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Eight Tactical Observations on Real Madrid’s players to start the season, starring the return of Gareth Bale

In this week’s column, Kiyan Sobhani looks at Gareth Bale’s return, Kubo’s central role, Brahim Diaz’s leap, and the Mbappe-Benzema-Griezmann fit

Real Betis v Real Madrid CF - La Liga Santander Photo by Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto 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.

Welcome to the first ‘Observations’ column of the season:

Gareth Bale’s return

It’s always strange seeing a player go out on loan at the age of 31 (even stranger at Real Madrid) before seeing him return as a starter on opening matchday at the age of 32. Maybe Bale’s separation from the club late in his career was needed for both parties. Bale did well in Tottenham last season (with some caveats, as I’ve written here), and looks proactive under Carlo Ancelotti so far.

Gareth Bale is a special breed. At his peak, not human, barely containable — a mutant you couldn’t defend. At his apex, he made his physical powers complete with a synergistic will-power that was overwhelming. He wanted to burn wingbacks every 10 seconds, would track back without tiring, and effortlessly released 40-yard lazers with his left-foot that goalkeepers were terrified to face. It wasn’t that he could murder you, it was that he wanted to.

When Bale had his physical traits and mental fortitude working together at the highest possible level, he was a joy to watch. Age takes a toll, and even moreso, injuries take a toll. But even if Bale doesn’t bulldoze opponents anymore, it’s nice to see him try do the right things — be proactive, shoot, take players on, and be a protagonist on offense:

That may seem like a simple shooting sequence, but there were plenty of examples of Bale in previous years where he’d turn down even better shooting positions in favour of a simple pass backwards while going through the motions. The above shot wasn’t effective, but it was also a warm up. Later in the game he drifted to the left side, beat a couple players, and slung a more ferocious effort just wide of goal.

The intent is there, but there will be times where his change of pace will let him down, when it didn’t years ago:

Bale, loosely marked by Florian Lejeune and Ruben Duarte, pops up as an outlet by dropping deep while Karim Benzema opens space by dragging away Duarte with an off-ball run. The easy option would’ve been for Bale to play the way he’s facing, or turn backwards to cycle the ball to Luka Modric or Casemiro. Bale turns, but is met stride for side. The play is positive, but requires more explosiveness.

Bale is a technically-gifted player. He isn’t solely reliant on his physical attributes. He’s an underrated crosser and deep-lying playmaker. He thrives when he’s given space to pick out passes (who doesn’t?), but has enough shoulder-drops and cut-ins in his toolbox to create the alley he needs in those situations. He has a whip on his cross that’s tough to defend.

A peculiar stat against Alaves: Only two outfield Real Madrid players — Benzema, Bale — won aerial duels, each winning just one. No one else was able to conjure a single triumph in the air. Some of that will come down to the fact that Real Madrid crossed just 14 times in that game, and none hit their mark directly (though Bale’s ball to find Vazquez kickstarted Benzema’s opening goal). But on the flipside, Real Madrid had trouble with Alaves defensively, with Joselu winning seven aerial duels on his own.

Bale helps provide a target (on defensive set pieces, sure, but mostly on offense) in the box. It sounds like a simple thing, but Bale drifting in out of all front three positions allows him to also interchange with Benzema. When Benzema drops deep, Bale can make a run into the box as a second striker, and if he doesn’t connect, he’s someone you have to mark, which opens up space for other players like Benzema:

That’s not a luxury Real Madrid had last season apart from Jovic’s early cameos before he was loaned back to Eintracht Frankfurt.

Kubo playing more central roles

Takefusa Kubo is back to the team where he’s had the most success in La Liga so far. Kubo’s original stint in Mallorca in the 2019 - 2020 season saw him work his way into the lineup, ever-so-gradually, by Christmas. He went from late-game, sporadic cameos to a full-fledged starter, and their most important creative attacker, within months of signing for them on loan.

It’s nice to see him return to not only a team he’s succeeded with in the past, but a team that has a strong sporting vision, and an organized scheme that remains compact defensively and dangerous on counter-attacks. Kubo entered the field against Real Betis on opening weekend with fans chanting his name. There is a good chance he will slide into a central role — his most desired position — and become an important player in Mallorca’s offensive transition.

Early signs point to Mallorca allowing Kubo to focus on breaking lines and progressing the ball at every possible opportunity. On the right wing, Mallorca have Jordi Mboula — a terrific two-way winger who works well with right-back Pablo Maffeo. Mboula won’t start every game, but when healthy, he should, which allows Kubo to come in to a more central role like he did against Betis (though, in a twist, and I’m not sure how much we’ll see this, Mboula played on the left with Kubo on the right last weekend against Espanyol). Kubo’s role was clear: get the ball from point A to point B vertically, as quickly as possible. That often requires taking players on in traffic, something Kubo can do naturally:

Kubo looks off the easy square pass in favour of a shoulder drop past Paul Akouokou. That’s the kind of play that creates transition opportunities out of nothing, and that’s Kubo’s main asset. He is a master of taking the perfect first touch out of pressure and turning his man.

It’s the hurdle after Kubo still needs to improve on: Making the right pass, finding a more accurate final ball, and not overhyping his dribble attempt. He’ll have plenty of cracks to work on that this season.

The instant importance of David Alaba

Maybe it’s a Bayern Munich - Real Madrid thing. Those two clubs have good relationships despite engaging in bloodbaths on the field since the dawn of time. Either way, David Alaba, just like Toni Kroos who arrived from Bayern to Real before him, fits this team like a glove. Kroos played his first Real Madrid game against Sevilla in the European Super Cup and looked like he’d been a Real Madrid midfield general for five years. Alaba, from day one, has a similar belonging. The transition has been seamless — enough to make us ponder if The Austrian is even a new signing at all.

His importance covering for the injured Ferland Mendy can’t be understated. He may leave space behind him (which was one of the concerns I had with him playing at left-back initially, but some of that can be fixed with schematic tweaks), but when sizing up a player one-on-one, he is reliable:

Alaba is also one of the best ball progressers from the back in all of Europe. He is trustworthy under pressure. Ancelotti (any coach) will love that.

Once Mendy comes back, the most likely scenario is Alaba shifting to the middle while one of Nacho or Militao hits the bench; though I’d have concerns about the already-withering aerial presence if Ancelotti deploys a Nacho - Alaba center-back partnership.

Brahim Diaz has arrived

To state Brahim Diaz has arrived as a footballer implies that he hadn’t been good for the past 16 months. That’s not true. Brahim has been in good form for a while now. He has always been a good line-breaking menace and hard worker — eager to learn and adapt. But there is something about Brahim Diaz now, and certainly something more — perhaps even inexplicable — to the way he carried himself on Serie A’s opening match day, where the Spaniard started as Milan’s #10 against Sampdoria and was a level above every single other footballer on the pitch.

Brahim scored the game’s only goal. He also had zero key passes. Those numbers — particularly the latter — are almost meaningless. This was a game you had to watch just to feel the mastery and control Brahim had on this game. Stefano Pioli gave Brahim the keys and let him drive. Brahim navigated the scheme perfectly. He did not have a key pass, but he had two ridiculous passes into the box from midfield — both dinked over the top with so much arch and perfection that the defense couldn’t cope. Olivier Giroud was marginally offside on one play, and couldn’t pull the trigger on the other.

But there was more, so much more. Brahim’s positioning between the lines gave Milan an escape valve all night. Until the very last second of his performance (taken off after 69 minutes), he sprinted as if it it was the first minute. He emptied the clip, and was uncontainable off the ball. Without rest, he was an outlet on every possession wherever Milan needed one on the pitch. After receiving a pass, he’d quickly make a vertical pass or carry the ball up the field before sprinting back into position to receive the ball again. It was like holding turbo, only with a cheat code where the turbo doesn’t run out.

Milan are still a work in progress. Sandro Tonali — supremely elegant but error prone and naive — needs someone like Brahim to help with ball progression. Brahim even tracked back on a couple Tonali gambles that left Milan vulnerable. He works the passing lanes, presses well and is a contributor on both ends of the field.

Brahim starting on the opening matchday and playing as well as he did is highly encouraging. Knowing Pioli, he’ll rotate Brahim between the wings, CAM, and the bench. But Milan also haven’t replaced Hakan Calhanoglu, which points to even more playing time for Brahim.

If you haven’t planned to watch Milan this season, I’d urge you to reconsider, if only to track Brahim’s development.

A perfect pass

This is perfection. I stood out of my chair:

This is lightning quick thinking and execution from Sergio Reguilon. He is ahead of everyone here, including the viewers at home, who would barely even be able to calculate this pass on a freeze-frame, let alone in a millisecond, on the fly, with just two touches.

There are two more obvious options here (which most players would take) when Reguilon first receives the pass from Steven Bergwijn after initially intercepting the ball out of the back: 1) A much easier square pass to Son; or 2) Dribbling down the byline to see how the defense opens up. Options three and four — on the table for many — are a pass to Delle Ali’s feet (likely gets intercepted), or the safe route: Slowing the play down and recycling possession.

Reguilon sees something different, and the defenders don’t see it coming: He leads Delle Ali with a perfectly-weighted pass through a tight angle behind the defensive line. The pass connects, and Tottenham win a penalty.

That is absurd. Reguilon has had a good start to the season. I’d like to see him defend diagonal balls over the top better, but the overall two-way play from the Spanish left back is back to where it needs to be.

Real Madrid’s set defense

Carlo Ancelotti has stabilized Casemiro’s role this season, and that’s part of the reason I trust Real Madrid’s set defense, in the face of slow build-ups, to rotate efficiently and fall into place. Casemiro stays in front of the back four without leaving his post, which often sees the team take the shape of a 4-1-4-1 with the Brazilian anchor stationed in Zone 14, ready to mop up dangerous runs and block shots that pop up.

That also means Casemiro is generally in position to help cover the marauding wing-backs.

That leads to other unideal things. A team that counter-presses at an elite level will make life difficult for the Brazilian, and you’ll lose his runs into the box (one of Zinedine Zidane’s best offensive weapons last season) — but the upside is that it gives you defensive security when teams circulate possession and have trouble finding openings.

It’s subtle, but that Nabil Fekir shot was about as good a chance Real Madrid allowed Betis, and it opened up only after a Dani Carvajal gamble dragged Casemiro over to the strong side. Overall, Betis were held to an xG of .42.

I do still worry about the permeability of Ancelotti’s high press, which will need to improve dramatically knowing that it’s something the team will rely on heavily this season. But facing set build-ups — especially ones that are slower-paced — are something Real Madrid should be able to do well this season.

Early scouting report: Inter Milan

Inter lost their manager, best player, and one of the best attacking wing-backs in world football — three huge layers of paint from their title-winning team — this summer. Despite that, they don’t look too bad. They are fast, flood numbers between the lines in good spots offensively, and are a quick transition team on both ends. They will look to exploit high lines with quick passing and peeling runs behind wingbacks:

Lautaro Martinez doesn’t have the legs to catch that pass, but Inter know how to get him those opportunities, and whoever plays left-back that night for Real Madrid — Ferland Mendy, Alaba, Miguel Gutierrez, or Marcelo — will have to be on their toes knowing how high Ancelotti will keep his team’s defensive line.

Inter are compact, and converge on the flanks in a mid-block. It’s generally effective, but if Ancelotti’s men can play out of the wing quickly, Inter are vulnerable in the half-spaces:

(That is a hell of a sequence from Verona, but Real Madrid have the talent and brains to conjure those attacking bursts.)

Through two games played, Inter already have seven goals, amassing 33 shots along the way. They have allowed just five shots on target (best in the league), and only Fiorentina have completed more passes into the final third. Inter are quick and incisive. They have not shown to be an aggressive pressing team yet, which means they’ll generally let Real Madrid make the initial few passes out of the back before clogging the passing lanes and bursting on dangerous counters.

Karim Benzema, Kylian Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann — a trio still meshing

Benzema’s return to the French National Team has sparked much hype. Rightfully so. He is one of the best in the world at what he does — a clear upgrade over someone like Olivier Giroud. But we’re still waiting for more synergy between Benzema, Mbappe, and Griezmann together. On the surface, all three of those players are mobile, roaming attackers, with varying skill-sets that distinguish them enough; and all three of them are versatile enough to make it work, theoretically. It hasn’t clicked yet, apart from certain moments of brilliance. Part of it will come down to France’s structure as a whole, and some of it comes down to Benzema being the most central / stationary presence, and that’s not really his game.

France ranked 15th in goal-creating actions per 90 in the Euros. They popped off shots at a respectable clip, but relied on superstars out-performing low xG chances. Only Benzema raised the call on that front. Against Bosnia and Herzegovina on Wednesday, Benzema was the nine, while Griezmann mostly stayed on the right, and Mbappe (the best line-breaker France have, who also had trouble beating defenders), went to both flanks. Benzema was the most central presence of the three, and was asked by Didier Deschamps to keep his touches on the ball as light as possible.

Benzema is so good at what he does, that France will get by with him in that role. Off the ball, Benzema stays high, on the shoulder of the defensive line. But he still won’t be the target man when France look for an outlet on the cross. It’s not that he can’t play that role, it’s that by the time he usually gets in the box after creating a play, there is enough time for defenders to recover and pick off the incoming ball.

France’s best opportunities came from Paul Pogba’s through balls from deep, usually to Benzema making a run in behind. I’d like to see France look for that more. Pogba might be the best player on earth at playing those balls right now. He led the Euros in through balls, and had some absolute stunners on Wednesday. Those are tough to defend when you have someone who moves the way Benzema does and someone who throws daggers from deep the way Pogba can. Opponents have learned they can size up Mbappe’s dribble attempts with multiple defenders. If Mbappe gets a cross in, France struggle latching on before other defenders recover. The box is packed, and most of France’s superstars like to play just outside the box.

When Benzema gets the ball, he simplifies his play through minimal touches, sometimes to the detriment of the build-up (though he has never been a great passer in transition, even at his apex). Sequence below is intentionally cut longer so you can see where his positioning is off the ball:

Benzema and Griezmann both like to roam and play short passes in and around the area. That gets you to a certain point, but I do wonder if Deschamps will eventually sacrifice one of them for a player that can throw around bodies in the box.

Benzema does everything France need him to do. He’s been a welcome addition and valuable upgrade to France. Mbappe’s presence is needed. I’d tinker with the idea of Griezmann making way for someone like Coman to give France more of a direct dribbling threat on the wings. Griezmann’s ability to control and provide defensive balance can be pieced together when N’golo Kante comes back and gets paired with Pogba. I also wonder if you can squeeze in Griezmann in front of Pogba and Kante, with Coman, Benzema, and Mbappe up top. But it would require France to advance their line and keep possession in the final-third while boasting a manic counter-pressing scheme.

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