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.
Writer’s note: I know you’re used to seeing longer-form pieces when it comes to the weekly observations (in the 8-10 range), but I wanted to bang this out before we get knee deep in international coverage.
So here we go, a quick 2.4k before the Benzema vs Hazard / Courtois showdown tonight:
The Casemiro - Camavinga - Valverde (CCV) triangle
When Camavinga arrived in Madrid, so much of the Managing Madrid dialogue centered around the inevitable Casemiro - Camavinga - Valverde trio. With Kroos out and Modric needing rest, this triumvirate was bound to manifest itself early in the season.
The concerns were easy to point out: A lack of vertical passing range and control. All three are defensively-sound players, but none of them of the creative-passing ilk like Modric and Kroos who could scan the terrain and cook up hair-splitting passes defenders don’t see coming.
All three of the midfield starters against Sheriff Tiraspol bring so much to the table individually. But as a collective, it’s a bit clunky. But it’s interesting to highlight why scheme really matters. That triangle should, at the very least, be stable defensively, but it wasn’t. It should be a ball-winning, rock-tight machine. It took Sheriff one pass to get behind all three of them on their opening goal — and the tracking from the defensive line wasn’t good enough to compensate for it. Valverde often ignored the defensive assignment of tracking either Frank Castañeda and Cristiano da Silva, and Nacho’s narrow defending made that flank even more exposed.
I wonder how another team would’ve exploited it even more, though there is an easy counter to all this: The Sheriff loss was a freak game, and just two shots were conceded when Camavinga - Casemiro - Fede were on the field together — one of them from a Thibaut Courtois horror giveaway. It could be argued if there’s a time you can get away with a midfield like that, it’s in a game against Sheriff at home, and the team’s attack was good and unlucky enough that they’d win that game nine times out of 10.
It’s worth unpacking Ancelotti’s vision for that particular midfield, though. “We played 4-4-2,” the Italian said after the loss. “We had Vinícius on the left and then Valverde and Hazard and Nacho interchanging on the right.” Interchangeability provides fluidity offensively, but always runs its risks defensively. In the flow of facing a transition attack, assignments can get missed and confused. On the fly, it’s a guessing game, and instinct is required. Still, it should be common knowledge by now that Hazard is not going to be the one flying in behind Nacho to cover exposed space.
“This is football, we have to pay more attention defensively,” Casemiro said after the game. “We completely controlled the game and had chances to score the 1-0, then 1-1 and at the end they score a great goal. In football you have to win, but this year we have played some bad games and won, it wasn’t like that tonight. If you’re not accurate upfront, it costs you on defense.”
Less than a handful of chances conceded in a game shouldn’t cost you, and it normally won’t. But I don’t think we’re done talking about this midfield trio. It won’t be the last time we’ll see it this season and beyond — those three aren’t going anywhere and Modric and Kroos aren’t getting younger. That ‘control’ that Casemiro (and Ancelotti) spoke about that Real Madrid had against Sheriff won’t be sustainable against better teams. And when that midfield loses control, it could get ugly defensively — a bad place to be in.
One way around it would be to play a more compact, deeper block. But Ancelotti hasn’t unveiled that card yet, and early returns show no signs of him going to the 2014 counter-attacking blueprint he deployed against Bayern Munich (though, down the road against a Manchester City or something — who knows?). If you play the CCV trio together in a deep block, it likely remains air tight. But distributing the ball to the front-three quickly to catch the opposing defense will be difficult to do without Modric or Kroos. If you ask Benzema to drop to compensate, you lose an outlet — ditto if you twist it into a four-man midfield.
But this is an easy fix, and doesn’t need to be overthought. Simply adding one of Kroos or Modric to the mix (or if neither can play, then Isco’s presence is a must), and the ceiling of this midfield skyrockets. As a reminder, Camavinga and Fede are both wonderful offensive weapons in their own ways. They carve space with their dribbling and ball-carrying.
Camavinga still needs to work on his verticality, and his touches of late have been heavy — which further leads to lunging late tackles to compensate. But his movement unlocks several key areas for the team in the box. I loved this quote from him after the goal he scored on his debut, which illustrates this point perfectly:
“I wasn’t directly involved in the goal,” Camavinga said. “if you pay attention I was just running around through the right side and I took advantage of a rebound to score.”
Those movements are key, but will have to be paired with the proper supporting cast, one that balances Camavinga’s aggressiveness with long range vertical passing and cohesive pressing.
An ode to the Big Cat
It was only four years ago, when Managing Madrid’s Om Arvind made a video — a tactical analysis of Karim Benzema’s defensive skills vs FC Barcelona in the Spanish Super Cup — to illustrate how important the French striker is to Real Madrid. People lost their minds. It was close to the peak of Benzema vitriol, at a time where he was missing easy chances and robbing Cristiano Ronaldo of plenty of assists. No one cared that he defended well — they wanted him to put the ball in the back of the net.
Zinedine Zidane stuck with Benzema, clearly (rightly) seeing something others didn’t. Beyond his synergy with Ronaldo, his defense, and his link-up play, Benzema had something.
About two months after Real Madrid ripped Barcelona into pieces in the Super Cup, Gary Lineker stole headlines by calling Benzema “overrated”. Zidane was visibly annoyed by it.
“For football people to say this, it’s embarrassing,” Zidane responded to Lineker in a press conference. “He’s the best 9 for Madrid, by a long way”
“I don’t like it when people speak badly of my players, and I want to clarify again that for me Karim is the best [striker] by far,”
Three years later, Zidane dubbed Benzema the best striker in the history of French football. Almost a year on from that, present day, Benzema is in the form of his life, and has just equalled Santillana’s goal-scoring record of 290. The Frenchman is now within arms reach of Alfredo di Stefano’s 308 goals (an unthinkable place to be in had you guessed this in 2017 or prior), and with a real chance of overtaking Raul’s goal-tally of 323, which would then put only Cristiano Ronaldo in front of him.
OK — I’ll slow down. Point being: Benzema is awesome. We are going to have to completely re-evaluate his place in Real Madrid history once he retires, and he’s already shot up the ladder dramatically during the last two years.
An interesting tactical wrinkle in Milan
Watching Brahim Diaz’s development over the past two season puts me in a state of bliss. He was so important last season, but he was a rotational piece, and he was just one of many important pieces who’d shift in and out of the team, and in and out of three positions.
This year Brahim has his place locked down as the starting 10, and has taken full advantage of the departure of Hakan Çalhanoğlu — taking a leap and consistently being Milan’s focal point offensively as he receives the ball between the lines and pulls strings.
Milan don’t mind sitting deep and absorbing pressure. They know that they can cede the ball, pick pockets, and find one of their wingers (usually the absolutely devastating Rafael Leao who’s been in terrific form) on the flank or Brahim in a central position. The Spaniard hasn’t had too many defensive duties season — though he’ll track well, his pressing and cover-shadowing needs to improve — and is great at positioning himself behind the opposing midfield to receive a pass in a dangerous area.
Sometimes the build-up facing the press out of their low block is troublesome, though, and Milan head coach Stefano Piloli has inserted an interesting tactical wrinkle as a counter: Theo Hernandez as an inverted left-back. Theo takes up central roles as Milan shift to a 3-5-2 when building out from the back, and all of a sudden a passing lane opens up.
That wrinkle blew Atalanta away last weekend, and Milan could find vertical passes past their press with ease. Theo offered an extra outlet other than Brahim to carry the ball up the field, and it worked beautifully.
Theo is perfect for that role. He has many defensive perils that hurt the team, but when he attacks with the purpose he does — and now showing his ability in the inverted wing-back role — it proves how versatile he can be offensively. He’s always been a really good ball-carrier, and when he receives the ball in open water, he’s hard to stop or catch up to. Last season he ranked fifth in Serie A in progressive carries. I’m curious to see if he can surpass it this season if he keeps blitzing teams in this new role. He already leads the team in progressive carries this season, and along with Brahim (leads the team in carries into the final-third), those two can get you from point A to point B lightning quick.
I wonder what happens to Brahim next season. I think Real Madrid could use his services, but he has a really good thing going on in Milan, and he and Theo have a great friendship off the field — and clearly a good synergy on the field too. Milan have an exciting project, and Brahim is playing a dream role that doesn’t exist in so many other teams.
Still, Brahim can play as a 10 or on either wing. He has a certain efficiency to him that is seen from Asensio only sporadically. If Real Madrid decide not to renew Isco this summer, Brahim might fit the timeline.
“I’ve always felt the trust placed in me by Stefano Pioli, the Club and the staff - ever since I arrived here” Brahim noted last week prior to a game against Atletico Madrid. “We’re a really united group and we support one another. We’re like a family and, thanks to the coach’s guidance, we’re playing really well and are recording some big results.”
“Brahim is impressive, it’s really nice to see him play,” Theo Hernandez said of the Spaniard last season. “He has only one year on his contract with Milan, but it would be nice if he stayed here for a long time,”
The difficulty of playing at Tottenham
There is something about watching Tottenham play regularly for our loan-tracker podcast (Sergio Reguilon is not technically on loan, but we still cover him until the day the buy-back expires) that makes them uneasy on the eye. I have long felt this way about Atletico Madrid: I watch them out of some sense of obligation of knowing them well enough to provide a scouting report when the Madrid Derby rolls around, but I don’t take any pleasure in doing so.
Tottenham are brutal. They can play deep without ever escaping their half, or the opposite — holding a high line with zero control of the game. They labour getting offensive opportunities. Every pass in the final third feels like a chore — as if they’re playing with weights in their boots and with land mines on the field. Only two teams — Brighton and Crystal Palace — have generated fewer shots in the Premier League. Tottenham are dead last in shots per 90 (9.5). They have just 4.8 npxG — the fourth worst mark in the league. Defensively, their press has been permeable, and they’re consistently late on rotations, and are last in successful pressure percentage.
They have to shake themselves out of this funk, but it won’t be easy. They have good pieces, but little depth in key areas and a scheme that feels outdated. Harry Kane and Son Heung-min are often isolated and unable to thrive in transition like they did at the beginning of last season. Reguilon provides a good two-way presence, but sometimes struggles to find outlets and misplaces passes in transition. The onus in attack is often on Lucas Moura to break lines single-handedly. Teams know how to suffocate and isolate runs from Tanguy Ndombele down the middle. Harry Kane drops deep to remind viewers he exists, but is quickly closed down.
I’d like to see Tottenham start controlling games in the opponents’ half more with the talent they have in the starting XI, but that would run its risk with their defensive line.
Maybe that’s just my selfish view, though. I miss seeing Reguilon in Julen Lopetegui’s high-flying Sevilla — a system essentially designed to maximize the Spanish left-back’s abilities. At Sevilla, Reguilon and Navas would pump crosses into the box (both are so good at that), and Reguilon could make underlap and overlap runs all game (sometimes even runs as an inverted left wingback!) with proper defensive coverage behind him.
Reguilon has gained a ton of experience in England, though, and has gone through the conveyor belt that Premier League wing backs often go through: 1-on-1 defending against some of the best wingers in the world. He’s done so well in those situations in the past.
Still, there’s part of me that would like to see Reguilon back in an offensive-minded blueprint, or maybe in a 3-4-3 that would allow him to stay higher up the pitch. I’m curious to see how this plays out for him and Tottenham. I don’t see the Tottenham - Nuno Espirito Santo marriage ending well.