carvajal-Marcelo-Ramos-Varane average the best goal difference and shots on target difference on the team. Having played the most minutes lends some credence to the significance of their statistical superiority as it’s less likely to have been affected by sample size (at least less so than other defensive combinations). Delving a little deeper into the numbers, this defensive unit concedes a goal every 217 minutes (team best) and allows a shot on target every 43 minutes.
The second best defensive pairing (the same unit but featuring Mendy instead of Marcelo) matches these numbers relatively closely. However, the offensive performance of the team in the Marcelo line compared to the Mendy line highlights the key difference. The team with Marcelo’s defensive unit scores every 29 minutes compared to Mendy’s 43 minutes. That translates to an increase in the rate of scoring when Marcelo plays of approximately 32%(!).
Valverde – the hype is real
The emergence of Valverde has been one of the most notable and positive notes of the season. The Uruguayan seized his opportunity with both hands and repaid Zidane’s faith in his abilities in full. The young midfielder’s rise sees him feature as part of the most utilized midfield combination: Casemiro-Kroos-Valverde (M117). This combination has played 403 minutes and in that time have averaged one of the best goal (+11 overall) and shot on target (+27 overall) differentials. The other statistical standout combination is Casemiro-Modrić-Valverde (M108) also featuring none other than the man of the hour.
There has been plenty written about why Valverde’s introduction into the team has revitalized the midfield. His industry, intensity, and defensive intelligence provides additional coverage which combined with Casemiro’s world-class recovery play has reinforced defensive integrity. In addition, Valverde’s mobility and vibrancy activates the offense as he increases numerical presence in advanced zones and facilitates dynamic possession through optimal positioning (guided by Kroos and/Modric’s masterful choreography). The impact on both ends of the field is clear. The team with Casemiro-Kroos-Valverde midfield has yet to concede a goal and are scoring at an eye catching rate of a goal every 37 minutes. Similarly, the Casemiro-Modrić-Valverde midfield has only conceded one goal and are producing a goal every 17(!) minutes in their 132 minutes on the field.
Hazard and the Brazilian dynamos showcase their value
At the beginning of the season, I wrote an article hypothesizing that the missing piece to Real Madrid’s offense, especially in the post-Ronaldo world, was dribbling (or more precisely, progressive dribbling). The below graphic summarizes the key tactical attributes of dribbling.
Real Madrid’s season so far appears to have somewhat proved the diagnosis right as Hazard, Vinicius, and Rodrygo have all significantly bolstered the quality of the team’s attack and feature in the best forward units.
The two offensive line-ups that have led to the most success on the field are Benzema-Hazard-Rodrygo (O148) (282 minutes played) and Bale-Benzema-Vinícius (O111) (99 minutes played). Neither have conceded a goal while on the pitch and are scoring goals approximately every half an hour and generating shots on target every 10 minutes.
Real Madrid Team of the Season so far
Minutes played: 183
Goals for: 7
Goals Against: 0
Shots on Target Difference: 15
NB: Major caveats to this analysis are 1) the limited sample size 2) the quality of opposition hasn’t been isolated to normalize the statistics and 3) positional categorizations are based on nominal assignments and may not capture the fluid nature of player roles as they evolve/change during matches and as the year progresses.