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.
We are over half-way through the season, and now have a five-month sample size to assess how good this team is. The real litmus tests for the team’s greatness are still coming. But here are, until now — and in no particular order — the five players that have caught my eye so far.
This is Casemiro’s best season as a professional footballer. He’s gone to an entirely new level that makes him more indispensable than he’s ever been — and not just because there isn’t a like-for-like back-up, but because he’s been one of the best players in the entire country. No player in the league completes more tackles per game than Casemiro (and not the last-ditch swings either — his positioning this season is the best it’s ever been). Only Ximo Navarro has more interceptions this season — but he’s played in a sample size of 952 minutes compared to Casemiro’s 1590. No defensive midfielder slings more accurate long balls per game.
He’s dealing with complicated situations intuitively:
Lodi and Saul make runs to draw Carvajal and Casemiro away from Joao Felix. It works, and Felix carries the ball, getting hoodwinked into thinking he has a free lane for a pass-and-move sequence into the box. Casemiro ensures the passing lanes behind him are cut off before sweeping in.
It’s a calculated read. Casemiro’s improved positional awareness has helped the team put together one of the best defensives lines in all of Europe. That’s not something you say about Real Madrid often.
Casemiro still has the odd the giveaway under pressure (and sometimes, even when not pressured) — but not enough to make him a liability as in year’s past. His passing accuracy is at an all-time low this season, but he’s also attempting more passes than ever. He was skinned alive when pressed against Ajax in last year’s disastrous Champions League exit. He, and the entire team — including the spine of the team which was a lifeless corpse — have come a long way from last season. He’s completing more dribbles per game now than ever before.
Per Football Reference, Casemiro is on course to sling more passes into the final-third than he ever has in his career.
Even when he’s not hitting them into the final-third, he’s looking to progress the team with vertical passes through narrow lanes — explaining the uptick in attempted passes with lower accuracy.
Casemiro has also evolved from a tactical standpoint — something Zidane should get (at least some) credit for.
In seasons’ past, Zidane always made it a point to have Casemiro push higher up the pitch. The Brazilian is good for the odd goal — either from distance, or as a late arrival into the box to pounce on cut-backs or crosses. Having him higher up the field also hides him facing aggressive high-pressing teams. But Zidane didn’t plan accordingly for the chain of events that would ensue when Casemiro would get caught out defensively, when neither Modric or Kroos — or even the full-backs who were already in the final third — were around to cover.
Now Casemiro has proper cover when he darts up the field. His team desperately needed offense against Sevilla, and they got it from Casemiro’s runs. He was covered well defensively by Modric and Kroos on both of his scoring sequences in that game. He doesn’t hedge into the offensive sphere anymore unless he’s properly covered. He still mops things up in transition when his full-backs are caught:
This is Casemiro’s peak, or at least the beginning of it.
Last season, Benzema had one of his best ever seasons as a footballer. This season, at the ripe age of 32, the Frenchman is on course to have his best campaign ever — carrying the scoring load without sacrificing his vital playmaking skills. He has 16 goals and seven assists in 27 appearances.
“Now I’m the one leading the attack,” Benzema said last February. “I used to play for Cristiano and I was trying to find him so that he could score even more goals.”
It’s important to unpack that quote in a fair way. Benzema may feel he’s more unleashed now than he’s ever been — but Cristiano Ronaldo, and other attackers Benzema played with in the last few years leading up to 2018 — would’ve had an uptick in assists had the French striker been able to finish the chances created for him on a regular basis. Pinning blame on Ronaldo for holding Benzema back is unjust. Benzema underperformed his xG significantly in his last two seasons playing with Ronaldo.
But here’s the case for Ronaldo’s departure leading to a more unchained version of Karim Benzema: more involvement in the team’s offensive flow, leading to more polished finishing. Whatever mental baggage that came with playing with Cristiano Ronaldo — the pressure, the sacrifices, and taxing role of being a culprit when things go wrong and an unsung hero when Ronaldo racks up his numbers — has been put aside. Benzema, in the past one-and-a-half seasons, is currently enjoying career-highs in La Liga in shots per game, dribbles per game, and key passes per game. More involvement brings sharper decision-making when the time comes. Benzema strings things together as a central midfielder at times. He’s not cold when he gets in front of goal.
He is on a tear. Something that may not matter to some people, but should be noted: It’s absolutely crazy that Benzema wasn’t in the top-25 player shortlist of the Ballon D’or voting. People need to start paying attention to the elite level Benzema has been playing at since late-2018.
Benzema’s finishing hasn’t always been this good. His scoring took a huge dip from 2016 - 2018. He underperformed his xG in both seasons, and his finishing grew worse towards the end of Ronaldo’s final season with the club. In ‘17-18, Benzema’s five league goals were below his expected goals of 13 based on the chances he was missing. Had he fired more goals in those two seasons, we may be revisiting his legacy once he retires. Even now, it’s worth discussing his place. In January of 2018, I ranked Benzema as the seventh best striker in Real Madrid history. That may need rethinking now.
Benzema’s scoring has desperately been needed. But it’s all the other things that make him so unique and prized. He’s a creative engine and off ball-thief. No (current) traditional striker drops to dispossess unsuspecting midfielders the way Big Benz does. This is the type of stuff Raul was so elite at:
Benzema doesn’t like to amble without the ball. There are strikers like Mauro Icardi who don’t need many touches to be happy or get on the scoresheet. Benzema is more enmeshed in the defensive scheme. He wants to make sure his team gets the ball as quickly as possible:
Against PSG in late-November, despite Real Madrid dominating the entirety of the second half, Kylian Mbappe was finding space in-behind the full-backs time and time again. About half-way through that first frame, Benzema had decided he had enough, and started tracking back to safeguard the flank:
There is no escaping Benzema’s presence if you’re an opponent. If you’re passing out of the back, Benzema’s ultra-woke spider senses send a jolt through the entire attacking line where the Frenchman organizes the press, and white shirts start zipping into rotations.
Some of those moments are intangible and not entirely visible. They won’t help him crack the top-25 shortlist for the Balon D’or. But people are starting to notice Benzema’s leadership abilities.
He organizes the team within the flow of the game. The camera didn’t pick up what happened before this next sequence. It’s something you would’ve only seen if you were in the stadium. But before Keylor Navas takes the goal-kick, Benzema marshals the entire team to get into their spots defensively and ready to press. What ensues: A Marcelo interception before the team regains controls of the ball:
Zidane loves players who cover ground and influence games in a multitude of different ways. That’s part of the reason why Benzema is so indispensable to his brand of football. Even when Karim went into his scoring funks, Zidane defended him and hailed him as the ‘best 9 for Madrid’. When he scores, he’s among the best in that position, full stop.
“He may be the Madrid number 9 and we ask more of him because he’s not been scoring lately,” Zidane said during Benzema’s last goal-drought in 2018. “But he’s doing an awful lot for the team and the goals will come. People who like football have to like Benzema,”
Zidane’s vision, and patience with Benzema, have paid off.
Toni Kroos was among the inexplicable MonStar-talent-guzzle after the World Cup which featured several Real Madrid players. But, he’s back baby!
Nothing jumps out in terms of statistical improvements from last season, but the eye-test is telling. Kroos is active reading passing lanes and he’s been comfortable dribbling in tight quarters and even into the box at times. He’ll always be a mobile, simmering pawn in any pressing or counter-pressing sequence. The body language from this season to last is night and day. He currently has the best passing accuracy of any midfielder in the top-three leagues.
Kroos was a cornerstone of the second-most successful European dynasty of all time. He’s still 30. Last season’s collapse of the team was explicable on some tactical level, but at the same time, the steep drop in form from the nucleus of the three-peat was a head-scratcher. There’s no reason to think that Kroos can’t be part of another European run as the team’s defense improves under Zidane, while other pieces — Valverde’s emergence, Hazard’s return — lend a hand.
Kroos has the highest usage rate on the team. Everything in the build-up goes through him. If he continues to play at an elite level, Real Madrid will always have a chance.
Fede Valverde spent the two seasons leading up to his Real Madrid A-team berth as follows: In 2016, he was a starter with Castilla in Segunda B, Spain’s third division, playing as a box-to-box midfielder and forming a fun two-way central-midfield partnership with now-Mallorca starter Aleix Febas. One season later, he went to Deportivo la Coruña on loan. He played 24 games there — often out of position on the left wing — and went down with a season-ending injury as Depor spiralled out of La Liga. His Deportivo stint went about as bad as it could. Two years later, he’s an integral part of Zidane’s team, poised to make a run in all three major competitions. He’s made an unthinkable leap.
And Zidane has given Fede an ideal role where he can thrive. He slots in just where the team needs him: right in the sweet spot where he can help Casemiro lift weights defensively, while pumping life into the team’s offense with his runs into the right half-space. He’s everywhere — and not in a headless chicken type way. The Uruguayan covers ground almost as well as peak-Modric, where he can be in multiple spots at once without adulterating the team’s shape.
“He’s a bit of a modern player,” Zidane said of Valverde after a win over Granada earlier this season. “He’s got a fantastic engine on him, it’s not only in attack because he puts in just as much work in defence too and that’s important in the modern game and he’s doing well, just as many of them are.”
Fede claims his idol is Toni Kroos, but apart from a cyborg-esque finish on one of his goals this season, they don’t have many stylistic parallels. He covers ground like Modric, and contributes to both ends of the field like Mateo Kovacic. But he’s unique, carving out his own swag.
What he gets from Kroos — complete sang-froid under pressure. He thinks quickly and calmly.
If Valverde has any glaring weaknesses, it’s his passing and finishing. Against Atletico at the Wanda, his distribution in transition hampered the team’s offense. Expecting him to be an elite finisher at his position and age is silly. Even those critiques might be harsh. His passing has improved over the past couple months, and at two goals to his name he’s already one-goal shy of what Mateo Kovacic had in his entire Real Madrid career.
What Fede lacks in football elegance and surgical, offensive finesse, he makes up with an uncompromising decision to win every 50 / 50 ball and get the better of his opponent in any situation even if he’s the underdog of the moment. In the Clasico, Fede was first to almost everything. Against Atletico, despite playing as a right winger in a packed midfield, he generated good offense, and even steamrolled past Saul and Lodi on one sequence to rip through Atleti in transition.
Valverde’s emergence is down to his own pizzazz and tactical potency, but it can’t be entirely separated from the way Zidane has him integrated him into the team. That appearance on the right wing may not be the Uruguayan’s best position, but it was a calculated deployment.
“We worked this system during our training sessions,” Fede said after the SuperCopa final. “We communicated well and did a job.”
Now Valverde is a fringe starter — a long distance away since hanging onto the hem of the squad. In Real Madrid’s last two matches without him as a starter, the team struggled to find equilibrium.
One of his most underrated attributes is his line-breaking ability. If he’s not making an off-ball run to sunder a deep-block, he’ll create chaos by carrying the ball like a running-back splitting defenders:
Valverde does not rank in any major statistical category on offense, but he ranks fifth on the team’s xG chain (total xG of every possession the player is involved in) per 90 — ahead of the likes of Toni Kroos, Marcelo, Gareth Bale, Luka Modric, Isco, and Eden Hazard. Part of that is because he’s so good at positioning himself between the lines and constantly being alert to make runs in the half-space that can so easily break defensive schemes:
There is no hesitation or lackadaisicalness with Fede. On one sequence, he bullies Neymar off the ball, then he immediately moves on the overlap as Isco takes the half-space run:
“Coach Zidane gave me the confidence I needed,” Valverde said after the SuperCopa win over Valencia. “He’s uniting us as a team again.”
Varane was among the casualties of the post-World Cup hangover. Last season he dipped. Take out last season’s forgettable campaign, and he’s been instrumental to the team’s success both prior and after it. This year Varane has been great, and is among the chief-executives of Real Madrid’s improved defense.
Last season’s funk hit everyone hard. This year, Varane might be underrated, even. The names that continually come up as the pillars of Real Madrid’s successful season are the aforementioned names on this list. Varane is not far off the team’s MVPs this season. He continually puts in reliable shifts. His mistake against PSG was magnified, but he was foot-perfect outside of it against the Parisians. He is a big game player.
Sometimes I have to double-check Google just to make sure Varane is only 26. It feels like he’s been around for 15 years. It’s almost as if we’re dreading his inevitable retirement. He’s 26. Central defenders often peak later in their 20s or early 30s. Varane has so much left in the tank. It’s wild and comforting.
Again, it’s almost impossible to entirely separate his resurgence from Zidane’s return. “We’re starting to press the reset button so that we can find our groove individually but also as a team,” Varane said earlier in January. “I know his ideas as a coach so well and he knows what he can expect from me, he knows me very well.”
Varane has been so good covering for Carvajal when he provides overloads, and even coming over to the left side when Ramos isn’t there to cover the left-back. His long balls out of the back have been hit or miss — sometimes hitting a homerun to take advantage of a high line, or just destroying the build-up altogether with an errant pass. But he’s so good on the ball that you take the teetering long-distance distribution. He still steps up for interceptions and dispossession at an elite level.
This season Varane looks more comfortable than last season. In years’ past, you notice him on the pitch more because Real Madrid’s transition defense was so bad, that Varane’s superhuman effort to hold things together was impossible to miss. His defending is more subtle now. Casemiro and Fede’s ability to shield the backline have helped. Thibaut Courtois has been able to gobble things up on rare moments the defense gets breached.
Varane at this level raises the team’s ceiling. He evades presses like few central defenders do, and wins every foot race anytime anyone dares him to a sprint. He is the perfect sidekick to Sergio Ramos.