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Nine Observations on Kubo, Reguilon, Varane, Ramos, Odegaard, Ceballos, and Militao

Kiyan Sobhani column: Observations on Kubo’s upcoming season, Lucho’s new-look Spain, the Messi saga, Reguilon, Varane in a 3-5-2, Ceballos as a DM, Militao’s growth and more


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 time to dive into nine items before the season gets underway. As always, my thoughts are scattered, under-the-radar observations:

Takefusa Kubo, in a better team, with outlets

It took time for Kubo to work his way into Mallorca’s lineup. He scavenged around for playing time, eventually impressing enough in his limited minutes that he became a staple in the XI. Once he was in, it was apparent that he was Mallorca’s most dangerous offensive player, and without him, they were a zero in attack. Ante Budimir and Lago Junior could only carry the team so far, and someone needed to create space for Budimir to connect on chances. Kubo was the indispensable answer.

Mallorca’s offense grew with Kubo. Of the three basement dwellers — Mallorca, Leganes, Espanyol — Kubo’s team were the best offensively, and even created more chances than teams above them like Athletic, Getafe, and Celta. But they didn’t have a finisher beyond Budimir, and their xG trailed dramatically as a result. Kubo created more shot-creating actions per 90 minutes than anyone on the team who played 350 minutes or more, and led the team in passes that led to a shot attempt (58). No player on Mallorca created more goal-creating actions (18) over the course of the season.

I am excited to see how Kubo would do in a better team, with better off-ball movement, talent, and offensive cohesiveness surrounding him. Martin Odegaard levelled-up each time he went to a better team. Can Kubo follow suit?

Villarreal had a crazy-good summer. Emery loves Kubo, and pushed for his loan move. Now we have to trust Emery to put Kubo in a position to thrive. As Matt Wiltse broke down on a recent loan-tracker podcast, Emery has put Kubo all over the place in preseason, and not on his favoured right wing. But it’s pre-season. We’ll give this a few months.

Kubo likely won’t have to take down an entire team on his own anymore at Villarreal (although, it was pretty fun seeing him try):

Kubo was faced with an opponent’s wall often this season — either isolated in transition with the ball at his feet or in a slower build-up with little movement around him. But when Mallorca gave him vertical outlets, he was always good at picking them out:

If Emery plays his cards right, Kubo now has a buffet of offensive options to choose from, with good finishers to put away the chances he creates. This is at the top of my list of most exciting loan moves of the season.

A look at new-look Spain

Luis Enrique has blown up Spain, catapulting many of the old guard out of the camp in favour of young blood in hopes of resuscitating the national team. It was the right move, and we may not see the fruits of those planted seeds anytime soon. But how many times have we seen a manager cling to an ageing core, stuck in his ways and ideologies? Luis Enrique has dared to shake the tree.

Lucho played Dani Carvajal and Jesus Navas together on the right against Germany. Navas seemed to enjoy a more advanced role (than even the advanced gun-slinging right wing-back role Julen Lopetegui deploys him in Sevilla) and made good off-ball runs off of Antonio Rudiger’s shoulder. But it’s unclear if those two right-backs will coexist if everyone is healthy and available. Marco Asensio pulled out of the UEFA Nations League games due to injury, and there are others who can play that role in a 4-3-3: Gerard Moreno, Ansu Fati, Dani Olmo. Fati came in for Navas at half-time and was more unpredictable and versatile offensively (in a good way). Ferran Torres on the left side was a really promising line-breaking presence.

Structurally, there are interesting things brewing. Off the ball, there was a cohesiveness when pressing Germany deep. Thiago and Sergio Busquets welded themselves into a double pivot to block passing lanes to the central midfielders, and Fabian marshalled Rodrigo and the wingers to press the ball carriers:

Everyone, including the wing-backs, were reactive in counter-pressing when someone lost the ball in the final-third:

That kind of energy can be difficult to sustain mentally, not just physically. Spain were also vertically loose on several sequences in between their good pressing. All it takes is for Rodrigo to let his guard down for one split-second for a crack to open:

That stuff may improve over time. This is a young national team, still learning to play together. The team will shuffle constantly over the course of the season.

Spain are direct, technical, and creative enough to hold the ball and create chances. What Lucho should be worried about is his defensive line, and the lack of identity next to Sergio Ramos. Against Germany and Ukraine, it was Pau Torres who played there. That position is a revolving door.

Torres did well. Germany dared him to carry the ball out of the back while gutting his passing lanes. Torres rose to the challenge and was effective finding a path in those situations. What Lucho will have to figure out beyond Ramos’s partner is the line itself. It’s high, and can be broken easily. Germany were missing a bunch of the Bayern contingent: Robert Lewandowski, Joshua Kimmich, Thomas Muller, Serge Gnabry (along with other attacking threats in Kai Havertz, Julian Brandt). Spain looked vulnerable, and a better offensive team would’ve punished them.

Lionel Messi, back in on Barcelona

Lionel Messi is back. I guess he was never gone — but he was, at least spiritually, for a couple weeks, until Barcelona forced him into a u-turn. We’ll leave it at that. (Deeper discussion on the u-turn can be found here.)

There was a reason why so many Real Madrid fans were excited about Messi’s potential departure from Barcelona. He was a one-man machine — carrying the team offensively a little more (and more) the older he got. With each passing season, Barcelona as a collective became weaker, and the weights on the Argentine’s shoulders heavier. How long can Barcelona sustain this kind of offensive reliance?

Now with Barcelona likely losing Luis Suarez, that team will take another hit offensively. (I am as tortured by Luis Suarez as much as anyone, but will defend him to death from a footballing perspective. He’s still a lethal striker at this stage of his career, and will bank you 20+ goals per season if he can stay healthy. I am not sure how he fits alongside Cristiano Ronaldo yet if he goes to Juventus, but I’m here for it.)

Here is Barcelona’s path to improving from last season’s trophy-less season (all assuming the Messi saga is forgotten and forgiven, and Messi plays at his best): Riqui Puig and Ansu Fati take a leap; Frenkie de Jong gets to play in his best position (probably in a double-pivot), and someone like Lautaro or Memphis can fill the scoring void that Suarez left (I’m skeptical). The biggest winner had Messi left, Antoine Griezmann, will have to continue juggling his reinvention now. Can Ousmane Dembele stay fit? Can Coutinho rediscover himself? If Barcelona sign Lautaro and / or Memphis Depay, they’re pretty deep in attack — with six high quality attacking players for three positions. This is a good team on paper capable of winning the league title. (What they look like in the second-leg of a Champions League night is a different story).

I will never not be fascinated by what’s going on there.

Sergio Reguilon’s debut

The only blip in Sergio Reguilon’s national team debut was a minor injury he suffered, which initially looked worrying, as the left-back lied down in agony and was eventually helped off the pitch. “One week and I’ll be like new”, Reguilon said on Twitter. Thank God. We did not need a reason to overshadow what was a great performance, where, on his debut, Reguilon combined well with Ansu Fati on the left, and continually punished a helpless Ukraine side.

It was almost like watching Sevilla again. Luis Enrique deployed Navas on the opposite flank, and the two winged flight high up the pitch, as they do with Lopetegui. Ukraine were not strong enough to make Sergio Ramos and Pau Torres work, and Spain, as a whole, defended well in transition.

When Spain had the ball, Ramos ushered the defensive line well past the halfway line, with Pau Torres, the lone wolf, hedged back. If Pau would carry the ball up field, Rodri would jigsaw behind him. If Ramos had the ball, he’d look for Reguilon making a run into the penalty area:

Reguilon plays like a bullet. When he knows the direction he’s headed in, he’s already gone. Ukraine had to deal with Fati and Reguilon non stop and they were not equipped one bit. How many players would pull out of this challenge, thinking the ball might get lobbed over them?

Reguilon led the team with four key passes against Ukraine. I wonder how much of that game was a premonition of a future left-wing we’ll see a lot of for Spain?

Raphael Varane, in a 3-5-2

I’m really reaching here to find international football more interesting than it is in non-World Cup / Euro moments. The UEFA Nations League replacing mundane friendlies have helped, and seeing glimpses of managerial tactics ahead of major tournaments is fun. When I saw Raphael Varane start as the center-back (and chief organizer) of a 3-5-2 alongside Presnel Kimpembe and Dayot Upamecano, I was intrigued. We don’t get to see Real Madrid defenders play in that kind of scheme often, if at all. Zidane throws that wrinkle out once a year in desperate situations. He experimented with it in three consecutive games (surprisingly, to be sure) in last season’s pre-season leading up to the start of the season. We didn’t see it again. It’s hard to build continuity in a niche formation if it’s not practiced enough, and Real Madrid has too many wingers to jostle in (and way too thin at CB) to make this a regular thing.

France, offensively, were drab. But defensively, Sweden couldn’t land a sniff. There was too much coverage from Varane, Upamecano, and Kimpembe across the board, making it hard for the Swedes to find space. Lucas Digne and Leo Dubois dropped to form a back-five, plugging any remaining holes. (Bonus: Ferland Mendy entered the game in the 88th minute to play right back, and had one touch before the final whistle!)

I would like to see Varane attempt more daring passes. He looked off too many easy vertical targets like this:

Varane attempted just 53 progressive passes in La Liga this season — a mark far too low for a player of his technical calibre. He should be, at this stage of his career, smooth and confident in his build-up play. That part of his game exists, but he needs to resurface it before another ugly Manchester City debacle reappears.

15 years of Sergio Ramos

The anniversary of Sergio Ramos’s signing was on Tuesday. It made me reflect: There is no better example of the collective patience required of footballers than the one that was required of Ramos to become who he eventually ripened into.

Ramos is now safely the club’s best ever defender. He is one of the all-time greats. He has chiselled himself a spot on Real Madrid’s Mount Rushmore and is one of the greatest captains to ever don the white shirt — a leader that will be missed. He filled the shoes of Sanchis, Hierro, Raul, and Iker.

Here is what it took: Four seasons as the team’s right-back, with the moniker of a defender who couldn’t actually defend. He was labelled as immature and hot headed. For years, no one wanted to see him play as center-back, because anytime he did, he’d get eaten alive and scrambled to be in the right positions. He was cooked by Thierry Henry and Ronaldinho in big games. In a 5 - 0 loss at Camp Nou, he received a red card and shoved Puyol and Xavi as he walked off the pitch in anger. He skied a crucial penalty kick against Bayern Munich in 2012. After his permanent transition to center-back, Jose Mourinho put him as the team’s right-back in an away game to Borussia Dortmund, and he treaded water alongside the rest of the team. His reputation, up until 2013, was that of an overrated, error-prone, hot-headed, athletic defender.

In the seven years that ensued, he has completely flipped the world’s perception of him, and has skyrocketed up the all-time rankings. It is hard to see the club without him. Let’s cross that bridge when we get there. He’s 34, but looks 24.

Martin Odegaard’s pressing abilities

Much has been made and written about Martin Odegaard’s ability on the ball. In a vacuum, he solves some build-up issues, and gets you more creative paths to goal than we typically see against low blocks. He is incisive, and finds the quickest roadmap to the box possible — even if it’s the most difficult option on the table. He’ll see it, and he’ll eel his way to the spot he needs to before lasering a through-ball through a stunned defense.

But I’m interested to see how much he improves the team’s ball retention high up the pitch. Can he improve the team’s counter-press, and create chances for the team through forcing turnovers? The answer is yes. Odegaard had 158 pressures in the final-third last season in La Liga. One of his best attributes is that he’ll motion the entire team to follow his endurance drill of relentless pressure on ball-carriers. Benzema will love playing with him.

Dani Ceballos under pressure

I have hinted at this in past columns: I want to see Ceballos improve his press-resistancy. He is a frenetic presence on the pitch, which can be good most times, especially if Mikel Arteta can channel his energy in a conducive way. As I noted in August, his usage numbers at the defensive midfielder slot are off the charts, and he pressures opponents at an elite level.

But only three games was he tested properly: Manchester City twice, and Liverpool. In those games, his freneticism turned into panicky giveaways when opponents breathed down his neck.

It will be interesting to see how Arteta solves this issue next season. Will Ceballos have better outlets? Can he take a deep breath before he starts panicking under pressure? He will look like a rockstar against non-elite teams who give him space. Once managers catch on to how badly you can stifle Arsenal’s build-up, they’ll pull that blueprint out more and more.

There is something about those pressure sequences that makes Ceballos rush into getting the ball out of his feet as quickly as possible:

Ceballos doesn’t look, at first glance, like he’s someone who would struggle with this. He’s a technically gifted dribbler and good at being an outlet. But that doesn’t mean he won’t get uncomfortable and in his head. He can also just get stuck in the mud in those situations — either getting muscled off the ball, or have his awful pass intercepted:

Eder Militao, glimpses of defensive brilliance

Is this taboo? Can we talk about positive defensive moments against Manchester City? Too soon?

Real Madrid were rightfully grilled for what happened at the Etihad. I did some grilling too, although I focused on some different things than others did. It’s worth pointing out that Eder Militao is an intelligent defender, and has shown glimpses of being a future pillar in Real Madrid’s defense.

Manchester City’s press in the second leg swallowed Real Madrid’s defenders whole, possibly into some black hole. Militao at least had moments that contained City’s offense. He read Phil Foden’s cut-ins on the wing when doubling-up with Ferland Mendy, and had a game-high five blocked shots.

Militao is at his best when things aren’t going well — that’s when you truly notice him. Watch games against Athletic and Alaves this season, where he’s in three places at once, covering for wing-backs, and putting in last second challenges. He is good at stepping up to intercept a vertical pass, pouncing at the right time over the shoulder of the unsuspecting forward who thinks he’s about to receive the ball. When he doesn’t get there quick enough, he’ll hunt the attacker from his blind spot and get the ball out of his control:

You can rely on him to win those 50/50 fights to the ball that generally go unnoticed in the grand scheme of things, but can subtly flip a switch for the team in the moment:

It is still too soon to judge Militao either way. He’s had kinks, but also little victories in certain games. At his peak, he should be able to intercept passes at an above-average clip. Having Sergio Ramos (who is an absolute master at step-up interventions coming out of the back) around as a mentor helps.

Part of me still feels Real Madrid are too thin at that position moving forward, but having just three full-time, reliable center-backs right now also works, and guarantees Militao gets the minutes he needs to continue developing into what Real Madrid want him to develop into. Assuming Ramos is only 19 years old in footballing terms, the club still has some time to figure out another name coming into this mix.

A random aside, someone asked me who that future name might be in this week’s Reddit AMA on r/RealMadrid. I mean, who knows. But my answer was that I believe in the Dayot Upamecano hype.

Why Are Real Madrid Thinking Of Selling Sergio Reguilon?

Kiyan Sobhani and Lucas Navarrete discuss the Reguilon situation. Full episode:

Posted by Managing Madrid on Friday, September 11, 2020

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