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Six Compelling Real Madrid Talking Points

Kiyan Sobhani’s thoughts on Achraf’s performances since returning, plus: Tactical wrinkles on Ramos, Varane, Mendy and Vinicius — and one not-so tactical observation on Gareth Bale.

Real Madrid vs Barcelona - La Liga Photo by Burak Akbulut/Anadolu Agency 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.

As always, my observations are scattered and under-the-radar.

Raphael Varane’s Clasico Performance

Raphael Varane’s strong season has slipped through the cracks. His Clasico performance in March was nearly perfect.

Prior to Real Madrid’s scoreless draw at the Camp Nou in December, Varane spoke about what it’s like defending Lionel Messi, who roams freely and is difficult to man-mark — particularly if you’re a central defender scanning a high line. Messi will pop up with little notice. Defenders have to constantly shift in and out of positions while keeping the Argentinian in their periphery.

“You have to defend him together with your teammates,” Varane said. “It’s a collective effort... we have to leave him as little space as possible.”

Varane is a Clasico veteran. He was almost birthed into this rivalry — picking the pockets of Cesc and Messi as a teenager. He’s had his ups and downs, but has been a reliable defensive pillar on the big stage. One, interesting wrinkle to this year’s Clasico has been Griezmann’s role. Griezmann continues to be an awkward fit alongside Messi due to their stylistic parallels (which Messi monopolizes in the team), but Griezmann is one additional roaming cutter that Varane and Ramos have to track. When Messi’s off-ball position is variable, Griezmann makes horizontal runs across the defensive line when Suarez is out of the lineup. Barcelona relied on those movements to find chances in slower, possession-based sequences.

The entire defensive shape of the team in big games when the team pressures high up the pitch is often dependant on the frontline’s ability to stop the opposing team from exposing Ramos and Varane dancing on a high beam at the halfway line. In both Clasicos this season, Real Madrid pressed high. That worked. It squelched Barcelona’s ball progressors. But Zidane goes into those games knowing his press will get exploited at some point and hopes the damage doesn’t override the high-pitch onslaught. When it breaks, it’s on Ramos and Varane to switch on their spidey-sense and make a spectacular intervention.

Watching Varane’s off-ball defending from minute 1-90 is like watching a masterclass — only it’s free. You can see his brain click as he scours the runs of multiple attackers, communicating every switch with Ramos, and knowing when to hedge on and off the defensive line.

The defensive interventions of Casemiro, Carvajal, and Marcelo (on one sequence in particular, where Varane should get equal tout) stole the show in the March Clasico. Varane was just as crucial. He never lost sight of Griezmann’s horizontal runs. That doesn’t show up on any stat sheet or video comp. Barcelona recycled possession, looking off Griezmann who had no way to hoodwink Varane. On rare moments they dared to make that pass, Varane mopped him up:

If you zoom out and watch the full match, there was an entire minute leading up this sequence which I didn’t include, where Griezmann is trying to veer off of Varane with no luck — even going over to Ramos’s half-space to make Varane think he’s given up.

Sometimes Varane has less time to think. Both of the full-backs play as wingers near or in the final-third when the team has the ball. One mistake, and the team is toast if the central defenders don’t expedite their cover:

Griezmann is the target of 1223 passes this season — the highest mark among any attacker in the team not named Lionel Messi. Barcelona will constantly look for him as a release valve in the build-up. Varane’s hands were full. It’s a lot of brain activity to see him and Ramos connect regularly to track both Griezmann’s and Messi’s runs.

Those transition defensive sequences become ultra tricky when the player (trying to) punish you is Messi. Marcelo rightfully gets called a hero for this play, but if Varane isn’t there to help, Messi is still through on goal:

Varane looks like he should be left in the dust in that clip. He’s way behind the play as the leading pass plays Messi through. Marcelo’s challenge buys Varane time, who gets there by not ceasing his sprint. It’s an underrated defensive action.

“Being a Real Madrid player means having little margin for error. We have to know how to defend high, to pressure opponents, and this leads us to have 50 meters of the field behind us,” Varane said in January. “That’s why we have to have the maximum concentration.”

Things can happen so quickly when playing against Barcelona. In one single moment everything looks under control. A couple shoulder feints later, the seas part for a breakaway:

That’s the margin of error Varane speaks about.

You can do almost everything right. The 5% you switch off can cancel all your efforts. Barcelona’s front-three move off the ball, and they orchestrate it in a way that looks like the team is manually shifting into gears. Griezmann drags Varane. De Jong drags Ramos. Messi sneaks past Marcelo and behind Ramos. Varane’s last-ditch effort (barely) puts Messi off. and Courtois makes a world class save.

Don’t take the defensive artistry of Varane for granted.

Sergio Ramos’s Runs

In the last few months, something interesting has been brewing in Zidane’s tactics. Sergio Ramos and Dani Carvajal are making bombarding offensive runs off the ball, heading straight for the final third. Carvajal is often an extra midfielder, sprinting into a position where he’s the highest player on the pitch after he makes a vertical pass. Ramos has started joining the attack at a high clip, even for his standards. He no longer waits for a set-piece or a last-second attempt to score an urgent goal. With Cristiano Ronaldo gone, Zidane has tried to come up with ways to complement his fascination with crosses by turning Ramos into a behemoth center forward during open play.

Ramos is making these casual runs as early as the seventh minute:

Ramos is getting into good positions offensively. He often makes those runs without getting the ball, frustrated with a short or overhit cross flying over his head.

Zidane has him making those runs enough this season to consider it a tactical wrinkle — his way of trying to find a goal from somewhere (anywhere) as the team continues to struggle scoring goals consistently.

Ramos leads the league in xNPG (expected non-penalty goals) among all defenders. (And it’s not close.)

Ramos darting into the box to surprise unsuspecting defenders causes difficulty for opponents. Zidane’s crosses are generally predictable enough that opposing teams can pick them off with ease. Ramos providing an extra body makes things more challenging. Not all La Liga teams are positioned well enough to counter quickly and punish his run. There are few better (if any) on earth at heading a ball into the back of the net than Sergio.

“What Ramos is doing scoring wise is not normal,” Fernando Hierro said just days before the league was suspended. “It’s true that Koeman and I sometimes played in the midfield so we had good scoring numbers but what Ramos has done in this 21st century is just not common. Pique also scores a good amount of goals, but what Ramos has done for Real Madrid and Spain scoring goals is just not normal,”

The positional chaos that Ramos’s runs could bring have been somewhat mitigated by Fede’s ability to help Casemiro cover ground in transition — easing the pressure it puts on the defense when Ramos gets into the box.

As fun as that is to analyze, it does beg a question: Does relying on Ramos to get into the box point to an obvious flaw in Real Madrid’s offense?

Ramos jostling for position on the end of a cross in open play is tough to defend, but does not solve the obvious systemic issue of over-relying on crosses when Zidane deviates from the diamond. Crosses are still, statistically, one of the lowest paths to scoring a goal. The only way to turn this math into your favour is attempting a ridiculous amount of them, which they do. The only team that crosses more in La Liga is Lopetegui’s crossing machine at Sevilla.

There was always a sense that Real Madrid are too good, too big, and too talented to play this way.

Achraf Hakimi, Borussia Dortmund’s return

With all the major European leagues at a hiatus, all eyes are on the Bundesliga, and so many of those eyes on one of the most exciting young group of players in the continent playing at Dortmund. There was always going to be intrigue on how this would all look.

Three games in, Achraf (and Dortmund) looked good until Bayern ended their title hopes. In the first two games against Schalke and Wolfsburg, Achraf was even defending better than he was pre-quarantine. (Minimal sample size alert.) Against Schalke, he wasn’t as involved as Raphael Guerreiro was on the opposite flank, but his effort to track defensively experienced a healthy uptick. Against Wolfsburg in the ensuing game, he had the most touches on the field, was blitzing on the counter-attack, and constantly whizzed without the ball into open channels. Dortmund packed his flank defensively to make sure he was never alone. (Caveat: They were collectively pinned deeper in that second game, forcing them to be in better position to cover for Achraf.)

Then the third game happened against Bayern Munich. Dortmund, as a whole, had good passing sequences dealing with Bayern’s press, but Achraf and Guerreiro were clasped into their own half. Any time Achraf ventured forward enough to get into a dangerous position, he either didn’t get the ball, or the one-man barricade known as Alphonso Davies denied him. His defense regressed, missing several assignments tracking his man into the box.

Achraf’s primary focus when he gets the ball on the right around the halfway line is to look down the line to hit an attacking midfielder (Thorgan Hazard or Julian Brandt in these first three games back, but in other games Jadon Sancho or Marco Reus) making a run off the shoulder of the defensive line. An extra winkle since coming back from quarantine: Achraf sprints into the half-space and provides an underlap after he releases the pass. Those pass-and-move sequences aren’t akin to his play, but in these last few games he’s been making them prolifically. Dortmund’s transition defense has been good enough to allow that numerical superiority in the final third to happen.

What Dortmund did in the first two games was impressive. Emre Can, Jadon Sancho, Marco Reus, and Giovanni Reyna were all out of the starting lineup as they racked up six points. Missing regular players may be the norm for La Liga upon return too, and having five substitutes will give plenty of opportunity for fringe players to get in.

It’s been a joy to watch Achraf and Guerreiro terrorize flanks in Germany. They are possibly the most underrated wingback duo in the world, but their performances in big games will need to improve.

Ferland Mendy’s progress

Ferland Mendy’s last season in Lyon, the 2018 - 2019 season, saw him gobble up opposing wingers in France. He had elite tackling and dispossession rate numbers. One thing that went under the radar: He completed nearly two successful dribbles per game. His offense is more clunky and mechanical than Marcelo’s, but it’s not bad, and Mendy has the chance of being a defense-first left-back with impressive, efficient and underrated offensive guile.

Over the past few years, one of the most seemingly impossible positions to fill at Real Madrid has been the left-back slot. Whichever poor soul had to follow Marcelo’s legendary boots was going to be a downgrade from one of the most potent offensive full-backs in the game’s history. As Marcelo’s career enters its twilight, all things considered, Real Madrid are looking pretty good in that position with Mendy and Sergio Reguilon. Mendy has done well until now. Entering a new league has a plethora of new challenges in a footballer’s career. It has not put much of a dent in Mendy’s progression.

“When you come to a new club it’s hard to hit the ground running,” Mendy said just before the Clasico. “But I think that I’m improving with each game, and I want to reach my peak to give more in attack. Right now I’m more focused on defending well than going forward.”

Mendy attributes the ease in transition to both Varane and and Benzema’s presence, but mostly to Zidane’s.

“The first time I met Zidane we spoke and he welcomed me, he told me I was part of his team and that I needed to show my worth, which says it all.”

Zidane called Mendy on his cell phone directly prior to signing, and the left-back needed little persuasion. Lyon are on great terms with Real Madrid. The whole process was easy.

“I talk to Karim a lot, he advises me on many things and tells me where he wants the ball,” Mendy says. “I understand Benzema well both on and off the pitch. I try to do everything possible to supply him with the ball.”

Mendy’s outlook with the club is bright. He has the infrastructure and support he needs to thrive. One (among many) winner(s) of his arrival: Sergio Ramos. Lucas Navarrete and I discussed on a recent podcast how Ramos has had one of the most difficult center-back jobs in football over the past decade, and used that as fuel to amp his legacy when stacked up against other all-time great defenders who confided in more secure defensive systems. Ramos had little of that defensive security that other greats like Nesta and Cannavaro had. Covering the half-space between him and Marcelo is a full-time job. Mendy’s defensive ability takes some weight off of Ramos’s shoulders.

The Frenchman is a reliable sidekick. Even when the best wingers size him up, they struggle to get past him:

He knows when to hedge off his original marker to hunt down a run down the flank:

But sometimes Mendy can get too locked in to his marker, falling out of sync with the rest of the defensive line, and keeping attackers onside:

Mendy is still adjusting to the pace of the league. He says in Spain, the plays unfold faster. You have less time to think on both ends of the field.

The difference is the level is higher here. We work hard in training to reach our peak and show it in every game. I think we play faster on the ball over here— there is more movement, more running, that is the key difference between La Liga and Ligue 1.”

On the offensive end, Mendy is starting to find his rhythm. It took time. He completes five less progressive passes per 90 minutes than Marcelo in La Liga and about half the amount of key passes. But he was an architect of Benzema’s game-winner in the Madrid derby, and his crossing has improved:

Only two players on the squad — Toni Kroos, Dani Carvajal — have attempted more crosses this season than Mendy. Zidane has Mendy completing double the amount of crosses per 90 than he did at Lyon. Naturally, that amount of practice bears fruits in the quality of balls delivered into the penalty area over time.

It will be fun to track Mendy’s progression over time. He has surprised with his efficiency in the final-third of late.

“I cut inside to free up Vini,” Mendy said of his assist against Atletico. “He got the ball and ran deep to pass it back to me. I then saw Karim lose to his man. I saw him before I made the cross and knew what to do. We all know how Karim likes to get the ball there so it went perfectly.”

Gareth Bale’s interview

Gareth Bale loves golf. This is a story.

On Monday, Erik Anders Lang published an interview he did with Bale (recorded pre-Covid-19 outbreak). It’s really good. It’s worth tuning into to hear Bale’s tone and to understand his point of view. This week in my private Madridista Facebook group, there was a heated debate about this quote from that interview.

While both sides of the coin made good points, I think we all have to be open-minded that the answer may lie somewhere in the middle. There seems to be two separate conversations going.

Here are my thoughts, in case you find it helpful at all for the discussion on the false dichotomy that exists with Bale’s performance on the pitch and his passions outside of it:

1. It is completely fair to criticize Bale for his performances over the past 1.5 seasons. He has gone through large stretches of football completely disengaged. He’s become passive in the flow of the play, has not been much of a two-way presence (in the past, if he’s not efficient offensively, he at least defended well), passes backwards or sideways when he has a chance to shoot from long distance or take players on, and goes missing regularly. I remember noting that when he came back from injury this year, he looked hesitant going into challenges. Jonathan Barnett came out and said shortly after that Bale is worried about re-injuring himself again.

2. None of this should be attributed to his hobbies outside of his profession. His golfing does not make him a worse footballer. You shouldn’t draw a causation between what he loves doing outside of work with his performances on the pitch.

I always try to put myself in the shoes of the person in question. Let’s put it this way: If i have a stretch where my articles are bad and my podcasts stink, I would deem it completely unfair for people to come pointing at my life and telling me that my love for running or cooking is making me a bad journalist. Likewise, if your performance at your job dips, you wouldn’t appreciate it if anyone came to you and told you to stop watching Netflix outside of work.

I actually think Bale’s quote here is one I can resonate with. Whether he intends to put it this way or not, he makes a very good point: Why should an athlete’s hobby only be questioned if they are playing poorly to our standards of them? If he stopped playing golf, what would the critics then cling to? His language barriers? Something else?

Whichever side of the fence you sit on, I hope you can at least try to appreciate the nuance to this. Analyze his football, but not his hobbies.

Vinicius Jr, more than a dribbler

When Eden Hazard went down injured (again) in February, there was an urgent need for a line-breaking presence on the wings. No one on the team can dribble like Hazard, but one player comes relatively close: Vinicius Jr. Vinicius’s dribbling still isn’t as polished as Hazard’s, but he is tough to defend. When defenders have shape, Vinicius is capable of addling their lines. Zidane called on Vinicius in the three big games prior to the COVID-19 pandemic football hiatus: Manchester City, Barcelona, Real Betis. Vinicius struggled with his dribbling, but contributed in other ways.

Sometimes the ball doesn’t glide on your feet the way you want it to, or the defender you’re going up against is locked in. Both Nelson Semedo and Kyle Walker were able to stop Vinicius any time a 1 v 1 situation arose. But Vinicius can affect the game in other ways. His defensive work continues to be good (an underrated Vinny trait I will never let go of, that generally goes unnoticed), and he can hurt you with his off-ball movement which continually gets better. Zidane praised Vinicius’s defense after a win against Espanyol in December. That part of the game matters — even for brilliant attackers who are expected to create goals for a living.

The obvious flaw, goalscoring, still lingers. The only silver lining from his poor finishing, for now, is the chaos it creates. Four of his shots this season have led to another shot attempt at goal by another player, per Football Reference. That’s the highest mark on the team, but not enough production to compensate for his panicky shots when he gets in front of goal.

Defenders have learned to double up on the wings to make sure the damage from his dribbling is dulled:

Vinicius had a difficult game against Barcelona due to Semedo’s defense, but found other ways to get involved by piercing the half-space between Semedo and Gerard Pique:

His cut-backs have become more calculated, and less unruly:

Vinicius often doesn’t pull things off. You almost have to embrace that, and chalk up the inefficiency to growing pains. He is a teenager that has already played through two seasons of Champions League knockout ties and multiple Clasico appearances. That’s rare. There is so much left to give. Even when his final ball, dribble, or shot doesn’t pull through, you can see the method in his off-ball movement.

He is often at his best when hedging away from his left wing to pop up wherever the team needs him as an outlet to advance the ball through a counter-attack. That mobility has its perks. The final ball still needs polishing:

“He’s most comfortable out on the left wing and at his age he has to play where he feels best,” Zidane said of Vinicius back in November. “He’s got the quality to play in other positions too.”

Whether he’s down the left, middle, or right, Vinicius always turns on turbo mode to help his team defensively:

This is a young player that looks like 1/10th of the player he will be as a final product. There is a gradual transformation process with him that will be exciting (and frustrating) to track — and that’s OK.

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