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Eight Real Madrid observations, featuring Marco Asensio’s recent attacking play

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Kiyan Sobhani’s colum this week touches on Asensio’s form, Hazard’s return, Ramos’s late-career defense, Carvajal’s importance, Vallejo’s regression, Mayoral’s link-up, Brahim as a 10, and CaseHero

Osasuna v Real Madrid - La Liga Santander Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/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.


Eight observations this week, including a longer-than-normal segment on Marco Asensio:

Sergio Ramos, first signs of slowing down

Maybe this isn’t the right time to bring this up. We’re in a deep ocean, circled vigorously by Sergio Ramos contract noise. But it is what it is: I analyze, I write. For what it’s worth, Sergio Ramos is incredible, still, and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. Just last week, I wrote about how unparalleled he is with his long range distribution. Go back and watch film of Fernando Hierro at age 34. It’s like watching someone, in 2020, trying to hot-wire a 1929 Ford Model A without an engine.

But occasional plays this season provide a pinhole-sized view of what slowing down for Sergio Ramos looks like:

Ramos will be fine, He reads and distributes at an elite clip for his position. The defense evaporates into thin air without him. Father time comes for all. You might see more signs of slowing down in the next 12-24 months.

Dani Carvajal is as important as anyone

We spend so much time talking about leaders, mental fortitude, and the on-and-off chasm that exists with players like Sergio Ramos and Cristiano Ronaldo. Take either of those two out, and the Jenga stack crumbles. I have long been in the camp that Dani Carvajal is right there, in Tier 1A, of players that give you a physical and psychological edge. There are few wing-backs on earth that have such a great two-way balance and can do so many things — let alone with the same bite.

I just love watching Carvajal show up and reign terror on anyone that goes up against him. Over the years, Carvajal vs literally anybody on the wing going against him, turns into the most interesting matchup on the pitch. Carvajal gets in people’s heads. He presses them high up the field, slide tackles their soul deep, and pogo sticks back-and-forth, north-south, with efficiency.

Real Madrid have picked up 2.4 points per match this season with Carvajal on the field (only the impassable Ferland Mendy is at a higher clip), and are a +1.31 with him in the team. It might be hard to see the drop-off without him when Lucas Vazquez has filled in at that position so well this season, but you certainly see it, up close, when he is in the team. What he did against Barcelona in the Bernabeu last season was unforgettable. There are games, like that, and the one against Celta this month, where he looks like he’s injected steroids in the locker room.

It was absurd that Carvajal, now a strong front-running candidate for greatest right-back in club history (and he’s not done yet), had fans turn on him during a blip in form following the World Cup. A little patience goes a long way. Carvajal has been one of the team’s lungs over the past 12 months — a source of oxygen.

Carvajal will have moments where he fails to bring the ball down from cross-field switches, or have simple misjudgements with his vertical passing, but those are rare now. What stands out just as much as his contributions in attack are his organizational and leadership skills. Like Benzema, he is always ushering teammates where to be, forming defensive webs:

He is a master at knowing when to leave his mark to step-up and stop a central pass:

I always take the opportunity to hammer home this point: Carvajal is an underrated leader, and one of the most underrated players in Spain over the past six years.

Early Eden Hazard tracker

At one point in November of 2018, Eden Hazard was averaging 1.35 goals plus assists per 90 minutes in the Premier League — the best mark in the entire country, full stop. He’s down to .35 in both this season (in just a six game sample size) and last. A depressing fact: Hazard has one goal in the league this season, which already ties his entire output from last season. He has zero expected assists.

Just six games in, it’s hard to grasp at the data. The eye test is really all we have for this season. Does he look right? Is he taking players on? Is he breaking lines? Against Osasuna, he and Asensio were the only ones trying to create. Hazard was active defending passing lanes and carrying the ball up the field. His first touch was gorgeous. He had one vintage Hazard shoulder-drop which dropped his defender too.

But he had heavy touches too, and there are moments where I yell at my TV, begging him to turn and roast the backline like Chelsea Hazard would do, instead of making the safe back-pass:

Hazard, understandably, is not at his mental peak. There are few things more fun in the football world than when he goes into supernova mode. We just want that version of him back — but it will require momentum and health.

Impressed with Borja Mayoral’s improvement

Borja Mayoral is now a reliable link-up striker in Serie A. That’s huge for Paulo Fonseca, who previously couldn’t get production out of the Spanish striker when Edin Dzeko needed rest. Mayoral, who previously only modelled his game around his idol, Karim Benzema, on paper, now actually looks the part. His heat map is similar to the Frenchman’s. He spends quality time dropping deep to connect dots in transition — to hold up play and get the ball out of a tight space and distribute before sprinting into the box to meet the final ball.

Mayoral now leads the team in goal-creating actions per 90. He is second on the team in shot-creating actions. He is the target of more passes per 90 than Dzeko is — a good sign that he’s working hard to get into good outlet positions for his teammates.

My favourite Mayoral performance this season so far — and there’s been a good handful to choose from now! — was against Crotone in January. It’s an obvious candidate for the mainstream eye, because he scored two goals — an instinctual run to the far post, and a 30-yard slingshotazo — but he also had a classic Benzema game, and was heavily involved in everything Roma did in the opposing half.

These swift passing sequences from Roma have been a regular, and Mayoral, when on the field, is a major contributor to them:

Mayoral is the prototypical Benzema back-up. It’s an open secret that Zidane wanted him to stick around this season, despite Mariano Diaz and Luka Jovic — non-prototypical Benzema back-ups — still being in the squad at the time. Zidane doesn’t want a target, he wants a link-up striker. I do wonder if this means Mayoral has a likely future at the club. (For what it’s worth, I think Jovic could’ve played that role at a respectable clip if given the opportunity.)

Coping with Jesus Vallejo regression

This one hurts more and more everyday. I have long felt Jesus Vallejo’s career is slipping by. That reality becomes more and more palpable every day. From captaining Real Zaragoza as a teenager, to morphing into one of the best defenders in the Bundesliga, to giving pep talks to Cristiano Ronaldo at half-time, and now, a liability even for a team like Granada, and in what should be routine games against teams like Cultural Leonesa in Copa del Rey. How did it come to this?

Injuries and bad luck, you could argue, had a factor. I’m not turning a blind eye to that stuff, but Vallejo hasn’t had real injury issues for almost two years, and he’s had plenty of minutes to show his worth. Ever since that nightmare Wolves stint, his confidence evaporated. He’s not the same.

This is too easy for the attacker, and Vallejo — who has plenty of time to square up — just turns into a gargoyle statue:

The Cultural Leonesa game was part of a horror week for Vallejo, who also took part off the bench against Barcelona, where he left players open at the far post on several occassions, had sloppy touches (a worrying trend, given how well he was on the ball at Frankfurt — and recently Vallejo even had a 33% passing accuracy game!), and was late to several challenges, including this sequence on Martin Braithwaite where he also earned a red card:

Vallejo played as a right-back against Barcelona (something he’s had to do sporadically this season with Granada), and had little defensive help from Antonio Puertas. But his struggles were not unique to that position, or to that game.

Brahim Diaz in a 10 role

Unless Brahim Diaz stays put in Milan (a realistic outcome, and a smart decision on his part not to come back to Real Madrid and dissolve into irrelevancy, to be sure), we won’t see Diaz play this role often in the future. Few teams play with a pure 10 these days, but there are enough who linger in the 4-2-3-1 universe to monitor his development in that position.

When Milan build out from the back, Brahim is asked to position himself between the lines, and to be ready to receive a vertical pass at the right time when the ball is worked around to him. The results are a mixed bag:

Receiving that kind of pass down the middle with his back to goal and a marker sprinting to intercept the pass, doesn’t come as naturally to Brahim as it does to someone like peak Mesut Ozil. But Brahim does other things well from that role: reading passes on defense, carrying the ball up the field, and making off-ball central runs for Zlatan Ibrahimovic to pick out when the Swedish behemoth holds up play and waits for the outlet to appear.

I like Brahim on the wing more, with Hakan Çalhanoğlu taking the central role. Milan flow beautifully on offense with those two, plus Zlatan and Rafael Leao completing the attacking quartet.

The dependency on CaseHero ball

cas·e·he·ro

/kəˈse’hirō/

noun

  1. when Casemiro displays his main weakness and his main strength in the same sequence, or within moments (or minutes, within reason) of each other.
  2. “man that was some classic CaseHero shit”

Fast forward:

Few defensive midfielders are taxed the same way Casemiro is by Zidane. The Brazilian is a unique breed. Not many top clubs would deploy a player so prone to errors with the ball at his feet, but few top clubs rely on a ball-winner like Casemiro to make up for defensive holes and bad possession sequences. Zidane’s men don’t win the ball high up the pitch, and their giveaways under pressure lead to opponents taking advantage of players out of position (Athletic’s first goal in the SuperCopa semi final after Lucas Vazquez’s giveaway was a textbook example). The above plays were somewhat of an outlier: Late game antics with Sergio Ramos playing as a striker meant Casemiro was a center-back temporarily. Zidane needs someone like Casemiro to mop up messes — even his own spills. Other managers would approach the use of Casemiro differently.

We often get asked on the podcast if Casemiro should be a center-back, and it’s worth reminding everyone periodically: Casemiro does not have the ball-playing ability to transition into a full-time center-back. Zidane can mask his deficiencies on the ball in midfield by switching him with Kroos or Modric (again, most managers just avoid playing a player that necessitates that kind of switch), but wouldn’t be able to do that if he was a defender.

Welcoming back the real Marco Asensio

Marco Asensio has always been a ‘moments’ player. Memorable split-second goals in key flashbulb moments etched into Real Madrid history in his young career will always remain. When Cristiano Ronaldo left in 2018, Asensio never really looked the same. His bounce, those moments, left him. Pressure mounted. Asensio hid from the spotlight. He coasted through games.

Then he ruptured his cruciate ligament in the summer of 2019, derailing his development even further.

Asensio’s first rep since that injury finally came in June of 2020, when he entered the field against Valencia, with Real Madrid up 2 - 0. In that specific moment, Real Madrid weren’t desperate to score, which might have worked in Asensio’s favour — but the team as a whole perilously needed a new source of goal creation. Zinedine Zidane was hoping Asensio could help with boosting offensive production.

“He told me to go on from the right, and [laughing], score a goal.” Asensio recalled Zidane telling him just seconds before sending him on the field.

Asensio did, with his first touch — a banger. It quickly became a classic Asensio ‘moment’.

Asensio has scored in all of his debuts: Spanish Super Cup, European Super Cup, La Liga, Champions League, Copa del Rey. He also scored in his first appearance in a Champions League final (which, for the sake of this impressive record, it counts). It only made sense that he also scored with his first touch after missing nearly a year of football.

TOPSHOT-FBL-ESP-LIGA-REAL MADRID-VALENCIA Photo by JAVIER SORIANO/AFP via Getty Images

“It’s a long process,” Asensio said of his recovery after a win over Celta in January, where he scored and slung an assist. “I knew it would be difficult but you start getting more minutes, more games under your belt and now we’re seeing the results”.

Watching the entire wake-up process is long and tedious, but bears fruits eventually. It takes time to gain momentum, and just when players start hitting their stride, they hope there will be no further setbacks: Getting benched, re-aggravating past injuries. The mental loop is taxing. Stop-start cycles have paused Eden Hazard’s Real Madrid career. They ended Gareth Bale as we knew him.

Asensio has played 16 games in La Liga thus far, and is averaging the lowest goal + assist tally of his career. The 2020 - 2021 season is the first time he’s ever let fly less than two shots per 90. He’s averaging a career-low .16xA and 1.39 key passes per 90.

Real Madrid could use the 2016 - 2018 version of Asensio. They are still underperforming their xG (not uncommon for top La Liga teams this season, but Atletico aren’t, and they are flying, and if Zidane’s men are to make up ground, they need more goals).

(Asensio’s 2017 - 2018 season wasn’t as memorable as the one prior, but his contributions in attack were still there. He needs to fall back on that track.)

“I want him to look for goals every time he plays,” Zidane said in October.

He is getting there, but to say he’s back on his trajectory is premature. Growth is not linear, but throughout the process, effort should remain a constant. It’s fine to remember Asensio by his moments, but there are more pieces to the puzzle than hitting the crossbar from 35 yards, hitting the post with a back-heel, or even scoring and assisting. Asensio will have those moments, and turn into a ghost outside of them. His jogging in transition, or complete defensive aloofness has cost his team points at both club and international level. Between those moments, he will ignore space behind defenders he can take advantage of, or clear cut-in dribble options where he can shoot or switch play. He’s had good stretches, or halves, even, and disappeared after. Putting together a complete 90 has been challenging.

The game against Celta was the first time this season where Asensio used his individual brilliance to get to his spots and alter the game, but was also hyperactive over the course of his entire performance. It was a complete cameo. Beyond his assist (a trademark Asensio sprint and ping — nice to see) and goal, he was alive — an ever-moving outlet on the left wing and half-space for Ferland Mendy and Toni Kroos to hit, efficient and cool in tight spaces, and even good with his defensive reads closing the passing lanes down the flank. He was, at times, over-eager with his crossing — hitting them well out of reach — but the intentions all around were good.

My personal favourite, a clear sign that his explosiveness is on its way back, successfully sprinting to reach a 50/50 ball:

Asensio won’t be defined by his defensive naivety. If he’s producing goals regularly, either with individual brilliance or heavy involvement through build-up, no one will care what he does on the other side of the field. Most just want Real Madrid to do what they did in 2017: Score effortlessly, score often, score more than the opponent. Asensio’s strength comes through his unique dribbling, passing, and shooting technique. That needs to be accentuated more than anything. “He’s a very direct player and I ask him to play to his qualities,” Zidane said.

It is unclear where Asensio ranks in the depth chart when everyone is healthy. He’s the beneficiary of an unfortunate Rodrygo Goes injury — a player efficient in the final third and in form. Hazard is back (I almost feel silly saying this every month), and displacing Lucas Vazquez on the right is like trying to lift a freight train off its track. Odegaard can play there. Fede Valverde can take that slot and bring a different kind of presence.

All that aside, Asensio’s mini resurgence is welcome and needed. Losing his spot again would be a huge blow to his momentum. That in itself should be motivation for him to keep striving for more goals and assists.

Real Madrid v RC Celta - La Liga Santander Photo by Diego Souto/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images