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 talking points I wanted to get into this week:
Casemiro beginning his peak
Casemiro completes 4.3 tackles per 90 minutes in the Champions League — the second most of any central midfielder who’s played all available minutes in the competition. Only Ilkay Gundogan shoots more per 90 among central midfielders who’ve soaked up thre full 270 games, and the Brazilian ranks in the 50th percentile of holding the ball without getting dispossessed. Not only is Casemiro the base of Zidane’s team, he’s heavily involved in what the team does on both ends of the field. There is a case — even with some of his wonky passing that’s clearly visible — that this is his best season ever. Casemiro turned 27 this year. We are in the beginning stages of his peak.
It’s hard to see this team function without Casemiro now — especially with Mateo Kovacic, the single most promising box-to-box midfielder who’s now thriving at Chelsea, gone from the ranks. Kovacic allowed Zidane to shift to a double-pivot without Casemiro, without suffering a defensive drop-off. The thinning midfield and decline to Modric makes things more dicey now, as exciting as Fede Valverde’s been. Casemiro is everywhere now, and so good at mopping up Marcelo’s forward runs:
Toni Kroos pulls that move often. When Marcelo hedges towards the ball-carrier, Kroos has the choice to track Marcelo’s (now open) man. He opts to close the imaginary diagonal passing lane instead which conserves his energy. Casemiro and Varane rotate one position over respectively to put out the fire.
Casemiro leads the team in interceptions per game (2.5) in all competitions.
There is, as always, give-and-take with Casemiro — but even when he gives the ball away, he’s the first to hunt down the opponent and correct his mistake:
But sometimes his passing — panicky when pressed in deep positions — really doesn’t add up, and he’s not always going to be in position to bubble-wrap his giveaways:
There was a moment against Galatasaray where Casemiro completely looked off Karim Benzema — wide open and with ample space to turn — on a routine forward pass, in favour of a conservative ploy. Benzema shouldn’t have to hold his hands out here:
If Casemiro can starting hitting those vertical passes consistently, he changes the entire outlook of Real Madrid’s build-up.
Does Odegaard’s motor ever stop?
Odegaard averages 2.5 key passes per game — good for fourth in La Liga. Dig deeper and you’ll find more telling numbers. Odegaard slings 4.06 passes per game into the box, per Wyscout. Compare that to Toni Kroos — vertical alien — who hits 2.36 passes into the box. (Kroos is unparalleled at hitting passes into the final third instead, at 14.84, compared to Odegaard’s 6.62). The box is where Odegaard has his eye on with every touch.
Odegaard nearly has everything — making him one of the most prized young assets on earth. He continues to be a relentless presser. He swings in deadly set-pieces. He’ll look for the most progressing passing lane possible. If he can’t find it, he’ll dribble through lines to unearth it, and if all else fails, he’ll reset the play with a simple pass. His giant cojones have anti-gravity matter which prevents him from being weighed down.
Odegaard’s versatility has made him even more interesting this season. He has gone from a right winger to someone who can roam centrally or as a deep-lying playmaker and ball-carrier. When I spoke to one of his former coaches for an upcoming feature, I was told “right now he’s so creative, he should be as high up on the pitch as possible.” — with the further caveat that his best role is a ‘10’ to allow him as much offensive freedom as possible.
Opposing defenses have to constantly be on their toes with the Norwegian on the pitch. The first clip (above) in this section shows his playing style in a nutshell: progressive pass, move, progress pass, move. On the final pass, Odegaard has two options. He chooses the more advance outlet then immediately sprints into the box.
You can’t give him time on the ball:
Most players in that position would swing in a cross, or play a square or backwards pass. No Celta defender expects Odegaard to find a run behind them. (They probably should.)
If Odegaard doesn’t have the ball to make these passes, he’ll just take it from the opposition — or at worst, press with every cell in his body and die trying:
Achraf possessed in the Champions League
Dortmund have now played four halves of football against Inter Milan this season. In three of them, they were outplayed — with Achraf Hakimi and Jadon Sancho being the only real offensive spark-plugs in those three frames. At half-time of Tuesday’s Champions League game between the two sides, Dortmund found themselves down 0 - 2 at home. Inter had snatched their soul away — denying every passing lane in transition and putting the Germans in a blender on the counter-attack. Dortmund started misplacing routine passes in search of their confidence.
It would’ve been easy to lay down and die. But Dortmund, with their Champions League season on the line, came out in the second half with a relentless counter-press that threw Inter into a frenzy defensively. Sancho and Achraf went to another gear, and completely cooked Antonio Conte’s scheme. Achraf scored two goals — his third and fourth of this season’s young campaign — and gave out three key passes. His overloads were tireless, as was his transition defending. He did everything in his power to make sure Dortmund stay alive.
That last sequence ends in a poor cross, but the run is devastating to deal with. Achraf is already behind the play when Sancho receives the ball. But Achraf knows what he needs to do. He blazes a trail down the right wing and gives Sancho something to work it. No one on Inter is stopping that run.
Skriniar had no chance:
Achraf just grinds. He has lost a few points defensively since going to Dortmund, but still gets back in transition regardless, and the leap he’s taken offensively under Lucien Favre is incalculable.