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Why Real Madrid Signed Luka Jovic

In this week’s column, Kiyan Sobhani writes about the storm that Mayoral started, Alfredo di Stefano’s unique greatness, Mendy at right back, and a ton more.

Real Madrid v Real Valladolid - La Liga Santander Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/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.

Six observations this week. Let’s get right to it:

The mess that Borja Mayoral created

This is not something the club should have to deal with. I almost feel silly, and borderline absurd, that we dedicated a good chunk of two podcasts to it. Over the course of two days after Mayoral’s quotes at Roma’s presentation, Mayoral clarified his comments, Luka Jovic responded (chased down by El Chirnguito at the airport, nonetheless), and Zidane (of course) was asked about it during Friday’s presser. And now, a dedicated segment in my column — the hypocrisy! I know. I’ll make it quick.

Mayoral got a lot of criticism dished his way regarding his dig at Jovic. I always try to go against the grain, not because I’m a contrarian, but because I try to unearth any possible explanation I can from the player’s perspective. Sometimes I find a good reason to zig everyone’s zag, and sometimes I don’t. I have always been sympathetic with players because I realize they’re human. I’ve also been vocal about my own complete and obvious fallibility as a human. If you put a microphone in front of my mouth every day, I am bound to say some stupid things, particularly after an emotional match where I’m speaking based on feelings rather than logic.

But Mayoral said what he said at a presentation, an unveiling of himself as a player at his new club — not after a heated match. He had time to calculate what he was going to say days in advance. These presentations are supposed to be routine: You pretend you’ve dreamt to play for the club your whole life, kiss the badge, and copy and paste it at your next presentation. How was Jovic’s name brought into this at all?

It’s funny. We (fans, media members), complain that press conferences are boring, and that they teach us nothing new. But when we get some honesty, we get upset. I guess there’s a balance in the middle that few have the artistry to hit. I enjoy managers and players who can hit the sweet spot between entertainment and wisdom. Mayoral hit neither — a big miss!

From a footballing perspective, my read is this: When Real Madrid signed Luka Jovic in the summer of 2019 (just two months after Zinedine Zidane returned, with the full vibe of ‘now the team is shaped the way I want it to be shaped, with me in full control’) they looked at him as a necessary signing. Zidane wanted him. When Jovic arrived in Madrid, Zidane saw him up close, and decided he’s not as mobile and flexible in attack as he wants his striker to be.

Fast forward one year, and Borja Mayoral returns from a two-year loan spell at Levante — a stint which for large stretches was underwhelming, but for some stretches quite good. He immediately plays. Why? His playing style mirrors that of Benzema’s. Mayoral had the trust of Zidane that he was needed, but decided that even if needed, he wasn’t going to play enough, and left. On the flipside, Mariano Diaz, another striker that doesn’t fit the Benzema profile, has been asked by Zidane to leave (for the sake of the striker’s career) over the past few years. All of this actually adds up when you consider Zidane’s tactical ideas.

What does this mean moving forward? Possibly nothing. Jovic has already played a good part this season, and will play more than he did last season, easily. Young players under Zidane in the past have gone from sparse minutes to becoming important contributors (Casemiro, Kovacic). Jovic can still be an important player.

Alfredo di Stefano’s unique greatness

There has not been a player like Alfredo di Stefano since the Don himself retired. It is now 2020. This shouldn’t be anything new, but worth pointing out especially after watching yet another Alfredo masterclass from 1962: No player has functioned the same way as him tactically since. He was everything in one, a multifunctional alien who dominated every aspect of the field he found himself in.

There have been ‘complete’ players over the course of the ensuing generations, but none that were utilized like him. When you think of Alfredo’s position, it’s hard to explain what he actually was. If I’m building my all-time team, I’d slot him in a ‘10’ role, allowing him fluidity and freedom. But his position under Miguel Muñoz was much more elaborate than what I just described. It’s not that his role would change game to game, it’s that his role was different constantly, from minute to minute. He scored goals like Hugo Sanchez, created them like Johan Cruyff, controlled the ball (and glided with it) like Zinedine Zidane, anchored the midfield like Fernando Redondo, won balls in midfield like Roy Keane, and defended the box like Fernando Hierro. And he dominated every aspect of those endeavours, and he did those things all within the same game.

This is Eusebio, one of the greatest footballers ever and one that you had to physically drag to the ground to get the ball off of, that di Stefano sneaks up on to kickstart the attack in a Champions League final:

(Possible foul, but hey, I’m not a referee in 1962 standing right there to make the call. But the play illustrates a deeper point: He was everywhere:)

Di Stefano would also often be found in his own box, making an important tackle or throwing his body in the way to block a shot. If he wasn’t there defensively, he’d be tucking on the inside of his wingback, doubling up on the flanks to dispossess a winger cutting inside.

His defensive exertion didn’t take a backseat to his goalscoring numbers or assist tally. Nor his constant grace:

Part (most) of the reason a player like di Stefano doesn’t exist anymore is because modern tactics don’t allow for a player to single-handedly do everything. Why have your best player have a red heatmap on every blade of grass on the pitch when you can conserve his energy to do other things? Tactics are more complex now. I’m sure di Stefano would adapt. We’d see a different version of him. He’d still dominate in his own way.

Just a fun reminder: Di Stefano was all of those aforementioned things defensively, and still managed to score 308 goals in 396 Real Madrid matches.

Neymar, doing what he wants, stealing souls

There are few things, in the entire sport, more satisfying and fun to watch than Neymar getting the ball at his feet and doing things that are impossible to defend. There are moments where the Brazilian transcends, and operates at a completely different wavelength than his peers. When he’s in that mode, no one can stop him from getting from point A to point B. He hoodwinks you into taking the wrong defensive gamble, and navigates the most unpredictable path to goal.

Neymar is a joy to watch because he’s a relentless line-breaker. He can exist in a possession-based scheme, but augments any attacking set because of his ability to disrupt set defenses — all down to his own ingenuity.

He coaxes the Bolivian defense into believing the play has slowed down, even motioning to his Brazilian teammates that he’s about to dial back the attack to snail’s pace. Then, as the gullible defender lets his guard down, Neymar blazes down the flank.

When Neymar has the ball, almost every open passing lane is a decoy. Early in his career, his insistence to single-handedly take over a game caused him to be superfluous with his touches and gimmicks. Over time he has channelled that into pure craft, getting himself into good goalscoring positions out of nothing:

In open water, he is absolutely devastating. (Rodrygo Goes finds himself on the end of this play. He should’ve pulled the trigger first time:)

Neymar unlocks all kinds of options for both Brazil and PSG. He is at the core of every attack, a supernova that opens space for others. Against Bolivia, Roberto Firmino and Philippe Coutinho were the beneficiaries of two Neymar assists. Neymar had a nasty 18 successful dribbles from 23 attempts. Some wingers have a natural talent to create chances outside of tactical design. Others have the relentless effort required to break lines with vertical passing and off-ball movement — but don’t always have the talent to magnify their resolution. Neymar has both.

Part of Neymar’s genius is that he can create those defense-shattering moments from deeper positions, even when defenses are set. He will refuse the easy pass unless all pathways to goal have been explored.

Casemiro was often an easy release-valve for Neymar to dish off a simple outlet pass to. Casemiro almost never got it in those situations, and trusted his Brazilian attacker anyway. Neymar held the ball, sucked in multiple defenders, and got himself into the box.

One easy, low-hanging caveat to this (mostly) single-game analysis: Bolivia were a black hole defensively. Brazil’s attacking potency will be at least stalled against better defensive blocks. Still, Neymar has been at this level for a while. He scored a hat-trick against Peru the very next game, and he had a great run to the Champions League final.

Dani Ceballos, DM-tracker

You have probably heard me talk about this one one too many times, but it’s worth updating as we see the project develop further. It is still too difficult to assess how Dani Ceballos will do as a lone base anchor as a single pivot of a midfield. Mikel Arteta has tried him there a few times, and it’s worked — but it hasn’t against bigger teams that put pressure on him. My early assessment is this: He works in a double pivot against big teams, and can be fine there as the single anchor against smaller teams who will cede possession without pressing high. Anything beyond that, against a cutthroat elite pressing team, and he needs help. He looks lost in Zone 14, but presses well. He is best suited as part of the midfield, but not the chief organizer.

Sometimes him and Xhaka are not in sync defensively. They will interchange without synergy. When Ceballos drops to the base, he can leave players open at the top of the box:

Ceballos is a good reader of the game when the ball is in front of him. He’s seventh in the Premier League in interceptions. His hyperactive demeanour means he’s charged and ready to block passing lanes. Put him anywhere deep in midfield and he’ll get himself open when his team has the ball, and he has the vision to split the seas:

Watching Ceballos under Arteta is a good reminder of what he’s supposed to be offensively. At Real Betis, what he was known most for apart from his tenacity, was his vision.

Barcelona heading into real tests

Sevilla were Barcelona’s first test of the season (with all due respect to Unai Emery’s mumble-jumbled tactical sieve at the Camp Nou), and Ronald Koeman’s men struggled. Barcelona’s vulnerable high line will remain a thing, probably until the end of time — or until an armageddon arrives and they hire Jose Mourinho as manager. So many teams, including Villarreal, get in their heads in attacking transition trying to catch the Barcelona defensive tight rope. Good teams, like Sevilla, know what to do. They attack and move with purpose, with verve. They navigate a path behind the wing-backs, attack as a unit, and set up in a way where they can recover the other way if a pass fails or the attack breaks down.

Sevilla’s defense blocked passing lanes, stayed compact, and didn’t panic when the ball arrived at their feet (a trap many teams fall into when they see less of the ball — cold and unable to string a meaningful pass). They turned Antoine Griezmann into a complete passenger. Escaping Barca’s press when possession is won is not easy, and requires composure, synergy, and good off-ball movement:

Sevilla held up defensively without sacrificing their offense. They even made Barca uncomfortable with a high press, stifling Neto’s distribution. Most good teams should copy what Sevilla did. You can go toe-to-toe with this Barcelona side and get them out of their comfort zone if you have the talent. Barca have not been a great build-up team in big games for a while. Real Madrid have exposed them with a high press in the last several Clasicos.

Barcelona’s press can collapse — it is just not used to doing so. As they press collectively, space opens up on the other side of the field. That’s why asymmetry with the ball works. When Real Madrid suck teams in with left-sided possession, Carvajal makes an uncharted run on the opposite side. Navas is Carvajal. Sevilla run this play perfectly:

Barcelona have three consecutive La Liga tests: Sevilla (dropped points), Getafe (a less talented, tactically disciplined defensive side), and Real Madrid on the 24th. Juventus visit before the Clasico. Important stretch for them.

Ferland Mendy, part-time right back?

In a column earlier this season, I noted that Mendy had played a few minutes off the bench as France’s right-back in an international game. I thought not much of it, and moved on to analyzing other things, including Mendy’s performances this season for Real Madrid at left-back.

After watching France play against Croatia in a UEFA Nation’s League match this week, where Mendy started as the team’s right-back, it’s become apparent that this might actually become a thing. Didier Deschamps didn’t originally call Mendy up during the international break, and only did so when Leo Dubois (French right-back) tested positive for coronavirus. Deschamps has trusted Lucas Digne as his left-back (and Digne’s looked really good). Mendy might actually play at right-back more than we initially thought.

Heck, Mendy even found himself on the right side of the field on a couple occasions against Levante:

Mendy finds himself in those positions sporadically if the defense is spread thin and he has to come over to the strong side. But playing there from start to finish is a different thing. He is almost never brought up in shortlists for Dani Carvajal’s back-up, which tend to include Alvaro Odriozola, Nacho, Lucas Vazquez, and Eder Militao. Maybe that will change now.

That’s not, like, the solution. Mendy is not equally as good at right-back as he is on the opposite flank. A few games under his belt and he may develop Achraf-like versatility. (Achraf is better on the right, but he plays just fine on the left.)

Mendy was fine against Croatia. He had a good stretch where he provided overloads for Raphael Varane and Tolisso to hit when they needed an outlet over the top of the defense. He also struggled at times with his one-on-one defending (though I’m not sure those struggles were necessarily positionally dependant). He can still create plays from the right, like he helped do for France’s goal:

It likely won’t come down to it, but we may see him play for Real Madrid at that position in the most pickled of pickles.

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