Real Madrid have been busy this summer, spending €258 million on Eden Hazard, Luka Jović, Éder Militão, and Ferland Mendy. The word is that Zinedine Zidane is in full control of transfers, meaning that these four players have specific qualities that have caught the returning coach’s eye.
What Zidane sees in Eden Hazard is rather obvious; the Belgian is a prolific creator, one of the world’s best dribblers, and an elite ball progressor. Honestly, there is little that I could point out about him that you don’t know already, given his vast popularity. However, there is one thing that I feel is underappreciated about Hazard — his physicality.
Eden Hazard — Physical Dribbling
Thanks to his technical brilliance, most people focus on Hazard’s close control and tricks when describing his dribbling. And, while those are certainly reasons for his genius with the ball, his tenacity and physicality are just as important.
In situations where Hazard is being smothered, he will lower his center of gravity and bang his hips into defenders in an effort to shield the ball. Hazard is understatedly sturdy, with his stocky build and well-endowed posterior (yes, seriously) making him extremely difficult to bully. In fact, Hazard welcomes the contact, often initiating it so that he can spin off of the body of the defender and into space.
When he gets a yard on his opponent, Hazard will sometimes continue to push his backside into his marker in order to ensure that there is no chance of him being tackled from behind.
Hazard’s physical style of dribbling makes him especially good at receiving between the lines and pretty much guarantees that a defender will need to a commit a foul in order to stop him (last season he was illegally brought down 3.2 times per 90 minutes — enough for second in the league).
Hence, it’s no wonder that Hazard completes his take-ons at an astonishing success rate of 67% — a figure that betters both Lionel Messi and Neymar Jr.
Luka Jović — Heading Technique, Chest Control, & Clever Off-The-Ball Movement
There are a lot of things to like about Luka Jović, but his two most eye-catching qualities (at least in my view) are his skill at heading the ball and his chest control. Most players — even the good ones — do not maximize the non-feet parts of their body to manipulate and move the ball.
It’s a shame, since that means they aren’t able to use their head and chest as passing weapons a la Jović, thus significantly decreasing their effectiveness from a three-dimensional perspective.
If you pay close attention to the film, you can see how Jović artfully uses all parts of his head to both shoot and distribute. He is arguably even better at passing with his chest; the broadness of his frame helps, but nothing can substitute the hours of practice that he has put in to attain technical mastery with this body part.
It is these two qualities — his heading and chest control — that allowed him to thrive as a target man at Eintracht Frankfurt, even though he is really no target man at all.
Jović is much better suited to being a classic number nine who contributes standard fare outside the box while showing his class inside of it. He is fundamentally strong with all his runs and offensive positioning, but surprisingly lacks an arsenal of dramatic fakes in order to get free like a Ronaldo.
Jović prefers to be more lowkey — something that is personified by his trademark space creation move, where he simply stops his run and lets his marker barrel away from him.
It looks somewhat unimpressive but is an undoubtedly brilliant way to create shooting room.
Ferland Mendy — Passing & Offensive Positioning
Mendy’s role as a passer is what sticks out immediately upon studying him. This is a rather unconventional highlight quality for a left back, but an ability to distribute is the way of the future for all defenders.
When Olympique Lyonnais had the ball, Mendy liked to drift into the left halfspace and conduct play on his side of the field. He constantly looked to fire vertical passes towards the multitude of Lyon players between the lines, which made him an important part of his team’s ball progression.
His skill in this area shows up in more granular passing data. He completed 5.25 passes into the final third per 90 minutes (p90) at a 76.5% success rate, which betters Sergio Reguilón’s and Theo Hernández’s numbers at Real Madrid and stacks up well against Jordi Alba’s. Marcelo is far ahead of everyone else in this category (he is the best ever ball progressor from the fullback position, after all).
Without possession, Mendy is clearly not a traditional fullback, as highlighted by his aforementioned affinity for sitting in the left halfspace. Nevertheless, he is perfectly capable of making overlapping runs and, in fact, shows great offensive positional awareness in all aspects of the left back role.
Based on the location of his wing partner, Mendy will seamlessly rotate between narrow and wide positions and make overlapping and underlapping runs. This is another example of how modern fullbacks are evolving and will be a necessary skill if he is to thrive under the fluid nature of Zidane’s tactics.
Éder Militão — Defensive Aggressiveness
Éder Militão is a physical, fast, intelligent, and versatile defender. But, most of all, he is very, very aggressive. That quality holds negative connotations but is extremely important in order to be an effective defender. A center-back or fullback cannot be afraid to put their body on the line and must possess a mindset that emphasizes committing to the tackle, lest they be caught in no man’s land.
For the most part, Militão channels his aggression impressively.
He immediately begins to harass when his assignment’s back is turned to him and generally commits clean, yet physical, tackles. In effect, Militão is choosing to attack the ball when his opponent cannot see him and is in the awkward position of needing to turn in order to move towards goal.
Militão mostly initiated these types of moves when playing as a right back for Porto, making him a natural fit for any type of counterpressing scheme his coach wanted to implement. When playing as a center-back, Militão’s aggression translated into tons of aerial duels — which he won at a casual 71% clip.
Militão’s style does have its weaknesses, of course, which can be mainly seen in his foul rate: 1.7 p90 (Casemiro committed 1.8 p90 in the league last season by comparison). A less obvious drawback comes up when Militão’s man successfully wards of the tackle and plays a one-two aimed at exploiting the space behind the Porto defender. Militão’s exceptional pace usually allows him to recover, but he has been exposed in these situations on more than a couple of occasions.
That is only a minor cause for concern in the grand scheme of things, though, as Militão is extraordinarily complete for his age and is sure to improve as the seasons pass. With the exception of Hazard, that is also true of the other signings, giving Real Madrid a solid, long-term core that can hopefully propel their team into a new era of greatness.