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Observations on James and Isco together, Mendy’s defending, and Odegaard’s pressing

Kiyan Sobhani’s column, some quick observations from the beginning of the season

Villarreal CF v Real Madrid CF - La Liga Photo by David Aliaga/MB Media/Getty Images

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 quick observations from the beginning of the season. You know how this works:

It’s good to have James Rodriguez back

It may take time for James to get into full match shape after sitting out preseason, but the early returns — in a team that desperately needs unpredictability and efficiency in the final third — have been good. As always, James calculates the quickest and most incisive paths to goal:

James pulls these passes off regularly, and has done so for any team he’s played for over the past few years. It may do him some injustice to pull out a clip where his pass misses the mark. But despite the lack of execution, it’s the right pass. Look at the position Benzema is in — if he gets it there, that’s a promising area for him to either take a touch and shoot, or wait for on-rushing players in the box:

There is a certain ease you feel when James has the ball at his feet — that the right play will ensue. He doesn’t meander. The best decision-makers in transition know where the ball is going before they even receive it. James looks vertical unless he can’t, and recycles possession only if he needs to. Those passes down the middle are a nice change of pace to a more traditional Zidane scheme where wingers funnel the possession and sling low-probable chances.

James and Isco together gave the team control against Valladolid. Some people came away from that game with the wrong message purely based on the result rather than the unfolding process. Zidane’s team went scoreless with those two on the pitch despite controlling the tempo. When he switched to a 4-4-2 and took both creators off, the team finally scored. The two factors (formation change and ensuing goal) were not correlated. Benzema scored a difficult chance from outside the box that had nothing to do with the scheme shuffle, and the team’s defense plummeted without Isco and James there to press and retain possession, which for this team, is the best way to defend and prevent chances in the first place.

Valladolid’s xG sky-rocketed after those two subs as Real Madrid decentralized their nucleus and spread the pitch. The control was lost, and the numbers defensively weren’t there to prevent chances.

The eternal debate, James vs Isco, is silly. As Carlo Ancelotti proved, there is room for multiple creators.

Ferland Mendy gobbling up wingers

No player made more successful tackles (4) or interceptions (4) in that Villarreal match than Ferland Mendy, who continually locked down Samu Chukweze on Real Madrid’s left flank. Mendy’s individual defending was masterful, and even when he misread the game, his ability to recover and thwart Villarreal’s attack didn’t let him down:

Mendy committed to a press in the second sequence, but has enough of a motor to just sprint and close the potential break. In the first play, he doesn’t get to the passing lane in time, but recovers immediately and sneaks into the attacker’s blind spot to thieve possession. That’s when he’s behind the play. When he actually has time to square up a winger one-on-one, forget about it:

Mendy plays like a behemoth. He’s not quite as tall as Sergio Ramos or Raphael Varane, but he plays like he’s 7-feet. Go into a challenge with him, and he’ll size you up with his shoulder and brush you off. Try to go around him, and he reads your next move and takes your angle away with his agility. Lose focus for one second, and Mendy will pounce:

Mendy’s offense isn’t quite as polished. Some of his touches were heavy, and dribbles almost robotic and clunky. He will never be the offensive assassin that peak Marcelo was.

Still, what an asset to have.

ØdeGod possessed

Matt Wiltse and I decided on a recent Managing Madrid Podcast that anytime Odegaard has an alpha-male performance, we’ll refer to him as ‘ØdeGod’, and if he shies away, we’ll simply refer to him as ‘martin’. We have not had to call him martin in a long time.

He is a key cog wherever he goes — Vitesse, Sociedad, or Norway. Sometimes you have to double-check his Wikipedia to make sure he’s only 20. He carries himself like Luka Doncic did with the basketball team — a young leader that other veterans look to. Odegaard has already outperformed Mikel Oyarzabal this season, and beyond his technical ability, has off-the-chart endurance and grit. He is currently fifth in the entire league in dribbles completed per game as he eels his way out of tight spaces.

In Real Sociedad’s heated and laborious game against Athletic, his entire team struggled. They couldn’t cope with the high press unless Odegaard dropped deep to show as an outlet. Odegaard himself found it difficult, and was sometimes swarmed and dispossessed with his first touch. But in games like that, where the entire team is paralyzed, you need someone to whip his balls out and take charge. Odegaard answered the call.

We often talk about his technical ability with the ball. Maybe not enough about his understanding without it:

Odegaard knows when to hunt down players. He forces Athletic backwards, then keeps going with a relentless press without sacrificing the passing lanes behind him.

Odegaard leads his team in successful dribbles and key passes per game. If he continues his trajectory, Sociedad are going to bemoan his departure at the end of the season.

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