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Eight Real Madrid Observations on Real Madrid’s midfield, wing-backs, and more.

Kiyan Sobhani’s column this week hits on Kroos’s pressing, Modric’s interceptions, Mendy as CB, Atalanta, Odriozola, Antonio Blanco, and more.

Real Madrid v Valencia CF - La Liga Santander Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Here are eight (mostly Real Madrid related) observations that were lingering in my brain the past few days:

The underrated pressing of Toni Kroos

Toni Kroos has a certain physical strength that doesn’t get as much clout as it should. It’s specific to his pressing, where he pops up on unsuspecting markers who can’t deal with his pressure, and ultimately give in to his bullying presence.

He shows up in Zone 14, immediately when the defensive line thinks they’ve just about thwarted away a cross out of danger:

Kroos knows where to be on those clearances. It’s like anticipating a long rebound. Once that ball gets cleared, there is a hyper-alertness to him which enables him to read the play. As soon as the ball hits the feet of Gonzalo Melero, Kroos pounces — simultaneously blocking his passing lane to Nemanja Radoja and pressing him. Thieved. (He also probably should’ve just cracked a shot instead of passing it to Karim Benzema.)

Kroos reads the play ahead of him almost infinitely better than he does when the ball is behind him. On defense, he’s a poor tracker, lazy in transition, and even a liability. His pressing is elite. His skill-set is part of the reason Real Madrid are suited to a counter-pressing scheme.

Real Madrid don’t go that route often, and as a side-effect, Kroos has the majority of his pressures in midfield, where he has 168 pressures — the 11th highest mark in the league. There is an art to pressing the way he does. The best defensive players alter opponents’ decision-making off the cuff. They make the ball-carrier react in panic. Kroos does that. (One caveat to the above stat: Kroos only successfully completes 23% of his pressures. That could be a symptom of a lack of synergy in the entire pressing scheme, where one player presses, and another doesn’t — leaving passing lanes open beyond Kroos’s control. It’s also very hard to decipher what a successful pressure is and isn’t. The goal of pressing is not always to win the ball, it’s to force a pass backwards and stifle the build-up. In other words, feel free to ignore this part, or if not, just understand the context.)

It would be interesting to see what a different blueprint would look like. Would a more proactive pressing team take better advantage of Kroos’s hounding? Currently, there are 10 teams in La Liga who attempt more presses in the final third than Real Madrid do. There is often a passiveness to Real Madrid’s defensive shape when teams build out from the back. They look to block passing lanes deeper, but get stuck in between pressing and laying back — leaving them vulnerable in transition anyway.

What Kroos does right after Real Madrid lose possession in the final third often opens up opportunities for Zinedine Zidane’s men. New pathways to goal:

Real Madrid don’t counter-press enough, otherwise we’d polish out a few more of these sequences from Kroos, or other capable central midfielders the team has.

Back full-circle to Isco

Isco has not been considered a relevant Real Madrid player since the Julen Lopetegui era. It’s sometimes easy to forget about him. Solari vaporized him. Zidane hasn’t used him much.

It’s hard to see him being shut out for much longer. Martin Odegaard — his main threat in a diamond role — is in London. Eden Hazard — his main threat from the left-wing — is injured. Vinicius Jr, essentially Hazard’s understudy, is not operating at an efficient level consistently — although at his ceiling, certainly is a good line-breaker. How much thinner does the squad need to be? I think we are a hair away, if we’re not already there, to seeing Isco back in a diamond role where he hovers around Casemiro, Kroos, and Modric. That’s the same team that blitzed teams in ‘16-17, but then got annihilated in ‘17-18 once teams found out how easy it was to set fire to the holes in midfield. Also, what year is it currently? My head is spinning. Is this the revolution?

I suppose it’s timely to revisit Isco as a player. He’s only 28, still, and has shown flashes throughout his sporadic appearances — namely against Manchester City and PSG last season — that indicate he is not that far from his ‘old’ self.

A reminder of what he is: a roaming presence designed to pop up as an outlet everywhere and anywhere the team needs one, then pass it, then move and repeat. Preferably with each action, he gets the team closer to goal. He tried to get in those zones against Alcoyano. He’s still far from being in full rhythm:

Pass, move, pass, move. Peak diamond Isco in 2017 was on auto pilot, flowing through space and time. This one moves with heavier legs, but has intent:

To break low blocks, Real Madrid need incisive dribbling — consistently and efficiently. They have been missing this aspect to their play, and don’t get enough of it with the fluctuations of Hazard and Vinicius. Isco brings dribbling, at least prototypically:

Maybe match fitness and continuity can bring back the best of Isco. I’m skeptical, not just of him, but the idea of revisiting the KCMI midfield regularly as a whole when football has moved on.

The Flash’s career, flashing by

Alvaro Odriozola’s minutes per season (league + Europe) since moving from Real Sociedad in 2018 (where he finished a season with over 3000 minutes as one of the best wing-backs in Spain): 1407 in 2018 - 2019; and 606 in 2019 - 2020. He currently sits at 227. He is 25. That is depressing for a once-lauded prodigy who should be gaining momentum to enter the peak of his career in two years.

It is hard to gain momentum when you barely play. Football — especially Real Madrid — cares little about those excuses. Odriozola has not impressed in his cameos in the past couple seasons. He looks like someone zapped the confidence from his soul. There are times where he looks like he can’t wait until the final whistle for his misery to be over. Against Huesca, four players — Casemiro, Varane, Modric and even Nacho on the far side — had to come over multiple times to cover for the Spanish right-back. His lack of defensive positioning was not made up for with a presence in the final third. It was a weird ghostly performance. He was a pure liability — terrified when the ball was at his feet.

There was little to cheer about. One thing that gave me hope was a glimpse from his Real Sociedad days, where he recovers defensively on pure speed alone — at a pace few can outgun:

Odriozola has a plus / minus of -.4 — one of only two players on the team, with the other being Marcelo — who boasts a negative goal-differential for the team when he’s on the field. Take that stat lightly, it’s limited and has its flaws — but the team struggles with him on the field on both ends.

I hope Odriozola suffers from Theo Hernandez / Asier Illaramendi syndrome — and I mean that in a good way. You can not cut it at Real Madrid, but still be a really good footballer. Odriozola needs to unearth what made him so good at La Real.

Riqui Puig is back in the mix — hasn’t missed a beat

Riqui Puig was in the doghouse all season. He was, in some way, Barcelona’s version of Martin Odegaard / Luka Jovic — a young player fans beg for more of, but to no avail. Koeman finally unchained Puig in the Copa del Rey recently, and then gave him his first league start against Real Betis. Puig slotted in as if he never took a break from the field. He looked comfortable with the ball at his feet, had a relentless off-ball motor, was instrumental in Barcelona progressing the ball, and formed a synergetic two-man dance with Sergio Busquets to funnel the team’s build-up.

This is a long sequence, just to illustrate his constant off-ball movement during the build-up phase, and his positioning to win the ball back in key areas:

Puig has a certain calmness to him, even when defenders suffocate him, almost Modric-esque:

It will be interesting to see who loses out if Puig gets back into the rotation consistently. He should soak up Miralem Pjanic minutes, even if that’s a hard pill to swallow for Barca given how much they paid for the Bosnian. The narrative had long been that Real Madrid are built for the future better; but that Pedri - Puig midfield tandem, with Ansu Fati just ahead, looks pretty tasty for Barca.

Feeling out Atalanta

This is a pin-sized preview of more major analysis that’s to come of the two looming Atalanta games, but worth getting out there early: Atalanta are offensively capable of scoring against any team, but their defense is going to suffer tremendously along the way. This is a two-faced team with a high ceiling and low floor. They are vulnerable, they are dangerous.

This team is an enigma. Josep Ilicic is one of the best creators in all of Europe. Everything goes through him offensively, but Atalanta are also more than just Ilicic. Luis Muriel and Duvan Zapata (whichever is on the field, as they’re rarely deployed together) both know exactly how to position themselves for a slicing (and seemingly impossible) Ilicic pass into the box. When Ilicic sucks in defenders, he can play through-balls into either half-space from that position, or cut it back to an open player at the top of the box. Malinovsky is a good wing-man to have on the field as a secondary creator in those situations.

When you pair their offensive ability with their high-press, they are a team you can’t afford giveaways against (and we know Real Madrid have suffered against presses in big games before).

But if your passing is quick and movement is sharp, you can make quick work of their transition defense and high line. I trust Luka Modric and Toni Kroos here, but Zinedine Zidane needs big games from his attacking wingers to punish Atalanta.

I still feel Real Madrid match up well against this team. But without Ramos, I do worry about what Ilicic might do in that half-space.

The Ferland Mendy center-back experiment

I was skeptical of how Ferland Mendy as a left center-back would work, but it did. Mendy, usually uncomfortable with the ball at his feet when pressed on the flank, completed 97.7% of his 85 passes, and had 99 touches — all game-highs of any starter on the field. Mendy’s ball-carrying ability (where he is first in the team in progressive ball-carrying distance and first in the team in carries into the final-third) was on full display. He kickstarted his own goal, and used his new role to take advantage of vertical space he doesn’t normally have as a pure left-back:

His role against Getafe reminded me of Jesus Vallejo’s Eintracht Frankfurt stint, where he could make that run over and over again as the left-wing-back would drag a marker away and create space to dribble into. Mendy is a really good ball-carrier. This role suites him. (Although the obvious caveat here is that Getafe put little-to-no pressure on him — something other teams will do a better job at.)

Mendy did well dealing with panic-inducing situations for the most part. It can be hit or miss with how he responds to pressure, and his success rate in those situations will be highly dependant on his body positioning and the space available behind the pressure. When he’s forced to switch with his right foot as opponents take away the left flank, he’ll struggle. But he does well when he can move the ball into space:

I’m still skeptical of his overall ability when teams really breathe down his neck. He is still prone to giveaways in dangerous areas — obviously much more than Marcelo or Sergio Ramos are. Getafe didn’t pressure him often, but in the second half where there was a brief spurt of them doing so, Mendy had stumbling blocks and gaffs:

My eye is turned towards Atalanta to see what Zidane will do. With Carvajal and Ramos out, is it worth revisiting the Getafe scheme? Atalanta press high, and a way to hide Mendy (likely supported by Eder Militao if Zidane goes with four at the back) would be to shift him centrally and have Marcelo (who, even at his current age, is infinitely more press-resistant) help with the team’s ball progression.

Marcelo’s performance in that very same game against Getafe was encouraging. Forget the weird tactical wrinkles of him playing as an inverted left-back, almost the way Pep Guardiola used Philipp Lahm. While Marcelo looked positionally lost in that setup (and understandably so), he did damage in the attacking third from the left. It might work to stretch Atalanta a bit and punish space behind Ilicic.

Antonio Blanco, reading the game

It’s been a bizarre Castilla season. COVID-19 cancellations are the main reason, with games being postponed left, right and center. When Castilla do play, I’ve enjoyed tuning into their games. It’s a fun generation to watch. Raul Gonzalez’s brand of football is quick, contains high-octane pressing, takes advantage of vertical channels, and has almost instinctual distribution to the wings as soon as the central midfielders win the ball.

Some games are more fun than others. There are obvious players to get excited about, and perhaps none of them more-so than poster-boy Sergio Arribas, who, like Victor Chust, played within 24 hours of a cameo for the senior side against Getafe the day prior. Arribas was awesome, and just does awesome things.

I want to highlight Antonio Blanco this week, though — a player I’ve been intrigued about since last season. I like the way he understands where to be positionally. He has a certain ability to read the game naturally, and is gifted at knowing when to step up at exactly the right time in order to perform an intervention or disrupt the opponent’s build-up.

Blanco has that rare ability where he presses the opponent while simultaneously cutting off passing lanes and ushering the ball-carrier into other areas where teammates can dispossess him. Credit to Raul for creating a scheme where his players can excel in that synergetic atmosphere.

Blanco also has a good eye for the vertical pass, and doesn’t dabble on the ball — switching the play quickly when needed. I’ve enjoyed his two-way presence.

Luka Modric snatching away opponents’ passes

I don’t need to remind you of Luka Modric’s age — it gets highlighted in every broadcast because of how remarkable his career arc is. I will just say this: The same things I enjoy about Modric now are the same things I enjoyed about him when he was in his late 20’s. He still covers every blade of grass like some kind of solar-powered engine. He’s still hitting beautiful diagonal switches; still slinging outside-of-the-boot passes. He’s still defending, pressing, instructing. He still reads passing lanes better than anyone I have ever seen.

Naturally, most of Modric’s numbers — key passes, dribbles, interceptions, passing accuracy, expected assists, completed tackles, shot-creating actions — have dipped. That’s age. The eye test tells us he still contributes an intangible leadership to the team, and a certain organization to the midfield that helps the team ultimately get from point A to point B. He’s also working as hard as ever, and this season, his successful pressures (the percentage of time Real Madrid win possession within five seconds of Modric applying pressure) are at 26%, which is a career high since Football Reference started tracking the metric in 2017.

One of my favourite things about his game has long been the way he intercepts passes. There is a certain grace to the way he does it. Even after all these years, opponents haven’t figured out that if your pass isn’t perfect (even then..) with Modric anywhere within a certain radius, you’re getting your pass picked off.

Exhibit A (or Z, because this happens often):

At his peak, Modric stood at 1.9 interceptions per game (for context, that would put him 9th in the league this season. He also had an absurd 3.7 interceptions per game for Croatia in Euro 2016, which would eclipse just about everything today).

Real Madrid’s midfield is thin, but they are getting great production from their starting central midfielders. You have to hope they won’t get burnt out, and that the attack can contribute more than they are in order to capitalize on what Kroos and Modric are creating.

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