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.
One of the themes from the win over Granada, visible within the first two minutes of the game, was the interchangeability of Casemiro and both of Real Madrid’s center-backs — David Alaba and Nacho (and particularly Alaba) — as Carlo Ancelotti anchored his defensive midfielder in a deep position:
This wrinkle remained throughout the entirety of the game. Alaba is an experienced navigator in tight quadrants. He can make runs in either half-space from the center-back role as a dive-man and wreak havoc — popping up as an extra facilitator in the final third. Casemiro dropping provides insurance in case the attack goes awry.
A midfielder dropping deep as a third center-back isn’t revolutionary or something we haven’t seen before at Real Madrid. Kroos often jostles in between his defenders to help play quarterback. Sergio Ramos, gung-go attacker supreme, often needed cover for his missions into the opponents’ box. Against Granada though, it was the first time Ancelotti drew it up prolifically from 1-to-90.
It makes sense. Alaba is so good at creating danger with those runs, and opposing defensive lines aren’t quite sure how to handle it (see: Barcelona melting as Alaba ripped them apart on his goal at Camp Nou). I do wonder if we’ll see it more often, or if the Granada game was an anomaly. Robert Moreno’s men didn’t put pressure on Real Madrid, and they didn’t defend well either. Perhaps a more organized defensive team can track those runs better and prevent Ancelotti’s men from making those switches on the fly so seamlessly.
Though, as Ancelotti noted after the game, he has full trust in his players’ ability to improvise switching assignments on the fly.
“It’s surprising how they can naturally do things, things I don’t even have to ask,” Ancelotti said. “For example, sometimes Modrić drops back or Kroos drops back to overcome pressure, or Casemiro goes forward.”
Another theme that stood out to me from the Granada game: Luka Modric’s off-ball sprints — he flies through the screen from one end to the other, provides an outlet that wasn’t visible milliseconds prior to give his teammates the best possible option. We are done discussing the fact that he’s 36 now. It’s cliche, overused. I will no longer consider his age and will simply assume he is one of the Eternals. He runs with more impetus, verve, and physical dominance than some 20 year old footballers.
Some players see things others don’t, but you would never know it if they can’t act on it. As Jurgen Klopp once said, he felt frustrated as a player because he knew what to do with the ball, but didn’t have the ability to execute the right play. Others get to their spots with sheer physical will. Modric has the brains, the vision, and the torque to execute what he wants, when he wants it. His brains, technical ability, and athleticism all act in one swift motion.
Modric’s cutting run doesn’t earn him the ball right away at the top of the clip, but it opens up space by dragging his midfielder marker with him deep. Then as the Granada center-back sprints ahead to cover, Modric has all of a sudden eliminated two players from the equation. He can now receive the ball and do filthy things, without overcomplicating what needs to be done — a quick flick out wide to Marco Asensio who can now cut into the box with his left foot.
The most obvious example of a Modric off-ball sprint (from yesterday’s game) was when he directly contributed to a goal. Maybe (maybe) Karim Benzema and Vinicius Jr figure out how to score without him on Real Madrid’s third goal, but Modric bolting his way into the box out of nowhere leaves absolutely nothing to chance. The play was already difficult for Granada, but Modric made it impossible:
When you see Modric’s split-second decisions in the two above sequences, it’s easy to understand how important instant recognition of coverage (most of this will naturally fall to Casemiro, who might be the best in Europe at taking that role) from Real Madrid’s midfielders. Whether it’s a sprint from Modric or Alaba; Casemiro’s deeper role this season is something that makes sense for the symphony that Ancelotti is putting together.