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Seven observations, featuring Ferland Mendy’s on-field presence, and Fabio Cannavaro’s Real Madrid career

Kiyan Sobhani’s latest column, on Cannavaro’s time at Real, Nacho’s return, Vallejo’s progress, Mendy’s contributions, Llorente’s evolution, Reguilon things, and Mayoral

FC Internazionale v Real Madrid: Group B - UEFA Champions League Photo by Valerio Pennicino/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.

It’s Thursday, let’s dump some notes:

Fabio Cannavaro’s Real Madrid career

It is often overlooked in two back-to-back title-winning seasons from 2006 - 2008: For a fleeting time in history, two of the greatest defenders of all time — one at the twilight of his career, the other barely hatched — coincided in Real Madrid’s XI. Sergio Ramos and Fabio Cannavaro’s time in those years do get neglected at times. Perhaps rightfully so. What stole the headlines was the team’s resilience down the stretch, Fabio Capello, Ruud van Nistlerooy’s goals, Guti’s passes, and Gonzalo Higuain’s emergence. Heck, what else? The resuscitation of Raul’s corpse in 2008, David Beckham’s comeback in 2007, and Bernd Schuster’s men setting the record for points in a league campaign in the team’s title-defense season. (There are plenty more!)

Cannavaro did not meet expectations at first. He struggled in an early loss to Lyon in France, and the team was bleeding goals in December and January of his first season. He did not look like the player who put in arguably the best performance by a central defender in an international tournament ever, in the 2006 World Cup. On the other end of his three-year stint at the club, his decline was clearly visible in the 2008 - 2009 season.

Some of that can be chalked up to normal things: New league, new language, new playing style. Cannavaro went from being surrounded by Alessandro Nesta, Gianluca Zambrotta, Marco Materazzi, and even Paolo Maldini in 2002, to a young Sergio Ramos, Ivan Helguera, and an old Roberto Carlos. Sometimes Michel Salgado slotted in. In the recent historical podcast Matt Wiltse and I did, on Real Madrid’s 3 - 2 win over Sevilla in 2007, Cannavaro had Miguel Torres and Cicinho as his wing-backs, with Ramos beside him in the middle (which, at the time, was not Ramos’s best position).

But mid-season, despite those barriers, Cannavaro found his stride. Capello’s defensive scheme, shielded by a less-than-joga-bonito double-pivot of Mahamadou Diarra and Emerson, helped the Italian center-back settle. And by the time Bernd Schuster came along the following season and flipped the playing style into the more attack-minded tone the club demanded, Cannavaro led a formidable back-line with Pepe, Ramos, and Gabriel Heinze.

Cannavaro at his peak was masterful, and once he hit stride in Madrid, you could see how he operated on a different wavelength. His timing on step-up interventions was instinctually perfect. He covered both wings like a teleporting time-cop. It did not matter how much shorter than you he was or how many step-overs and tricks you had in your toolbox. He took your soul. He bullied everyone: strikers, pacy wingers, and overloading full-backs thinking they’ve snuck past undetected. Pure artistry.

Jesus Vallejo, baby steps

I have not given up on Jesus Vallejo yet. I may be last on the train. I may die alone on the hill. I am, to be sure, slowing rolling down the slope, which is stationed on a secluded island, where I am dying a slow death. But, until the last breath, I hold on to hope, like James Franco in 127 hours.

Vallejo, like peak-Frankfurt-Vallejo, has not appeared since, Frankfurt. But, he is starting to show signs of life. He is working his way into the rotation as Granada grind out their depth chart navigating through multiple competitions and a crazy schedule. Vallejo has already blocked seven shots this season — the highest rate of his career — and has blocked a ball by standing in its path 16 times, the most of his career since Football Reference started tracking the metric back in 2017. Translation: He puts his body on the line. In a frantic draw against Levante back on November 1st, where Granada played with 10 men for 74+ minutes, Vallejo started at the right-back slot before moving in more narrow as the game progressed. He had two key blocks on Sergio Leon and Enis Bardhi in the 85th minute and 95th minute respectively. Both interventions came in the box — both were physically sacrificial.

It is a low bar to throw a celebration. Some of Vallejo’s brilliance in Frankfurt with the ball at his feet have escaped him. He is not as confident with his ball-carrying, and his vertical passing (and distribution in general) has dipped. He is still not where he needs to be when it comes to aerial duels.

It is no secret Real Madrid are thin at the center-back position when you start to consider Sergio Ramos’s age. Vallejo’s name has dissipated in Real Madrid circles, but he’s still on the radar, even if on the fringes. This is a big year for him.

The evolution of Marcos Llorente

Marcos Llorente is generating 2.29 shot-creating actions per game, and is letting fly 1.87 shots per 90 — both eclipsing previous career highs. He already has three goals this season — tied with Fede Valverde who is Real Madrid’s second highest goalscorer! He completely tortured Barcelona in a win over the Cules last weekend. He is no longer just a defensive anchor, he is just, anything and everything, and his evolution is among the weirdest and best storylines in Europe.

Atletico are so weird that nothing is weird anymore. Their reality is beyond everyone else’s standard of normalcy. Llorente doesn’t need to be a single pivot defensive midfielder anymore. Even with Rodri Hernandez and Thomas Partey gone, Simeone can field four box-to-box central midfielders across a horizontal plane and get production from every single one of them. He can shift Saul as a left winger, Yannick Carrasco as a left wing-back, and Marcos Llorente as a pseudo-striker or attacking menace in any vertical channel. Joao Felix has grown into the team’s puppeteer, glueing the offense together and taking on more of an alpha role.

Llorente has been getting more and more comfortable in an attacking role. Atleti are gradually shifting into a more controlling and imposing style of play. Felix is a part of that, but Llorente has been adding to his bag of tricks. He was always a menace getting into the right half-space, almost in a Fede Valverde type way. Llorente now gets into those spots and creates pure mayhem. He can shoot on sight, or drop his shoulder and get to the byline:

Llorente’s press-resistancy continues to improve. He does not feel hot under the collar when swarmed. He’s starting to have fun in those situations, which is an essential skill in today’s football, but particularly for one who may be called upon to play deeper when needed:

Llorente is also a physical freak, which shouldn’t go untold. Work ethic, hours in the gym, strict diet — all those things that managers love — are all there.

Sergio Reguilon’s man-to-man defending

I am back in on Jose Mourinho. Tottenham are flying. They are even... fun to watch. Some of that is down to the ridiculous Son Heung-min - Harry Kane dyad. Those two are connected through one giant invisible brain that spans the entire pitch. They are devastating in Tottenham’s counter-attack. They also have help from capable two-way players who join the attack. Even when Tottenham barely touch the ball, and neutral fans moan, you just know that at any point, one electric counter can break, and damage will be done.

Tottenham have won six of their opening nine games. Only Chelsea have scored more goals, and no team has defended better. That puts Jose Mourinho’s men top of the table. Some of this may all regress to the mean once other teams start hitting their stride. Tottenham are outperforming their xG by nearly five. (Must be nice.)

Harry Kane leads the league in goal-creating actions (12) and assists (9) — some of those numbers inflated by Son’s great finishing, but nonetheless great. Only four players sling more key passes than him.

Pierre Højbjerg has been terrific defensively, and is crucial to the team’s build-up play. Only Rodri hits more passes into the final-third in the entire league.

Sergio Reguilon plays his part, always. He picks and chooses his offensive runs, and when it’s his time, he flies. Against more ball-dominant opponents like Manchester City, those attacking opportunities will be sparse. Against Pep Guardiola’s men, Reguilon had a difficult assignment: Keep both Kevin de Bruyne and Riyad Mahrez in check. Reguilon often was marking both at the far post by himself, with no help in sight. He and Tottenham were lucky the ball didn’t get switched to his side more. City didn’t exploit that space. When the ball did eventually get there in a slow build-up sequence, all of de Bruyne, Mahrez, and Kyle Walker sized him up, but couldn’t beat him.

Almost a duplicate sequence:

On Walker:

Reguilon still has defensive miscues (over-dribbling out of the back, losing runners), but his man-to-man defense and recovery looks great.

Borja Mayoral acclimatizing himself to Paulo Fonseca’s offense

AS Roma have outscored opponents 9 - 2 in the 350 minutes where they’ve played Borja Mayoral without Edin Dzeko this season. Some of that is just chance and context: The bulk of Mayoral’s minutes have come against weaker opponents in the Europa League, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan has gone completely Super Saiyan this season carrying Roma’s offense.

The fit with Mayoral initially was clunky, and at times, non-existent. He struggled to involve himself the way Dzeko did. He looked lost as the team’s leading #9. Like his Levante days, he would ghost through games without a trace, like a ninja without bite — the kind you wouldn’t be bothered if he broke into your house undetected.

Fonseca has coddled him to ease the transition. He publicly defended Mayoral before a Europa League game against CFR Cluj, where Mayoral scored a brace. “Borja is a young player who we need to be patient with as he adapts,” Fonseca said after that routine 5 - 0 win. “I’m really pleased he got two goals tonight, that will help his confidence.”

Two games later, and with Edin Dzeko suffering from COVID-19, Mayoral spearheaded an attack with Pedro and Mkhitaryan behind him. Mayoral had his best game so far. He was involved in all three goals in a 3 - 0 win over Parma (great movement and finish on the first goal, had an assist — with a lucky bounce — on the second goal, and his link-up play kickstarted the third). He was active throughout, with little layoffs, good positioning, pressing, and dribbling out of tight spots.

This might turn out to be a good spot for Mayoral. His loan spells have not been glamorous until now. Is Roma the sweet spot?

Ferland Mendy, the immovable object and stoppable force

Just how good is Ferland Mendy, and does his apparent lack of offense hurt the team more than his elite defending? This is a question that has surfaced more and more — even moreso after the win over Inter at San Siro.

The answer is no. Mendy put Achraf Hakimi in his pocket over the course of two games. The Moroccan had no answer to the French wall. Mendy took away passes down the flank, matched Achraf stride for stride, and even kept some juice to disposes Romelu Lukaku anytime he had to come over centrally to cover. He is a safety net, a warm blanket. He is reliable.

Mendy’s offense is not nearly as good. He is unorthodox with the ball. Some of his great offensive sequences last season, including two big ones against Barcelona and Manchester City, came from him recognizing, in a split second, that there is space he can blitz into behind the full-back. He spurs the offense in motion when he wants, but does it in a less glamorous way than Marcelo.

He also does it far less frequently than the Brazilian. Per 90, Marcelo hits almost five more passes into the final third, and nearly two more passes into the penalty area. Marcelo is also a far superior progressive passer. But Mendy is a better ball-carrier (both by eye test and metric), and hits about the same amount of key passes per 90 this season. Marcelo will get the ball up field with vertical passes; while Mendy will dribble the ball down the flank by himself to get the team up the field.

Some of the Mendy fallout (it’s not really a fallout, almost everyone unanimously recognizes how much Mendy strengthens the team’s spine) against Inter was from plays like this, where he’s so unfamiliar with the position he’s in, that he makes the wrong decision, and even then, overhits the decision he makes:

There is a strong case for Mendy to just let that one fly — either low and to the far-post a la Zidane vs Juve circa 2003, or a low, near-post curler. Heck, we have even seen top-shelf near post lazers from that position from capable attackers. Mendy opts to cut it back to Vazquez, which is not a terrible ploy given how wide open Vazquez is in a good position. But the Frenchman grossly miscalculates the arc and power of the pass.

But Mendy’s read of the game is what started the opportunity in the first place — that shouldn’t go unnoticed. He intercepts Vidal’s pass, gets it to Hazard, and sprints into the right spot.

More worrying than Mendy’s contribution to the attack is his discomfort under pressure. His touches and control were nervy, and against Inter — and for the second time this season by my notes — his panic leads him to turn backwards and switch the play with his right foot which leads to a chance the other way.

What Real Madrid will need out of Mendy on a consistent basis will largely depend on everyone else’s contribution too. Against Inter, Hazard and Vazquez combined for seven shots and nine completed dribbles; Modric and Odegaard combined for six key passes. It wasn’t peak 3-peat ball, but it was enough to lessen the burden on Mendy’s offensive load. In other games where Hazard isn’t healthy, or Casemiro takes one of the creative spots, that gets magnified — as it does against smaller teams who don’t give Real Madrid the kind of space Inter and Barcelona do.

Nacho Fernandez, ready and steady

It feels like it’s been a long time since we saw Nacho at his peak — filling in for any position across the back four without suffering a significant drop off. Last season he looked like he lost a step. Some of his confidence on the offensive end dissipated, and defensively he didn’t have the same bounce tracking runners.

Against Villarreal, he showed signs of life. He had a huge intervention at the top of the box in the second half, and important transition defending on Gerard Moreno late when the team was melting into a deep abyss. He even popped up in the left half space in attack on one sequence — a premonition for what was to happen just days later at the San Siro.

Slotting in as Raphael Varane’s partner at center-back seems to have eased the Frenchman in games where Sergio Ramos can’t play. Varane has looked calm on the ball and was sharp defensively against both Villarreal and Inter over the past two games. Maybe Nacho’s own composure helps.

Nacho looked back to his best against Inter. Any concern over a Lukaku - Nacho mismatch was put to bed over the course of 90 minutes. Lukaku was not an aerial threat — some of that on him not getting into space, and some of that down to Inter’s horrendous build-up play — and any time he tried to dribble past Nacho, the Spaniard locked him down completely.

Bar one lax dribble attempt on the left flank, there wasn’t much to nitpick from Nacho’s performance. He earned a penalty early on after Nicolo Barela went through his back. His positioning on that play was bizarre, but by design. He’d pop up there again more than once, taking over the Sergio Ramos mantle, an entire chapter from the captain’s book: Step-up intervention, pass, and sprint into the box. Nacho played it to a tee, even if he doesn’t have Ramos’s aerial presence.

Nacho was a subtle part of Real Madrid’s press-resistancy. Mendy would often tuck narrow, and Nacho would shift to the left-back slot. Hazard would drop deep, Mendy would drag defenders centrally. One switch, and Real Madrid escaped. Nacho misplaced just five of his 50 passes — three of the miscues were long balls.

“There are many players like him (Vazquez), Nacho and others who have been here for a long time and deserve to stay here,” Zidane said after the win against Inter. Who could argue? Neither of those two players complain. In Nacho’s case, he’s a massive piece of the defensive depth chart if he plays like this consistently.

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