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Nine Observations on Real Madrid’s tactical wrinkles, players on loan, and Juvenil A’s championship

Kiyan Sobhani column: Observations on the City collapse, Isco’s role, Ceballos’s future, Reguilon, Rodrygo, Mendy, Sergio Arribas, and more.

Manchester City v Real Madrid - UEFA Champions League - Round of 16 - Second Leg - Etihad Stadium Photo by Nick Potts/PA 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.

It’s been a while, but he’s a fresh iteration of scattered observations from my notebook:

Real Madrid’s defense, hanging by a thread

This has been a historically good league campaign from a defensive standpoint. Zidane’s evolution as a manager saw him improve the team’s shape behind the ball this season, and few saw it coming. The team’s mark of 28.4 xGA was the best in Spain. Over a shorter sample size and against a wide-ranging strength of opponents, the team was not as good defensively in the Champions League — conceding about double the amount of xGA per game. It hit rock bottom against PSG and Manchester City away — the two hardest games on the schedule. Um, bad timing.

(I documented the Paris game here and here.)

Not having Fede Valverde in that Manchester City game hurt. The midfield trio of Casemiro, Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, as Zidane had it structured, completely melted at the Etihad:

Look at that complete meltdown. The team is vertically unzipped. At least one of Rodri, Gundogan, or de Bruyne are always open. Real Madrid are in no-mans-land. They are pressing like a shy kid at school trying to hide from a crowd. They don’t compensate that submissiveness with a compact defensive structure. They invite getting carved.

Rodrygo and Modric at least try to corral City into non-threatening spaces, but all it takes is some sideway passing for City to move Real Madrid around like they’re some kind of mouldable flubber. Hazard and Kroos don’t match the defensive output on the opposite side, and both Rodri and de Bruyne run off into the sunset unchallenged.

Kroos was too narrow to begin with, and Casemiro is on the right side behind Modric — leaving no one to pick-up the untagged open man on Real Madrid’s left side. That’s concerning. It’s a basic tactic: If you’re going to congest defensively on one side, you can’t collapse with one or two passes if the switch happens. That was poor planning — poor coverage. A blueprint over the years against teams technically gifted in midfield is to take their anchor out of the game. Real Madrid treated Rodri like a king, and didn’t reimburse that mistake by taking the other central midfielders out of the game. It was a buffet of open space.

A lot of people felt the damage against Manchester City — giveaways from multiple ball-carriers, and two mistakes from Varane that led to goals — was self-inflicted. Others feel City dominated. I agree with both. But if the margin of error against City was low to begin with, Real Madrid made every mistake they could’ve made defensively and on the ball, and they didn’t make City fight for it.

The way Kyle Walker was allowed to carry the ball on the below sequence was embarrassing. Kroos gave up his challenge way too early, and Casemiro got cooked:

It was frustrating for Real Madrid fans seeing Lyon triumph against Manchester City in ways that Zidane’s men couldn’t. A couple factors (Pep doing his annual tactical ‘overthink’ and shuffling his trusted scheme; plus Lyon having some luck) aside — Lyon didn’t make basic errors, and they plugged the half-spaces and flanks. When they leaned on the ball-side in an asymmetrical defensive shape, they rotated well on the other side.

It was bizarre that Real Madrid didn’t get up for it more.

Dani Ceballos should stay at Arsenal

Ceballos’s usage has quietly gone up a notch under Mikel Arteta. No player at Arsenal completes more passes into the penalty area per 90 minutes than the Spaniard. He ranks in the top-three on the team in: Interceptions, pressures in the defensive third, and players tackled per 90. No player on the team touches the ball in midfield as much as Ceballos per 90. He is the fulcrum of a double-pivot and sometimes the lone anchor. He leads the team in ball carries, and is the target of more passes than anyone that Arteta has in the squad.

There is always room for improvement. Ceballos still struggles against teams who suffocate him (Manchester City twice) in that defensive midfield slot, and he gets beaten off the dribble 2.39 times per 90 — a team worst.

Struggles aside, Ceballos is in an ideal situation. (I am aware that no one says that about Arsenal, ever, and Arsenal’s midfield this season, particularly before Arteta arrived, was a pure chaotic, illogical mess. But Ceballos is getting playing time, and lots of it, in a team big enough for him to compete at a high level. He will never get that under Zinedine Zidane at Real Madrid as the roster is currently constructed. Arteta values Ceballos more than Zidane does, and has a void in the squad for the Spaniard to fill.)

It would be career suicide for Ceballos to return to Real Madrid this summer, especially with the Euros looming next year. This is a no-brainer: Keep Ceballos at Arsenal and everyone wins.

Isco, artful and useful

I have long been a champion that Isco is more direct than we give him credit for. He dabbles sometimes, but he is a useful ball progressor, and when he’s locked in, few do it with the same artful glide as him. He is not as quick as other vertical demons, but he also scans the field with the intention of getting the team in the right positions offensively. (For a detailed discussion on Isco vs Odegaard which touches more on this topic, listen to this podcast where Om and I talked about how they stack up against each other.)

Zidane’s decision not play Isco against Manchester City hurt the team. What solves, at least on some level, being stuck facing a high press? Outlets and movement. Isco, when he’s zipping around in the diamond, epitomizes what Real Madrid needed at the Etihad. Isco’s movement, to be sure, has its perils, but it also serves a specific niche. Here’s the most recent example we have of him doing this — a game against Leganes after Real Madrid were already champions:

That was a sequence higher up the pitch, but the theme remains relevant. Isco’s role in the diamond long has been: Show as an outlet, pass, move. Outlet, pass, move. Repeat. Connect dots.

We have analytics that tell us how players deal with being pressed, but seeing Isco in his peak state needs to be seen in the flesh. It’s artistry:

It would’ve been intriguing to see Isco’s problem-solving against Manchester City.

Luka Modric, league-winning performance

From 2016 - 2018, it felt like I was writing a column about Luka Modric almost every week. He was too prominent to ignore — too influential and too transcendent. The column could’ve been repetitive, but Modric solved a new problem every week. He patched things together defensively and made things tick offensively in new ways consistently. His performance against Villarreal on the penultimate matchday — the victory that made Real Madrid champions of La Liga — reminded me of those sweet column days.

Modric clicked into his best gear of the season that night. He covered ground the way he used to (and the way Fede Valverde did pre-quarantine), and his touches on the ball were pure silk.

Modric maps out the field quickly, then unapologetically pings a pass to part the seas:

Sometimes you can tell when a player is in a different headspace then everyone else on the pitch. Everything flows. Even the little bounces will fall your way when you will it:

It is clear that whoever Zidane deploys in the right central midfield position, their role remains a constant. The left side is Kroos’s, who is more rigid in his off-ball movement. Fede goes from the deepest player to the highest player on the pitch in seconds. Modric was used the same way during the three-peat. That slot needs to cover as much ground as possible and requires a surplus of lungs.

That’s a taxing role, and what makes players like Fede and Modric (and Odegaard, when he’s asked to play there next season) so special. It’s a never-ending endurance test, and requires ultra-active mental alertness. Within one sequence you need to drop deep between center-backs, and then provide an outlet into the half-space in the opposition’s box. It stretches the defense. Fede Valverde is a master at it:

It’s not easy to break teams down with slower-paced build-ups, but one way to do it is to make a cutting run into the box from an unlikely position.

It was nice to see peak Modric show up that night, but I’m curious to see how Zidane juggles the Croatian with Fede and Odegaard next season.

The Rodyrgo - Asensio duo

Rodrygo and Asensio played 201 minutes together since La Liga resumed back in June. It would be safe to say the tandem together was a success. Asensio returned from injury flying (though he did have a couple offensive blips), and Rodrygo continues to be a positive linchpin of the team’s offense anytime he takes the field.

The two work well in sync swapping wings. They have worked interchangeably and fluidly, often switching positions or drifting centrally multiple times in a single half.

Real Madrid didn’t create as much as they would’ve liked offensively regardless of who was in the attacking positions. Their xG was at a high enough clip relative to the rest of the league — but that’s an indicator of a league that’s regressed as a whole offensively since last season. Both Asensio and Rodrygo had their moments of line-breaking brilliance amid even the most stagnant of offensive schemes. Rodrygo in particular was active defensively, but still had energy as a two-way winger to spur a static attack into motion.

Rodrygo’s most devastating move is his vertical pass-and-move, where he breaks a set defense by making a pass to a player ahead of him before sprinting behind the defensive line before they can catch up to him. He obliterated Athletic in the second half with that move multiple times.

Against Athletic and City, he worked mostly on the right. But he carries over those same principles when he shifts over to the left. Even when he can’t quite get the defense to split, he constantly looks to drag defenders out of position with his off ball movement.

Rodrygo and Asensio are two more players who will directly (or indirectly) compete with Odegaard. It will be interesting to see how the Brazilian deals with the all-too-real sophomore slump. Next season Zidane will have more (reliable) right-wing options than this season — and that’s assuming James and Bale won’t stick around. (They still might, and as always, Lucas Vazquez hasn’t gone anywhere yet.)

How will everyone cope?

I’ve long been intrigued with Rodrygo experimenting as a false nine. He has the tools to play that role. But Asensio fits that mould too, and using that as a ploy to give Benzema rest when Luka Jovic needs to develop too seems far-fetched. Still, Zidane has long loved trusting Asensio as a false-nine over Alvaro Morata in the past during big games.

Sergio Reguilon, making the right runs

We’ve said virtually everything there is to be said about Sergio Reguilon. I just want to reiterate how much I love how Loeptegui uses both him and Jesus Navas. The high line has its perils, and taxes both Kounde and Diego Carlos — but offensively it’s a colossal fireball blazing the wings, and Sevilla’s wingers work hard defensively to compensate.

Sevilla’s wingers know that no matter where they are, Reguilon can make a dangerous run into the half-space, and they have to look to play him in at any moment. Reguilon jumpstarts the offense from deep:

Whether it’s the underlap or overlap, Reguilon is always there to make that run:

Sevilla’s offense has a healthy and fluid synergy.

Lucas Vazquez is not a right-back

It happened again. It had to: Lucas Vazquez played right-back against Alaves because Nacho and Carvajal were both unavailable. Ramos was too, which means Militao had to stay central. That’s OK. It was a pickle. Real Madrid won 2 - 0. Vazquez at that position, once a year, is fine. But just to reiterate the point hammered annually in previous columns: Vazquez just can’t shed his winger-like tendencies.

Alaves didn’t exploit the space behind Vazquez. A better team might have. Oliver Burke was difficult to deal with on that right side, and Militao — despite having his moments covering the gap single-handedly — struggled with that task too.

Vazquez will often play off the shoulder of the opponent’s defensive line. He is higher than Ferland Mendy; and Asensio — playing ‘ahead’ of Vazquez — will tuck in centrally, leaving space for the opponent to exploit. Repeatedly Vazquez would be high up the pitch putting in a cross to five Real Madrid players in the box (Casemiro being one), which means if Alaves could clear and counter, Zidane’s men would’ve been in trouble.

Vazquez has his place, and that is a very specific role in Zidane’s offensive scheme: Get in a cross, any means necessary. He leads the team in crosses into the penalty area per 90. He has that aspect of his game engrained in him. As a winger, he will provide good defensive coverage, but as a right-back, he will often forget no one is behind him.

Vazquez has a valuable place in any team as a selfless pawn who provides value and doesn’t complain. I have no idea how he fits moving forward. He has more competition now than he ever has, and I’d rather allocate his minutes to any one of the young gunslingers.

Ferland Mendy, surging runs

Is that... Sergio Reguilon?

Kidding. Mendy is his own man. He’s been terrific all season, and I’ve been particularly impressed with how much better he is offensively than I initially thought he was. His motor doesn’t stop. His movement in the final-third has been calculated, bearing fruits for the team’s offensive production.

He still has issues with suffocating presses, but he can also eel his way out of tight spots on the right day. He torches full-backs and wingers who try to stop him. He is a human bowling-ball and an underrated dribbler.

This season, Mendy had 2.6 (!!!) successful dribbles per 90. That’s Isco territory, and better than any other Real Madrid full-back, including Marcelo (.69).

Cold take: Mendy is not nearly as aesthetically-pleasing to watch as peak-Marcelo — but that doesn’t mean he can’t be an efficient offensive player in his own way.

Raul’s coaching style is exactly like his playing style, and Sergio Arribas is awesome

My favourite standout from Juvenil A’s UEFA Youth League Final win over Benfica’s youth team was Sergio Arribas. There were others that I’ll highlight the good (and bad) of in future columns: Miguel Gutierrez, Antonio Blanco, and Pablo — among others. But Arribas flashed his ceiling before me more than anyone.

I love how he functions on the wing. He is so good at creating chances out of nothing:

He is hyperactive and tries to show himself as an outlet at any opportunity. He’s daring, and will help the team get out of tight spots. He can get those offensive chances created even from deep positions, where he drops to help escape a press with his movement and dribbling:

He was the key instigator for Raul’s boys in the first half, and of course, had both the assist for the first goal, and forced the own goal for Juvenil’s second. He later ran out of gas and became leg-heavy and slow in the second frame as the team surrendered waves of attack and survived the Benfica onslaught through last-ditch defending, luck, and heroic goalkeeping from Luis Lopez.

I love the way Raul sets up his team — partly because it reminds me exactly of how he played himself. He would always want to find the quickest outlet possible before sprinting into space. Get the ball from one point to the other — no complications. Juvenil during this run played the exact same way, zipping the ball around quickly in a super direct manner. Defensively, the way Raul had his midfielders work in diamonds off the ball to pressure Benfica’s midfield reminded me of Carlo Ancelotti’s use of Isco, Modric, Kroos, and James in 2015.

I’m intrigued.

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