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Five observations, featuring Luka Modric’s memorable performance vs Borussia Monchengladbach

Kiyan Sobhani’s column this week, on: Modric, Asensio, Reguilon, Joao Felix, and Kubo

Real Madrid v Borussia Moenchengladbach: Group B - UEFA Champions League Photo by Alejandro Rios/DeFodi Images via 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.

This week’s column hits on Real Madrid’s upcoming opponent, Modric’s quality, and more:

Joao Felix, grace and efficiency

It is very difficult for anyone to live up to a $139m transfer tag. Few can do it. Fun fact: At most, only three people have ever done it! Neymar and Kylian Mbappe are the only two players in football history more expensive than Joao Felix. Of the 10 players who have sold for $100m or more, five have been disasters (so far): Philippe Coutinho, Ousmane Dembele, and Antoine Griezmann to Barcelona, Eden Hazard to Real Madrid, and Paul Pogba to Manchester United.

Felix could’ve gone either way. His talent is undeniable, but he was signed off the back of a half-a-season sample size at Benfica in the Europa League and Primeira Liga. He was a teenager asked to fill the shoes of Antoine Griezmann, in an Atletico side going through a rebuild — a side not known for accentuating the qualities of attacking midfielders who need the ball to thrive.

Now few question the signing. Felix has established himself as the transcendent leader of an Atleti scheme that becomes more daring every day. With Felix, Atleti hold the ball in the opponents half, and the Portuguese dictates the offense with his feet. Atletico now average 55% possession in La Liga, and rank fourth in touches in the opponent’s penalty area. They are second in the league in goal-creating actions (34) — trailing only Real Sociedad. Felix leads the team in successful dribbles, progressive distance with the ball at his feet, key passes, expected assists, and shot-creating actions.

But Atleti still have their defensive instincts engrained in them. They do not sacrifice their defense with their new-found offense that revolves around Felix pulling strings to feed a barrage of offensive motion around him that manifests in the form of constant movement from Marcos Llorente, Angel Correa, Yannick Carrasco, and Luis Suarez. Diego Simeone’s new-found 3-5-2 allows plenty of coverage for both Llorente and Carrasco to get up the field without leaving the flanks vulnerable. Mario Hermoso has grown comfortable knowing where to be when Carrasco starts blazing offensive trails. Diego Simeone’s men have conceded just two goals in La Liga all season! Felix is comfortable when Atleti do sit deep. He is a phenomenal ball-carrier on the counter. He absorbs the gravity of on-rushing defenders, and catapults the ball to open runners.

I am a football purist. If you can glide with the ball at your feet, I’m in. My favourite footballers of all time all have a certain elegance to them: Michael Laudrup, Zinedine Zidane, Fernando Redondo, Luka Modric, Kaka, Andrea Pirlo. I need the bounce. Bounce gets you extra points. Felix has that grace. He floats with efficiency, and he floats without redundancy. He entertains. Ultimately, isn’t that why we watch this sport?

It took some time, as things do. Felix’s 13 key passes this season has already almost matched his entire output from last season (17). He’s averaging nearly double the amount of passes he hits into the final-third, and nearly triple the amount of passes he hits into the penalty area. He has improved in nearly every single metric, including defensive ones, like tackles won and successful pressures. This is the best dribbling season of his young career, and it’s not close.

Atletico look great, and Diego Simeone deserves credit for building the right scheme around the attacking talent he has, while getting everyone — central midfielders, defenders and all — to buy in to an efficient two-way blueprint. Felix is the new icon in town.

Takefusa Kubo, struggling with end product

Takefusa Kubo is still a work in progress, and even leaning towards the rawer side of his development. Sometimes fans forget that, especially when it comes to waiving their pitchforks at public enemy #1 Unai Emery, who hasn’t coddled the Japanese prodigy like Real fans have wanted. Emery has benched both Samu Chukweze and Kubo throughout the season — bringing them off the bench in La Liga or only starting them in Europa League games.

Kubo has struggled with the defensive side of things — an aspect of high importance to Emery. In the pre-game press conference before Villarreal’s game against Sivasspor, Emery said that both Samu and Kubo needed to ‘show more’ in their time on the pitch. That extends to Kubo’s offensive game as well.

Kubo looks off the through-ball in the right half-space in exchange for a more difficult one on the weak side, where his pass is under-hit and kills the play. Those plays happen, even to the best, but Kubo does have trouble recognizing which passes to hit, when to dribble, when to slow the game down, and even recognizing where the ball needs to go after his initial silky touch.

Some of Kubo’s touches in traffic are breathtaking. Defenders put pressure on him, and within seconds, have no idea where he went or how he got past them. That part of Kubo’s game is clockwork good. Feed him a vertical pass with an opponent breathing down his neck, and you can have confidence he’ll figure it out.

It’s the last hurdle where Kubo needs to improve:

The eye test and numbers align. Per 90, Kubo is the target recipient of 65% of the team’s passes — the second highest mark on the team behind Dani Parejo. He has more touches per 90 in the final-third on the team than anyone else. His teammates look for him, and Kubo is a wizard when he gets that outlet pass. He just needs to sharpen his end product and defensive awareness.

Sergio Reguilon’s role in Jose Mourinho’s hyper-active counter-attacking scheme

It’s hard to talk about Tottenham outside the mainstream dialogue surrounding the insane, double-supernova that is the Harry Kane and Son Heung-min Armageddon. Yes, those two are that good. They are the deserved poster boys of Jose Mourinho’s league-leading, immovable, unstoppable Tottenham.

In my last column, I highlighted that Kane’s (absurd) assist numbers are inflated (and I say that with all due respect to him, because he’s been a near flawless link-up forward) by Son’s (absurd) finishing. No goal encompassed that better than Tottenham’s first goal against Arsenal over the weekend. Kane does everything right — dropping deep and getting the ball out to Son around the half-way line. That simple distribution led to Son carrying the ball up the field and murdering Arsenal’s defense with a slingshot well outside the box. Kane gets the assist. Chalk it up!

But let’s dig into the unsung heroes: Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, Tanguy Ndombele, Sergio Reguilon — and pretty well everyone else including Hugo Lloris and everyone defending in front of him. Reguilon has been a huge two-way asset for Mourinho. The few times he’s ventured out of the backline against bigger teams where Tottenham hedge deeper, Reguilon contributes to the counter-attacks. But he’s also been positionally disciplined, and is effective pressuring the opposition on the flank when needed. He reads the game well with step-up interventions which create transition opportunities:

Reguilon won’t have much of the ball against teams that Mourinho wants to cede possession to (which have included the last string of Premier League games: Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City). There is a certain art involved in being alert enough to contribute offensively when you’re asked to defend and pick and choose your spots. Tottenham, like Atletico, don’t get cold. Instead, they use their off-ball moments to charge up and unload their batteries during sporadic counter-attacks.

Because of Tottenham’s style of play (again, particularly against bigger teams), Reguilon’s offensive stats will be tamed compared to his Sevilla stint. His passes into the final-third, passes into the penalty area, progressive passes, key passes, and shot-creating actions are all at a career-low per 90. He is not as targeted by his teammates as he was in Sevilla and Real Madrid. Part of that last wrinkle will be down to Tottenham’s lack of possession, but also because Kane and Son often look him off and use him as a decoy:

Reguilon is at his best on the counter when he carries the ball up the field, providing Tottenham with numerical superiority. But Tottenham’s attack has been so good that there hasn’t been a huge need for him to teleport out of a backline and risk extra defensive security. Reguilon is equally as comfortable playing in slow-paced build-ups where Tottenham have the ball pinned in the opponents half against smaller teams. His movement, shooting, dribbling, and crossing ability makes him a potent offensive weapon.

(Obviously none of this works if you don’t have super-duper-stars. Tottenham’s xG is just 17.39. They have transcendent talent to overcome the relatively low amount of chances they create.)

Defensively, Reguilon’s man-to-man defending continues to be rock solid. Even elite dribblers have trouble taking him on. In rare moments when he’s caught, he can use his speed and combativeness to squeeze out the NOS and recover.

Reguilon’s more pertinent defensive issues will lie covering runs behind him. He sometimes gets lost tracking cutting runs, or is unsure of where to be when a cross comes in from the strong side. Those aspect of his game are gradually improving, though, and his synergy with his half-space wingman (against Arsenal, that was Eric Dier), has looked good. Reguilon has grown comfortable tucking inside while his center-back goes out wide. He will defend narrow and let Son or another midfielder take the flank. In those situations, Reguilon knows he needs to shift centrally to double up on the wings, or keep his eye on a pass inside.

As always, keeping track of Reguilon will be on the top of my list, at least until that two-year phase is over and Real Madrid will be at the buy-back crossroad.

The sheer ‘quality’ of Luka Modric

It was noticeable right away. In a do-or-die game against Borussia Monchengladbach on Wednesday night at the Alfredo di Stefano, Luka Modric’s boots electrified the field. The energy reverberated to every Real Madrid player, and Modric — the greatest central midfielder in club history — put the team on his back at the age of 35. His pressing led the way, and he sustained his energy — on defense and offense — until the last second. He has played 15 straight games for Real Madrid now — 12 of them as a starter. He is playing regularly with the Croatian national team. What he’s putting his body through as a central midfielder at this age, at this kind of elite level, against really good teams, is not normal. Xavi Hernandez at the age of 35 was already in Qatar; Andres Iniesta in Japan.

But Zinedine Zidane re-framed Modric’s performance in the post-game press conference. Energy is nice, but Modric’s ‘quality’ is what stands out. The quality aspect of Modric’s football is what Zidane rightly highlighted. There is unhinged energy, and then there is Modric, who channels his power into touches and passes that defenders can’t plan for.

We saw Modric help Vazquez defensively, and point Rodrygo in the right direction when pressing. He was important in the team’s ball-progression. His disallowed goal started with him getting the ball on the corner of the box, hoodwinking his defender into thinking he was going to cross, before dropping his shoulder the other way and taking his defender out of the play completely. I think there are even more subtle, under-the-radar moments of quality that Zidane alludes to:

That’s pure technical ability and experience. Vazquez needs an outlet carrying the ball out of the back, and Modric is there. With one seemingly casual touch with his left foot, Modric buys himself space, and suddenly opens up an extra passing lane to Karim Benzema centrally that didn’t exist one touch prior. He hits Rodrygo down the flank anyway, and gets fouled in the process.

What Modric did Wednesday night in a pivotal game that has huge implications for the entire season (winning the group on its own massively increases your chances of progression to the quarter-finals given the way the groups shaped up this year, and we are not even going to entertain the financial implications of failing to qualify, and what that would’ve meant not only for the season, but Real Madrid’s ability to buy players next summer) is one I’ll easily remember as one of the standout performances of 2020. He was so good, that when I asked Borussia Monchengladbach manager Marco Rose what changed in his team’s defense from the first to second leg, Rose said that part of it was Luka Modric. His team were cornered.

Marco Asensio’s season

Sometimes the bar is so low, that even in a game where Asensio doesn’t score, get an assist, or even sling a single key pass (this, preceded by across-the-board zeroes against Alaves one game prior), there are marginal signs of improvement. There were signs of life against Shakhtar Donetsk from Asensio in Kiev.

Nothing he did was otherworldly, but his motor looked good. His intention to break lines was there when it hasn’t been in games past. Asensio had four completed dribbles and three shots against Shakhtar. He was active sneaking into the half-space for Martin Odegaard and Karim Benzema to pick out. Some of this stuff barely moves the needle (and de facto didn’t produce any tangible end product), but at least kept the offense in motion — an important baby step from previous stagnation:

There is a case that he’s making the wrong decision on the second sequence. The dagger pass, if Asensio could see it, is a low and angled low stinger to Benzema (difficult to pull off, but not outside the toolbox of world class wingers). Asensio looks that pass off, and opts to dribble and lose possession. His decision-making all season has been questionable. Gifted attackers can transcend bad decisions with pure offensive artistry and buckets of goals or assists. Asensio has not reached that level yet, and his defensive lapses continue to cause the team problems.

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