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Ten Observations On Real Madrid’s Tactics, Martin Odegaard, And Club History

Keeping an eye on Odegaard’s growth, Real Madrid’s press-resistancy, and Brahim Diaz

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West Ham United v Arsenal - Premier League Photo by David Price/Arsenal FC 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.

“Quick” note dump before hell-week:

Keeping an eye on Real Madrid’s press-resistancy

Liverpool looms, and they will test Real Madrid’s press-resistancy over both legs of the Champions League quarter-finals. Liverpool, even in the dumps for their high standards, still allow just 9.39 (up by a hair since last season) passes per defensive action in the Premier League — rendering them the third most aggressive pressing team in the country. They have committed 1195 pressures in the final third this season, which puts them top in all of Europe’s top-five leagues.

It will test Real Madrid, and resurface flashbacks from ties against Manchester City and Ajax from years prior. It’s worth keeping tabs on how Real Madrid flow from the back with each passing game. They have improved as the season has wore on, but there will be challenges.

Real Madrid escape Celta’s press in the above sequence, but it’s messy, and requires: A) Raphael Varane nutmegging Santi Mina; and B) Thibaut Courtois hitting a vertical pass (not his forte) — among other things. Real Madrid’s press-resistancy against Celta was OK — good in some parts, but it took time for them to settle after initial giveaways early, and then regressed as fatigued settled in the second half. Liverpool will be relentless, even in bad form, pushing you to the limits of your fitness by minute 90.

If Liverpool press high and put Courtois under pressure, they will be the beneficiary of moments like this:

Zinedine Zidane got it right against Atalanta. Liverpool will be another hurdle to leap.

Martin Odegaard has ‘arrived’ at Arsenal

It only took a few games, but Martin Odegaard is already the alpha-creator at Arsenal — demanding the ball on every offensive sequence that Arsenal have, barking out defensive instructions, and orchestrating the offense like he’s prime Chris Paul running Lob City.

Odegaard had his best game of the season against West Ham in March. He rallied Arsenal from a three-goal deficit. His passing was near-perfect, his pressing on point. On defense, he was leading the line; and when Arsenal built out from the back, the Norwegian dropped deep to progress the ball.

The entire Arsenal team has gone through a surge in their pressing numbers since Martin Odegaard has arrived at Arsenal, and Odegaard himself has far and away the most pressures on the team. Rarely do you see him stationary, on either end of the field.

Work ethic aside, it’s a joy watching his brain and technical ability work synergistically. Odegaard loathes obvious passes. He settles for no less than the dagger that no one sees:

That’s an artist at work. Odegaard’s craft is surgical, beautiful. He dusts defenders; vaporizes low blocks.

Odegaard is hitting stride now like he did last season at Real Sociedad. Let’s see where he settles among the Premier League’s best creators by the end of the season.

Zidane’s inverted left wingback taking shape

Zinedine Zidane is maximizing Ferland Mendy’s ability to move off the ball and drag opposing shirts with him — or just confuse the hell out of them as they deal with the numerical superiority he provides.

Zidane had to find an answer to Real Madrid’s two previous Champions League exits against Manchester CIty and Ajax respectively. He was only responsible for one of them, but the theme of Real’s jittery build-up against high presses were an issue in both. Credit to him, he found a blueprint against Atalanta in the second leg that worked. Keep an eye on Ferland Mendy drifting centrally (and often he went all the way to the right) to provide a passing outlet:

Mendy has been the target of 1235 passes this season — the fourth most on the team. He has successfully received 91.5% of those — a reliable clip. He will need to learn how to open up in a way that helps him escape that pressure with his first touch, but his movement is not always meant to be the initial breaking point in the press — but rather an option that the opposition has to think about as Real Madrid work their way to find openings.

Brahim Diaz, enjoying the 10

The 10 is not dead! Even traditional 10s, a rare breed, can be found. It’s not that uncommon to see players floating in that role, side to side — but the ones who stay centrally and live in zone 14 are more rare.

AC Milan manager Stefano Piolo has engrained the traditional 10 as part of the Milan culture, and almost every attacking midfielder gets to play it. Pioli shifts multiple players, including Brahim Diaz, in and out of that spot and the wings.

Brahim loves the role. His positioning between the lines is conducive to him receiving the ball in spaces where he can do a quick turn and distribute it to either wing. His dribbling ability buys him extra real estate and time. Diaz can also slice a central through-ball from those positions:

Diaz, as always, contributes a lot defensively too. Not every team will give Milan space in transition to work with (like Manchester United did often in the game from the above clip). Diaz is a good presser, and tracks back on every possession to pressure the midfield and intercept cut-backs. His progress has been promising.

Admiring a rival’s tactical blueprint

After Atletico Madrid lost to Chelsea at home in the first leg of the Champions League round-of-16, everyone was up in arms about the way Diego Simeone set up his team, often with a deep bank of six, forming a rooted triangle hard to penetrate. “Football won.” “That was shameful.”

Uh, did you just start watching the greatest defensive team in the past 15 years yesterday? That same narrative popped up after Atletico scraped by an ugly win over Liverpool last season. Everyone (mostly Liverpool and Premier League fans) were upset that The Reds couldn’t find a way through. Liverpool then lost the second leg to Atletico too. Really, did football really lose last year? C’mon.

It took a Mario Hermoso gaff and an Olivier Giroud bicycle kick to score against Atletico. Great goal. I don’t hate it, and I don’t hate the way Atletico play either. Is it my favourite? Not by a long shot. I’ve been excited watching Atletico play a handful of times in my life, and watching them week-to-week for our Churros podcast can be chore — but I’ve always admired good defense (probably because I’m a nerd).

Their defense is masterful. Appreciate it, even if you don’t like it, we may not see something like this ever again.

I genuinely enjoy the pain on the opposition’s faces (unless it’s Real Madrid, who had no real vision to break down Atletico for three quarters of the Madrid Derby this season) as they helplessly knock on the Colchonero door. It peaked in 2014 when Barcelona tried over and over again to find an opening against them in the Champions League and couldn’t. Atletico took away space, and rotated on every single pass instantly. It is an art to defend with that much patience and focus for long stretches.

Think back to how much has changed since that 2014 tie. Atletico have lost three key members of their legendary defensive backbone: Juanfran, Diego Godin, and Filipe Luis. They just go about their business, regardless of who is in the team, and continue to be one of the best defensive teams in Europe.

I get it, though. We are football fans. We like goals. We want the sport to be fun. I don’t mind the stylistic variance. By the way, Atletico have scored more goals than Real Madrid this season in La Liga.

Appreciating the art of quick thinking

I’m a sucker for this kind of stuff. Quick thinking and composure in high-press situations:

Casemiro, Marco Asensio, Mariano Diaz, and Raphael Varane are all involved in some way, but I’m pinning this artistry on CEO Toni Kroos, who guides the team out of an aggressive Real Sociedad press. Watch Kroos the entire play. He positions himself in a way where he is, at any given moment, an open outlet. When the ball eventually arrives, he knows exactly where everyone is, and with one touch, leads Casemiro down the line.

He does this stuff several times in one single game. It’s his baseline.

Most times the ball goes all the way to the opposite side, where Kroos will switch it to an open Ferland Mendy. Either way, the German is a reliable distributor and outlet. He and Luka Modric together do so well in those situations, but I enjoy when there is a central vertical outlet ahead of him too. That’s been Isco against Atalanta and Real Sociedad (and on-and-off throughout the years), but also Martin Odegaard sparsely. Respectively, I’ve enjoyed the movement between the lines from both Isco and Odegaard for Kroos to pick out. When Karim Benzema is out, you need someone like that to help with ball progression. Maybe the Frenchman’s return is a reason why Zidane opted for wingers instead of Isco — to avoid the same off-ball runs.

Finding better paths to goal

They say defense wins you championships. I won’t necessarily dispute it, but I will always gravitate towards unstoppable offense more than narrow wins where you stumble into a goal. Maybe I grew up watching too many galacticos, in an era where Real Madrid couldn’t defend, but could streamroll you the other way. I appreciate great defense. I appreciate Atletico, I appreciate Jose Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti’s 2012 and 2014 counter-attacks. I appreciate the Capello league titles, and I appreciate Zidane’s ability to zip up the defense during last year’s title run. I might also resonate more with 6-3 wins over 1-0 wins. There is no right answer to what model is correct — resonate with whatever you like!

I still think if Real Madrid don’t figure out better paths to goal, they will bounce from the Champions League before the final hurdle. I joked on the podcast after the Atalanta game: We spent a lot of time in the off-season asking for an uptick from Eden Hazard and Marco Asensio this season in order to piece together the offense. That uptick has come from Ferland Mendy and Casemiro — two unlikely offensive contributors. It’s been fun! Is it sustainable?

There isn’t a lack of effort in Real Madrid’s offense, but there is a lack of direction — or at least the right direction. People move off the ball. The inverted left-back role (that Mendy also takes up), causes some chaos — but not enough. Real Madrid find themselves in the final third, but unsure of the next step. Often (and as recently as the Atalanta first leg), the ball circulates long enough to end up, eventually, at the opponents’ feet without them feeling much threat.

It’s predictable offense. Once Real Madrid get into crossing positions, they see no one in the box. The options are to recycle possession, or hit it into the box to no one. That issue gets exasperated when Benzema is not on the field. Beating low blocks is hard, but not impossible. Watch the way Manchester City turn low blocks upside down with their movement inside the box — something Real Madrid don’t have even on a micro scale. (They did get that when Luka Jovic was in the team. Even when Jovic wasn’t scoring, he’d created space for other players to latch onto the final ball.)

Sometimes the offense drags itself in U-shaped possession without a clear path.

These issues are there when everyone in the squad is healthy, so I don’t want to lean on squad depletion as the only causation of a desultory offense. It needs to improve.

The intent and inefficiency of Vinicius Jr

Vinicius Jr has already amassed close to 1200 minutes in La Liga this season — on pace to eclipse his entire tally from last season. He is in year three of his development — around the mark I like to start evaluating a player’s growth. Year three is a sweet spot — enough time to form a proper sample size, and for a player to react to the adjustments opponents have made on him in his sophomore season.

I don’t think Vinicius has recognized how to read what the defense gives him, or developed the ability to calculate his surroundings and make the best decision possible, yet. His intent is there, but he’s yet to develop the football IQ to channel his hell-bent energy. As I wrote in October, his efficiency with the ball at his feet has dropped dramatically, and as Om Arvind pointed out with some more updated numbers, the trend is not encouraging. Some of the drop can be explained through La Liga’s collective defensive shift in the COVID era — but it doesn’t explain Vinicius’s poor decision-making overall.

Football is often a game of reacting on the fly. The best players make things happen out of nothing because they recognize a resting defense and have the ability to exploit it. Neymar is a master at this. Even from deep positions, he coaxes opponents into thinking he’s slowed down, before putting a flamethrower to their soul and burning a path behind them. The Neymar shoulder-drop is something Vinicius tries regularly, but it’s forced, and often in positions that are risky:

One might look at that play and think, ‘well, everything worked out fine’. I look at the details, the process. Vinicius tries to shake the winger while a secondary defender applies pressure. He has no real plan, and toe-pokes the ball at his opponents’ leg. The ball bounces back to him, and with some luck, Valladolid don’t break.

On other sequences where he should be turning and attempting those dribbles into the box, he’ll slow it down:

Vinicius is obviously far from the finished product. This is not a final evaluation by any means. His mistakes are scrutinized in part because Real Madrid desperately need his line-breaking ability and efficiency in their sparse and laborious offense. They need a better version of Vinicius right away.

Casemiro’s role on offense

For better or worse, Casemiro is an important offensive contributor. This is nothing new. In the post-Ronaldo era, Zidane has had to unearth offense from some of his more defensive players — if only for their sheer ability to latch onto the end of headers from crosses and provide numerical superiority in the final third. While that’s not new, it’s still interesting to look at Casemiro’s movements off the ball. Zidane uses him similarly to the way Ernesto Valverde used Paulinho in the 2017 - 2018 season.

Casemiro’s five goals are the second most on the team (*insert shrug emoji*). His Goals / Shot on target ratio (.63) is the seventh highest in the entire league. He still ranks in the top-10 in almost every major defensive category (tackles won, successful pressures, blocks, interceptions), but is an important part of Real Madrid’s offense, even in indirect ways.

This kind of offensive blueprint is likely not what Real Madrid envisioned when signing Eden Hazard. Alas, it’s helping them get results while the team continues to be scathed by injuries.

Casemiro’s xG +/- is a team-high plus-21 — also good for ninth in La Liga. Real Madrid are more likely to score with him on the field, and less likely to concede. That math seems good.

Casemiro’s advanced role in the build-up phase creates room for others. His presence drags defenders away from the ball. He frees up space for others to shoot:

There is a case that others should be making those runs instead of Casemiro in order to preserve the Brazilian in deeper positions to stop counter-attacks. Luka Jovic was an expert at dragging defenders despite not scoring himself. Fede Valverde and Luka Modric both do it too. It is what it is. Ride the wave.

Bernd Schuster with touches of silk

It’s always fun to revisit one of the most beautiful eras in Real Madrid history, Quinta del Buitre. We recently did a historical podcast on Real Madrid’s rendezvous with Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan in the semi-finals of the European Super Cup in 1989. (Overall, that was a not-so-fun experience to live through, and signalled the passing of the torch between two teams on different paths.)

I’ve enjoyed watching Schuster play as a multi-functional player who could defend deep, but also play in midfield and create. He was silky on the ball and had good shooting range. He’d cover for Real Madrid’s wing-backs and helps escape pressure. I liked his distribution and touches on the ball.

A decade(ish) later, Zidane was pulling that move off regularly.

Dive into that era, you won’t regret it.

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