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Vinicius Jr And The Reward Patience, Plus Four Other Observations

Kiyan Sobhani’s column this weeks leads with Vinicius taking his game to another level and Modric dazzling the Bernabeu

Real Madrid CF v Club Atletico de Madrid - La Liga Santander Photo by Berengui/DeFodi Images via 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.

Real Madrid are flying through a difficult part of the schedule. Let’s stop and reflect on a few items:

Vinicius Jr and the reward of patience.

There are exceptions, rare ones, but for the most part, the greatest teams who lift the European crown every year need superstars — players who transcend normal tactical ploys, pressure and heat, hostile challenges, and big games that need generational talents and leaders. Go back through every single one of Real Madrid’s Champions League triumphs, they were loaded with at least one (and usually multiple) such player(s) who could put the team on their back(s). (Maybe the ‘66 team is an exception, but that team was deep and badass, led by a savvy veteran Gento and a bunch of gunslingers in the YeYes.)

Real Madrid were in danger of hitting prolonged mediocrity once Cristiano Ronaldo, their greatest player ever, left. They started striking, with volume, trying to find another superstar. They leaned on Marco Asensio and Gareth Bale, and those shoulders crumbled. They cast a net into an ocean of young prodigies, and signed as many as they could: Takefusa Kubo, Brahim Diaz, Reinier Jesus, Rodrygo Goes, Vinicius Jr. They flat out purchased one of the best players in the world in Eden Hazard, and the Belgian withered physically.

Karim Benzema rose the call, but he was alone. It was too soon (still is), to see how the other young players turn out. Kubo, Diaz, and Rodrygo are really good. Reinier is an unknown, still. The hope was always that one of the young players — not all — will pan out. If one of them turns into Neymar, or close to it, then stockpiling all of them was worth the prize of hitting the jackpot with one.

They hit it. The patience, the money, it was all worth it. Vinicius Jr is here. He is second in La Liga in goals (10, from an xG of just 6), first in shots on target (24), second in shot-creating actions (74), first in progress carries (189), first in carries into the final-third (56), first in carries into the penalty area (54), third in progressive passes received (126), and first in completed dribbles (53). He has been hacked down into a foul as a means of stopping him 43 times — the third most of anyone in the league.

It is yet another lesson in endurance, perseverance. Just last season, the Brazilian winger had the reputation of that of a terrible finisher — a script that’s now been flipped on its head. We never truly know how close we are to turning a corner. Just when you think it’s bust, the phoenix rises. Vinicius has rebounded from his sophomore slump, and taken a huge leap into year four. All it took was some faith, guidance from a new manager, and an understanding of how to channel his unique talent. Vinicius chipped away at his demons, worked hard, and is now reaping the fruits of his labour and will.

These things are so hard to juggle from a club perspective. Winning is hard. Sustained winning — expected at Real Madrid — is even harder, which makes what the club has achieved in its history even more impressive. It’s not easy to bounce back between cycles. Rebuilds are tough to get right. A high level of competence is required at the upper board level to coddle assets.

I have always erred on the side of prudence and patience. If the talent is there, ride it out and endure growing pains. Doing so with Ramos and Marcelo paid off. Other times, you can just tell a player doesn’t have ‘it’ (Gago, one who was signed at the same time as Marcelo, would fall into this category) and you cut ties. There are enough examples in football history that prove growth is not linear, but as long as you can see the drive and talent, however dormant, there is a chance to unearth something great if you stick with it.

I don’t think we’ve seen the final form of Vinicius yet, and by extension, the true ceiling of this team. For the Brazilian to truly arrive, he will need to play at this consistent level for years, and the club will have to build the right pieces around him. But I have always been a fan of process over results because it gives you an idea of the sustainability of the actions. The team is poised to win La Liga this season. If they fall short in Europe but go down fighting with the leap Vinicius has taken and the team putting in a great effort, there is a dignity to that, and there’s definitely something to look forward to.

Luka Modric, still putting his body on the line

There is almost nothing I love more than when a player as talented as Luka Modric, one of the all-time greats who glides on the pitch and plays football like he’s weaving silk, is also psychotic about out-working everyone on the pitch. Modric is one of the most talented players of his generation, but has always somehow outmatched his talent with his hard work. Having both talent and work ethic, on that level, with his football IQ, is like having a perfectly-winged, state-of-the-art aircraft with Whip Whitaker taking control of the flight deck.

Seriously, it’s amazing. Modric is often the oldest player on the field. He consistently puts younger players to shame. How can you be in your 20s, see Modric be relentless getting to loose balls ahead of you, and go to bed at night without your mind racing ‘damn, I need to work harder. A 36 year old just bodied me.’?

I love seeing this in person especially, because you can feel the energy. Modric will win a challenge cleanly while stealing an opposing attacker’s soul. The Bernabeu collectively roars. Then the Croatian drops his shoulder and glides past an incoming challenge, and the fans increase the volume once more before Modric distributes the ball out wide to an open player which is met by thunderous applause. It’s a 10 second moment etched in time that makes football — all of it — worth it.

The Madrid derby was filled with these types of moments in the second half. You could feel the Bernabeu shaking with excitement — the energy permeating through to your bones. Modric’s hustle feeds into everything the team does.

The one above is more subtle, and away at Anoeta in a hard fought victory over Real Sociedad in December. It’s a more detailed look at what Modric does that might not go noticed: He blocks the free-kick, and nine seconds later he dispossess Adnan Januzaj at the top of the box before sprinting to provide an outlet for Vinicius Jr.

Modric is quietly having a good playmaking season. He’s third in La Liga in assists per 90, and in the top 10 in goal creating actions per 90. He is on pace to be among the top three assist getters in the league by the end of the season.

Tracking Mendy’s inverted left-back role birthed by Zidane

Zinedine Zidane unlocked Ferland Mendy as an inverted left-back last season as a means of escaping opposing high presses. Ancelotti has continued that wrinkle to give Real Madrid an extra body in midfield during ball progression:

This is now common practice. Mendy has taken this role more naturally and instinctually with each passing game. He knows when to whiter off-ball centrally, and his teammates know they can hit him there. Inter don’t suspect a wing-back to pop up in that channel. Brozovic is unsure whether he should follow Mendy away from the wing.

So much of Real Madrid’s offense runs through the left. Against Atletico, the ball was dominated by Mendy, Toni Kroos, David Alaba, and Vinicius Jr. Atletico suffocated them. Vinicius and Mendy being able to navigate centrally unlocked more open opportunities. The understanding between all four of those left-sided players has grown with each passing game. Alaba moves on the fly, and everyone knows how to cover for him swiftly.

It is nice to see Real Madrid’s left side regain confidence during this rebuild. We are used to seeing all time great combinations on that side. This millennium alone we were privileged enough to see Roberto Carlos and Zinedine Zidane link up with Raul Gonzalez. After them (with a large gap in between, to be sure), the historic Marcelo - Kroos - Cristiano Ronaldo - Isco - Karim Benzema - Sergio Ramos hexagon was pure eye candy. Things are starting to look better again now with Vinicius’s leap and Mendy’s integration.

Mendy’s progressive passing ability still worries me (he ranks in the bottom 13th percentile among full-backs). His passing overall has been fine, though he is prone to blips under pressure, still. The Frenchman remains as one of the best ball-carriers in his position, and as always, is a good dribbler even if unorthodox and inelegant. He can still get your from point A to point B as a north-south ball-missile at a reliable clip.

Overloading the right side

There is always so much discussion about who plays left wing or right wing. Can X player coexist with X player? Who plays on the left, and who takes the right? This was especially a hot topic when Hazard was in any discussion to coexist with Vinicius before the Brazilian ran away and distanced himself from the Belgian. It will resurface (if it hasn’t already) if Kylian Mbappe is signed. (I’m not worried about the Mbappe / Vinicius coexistence as some others are.)

Some players you can throw on either wing and let them cook. Gareth Bale is in that ilk. As was Steve McManaman, and now Rodrygo Goes, Marco Asensio. Others are clearly superior on one specific flank — Luis Figo, Arjen Robben, David Beckham, Vinicius Jr. You can get creative maximizing those players without having to get them out of their comfort zone for prolonged periods.

Interchangeability between flanks has long been something coaches look to often. Wingers swapping flanks keeps defenders guessing and gives your attack fluidity and a certain degree of variance.

Another wrinkle I like even more: Ancelotti has been sending one winger to link with the other on the opposite side, rather than having them swap fully:

Sending Vinicius over from the left side to the right side adds an extra layer to defend that simply swapping flanks doesn’t: numerical superiority on one side. In this instance, Vinicius’s run off the ball remains unchallenged, and frees up an open man that Atletico scramble to defend. Ancelotti has also used the inverse of this in past games (Asensio going to the left to combine with Vinny). I like it.

The return of Borja Mayoral

The tragedy of Borja Mayoral (a story about a 24 year old who finally found a home to live out his promise and have a career-best season before seeing a new manager, Jose Mourinho, come in and shelve the Spaniard in a dust-filled room) took an interesting twist over the past week: Mayoral has been reinserted into the starting lineup for the first time since last season, and has now played consecutive games alongside Tammy Abraham up front.

Mayoral scored 10 goals last season in Serie A, and 17 overall — a career-high and it’s not close. He ranked fourth in the league in goals per shots on target, and fifth in non penalty goals per 90. He slung five assists throughout, and then AS Roma manager Paulo Fonseca gave him a prominent role — one that grew into the Spaniard establishing himself as one of the most important players in the starting XI.

It was not a likely scenario, but credit to both Fonseca and Mayoral for getting the best out of each other. Fonseca publicly backed the Spaniard multiple times throughout the season. Mayoral repaid the faith. Edin Dzeko, the number one striker on the depth chart to start the season, eventually became more dispensable in Fonseca’s starting lineup, and Mayoral grew his way into it, often outperforming the Bosnia and Herzegovina international.

Mayoral’s fate then changed with Fonseca’s departure, and consequently, Mourinho’s arrival. Abraham replaced Dzeko. Mayoral was no longer just playing second fiddle needing to work his way in, he found himself even behind Eldor Shomurodov in the pecking order, and barely got a lick in Europa Conference League games.

Maybe Mourinho has come around, or been impressed enough with Mayoral in training that he’s switched things up a bit. In a match away from home against CSKA Sofia on December 9th in the Conference League, Mourinho listed Mayoral up top, alongside Abraham, keeping Shomurodov on the bench. Mayoral was great — scoring a cheeky backheel goal, being heavily involved in the build-up to another, and nearly doubling his tally after dribbling past multiple players before skying a shot over the bar.

Four days later, Mayoral started in a league game — a 2 - 0 win over Spezia at home. Again, Abraham and Mayoral led the line, with Mayoral showcasing his ability to play alongside the Englishman as a link-up facilitator who both plays in the box, but also drops deep like his idol Karim Benzema.

It’s unclear where this goes moving forward. Roma don’t have trouble creating chances, but do have trouble finishing them. Abraham has little help, and even he, as spectacular as he is with his goalscoring at times, misses chances, and hasn’t been nearly as consistent in his goal-scoring in Serie A as he has been in the Conference League. Mourinho has largely deployed a 4-2-3-1 with just one striker (Abraham), supported by Nicolo Zaniolo and Henrikh Mkhitaryan on the wings. Lorenzo Pellegrini takes the 10 role. That quartet can get to their spots. But maybe that’s where Mayoral comes in: He can replace one of the midfielders and provide more goal-scoring, without the team having to sacrifice much build-up play.

Mayoral is a slick player who covers a lot of ground. He can drop to help his team escape pressure, and within seconds be on a full sprint towards the opposition’s box to jostle for a goal-scoring position:

Mayoral still has a long way to go to impress Mourinho, but this week was the first time all season a window opened for the Spanish forward. His consecutive starts were celebrated on this week’s loan-tracker podcast. Too long have we been starved of Mayoral content.

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