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.
Six observations for you, swinging back and forth between the A-squad, Castilla, and loanees:
Welcome back Vinicius Jr
The moment Vinicius left the pitch against Ajax in March, his absence was felt. By the time he reemerged from a ruptured knee ligament some 60 days later, the team didn’t need him to save the season — but at the very least, he gave fans some incentive to wake up at 6AM Eastern on a Sunday.
No one — no one — on the roster this season broke defensive lines (bar Brahim Diaz later in the season) like Vinicius did. Defenders hoped the Brazilian would turn sideways or backwards to recycle possession instead of seeing him run at them like some kind of possessed demi-God. Barcelona prayed for the onslaught on the left wing to end back in a Clasico back in February (and were thankful the unpolished finishing saw their defending go unpunished). But Vinicius just accelerates without mercy. No rest for Betis in the last game of the season:
Some of the kinks from early this season — the over-eagerness, the tunnel vision — have slowly dissipated. They’re not gone for good, but there is a seamless integration into the squad now which should only tighten next season. It won’t be smooth sailing — at some point, wasting chances won’t be excused for being ‘too raw’; and even the most talented of players go through sophomore slumps — but that he’s already playing at a level that sees him transcend the left flank, means he’s ahead of his developmental curve at the age of 18.
The version of Vinicius that skins full-backs alive, roasts experienced defenders like Gimenez, Pique, and Semedo, while working ceaselessly to help his full-back defensively and pressing like a maniac — it’s not common in football. Workhorses are abundant — but to pair that work rate with an elite level of offensive artistry is like striking gold. This version of Vinicius is a supernova:
What do you do defending those runs? It makes opposing schemes think twice about pressing. Hound him, and you risk a broken press with plenty of open water behind you. Hedge off, and you give him space to do his thing. A quick shoulder feint from the Brazilian is sometimes all it takes to escape and get the team up field. Real Madrid have struggled coming out of the back all season. Vinicius, in a vacuum, isn’t the answer to a holistic, systemic flaw — but he helps.
We didn’t see much of a press against Betis, but Vinicius did unnerve defenders a few times, and his exertion nearly thieved possession from Pau Lopez in the first half:
Jorge De Frutos — Castilla menace
De Frutos was the first Castilla player to assert himself in the playoff opener against Cartagena. For the first 25 minutes or so in the first leg, at the Alfredo di Stefano stadium — right before Castilla went rampant and scored three goals — De Frutos was the only source of offense.
Cartagena are awful defensively — even for Segunda B standards. They defended in transition by not doing so at all — just inviting ball-carriers without making them sweat. Before the three-goal barrage, they were a little less terrible, and did a good job defending the flanks by plugging the wings with multiple defenders:
De Frutos burned them anyway:
De Frutos has been possessed on the flank today. Main source of offense. Sets up Dani Gomez for his 2nd: pic.twitter.com/Fba8tsZ6QC— Kiyan Sobhani (@KiyanSo) May 25, 2019
De Frutos has a nice skill-set to accommodate his pace. He has a nice bag of silky touches and hesitation dribbles. He is a good ball-carrier in transition. Dominating a Segunda B side is not an indication of how good you’ll be at the top level — but we’ve seen a large number of Castilla graduates hold their own in La Liga over the years after we were skeptical of them in the youth ranks.
He wasn’t alone in his solid performance over the weekend. Cristo’s link-up play, and Dani Gomez’s finishing were all what you’d expect from them at their best.
Javi Sanchez just bosses the grown men that try to throw him around. He’s outgrown Castilla — was good enough to graduate last summer, even. He reads the game at a high level. I’m curious to see what happens to him next season — although, if Castilla get to Segunda, it’s tempting to just let him stick around. He’s so good, that you’re dumbfounded on the rare lapse, which cost his team a late conceded away goal on the weekend:
Brahim, hungry and tenacious
Brahim Diaz, the kid who left Manchester City in search of playing time, and signed by Real Madrid as a surplus in a position with a supernumerary amount of talent, has been a fun revelation this season. He is a mirror of Vinicius — a young, hungry wolf who goes to war in every game, and a one-man offensive detonation system ready to rupture the defense. Brahim is always whizzing without the ball and showing as an outlet in prime positions where he can have a go at defenders to spur the offensive sequence into motion.
Once he makes up his mind to be incisive, he’s hard to muscle off the ball:
Some of his drive comes with tunnel vision. That sequence looks fun. Brahim takes four defenders out of the equation — and coaxes a couple more into his magnetic field, leaving space for other white shirts. But when he initially receives the ball from Marcelo, he has a vertical pass to Mariano as he turns. That’s one pass to get you up field quicker to bypass more exertion by dribbling. Carvajal is also there for a slip-in too — and with Mariano lurking in the box, a cross into his stride from the right is a good play.
No player, apart from Vinicius Jr (and that by a hair of 0.1 per game), attempts more dribbles on the team than Brahim Diaz, who takes on defenders 3.8 times per game. Next comes Modric at 2.4. Brahim’s take on success rate lies well behind Vinicius’s, but the eagerness is there. The final product and decision-making will need some work. Sometimes, breaking lines requires more than one-man missions — that will be on Zidane to orchestrate next season.
Brahim loves the spotlight — usually a good sign in terms of being able to handle the Bernabeu pressure. He is not afraid of going full throttle one-vs-five on offense — like Kawhi Leonard isolations before arching a shot over a behemoth from a tight angle. His goal at Anoeta was a masterpiece and a testament to his willingness to get it done on his own. But get those moments wrong, or miss a chance when others are open, and you’ll start hearing groans. Brahim’s dribbling numbers are north of average, but there are 13 players on the team ahead of him when it comes to key passes per game. (Little welp moment: He’s still ahead of Gareth Bale.) Those dribbling sequences will eventually need to lead to more chances created for his team.
You can look at those numbers in another way: The team averages 10 key passes per game in La Liga when Brahim starts; and 12.9 when he sits, and 16 in the Champions League. There is a lot of a nuance in those numbers, though. One of those starts was against Real Sociedad, where the team was an emphatic zero offensively — generating just three key passes the entire game. Another was against Getafe — one of La Liga’s best defensive sides. There is also variance with the players surrounding him, and the importance of the games being played.
Whatever the numbers tell us, the eye-test tells us this: Brahim is going to be really good. Even when he makes mistakes, or loses possession, his tenacity makes up for it. Against Villarreal, after turning the wrong way initially, he pressed Santi Cazorla enough that Villarreal lost possession in a key area, leading to Mariano’s opening goal:
Martin Odegaard, the only other Real Madrid owned player playing meaningful games right now that’s not in Castilla, was involved in Vitesse’s Eredivise playoffs, in their quest to get into the Europe League. He’s settling in as the team’s #10 — roaming around the pitch, dictating transition attacks, and gliding across the field with his silky touches. He refuses to go backwards unless there’s a gun to his head. Everything is vertical:
It’s been up and down with him — but mostly up. He’ll go hot and cold like most players. He was poor in the first leg against Groningen in the playoffs, then followed it up with a masterclass in the second leg, even by his own standards — churning in one of his best performances of the season. He was then a key performer in the first leg of the next round against Utrecht, and was invisible in the second leg as Vitesse fell to defeat. Again, mostly good. He’s gotten better at gutting some of his kinks, like tracking back in transition:
I’ve finished a script for Tifo Football which will look at Odegaard’s season holistically, and his best position moving forward. It should be released sometime in June. But here are some final numbers for the 2018 - 2019 campaign: 2.9 successful dribbles per game (fifth in the league), and 3.6 key passes per game (second in the league, behind Hakim Ziyech’s 3.7).
Here’s one more for your treat bag:
Confirms everything we've seen from the Ø in the past 2 seasons -- nice to see it backed up in the numbers. People pointed at Odegaard's lack of assists, but both with Heerenveen and Ajax, he'd likely lead the league if his teammates could finish. He creates so much. https://t.co/03ToHWYxqi— Kiyan Sobhani (@KiyanSo) May 22, 2019
Marcelo, signs of life
I have not enjoyed this Marcelo season — I’m not sure many have. I wrote about his regression back in January, and it wouldn’t be illogical of the club to move on from him one or two years early rather than one or two years too late. I explained it here and here (and on multiple podcasts). I do not enjoy discussing the decline of a legend, and one of my favourite players (and people) of all time, by the way. It’s heart-breaking every time I have to go through this, and as Eduardo Alvarez and I discuss often, it was painful seeing the steep decline of two idols — Iker Casillas and Raul Gonzalez.
One thing caught my eye against Villarreal — Marcelo had some bounce, and he looked like he was enjoying football. When Marcelo starts his waltz, and he’s in the mood, he is an outlier — someone impossible not to fall in love with.
Whether it’s right or wrong, Marcelo will stay. Can Zidane unearth Marcelo of years’ past — the primary creator along with Toni Kroos? He had four shots and three key passes against Villarreal. He and Kroos combined for eight shots and nine key passes overall.
How many memorable goals in Europe has Marcelo given us from his shots from the left? He’s buzzing without the ball in the above sequence. Pass and move. He loves cutting in from the left to burst one with his right foot. If it doesn’t connect with the target, it creates chaos:
His defensive efficiency wasn’t there against Villarreal, but his effort was:
In La Liga, Marcelo is suffering his worst passing accuracy since 2012, the second-lowest tackles per game of his career, the lowest amount of interceptions per game in his career, the least amount of key passes per game since 2012, and the second-lowest assists per 90 of his career.
There can still be a place for him in the team — maybe it’s not a prominent one moving forward. If it is, it has to be a much rejuvenated version.
Benzema’s passing in transition
I’ve been holding out on this one all season, but it’s recurring enough to discuss. Benzema has had a good year. He’s pulled his weight in attack, and has had little help doing so. But some of his passing in transition is wonky. He switches off at least once or twice per game, and it’s usually in transition, where the team can get into a great goalscoring position with a simple pass.
That switch can flicker on and off for the Frenchman. He can follow up a bad pass with a great one; or make up for it in some other way — winning the ball off a press, getting in goalscoring positions, dropping deep to link up. But the passing switch, it flickers:
Those are just some from the Getafe game — the most recent example. That crutch has lingered since the beginning of the season.
Passing accuracy is a misused stat — as is the dispossession metric. Players who have the ball more and attempt more things will lose the ball more than others. The higher up you are on the pitch, the tougher the outlets are — part of the reason why the best passers statistically are often center-backs who pick out easier targets. But there is one interesting number for Benzema’s passing: his lapses seem to come with routine passes. This year, Benzema slung 5.4 inaccurate short balls per game in La Liga — the most of his career.
But here’s me telling you not to read too much into it: Benzema also dished out a career-high 26.4 accurate short passes per game.
It all accumulates like this: Benzema’s usage was up this season. More ball at his feet — more chances to create, and more chances to mess up. You take it all — that’s the way it works in football. He tipped the scale with his misplaced passes by doing more of the good stuff.