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Nine Observations, featuring some thoughts on Real Madrid’s best right-winger

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Kiyan Sobhani’s column this week on Kubo’s growth, Varane’s distribution, and much more.

Shakhtar Donetsk v Real Madrid: Group B - UEFA Champions League Photo by Eurasia Sport Images/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.


Happy Holidays:

Taboo Toni Kroos criticism

Let’s be clear about something: Toni Kroos has been ridiculous. He is passing at an elite clip, and is a clear contender for best passer in club history. He puts balls into the box, right on the foot of Real Madrid’s moving attackers — an important part of creating chances against low blocks. He is there at the top of the box to receive cut-backs and shoot on sight. No player in Europe’s top-5 leagues has switched the play more than Kroos (63 times) — another vital ploy that shifts around organized defensive lines. Only three players — Rodri Hernandez, Steven Nzonzi, Manuel Locatelli — sling more passes into the final third.

Kroos doesn’t slow down. His forays remain a constant, ever-reliable source of production and value, even when the team is in the dumps.

There is little, if anything, to complain about when Kroos has the ball at his feet. He can eel his way out of tight spots. Those who moan about his ‘side-to-side passing’ have difficulty seeing the zoomed-out art of ball progression, with all its intricate baby-stepping in possession. Some say his key passes are inflated because of his set-pieces. Show me one player who hits his target with his set-pieces as prolifically as Kroos does. It’s a sign of a great set-piece quarterback.

Until the day arrives that the German declines offensively, you take the good over the bad with Kroos. I still want him to improve his transition defense. The heavy lifting usually falls to Luka Modric, Casemiro, or Fede Valverde when it comes to tracking. Kroos is as step slow. Either the effort isn’t there, or it’s late. Sometimes he will decline a defensive intervention, by design, in order to position himself as a release-valve on the counter. But those are rare exceptions, and his neglect defensively is a flaw teams take advantage of:

Kroos is too intelligent of a player to not react better in those situations.

(There is enough blame to distribute to multiple players on both sequences. Vazquez’s giveaway causes the first, and Ramos could’ve organized the marking better with Mendy out of position. The second play had dominoes falling way before Kroos has to track the left half-space. Isco hedges towards the ball carrier leaving a burden on Kroos. But the German does a shoulder check to see that Mendy is not marking the far post on the first play, fully knowing he’s leaving a free header if he doesn’t sprint back, and is a step slow reacting to that Mikel Vesga run which Courtois saves.)

Kroos’s game is best suited to pressing and pulling strings. But a marginal improvement in his tracking could make a big difference in Real Madrid’s overall balance.

Raphael Varane’s long-range passing

Ball-playing center-backs are more important than ever. Real Madrid have one of the best of all time, Sergio Ramos, steering them out of mucky waters. His partner, Raphael Varane, is known as a technically gifted defensive stalwart. I sometimes wonder if we should rewrite the narrative and call it for what it is: Varane is one of the best defensive readers of the game — fast to the ball, and immovable on 50/50 challenges. But is he ever-reliable as Ramos when the ball is at his feet?

Most looked at the Manchester City debacle as an anomaly. I mean, that kind of extreme horror is rare from him, to be sure. But going back through columns since 2018, Varane has been hit or miss with his balls out of the back. There is variance with him. Against Eibar’s high press, Varane misplaced 11 long balls (5/16). Ramos went 12-of-16. Varane then give Granada multiple gifts.

Varane has completed just 78.5% of his attempted long balls out of the back, compared to Ramos’s devastatingly-cool 91.9% (which puts Ramos top of La Liga among all players, and 3rd among center-backs across all top-five leagues). Pressure Varane and dare him to hit an out-of-reach-target, and he’s going to get uncomfortable.

Ferland Mendy needs to improve under pressure, fast

Ferland Mendy has gradually becomes one of the best individual defenders on the planet. He is a wall, an immovable stack of bricks. He has strengthened the team’s defensive spine, one that was notoriously vulnerable on the flanks with Marcelo there. He has been dribbled past just twice this entire league campaign. Marcos Llorente, one of the league’s best offensive players this season — an athletic freak whose twists, turns, and shoulder drops on the right flank have made defenders fall the wrong way over and over again — couldn’t get Mendy to budge.

But Mendy will need to improve on the ball when opponents breath down his neck:

That is alert reading and exuberance from Llorente to read that pass and get there in time, but doesn’t excuse Mendy’s gift. Llorente has no business getting there if Mendy pads the ball with conviction. Mendy senses the panic before the pressure even arrives. Atletico win the ball in a great position.

Llorente and Kieran Trippier did not put a dent in Mendy and Vinicius Jr, but they also took away anything the Real Madrid dyad gave them on the other end of the field. In some ways, this was a typical derby — both teams cancelled each other on the flanks. But Mendy’s touches on the ball didn’t help, and Atletico pounced every time:

Only two defenders — Huesca’s Javi Galvan, Elche’s Josan — have been dispossessed more in La Liga this season than Mendy. Marcelo hurt Real Madrid defensively in other ways — positioning, bad transition defense. Mendy can hurt the team by losing the ball in key areas. Pain is pain. Marcelo’s problems started when he was young and never improved. Mendy needs to figure out how to be press-resistant fast. Careers flash by quick.

Ronaldo Koeman ‘forced’ to play without pure wingers

Ronald Koeman has been without Ansu Fait and Ousmane Dembele — his best pure wingers — for a string of games now. He has tried unconventional line-ups in consecutive matches. In the win over Valladolid, Koeman may have found a formula that works: three at the back, with Jordi Alba and Sergino Dest stretching the field. Barcelona got great production from both flanks. Dest has been surgical beating his man off the dribble before cutting it back. The synergy between Pedri and Alba has been magnetic:

That play leads to nothing, but is a good example of what Barca did on the left wing over and over again with success: Alba finds Pedri’s run, then immediately moves inside and drags a few poor saps with him. Pedri knows where Alba is going immediately, and picks him out instinctively. Alba and Pedri worked in unison to lug around defenders. Koeman’s offense was fluid. Frenkie de Jong and Martin Braithwaite were often there to help the left side of the build-up, and everyone bought in to working to win the ball back in transition.

This was Barcelona’s (probably) third best offensive performance of the league campaign behind the Villarreal and Betis games at the Camp Nou earlier this season. Koeman didn’t have wingers, but he had control, width, and coverage. He didn’t have Antoine Griezmann and Philipe Coutinho making redundant runs. He decongested the midfield, and allowed Pedri, Pjanic, de Jong, and Messi to combine well with one another and find openings offensively. (Alba and Dest being great out wide helped too.)

What ensued was a vintage Messi line: 10 shots, three key passes, four completed dribbles, one goal, one assist. Barcelona got key offensive contributions from everyone, and good transition defending with three across the back. Mingueza had two big defensive interventions, and seven interceptions overall.

Caveat: Valladolid were a black hole defensively, and after conceding the second goal, hung their heads and stopped pressing. It will be interesting to see how much of this sticks against better opponents.

Borja Mayoral, finally getting involved

It took a few months, but Borja Mayoral is finally living up to his ‘link-up’ bill — the role he’s long tried to emulate Karim Benzema in. For two+ years, Mayoral has been too much of a ghost on the field to replicate his idol Benzema. In November, I wrote about Roma manager Paolo Foncesca’s patience in the Real Madrid loanee finally paying off to some dividends. But I’d be lying if I wasn’t expecting Mayoral to regress to the mean at some point, and still would not be surprised to see him fall back to old bad habits of coasting through games undetected. Mayoral hasn’t regressed. Instead, he’s improved, grown. He’s finally starting to understand what being a link-up striker entails.

That’s the off-ball movement and technical ability needed to pull strings offensively at a professional level. Mayoral drops deep, and is quick-thinking when he receives the ball at the half-way line. One touch to take it, another to get it out wide quickly. An off-ball sprint into the box ensues, followed by crisp touches and an assist.

Mayoral has more touches in the final third per 90 this season than he ever has in his career. Watch him off the ball and he’s constantly whizzing. He moves in the half-spaces, presses actively, and even when he doesn’t get the ball, he opens space for others, and his activity makes him sharper when he does get touches.

Let’s see where this Mayoral road leads to. It’s good to see progression.

Takefuso Kubo, bumpy growth

Takefuso Kubo followed up his rocky game in the Europa League with two consecutive good halves: The second half against Elche off the bench, and the first half against Real Betis in a rare league start. His final ball into the box looked sharper at the Benito Villamarin:

That pass doesn’t even make it into a Lionel Messi lowlight reel, let alone his greatest hits. For Kubo, the smooth dribbling out of tight spaces is normal — but that simple ball is something he normally struggles hitting. If he’s to live up to his potential, he needs to make that final ball routine — a casual pass that flows naturally.

With Kubo, that pass often gets blocked, or is overhit. He’s had trouble weighing his passes with the right velocity and cushion for his teammates to control.

Things started to regress to the mean in that second half against Betis. Kubo started to overthink what should’ve been simple decisions. He sliced his crosses, and catapulted easy cross-field switches into the stands — killing Villarreal attacks in the process.

Kubo lasted 58 minutes against Betis, and completed just 75% of his passes. Those he missed did not have a high degree of difficulty.

The reliable two-way presence of Sergio Reguilon

Sergio Reguilon is currently the most ‘sure thing’ prospect Real Madrid have available under their umbrella (outside the current squad). It’s been impressive how well he’s shut down some of the best players in the world with his individual defending. He is a trustworthy lockdown defender who picks his spots offensively, even if more sparsely this season compared to last.

I have enjoyed how he gobbles up whoever the winger he’s marking is, star or not, in transition, or with his feet set. Reguilon was always a good defender. That any Tottenham fans looked at him as anything but was only clouded by how good Reguilon was offensively at Sevilla. When he’s asked to defend, he is elite. There are few in England who defend as reliably at that position.

Reguilon makes piercing runs off the ball, over the shoulder of the defensive line for Son, Kane, and Ndombele to hit. If he doesn’t get it, he drags defenders down the line, and if he gets it, he’s through into a crossing position. He blitzes the field in those positions, giving Tottenham’s transition attacks an extra reinforcement.

But Reguilon will exert most of his influence on the other end. Outside the Kane - Son dyad, Reguilon has the most touches in the final third of anyone on the team. But Tottenham have just 2033 touches in the attacking third overall — the sixth lowest mark in the league and the lowest among the top nine teams. Their primary source of offense is to absorb jabs over and over again before countering with an uppercut. Reguilon absorbs.

Against Leicester, despite a loss, Reguilon shut down Albrighton on the flank in transition:

Reguilon stays with Albrighton every step of the way, cornering him wide before thieving possession. Even when the Spaniard was deep in the opposition’s box awaiting a cross, he’d sprint back to make sure the Leicester winger had no room to breathe:

Sergio Reguilon is one of the lowest paid players in the squad. He makes about half a million less, per week, than Gareth Bale. There is no doubt on who brings more value. I suspect Reguilon will get paid big in about two years time.

Who is Real Madrid’s best right winger?

A Patron on last week’s live Granada post-game podcast posed a question: “Who is going to start on the right wing against Atalanta?” I thought the question was impossible to answer. There is a certain redundancy in guessing what happens two weeks from now, let alone two months. But it did get me thinking: In a do-or-die Champions League game, season on the line, with everyone fit, who is the best option on the right?

If everyone is healthy, Zidane has four locks in six positions: Karim Benzema, Eden Hazard, Toni Kroos, Casemiro. At the beginning of the season, I wouldn’t have had Luka Modric in there based on his omission in the last few Clasicos, but let’s say Modric has now worked his way into a lock, which means that’s five selections scratched, one to go.

That last spot is currently bolted by Lucas Vazquez, and with Rodrygo injured, that bolt has been wrapped with graphene. Vazquez being the team’s starting right-winger sounds like a 2020 meme, but he’s earned an important spot in the rotation given his two-way reliability.

I think that discussion changes when everyone is healthy. That last slot doesn’t necessarily go to a traditional right-winger, and based on pure talent alone, I’d like to see Martin Odegaard get burn because of his ability to shape-shift into multiple roles. Put him on the right in a 4-3-3, and he can press, hook in accurate crosses, and provide some flair and width. But he can also drop narrow defensively and join the midfield to bring the team some control. From deep, he can sling in dagger passes that few see, and is creative enough with his movement and passing to help unlock low blocks. He can also help progress the ball in games where Real Madrid are pinned — either by dropping to help escape a press, or with his positioning in between the lines. He understands what it means to be a proper outlet.

Fede Valverde can take that mantle too, and has had games where he blazes the right flank better than some conventional right-wingers. Fede makes undetected underlap runs like a ninja, and is always trustworthy. But with Modric already in the lineup, the urgency for Fede’s presence is lessened. Modric and Fede both cover similar (incredible) ground, but Modric is the more technically-gifted of the two.

I liked, more than most analysts, when Zidane rolled with five central midfielders in the Spanish Super Cup last season. More ball-playing midfielders give you more options to press, cover, and control. It’s not a go-to, but it’s a card that can be used in certain situations. Odegaard hits a nice sweet spot of width, flair, and ball-playing ability.

Thibaut Courtois, the occasional sniper

Sometimes, when you least expect it, things hit you:

Those passes from Thibaut Courtois are so rare, that when you see them happen, you can’t help but jump out of your seat. Where the hell did that come from? Courtois is being pressed by both sides. He has two safe(ish, for him) options to his left in Kroos and Mendy, but opts to take the more risky central passing lane to Karim Benzema to progress the ball.

Sometimes Courtois pulls out the Ederson card, and it makes your heart jump out of your chest.