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Nine Tactical Observations From September, Starring Eden Hazard In A Central Role

Kiyan Sobhani’s column this week touches on Valverde’s importance, Brahim’s progress at Milan, Real Madrid’s awful defense, and more.

Real Madrid CF v Villarreal CF - La Liga Santander Photo by Denis Doyle/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.


A rare Saturday column / note-dump before Champions League action resumes this week. Nine observations on my mind:

The ‘aggressiveness’ of the defense

Carlo Ancelotti has gone out of his way in multiple press conferences to state that Real Madrid need to be ‘more aggressive’ without the ball. It’s interesting to unpack that. Carlo’s men have applied 173 pressures in the final third this season, making them the 11th least-aggressive pressing team in the league. They allow 9.35 passes per defensive action — the 10th most in La Liga. The eye test feels different. Real Madrid are getting their press carved. I think it has less to do with ‘aggressiveness’ and more to do with a lack of cohesion. I’d even argue that aggressiveness has hurt them. One player goes gung-ho to press a player, or commits a defensive gamble that leaves the team exposed. Players are not on the same page. Rotations aren’t fluid, players are failing to cover shadow properly, and some of the gambles from the center-backs need to be fleshed out.

Ancelotti has also spoken about keeping a high defensive line, and that he can’t do that if the team isn’t pressing. He’s right, but there hasn’t been a real improvement despite that realization. Real Madrid aren’t pressing efficiently while keeping the high line. On top of that, the center-backs are stepping up on almost every pass that comes past the half-way line. It’s a bad place to be in.

Gambles from Militao, Alaba, and Nacho have been hit or miss. They often step up when there is little chance to win the ball. Placed bets from Nacho and Alaba (ranked from most problematic to least) have been particularly costly. Militao’s calculus has been slightly better, though he hasn’t been perfect either.

Sometimes Real Madrid just get away with it, in part because they haven’t yet met a team that will punish them properly. Here Real Madrid’s press is awful, and leaves the flank exposed. Mallorca hit the wrong pass, and the high line wins the ball. One switch from Mallorca goalkeeper Manolo Reina (a horror-show from him all around) to the wing and Nacho likely gambles and leaves the team exposed:

Villarreal exploited the bad press over and over again. This situation is somehow getting worse before it’s getting better. There have been no improvements in Real Madrid’s off-ball structure since matchday one.

In some sadistic way, it’s refreshing to see the old Real Madrid — the defensive sieve that blitzes opponents — back. The defensive wrinkles will matter more when the team (almost surely) cools a bit offensively (we saw a glimpse of that today against Villarreal). I’d be surprised if the defense doesn’t improve over the course of the season to balance out the inevitable normalization of the offense.

An ode to Thibaut

I don’t give Thibaut Courtois enough love in my columns, partly because I’m not sure what else to say other than “he’s so good”. Courtois had the most minutes in La Liga last season. Ditto so far this season. He’s been immaculate all the way through.

He’s not an elite passer, but it would take a fickle person to complain about that after all the good he’s done. He does come through with the ball at his feet enough, both with Belgium and Real Madrid. I particularly enjoyed this pass under pressure today against Villarreal:

Courtois love is always in my heart, even if it’s not always in my writing.

More bad defense

After Real Madrid put Celta Vigo in a blender, Ancelotti made it a point to highlight that the team’s defense has been far from ideal — rightfully so. He’s been saying it all season. Ancelotti said “the defensive organization wasn’t so clear,” and that “we gifted too much at the start of the match.” I’m not sure how much that tune changes as the season progresses, unless the press dramatically improves and / or the team decides to play more compact counter-attacking football in certain games where they may not be as confident outscoring a world class opponent (see: Bayern Munich, 2014). Also connected: gambles when players are out of position (see Celta’s second goal, and so many plays against Valencia, Inter, Mallorca, and Villarreal), and holding a high line every opponent will know how to exploit.

Ferland Mendy — someone who single-handedly raises your team’s defensive ceiling — is worryingly still out. Alaba is a capable one - on - one defender and distributor, but he’s not going to magically erase the space behind him. One thing I’d like Ancelotti to discuss more is that certain players intentionally stay high up the pitch so that they can pounce as an outlet the other way.

This is just bad defense. The press is, for lack of a better word, horrifying. Vinicius commits; the rest, barely. This is not a unified team pressing their opponent, it’s one or two players doing it half-heartedly, the rest hedged back, and a ton of space in between. Once the Hazard - Benzema - Vinicius trio easily breaks, none of those three players even enter their team’s own half for the entire sequence. This particular play was in the 63rd minute, with the team up 3 - 2.

The team also needs to solidify its positioning defending corners. Better teams can find the right pass out of this:

Eden Hazard in a central role

When Eden Hazard first signed for Real Madrid in 2019, so much of the discourse was about how he and Vinicius Jr — the ahead-of-schedule breakout star from the season prior — could co-exist in the same scheme.

Both play at their best on the left wing — taking players on, cutting in, latching onto balls in transition and finding space for a cross by beating their defender. When deployed together, the one who goes centrally, or to the opposite wing, suffers. The small sample size between them has been rough. If it’s to work, it will likely have to be Hazard who roams inside. He’s played similar roles in Chelsea and Belgium (sporadically, as part of one-off schematic juggles), and has a more natural feel on how to roam without the ball as a hybrid 10.

One iteration of this comes in the form of a wrinkle Roberto Martinez implemented with Belgium in World Cup Qualifiers, where Yannick Carrasco took the flank as the left-wingback in a 3-4-3, and Hazard was the attacking left forward. Carrasco was the two-way wing general, while Hazard tucked more narrow as a floating presence in the half-space, without many defensive duties. I don’t see Vinicius taking the Carrasco role (though, I’d be interested, in theory, to see him there, given he’s a hard worker defensively — it’s just not going to be high on Ancelotti’s priority list with the amount of left-backs he already has when everyone is healthy). But it’s worth highlighting how Hazard would work in a more central position.

Belgium have been on a tear. Dating back to a 2 - 1 win over Denmark in the UEFA Nations League in 2020, they have gone undefeated in 19 of their last 21 games. The two losses came against England, and most recently, to Italy in the Euros. In that span, they have outscored opponents 51 - 14. Of late, Hazard has become a fulcrum, and starting to look like his old self again. He was their best player against Czech Republic, in a clinic where he scored a goal and slung seven key passes and a hockey assist.

Hazard has been moving with purpose off the ball, providing outlets between the lines and spinning his way out of traffic before finding the next direct path to the box. His body language looks better. He has the confidence of his teammates, and it’s reciprocated.

These plays are standard for him now in Belgium. Less defensive duties, a focus on showing between the lines, and from there, he can start cooking up his passes:

Playing that way with Real Madrid is less straight forward. Hazard is still not much of a defensive contributor, and for him to operate like that would require a burden on other players around him. Maybe that’s something you design your scheme around if you have the 2018 version of Hazard. It’s harder to do now.

When Tottenham starve themselves of offense

Tottenham started the season well, as they did last season to put themselves in early conversations for title contention. After a hot start last season, they then (particularly the Son - Kane armageddon) cooled. The counter-attacking opportunities dried up, and eventually their two stars normalized heavily outperforming their xG.

I’m not saying that is exactly the storyline this season. Tottenham won their first two games, and got blown away in the third (and haven’t won since). A 3 - 0 loss to Crystal Palace was only slightly deceiving. They conceded all three goals after Japhet Tanganga was sent off in the 58th minute. But even before then, they were treading water, and with Son out of the line-up, Dele Ali and Harry Kane were ghosts up front. Kane’s solution is to usually drop deep and get involved. He couldn’t.

That is all a long-winded way to introduce Sergio Reguilon, who Tottenham heavily rely on as a two-way presence with multiple lungs. Reguilon often takes the most difficult defensive assignment (attacking Premier League stars on the wings who look to take wing-backs on constantly) and he does well. Almost equally important, Reguilon has to sprint as an outlet in transition so Tottenham have something, anything, to work with once they burst out of their shell. Reguilon is often the relief-valve when numbers aren’t there in attack.

Reguilon is always reliable getting to those spots, but — particularly when Tottenham have little rhythm and possession in the final third — he overcomplicates or forces the pass:

Reguilon is a huge asset. He is tireless. He is good (usually great) one on one defensively, and for the most part, important in contributing to Tottenham’s final ball (he made my last column for an absolutely ridiculous diagonal pass into the box). He’ll still have some struggles defending balls over the top, and against Crystal Palace, he was way late, and borderline unresponsive, tracking Conor Gallagher’s run into the box which led to a penalty kick (and opening goal).

The Reguilon experience is largely great. He has to clean up a few kinks in his game and he’ll have a very successful career.

The Benzema - Griezmann connection

Kylian Mbappe missed France’s final World Cup Qualifier of the international break against Finland due to injury. I previously wrote about some of the challenges the Benzema - Griezmann - Mbappe trio had together. Against Finland, Didier Deschamps replaced Mbappe with Anthony Martial. In doing so, he shifted Griezmann as the 10, just behind the front two. The trio were shielded with banks of three and four behind them.

And it was beautiful. It had been a long time since I’ve seen Griezmann at that level of joy and transcendency — possibly since his previous Atletico stint, or if we’re being generous, in a performance for Barcelona vs Real Betis in 2019 when Messi wasn’t on the field. Benzema was brilliant too — though I’m almost desensitized to how good he is. Benzema and Griezmann together formed a two-man dance that was not only unstoppable, but beautifully choreographed. Pure eye candy.

Seriously, go and watch the entire game if you can, immediately after reading this article. At the very least, if you’re pressed for time, watch the extended highlights. Benzema’s positioning between the lines was perfect. His touches in and around the area were delicate, surgical, uncomplicated, and visionary — all in one. It’s hard to play so simple yet so efficiently the way Benzema does. People often talk about football needing to be simple, but few can actually execute it as effortlessly, and with as much artistry, as the French striker does.

Griezmann, a roaming off-ball presence, also pressed manically and helped win the ball all over the field.

Can Deschamps slide Mbappe into the Martial role and ask him to be (far) less ball dominant than Griezmann and Benzema who will pull the strings? Martial can blend into a lesser role. Mbappe will demand more touches.

Tracking Brahim Diaz’s ‘10’ role

Brahim is the loanee to watch this season. The leap he’s taken already since last season is evident. He has been a vital cornerstone in Stefano Pioli’s XI — a big step from the rotational role last season.

Diaz is among the top-five players in Serie A when it comes to carries into the final third and passes into the penalty area. He has the fourth most goal-creating actions in the league. He’s especially good at providing vertical outlets between the lines, and has a certain reliability to him when it comes to holding the ball and making the right play. He navigates vertically, and is not a fan of conservative possession unless it’s the last option.

Diaz plays differently because he has the talent and vision to do so — and that’s what Pioli wants out of him. For that reason, though he’s a hard-working defensive player who tracks at a dependable clip, he won’t have many defensive duties. Against Liverpool, he and Rebic were often in front of the ball defensively. Diaz’s purpose is to make sure the team has an outlet, and from there, to let his brain and technique unlock things others can’t.

Here is a longer clip to illustrate Diaz’s movement as he positions himself to receive the ball in a good area. The play starts with the ball at his feet:

The game against Liverpool wasn’t actually his best performance. He consistently let his guard down when pressing and failed to cover shadow properly. He also had far less time and space on the ball than he’s had in most other games this season. The pay-off is still great, though, and even when he can’t execute the final ball, you can see his talent and purpose in unlocking the defense:

Fede Valverde is really good

Maybe it’s that there are juicier storylines — Camavinga’s emergence, Benzema and Vinicius, etc — or that Fede Valverde’s contributions are more subtle, but not many are talking about him. He’s still really good, and even when you don’t really notice it, he’s always raising your floor, at the very least.

A lot of the discussion before Vinicius and Benzema took over the game against Valencia (coinciding with Carlo Ancelotti’s subs, to be sure) was about how laboured Real Madrid’s performance was — how poor Casemiro was under pressure, how the unstructured defense barely subsisted. There were a few good things happening. Fede was important keeping Foulquier’s runs in check, and did his part to help the team progress the ball.

Fede has a deep bag of weapons, and all of them are direct, simple, and incisive. My favourite thing he does is how quickly he covers a vast space of grass over a short time span, and it’s always conducive to the team advancing the ball.

Goncalo Guedes is not dribbling past Fede here even if he gets 100 tries:

When Fede helps win the ball, the play is just beginning. Check the rest of his run after he carries the ball and feeds Hazard. He immediately knows what he has to do — get into the right half space and provide the Belgian with an important target. Fede is so good at that. Camavinga too. One of the benefits of having them paired together (with the right surrounding cast) is that they’ll drive defensive lines nuts with their off-ball dynamism.

Fede, like Camavinga, is pretty reliable when being pressed. This pass, while getting tackled, is ridiculous:

Fede — who had a rough game against Villarreal, though was clearly out of position — is likely Real Madrid’s best ball-carrier with Ferland Mendy out injured. The Uruguayan has the most carries into the final third in La Liga this season, and in the top-five for both progressive carrying distance and progressive carries. He also has the fourth most goal-creating actions in La Liga (three). Keep him on your radars. Even if you don’t notice him, he’s there, and important.

Eduardo Camavinga’s integration

Through 153 minutes in La Liga this season, Eduardo Camavinga has the ninth best +/- in the entire league. If that’s not enough data to overreact about his importance already, then have fun with this one: Camavinga leads the league in goals per shot on target: One! We all know the data is microscopic, but the eye test tells us we can make a sound judgement about how valuable the French midfielder will be for the team moving forward.

Camavinga’s impact on the field is undeniable. He provides unpredictable off-ball movement to throw low-blocks into a frenzy. He bullies people off the ball in midfield. I haven’t seen anyone make this player comp that I’m about to make (probably rightfully so), but he reminds me of Claude Makelele in the sense that if anyone tries to take either of them on, you’d bet your house on either Makelele or Camavinga to come away with the ball cleanly. Both are reliable ball winners. Camavinga is also someone you can lean on under pressure because of his dribbling ability and composure.

Camavinga is still only 18. Every time I double-check his age I expect it to say 21, at the very least. His coolness and belief in himself is ahead of his time. One thing I’d like to see him improve on is his vertical passing. If he gets these through-balls down, he will be unplayable:

Camavinga doesn’t attempt those Pogba-esque dagger balls often. Against Villarreal today he had opportunities to turn and move towards the box, but decelerated the play by playing it backwards.

It’s not exactly in his game right now. He’ll play more conservative balls rather than the classic Modric home-run passes. There isn’t anything wrong with that, but he’ll likely need to be paired with someone who can hit those forward passes with precision — a problem you won’t necessarily have to worry about until Toni Kroos retires. There is still room for Camavinga to expand his game too.