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Nine Observations, Featuring Karim Benzema’s Defensive Intelligence, And More

Some tactical notes on Militao’s great defensive reads, Lorena Navarro’s movements between the lines, Kroos’s impact, and ‘boring football’

Real Madrid v Shakhtar Donetsk: Group D - UEFA Champions League Photo by Angel Martinez/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.

Welcome to the first ‘observations’ column of November, a historic occasion, where I also cover Las Blancas — a new wrinkle I’m adding to these articles regularly.

This one analyzes Lorena Navarro’s off-ball movement, Militao’s defensive brilliance, Odriozola’s Fiorentina stint, and more, including how good Benzema is behind the ball.

Eder Militao’s subtle and great defensive reads

It’s not a deep pool, but Militao has made the best and most efficiently-calculated defensive gambles from the center-back position for Real Madrid this season.

Bad gambles have been a theme this season. Militao has been the one constant who times his reads right. Step-up interventions out of the back are so risky. Sergio Ramos was a master at it — coaxing passes to the target he’s marking only to sneak up and thieve an interception. It’s nice to see Militao growing as a reliable reader of the game amid a backline that desperately needs a calming leader.

Militao is Machiavellian in these situations. He knows where the ball is going and knows where, and when, he needs to fly into action:

Militao is aware of everything happening around him. Slightly hedged off the outlet in case there is a run made behind the defense, he’s ready to pounce wherever the ball goes. Once he recognizes his marker has peeled to receive a pass, the Brazilian gets there first despite being behind him. If he doesn’t get that right, Shakhtar get an easy pass to Alan Patrick as the third-man runner (see Kroos pointing to Patrick at the top of the play, in a rare moment where Modric fails to cut the passing lane).

The positioning of Real Madrid’s midfielders, from a defensive standpoint, were at its best all season against Shakhtar in Kiev. It felt like the start of something new. All three of Ancelotti’s trio were more conservative with their between-the-line movements in the final third — allowing the front-three to cook while they ensure Shakhtar were starved of transition attacks. It worked. You couple that new-found defensive soundness with the return of Mendy, and great reads from Militao, and there is room for optimism that Real Madrid’s defense can improve considerably by the spring time.

How Lorena Navarro can pick you apart

Through eight league games, Real Madrid Femenino slide in 12th place — with two wins, a draw, and five loses. They’ve been blown away defensively, and have struggled circulating the ball cleanly. Pressured or unpressured, the team has been prone to careless giveaways, and like the men’s team, have suffered from overly-aggressive defensive gambles from one or two players on any given defensive sequence. Injuries to key players — Cardona, Asllani, Maite, Teresa, Kaci, Esther — haven’t helped. Sounds familiar?

Early returns point to pessimism in the team’s league run, specifically when it comes to the goal of qualifying for the Champions League again. But hey, let’s celebrate some things. While there are tactical issues that David Aznar hasn’t been able to solve, there are good things brewing on the field. Maybe the team can put together a run in Europe. Once Cardona comes back, the team’s ceiling gets raised. Athenea is almost unstoppable breaking lines; Kenti is a reliable presence (and there are plenty more). There is a lot of individual talent in this team.

Lorena Navarro has been a shining light in midfield. When the team is often lost, she’s the solution finder — unearthing nooks between the lines and constantly calculating her surroundings to show for her teammates in the best possible position. Defensive lines also sleep on her passing ability. She’s able to play the more daring pass to a moving outlet to budge defensive lines:

Las Blancas often struggle knowing what to do in possession. They will knock around safe passes in the face of organized defensive lines (Eibar, pictured above, were impressive defensively, and rocked a mean pressing game against Las Blancas). Claudia Zornoza (#21) does a few quick shoulder scans, and makes the off-ball run that unlocks an attack for Navarro at the top of the box.

Lorena has lifted heavy weights in midfield this season due to the team’s injuries. Against Breidablik in the Champions League, Zornoza was the only central midfielder in the squad. Aznar has shifted to a back-three. Navarro — primarily and attacking midfielder or forward — has had to adjust and play deeper to compensate. She’s been lights out — covering multiple positions and showing her versatility. She works hard defensively, and sets the tone for the team’s off-ball shape:

Lorena is only 20. I’ve loved what I’ve seen from her this season. She doesn’t get as much hype as others, but I think she can be a cornerstone of the team’s midfield for years to come.

(For further Navarro brilliance, check out this excellent video which Om Arvind made on her off-ball intelligence.)

Karim Benzema’s defensive intelligence

Benzema has been devastating offensively. He is straight up murdering teams. Through the first 14 games of the season (all comps), the Frenchman has put together about as impressive of a 14-game stretch I’ve seen from a player in his position. He has been scary good, both analytically, and from an eye-test / leadership standpoint. When he scored the equalizer against Spain in the UEFA Nations League Final — a golazo, far post curler — it felt like a true “I’m here” moment, the type of occasion where an alpha marks his territory as the best player on the pitch in a true high stake moment.

But what he’s done offensively has already been discussed to death. Heck, in October I wrote about it twice (here and here), and Matt Wiltse and I dedicated a whole segment on him on the UEFA Nations League Final post-game podcast (a clip of that can be found here). So let’s talk about something less mainstream: Defense!

Imagine how much that means to his teammates. Some superstars aren’t taxed with defensive duties, Benzema can’t do without them. His energy, work rate, and leadership permeate through to the rest of his team.

It has always been this way with Benzema. He’s always worked hard to organize the team’s defensive shape, whether through a pressing sequence, or in a mid-block. He thieves possession, popping up in blind spots after dropping deep in midfield to hoodwink and pickpocket unsuspecting ball-carriers.

And that’s what makes him a unicorn: He does so much more then pump life into the offense and create goals. He raises your baseline and your ceiling. He does the dirty work, and transcends all at the same time.

It’s hard to find ease in the build-up phase when you’re facing a press led by Benzema. You saw it under Zidane sporadically when the press hit its peak around 2017, and also under Ancelotti in 2014-15, but admittedly, the press this season has been disastrous. With France, it looks better.

Those are the rotations Real Madrid need to start hitting. Benzema will always do his part in hunting down possession. You can see above he’s so close to intercepting Rodri’s pass-back, and when he doesn’t get it, he immediately sprints to the next assignment. The rest of the white shirts have his back.

Benzema has had 56 pressures in the attacking third this season in La Liga — (that was good sixth among forwards a couple weeks, but he’s dropped since Ancelotti stopped pressing). His defensive diligence needs to be applauded.

Kenti Robles’s wing production

So much of Real Madrid Femenino’s nucleus is made up of young players. Only seven players — Kenti Robles, Meline Gerrard, Babett Peter, Marta Corredera, Aurelie Kaci, Claudia Zornoza, Kosovare Asllani — are above 30. 19 players in the squad are 25 or under — including many of the team’s young stars.

It’s a nice mix. By all accounts, the squad is well constructed, even if not tactically sound. There is a lot of youth and flair; with stabilizing, experienced players peppered in to balance it out.

Kenti is one of the calming, savvy veterans the team can lean on. Her production as a two-way wingback is reliable. Get the ball out to her on the wing, and she’ll cook something — an accurate cross, a cut-inside, or a pass down the flank or in the half-space to a winger making an over or underlapping run. There is a composure to her that comes easy and naturally.

Defensively, she may leave space behind her (most attacking fullbacks do), but her step-ups out of the back and ability to read passing lanes are all dependable.

The game against Breidablik was a bloodbath. It was probably the easiest game Las Blancas will have played this season, and is hard to analyze deeply because it felt like a training exercise. Not to take anything away from the team. They gobbled Breidablik. Moller and Athenea were lethal. Everyone looked good.

But as noted before, Zornoza was the only natural central midfielder in the team, and Kenti was reliable even coming over to defend positions centrally:

Through two games in the Champions League, Kenti Robles leads the competition in assists / 90 (2.62). That obviously means little to nothing, and is skewed from the Breidablik game. But Breidablik also nearly held PSG to a clean sheet, and while I don’t expect Kenti to be number one by the end of the season, I think it’s reasonable to expect she can be among the top five, and is certainly already one of the best wing-back creators we have in the game.

Reflecting on the decision to loan out Alvaro Odriozola

Most of the chatter when it comes to ‘the right-back we lost out on’ is undoubtedly surrounded around Achraf Hakimi. He’s ‘the one that got away’. Clearly, Achraf would’ve been an incredibly useful player with Dani Carvajal’s health on a mudslide. But there have also been a lot of murmurings about letting Odriozola go to Fiorentina this season, and whether it was the right move or not.

Having now watched every Odriozola game with Fiorentina this season, I want to dial that back a bit. I understand what’s engrained in Real Madrid fandom’s minds right now: Carvajal is almost never on the field, and his understudy, Lucas Vazquez, has been underwhelming, to put it politely.

I get it: At least Odriozola is a right-back! Unlike Vazquez, he will have natural right-back tendencies. Besides, who’s the third choice? Nacho, who’s out of form and has to cover three other positions regularly? Fede?

What the club ultimately got wrong was letting Achraf go, but their rational will always be, right or wrong, that Achraf cost them nothing and turned a profit in the Carvajal era. Vazquez was extended, right or wrong, because he’s been loyal, and was a reliable right-back last season. Odriozola was loaned out, right or wrong, because the club needs to guarantee playing time and development for him to get his career back on track.

Had Odriozola stayed, he wouldn’t have been an upgrade over Vazquez. Even though he’s a more pure wingback, he’s not as good a defender. Offensively, he’s ok. He’ll get to spots with his pace, combining with Jose Callejon on Fiorentina’s right side, but nothing about his attacking output justifies the net loss his defense brings you. If you’re as bad defensively as Odriozola is, you better be Marcelo, or heck, even Theo Hernandez (which he’s not even close to), as an attacker.

Toni Kroos, cold-blooded

Kroos is the perfect ball-progresser — I don’t think world football highlights that enough. No one passes better out of pressure. Not since Xavi have we seen anyone distribute the ball with such ridiculous efficiency and reliability in virtually any build-up scenario. Those two are probably the best to ever do it. Kroos is the best right now, and likely will be until he retires.

In El Clasico, Real Madrid faced their best opposing press of the season. Kroos coasted through 98% passing accuracy. That’s a surreal number when you consider almost all of Real Madrid’s possession came in their own half as they scrambled to find outlets.

Kroos is often labelled as an elite passer — that he is! — but doesn’t get enough accolades for his pure ability on the ball. It’s simple, but these turns until an opening arises are something that Casemiro (almost always next to him) doesn’t have in his toolbox. It requires composure, serenity. These switches are effortless:

I don’t see Real Madrid escaping Barcelona’s press in so many sequences without Kroos. He and Alaba were the problem solvers Mendy and Casemiro would’ve otherwise drowned without. Alaba played several vertical one-twos and carried the ball. Kroos slowed the game down.

I’m excited to see what kind of chemistry Alaba and Kroos hit together. We saw a window of their ceiling against Barcelona. They’re so cerebral with and without the ball.

Kroos, as always, will have his flaws. His lack of tracking put Real Madrid in two difficult spots defensively — both nearly led to goals. He is better behind the ball defensively than ahead of it. If Ancelotti asks Kroos — along with the rest of the midfield — to sit deeper, it might help mask some of his defensive deficiencies.

Camavinga’s ball-progression ability

Eduardo Camavinga is good at so many things, on and off the ball, and if he increases his vertical passing range, he’ll become an all-around midfielder you can airdrop into any situation. His progressive passing is the one aspect of his game that’s missing, and if he adds it, he’ll be complete.

Still, Camavinga is second among all Real Madrid midfielders in progressive passes per 90 (6.5) — a metric only Marcelo and Kroos rank higher in. And Camavinga still has a good decade of development ahead of him. Though, I’m extremely cautious about that data, given that the Frenchman has been throw in this season for just 300 minutes — in a plethora of diverse situations that don’t always suit him. I’d like to see where he ranks by Christmas, because the eye test says he still opts for safe, low-risk passes:

There is nothing inherently wrong with that pass at the end of the sequence, to be sure. Camavinga likes to delegate the long, vertical daggers to others as he wants to ensure he doesn’t turn the ball over. That only hurts the team if there aren’t multiple creators in the lineup that can take the mantle — though ideally you want all your midfielders to be able to play a final ball as modern offense requires a ton of fluidity and passing specialists everywhere.

The above clip is great because it’s cut longer to show a glimpse of Camavinga’s profile in about 22 seconds. First he displays his press-resistancy by staying cool under pressure and sliding the ball to Kroos. Then, at the end of the sequence, he lays the ball backwards to Carvajal and drops behind him.

Another clip, earlier from that same Osasuna game, where Camavinga shows how reliable he is in tight quarters deep. He either escape the press, or stays cool until he draws a foul:

Camavinga is dependable when he gets the ball in those areas, a key attribute Real Madrid will need in so many games this season and beyond. I’d love to see how much he can increase his vertical passing range, because if he gets that down, it’ll be hard to pinpoint a weakness in his game given his general two-away ability as a ball-carrier, tackler, and off-ball mover.

CaseHero going strong

Few things in world football perplex me more than the enigma that is Casemiro. Game-to-game, it seems like we go through all of the good and bad of his performance, and come up with a positive cost-benefit analysis where we deem that, yes, he indeed makes a positive impact.

And he does, generally, unless you factor in some of the big games where he gets ripped apart (Chelsea, Manchester City, Ajax — all of Real Madrid’s last three European exits). In most games, he’s a beastly ball-winner that helps the team get three points — even if it’s a roller-coaster of mistakes and goal-saving challenges that have to be endured.

Against Elche, Casemiro had several important challenges defending the left flank when Marcelo got caught, and played a couple gorgeous balls in transition of which were high difficulty. One pass in particular was the hockey assist to Vinicius Jr’s first goal; another was with his left foot while falling that set Rodrygo free on a counter.

Then he carelessly gave the ball away deep which led to a goal conceded.

Then, on cue, in the 95th minute of the same game, he comes in with a brilliant flying tackle on the wing to stop a promising Elche attack, in what was virtually the last kick of the game. Balanced, as all things should be. Never change, Casemiro.

Getting the win, without the style

This has always been a strange phenomena to me, though I do understand it to a degree (I promise): Fans often voice their displeasure when the team wins playing defensively. I get it: We all want to be entertained. Part (hopefully most) of that entertainment comes in the form of winning, though, and I’d rather win ugly than celebrate some fake moral trophy where the team looks fun and loses.

This stems from the win over Shakhtar Donetsk at the Bernabeu on Wednesday night where there were plenty of whistles because of Ancelotti’s conservative scheme. But two things entered my mind: 1) This same scheme produced five goals in Kiev; and 2) Real Madrid were poor offensively more than they were ‘too defensive’.

On another day, with better transition passing and decision-making, Real Madrid score three+ goals. Playing counter-attacking isn’t necessarily boring, but how much fans enjoy it will often come down to how good the team is attacking in transition, rather than how they’re defending in the first place.

That’s solid defending, in a 4-1-4-1 block, where Shakhtar have trouble finding a good path to the final third. Real Madrid are in a position where they can slide over quickly when the switch arrives. Shakhtar have the initial pass available, but nothing beyond that. Good habits are being built here, even if boring (and in all honesty, it’s still far far from perfect defensively, and the team has been bailed out by individual heroics even amid the more conservative run). It’s important for fans to understand what needs to be done to improve the team’s defensive sieve, and what ultimately matters most is what Ancelotti has built-up to in the Spring. Let him figure this out, let the team go through some mundane growing pains and narrow Ws. The offensive armageddon from earlier is not sustainable, and the defense being as bad as it’s been won’t be able to compensate for it.

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