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.
Note dump time. Some scattered thoughts on lingering contracts, midfield lineups, and Mendy’s absurd defense. Let’s roll!
Five more months of covering Sergio Reguilon
The upcoming stretch (five months or so) will likely be the last where we methodically take notes of every Tottenham game, and on a more detailed micro level, analyze Sergio Reguilon as a member of the Real Madrid loan-tracker army. Technically Reguilon hasn’t been out on loan for the past 1.5 seasons, but we still have a buy-back option on him at the end of the campaign. And knowing that Marcelo will walk this summer, it’ll come down to Reguilon or Miguel Gutierrez for that second left-back spot behind Ferland Mendy.
I’d choose Miguel. Reguilon has more experience and more polish at a high level and is a very capable defender — but I think it’s unfair to punish Miguel for that just because he’s younger and hasn’t had as many opportunities. And then there’s the trump card: The buy-back on Reguilon is around €40m. I don’t think Real Madrid can justify putting that money towards Reguilon, as good as he is, when you already have Reguilon and have other positions that need to be strengthened first.
That decision has more to do with the books and transfer priorities and not Reguilon’s ability, and the club may see it differently. Reguilon is a really good two-way wingback. He’s trustworthy as a defensive stopper and has the lungs to get into the final-third in record time. Tottenham — especially Antonio Conte who has both Reguilon and Emerson playing high up the pitch with three at the back — really make use of their wing-backs. Reguilon currently has the most crosses into the penalty area in the entire Premier League.
In some ways, the left-back position for Real Madrid as it currently stands is like a less-bolted version of the goalkeeper position. Being a back-up to a starter that good will be a struggle. Mendy is the best defensive wing-back on earth, and I’m not sure his offense is bad enough to sit him in big games given the stability he brings to the side with Vinicius expected to do so much damage in the final third. In a pickle, you can always do the quick Mendy - Alaba switch on the fly which has helped offensively.
Mendy is the team’s best left-back, and would be almost anywhere in Europe. Given that, Reguilon would be an expensive signing as a back-up. Maybe Reguilon would fight for his spot and win it — who am I to doubt that? There is no question he is a warrior who has gone to battle reliably every time he donned the white shirt before being loaned to Sevilla initially.
But Miguel’s timeline fits slightly better, and when you stack everything together (Miguel is free and promising; Reguilon takes 40m away from another signing; Real Madrid need to strengthen the back-up CB and RB positions etc), I’d choose saying goodbye to Reguilon while developing Miguel, even if the former is the better player right now. I think that’s the most calculated and sound decision.
Naive teams letting Brahim Diaz cook
Ever since Brahim Diaz returned from contracting COVID-19 back in October on 2021, he didn’t quite look the same. Sporadically good moments appeared, but Diaz didn’t have the same ‘bounce’ he had prior.
Serie A took a long break over the holidays. Milan had 15 days between games before finally playing their first game of 2022 against Roma on January 6th. That seemed to be enough time for Brahim to look refreshed. He started in his usual 10 role, and did what he does best: Progress the ball up the pitch through a combination of off-ball movement between the lines, dribbling, ball-carrying, vertical passing, and sprinting into advanced positions after the release:
Diaz is good. I’m not sure what Jose Mourinho’s scouting report read, but it shouldn’t have been ‘let’s leave Diaz open any time Milan have the ball’. Trust me, this was actually one of the better Roma defensive sequences. Mourinho’s men left too much space between the lines.
Diaz thrives as a classic, pure 10 — 90s style. He doesn’t defend much by design (though he’s capable). On any given sequence, he’s positioning himself in a way where his team can find him quickly in transition. From there, he has license to go into creative mode. As an opponent, you can not let him do that freely without putting up a fight. It plays into Milan’s strengths.
Diaz averages nearly a goal-creating action every 90 minutes — good for fifth in Serie A. He has a long way to go and lots of skills he needs to improve on, still. But as a player who can purely create a goal-scoring chance for you, he’s been great for Milan.
The pain of a Casemiro - Camavinga - Valverde midfield
There is currently a hazardous drop-off in offensive creativity when Toni Kroos and Luka Modric sit out. Kroos has received 1520 passes this season. Only one player, Sergio Busquets, has received more in La Liga this season. Kroos has also carried the ball over more distance than any other midfielder in the team this season, and slung more passes into the final third than any other midfielder in La Liga. His wingman, Luka Modric, is fifth in La Liga in assists and 10th in passes into the final third.
Only Cancelo has more passes into 1/3 in all the top-5 major leagues.— Kiyan Sobhani (@KiyanSo) January 11, 2022
It’s not hard to see why the team’s offensive flow would be heavily disrupted when those two sit — as rare of an occasion as it might be. But in previous seasons, you could piece it together with Mateo Kovacic’s ball-carrying ability, or peak Isco breaking lines with his movement, dribbling, and progressive passing. Martin Odegaard would’ve helped with some of it, but he’s not coming back.
Against Alcoyano in the Copa del Rey round-of-32, the midfield trio of Casemiro - Camavinga - Valverde was an eyesore offensively. The team lacked ball-progression. Camavinga, a talented ball-carrier, is risk-averse, and tends to make safe, less-daring passes which Kroos would let fly without a second thought.
Don’t be surprised to see more Dani Ceballos off the bench. I made an argument in a previous column that Isco’s profile, even in 2022, could help remedy some of the build-up deflation if Modric and Kroos both have to sit. Ancelotti said recently that Ceballos “will be an important player in the second part of the season.” I don’t doubt it. Valverde and Camavinga are good players — but it’s hard to pair them together, especially if the anchor is Casemiro. Ceballos has good vision in the final third and is a strong ball-carrier.
How’s Victor Chust doing?
Hey we’re in.. January (!) and this is the first time Chust has appeared in my column. I’m not sure what took him so long to get here — probably a combination of him not starting every game, and me being more interested in the 500 million other things in the Real Madrid universe I could possibly write about.
Chust has been somewhat difficult to analyze because of his sporadic minutes and Cadiz’s obsession with playing deeper than the Mariana Trench. Alvaro Cervera’s men are good in some ways preventing chances against them (see: their recent performances vs Real Madrid and Sevilla), and Chust is often man-marking strikers in the box far away from the play. (In other ways, they are terrible, despite playing so deep, at preventing chances, and are currently last in the league in xGA.)
Chust has Jesus Vallejo syndrome: He has a weakness defending crosses in any shape or form — low or high. He has trouble both anticipating the ball’s trajectory and beating his marker to the ball:
Chust completely loses Ante Budimir behind him, throwing a prayer in the sky that one of his teammates will do something, or that Budimir won’t punish him. Twice outside of that goal, Budimir also snuck in behind Chust — those both went unpunished.
I have not seen much from Chust that gets me excited about his future, yet. He does not compensate for those bad reads by being good on the ball, either; though, I’d like to see him in a different scheme (which relies on more build-up from the back) to see for sure.
Ferland Mendy, taking Real Madrid’s ceiling to new heights
I never thought I’d be impressed, to this extent, with someone whose defense trumps their offense as a Real Madrid wing-back. And I love defense. I nerd out and appreciate anytime anyone does important things defensively that don’t show up in highlight reels. But Real Madrid’s two long-standing left-backs of the 21st century, Marcelo and Roberto Carlos, were generationally great offensive juggernauts. We lived with their defensive frailties because they were supernovas in the final third that no one could cope with.
Mendy is not that — far from it. But he’s as good defensively as Marcelo was offensively, if that makes sense. I’ve never seen a wing-back quite like him at Real Madrid — certainly none this good defensively. He reminds me of a left-back version of Claude Makelele. Anyone who tried to dribble past Makelele almost didn’t believe he could do it. Everyone watching the game, including the dribbler, knew the outcome: Makelele was going to take the ball, and with it, the confidence of the attacker. Mendy does the same. Try to take him on once, and he’ll bully you and make you question why you ever even dared to do it. The next time, the attacker thinks twice, and opts for a backwards pass or attempts some half-assed dribble that doesn’t work.
Mendy did this to Abde in the SuperCopa semi-finals vs Barcelona, and again against Berenguer in the final. Abde is a really good line-breaker. He gave Real Madrid all kinds of problems with his incisive dribbling when he came on in the second half. No one could stop him — that is until Mendy had seen enough. The French left-back came over and won the ball from him in their first duel, then did it again six minutes later without breaking a sweat.
I admire the ambition of any winger who thinks they can dribble past Mendy at this point.
The clip above is amusing. Abde is feeling himself. Mendy just stands there and says “no.”
Camavinga forcing the dribble
Dribbling is one of Eduardo Camavinga’s better traits, but there’s often an overeagerness with him at the wrong times, as well as a timidity to him when more impetus is needed. Can he learn to accelerate and decelerate at the appropriate moments?
To be clear, I’m not too worried about him mentally. Every single one of his former and current coaches (including Didier Deschamps) and teammates have lauded his maturity and fearlessness. “I’ve always been like that,” Camavinga said of his confidence in 2019. “I was often moved up a year, so playing with bigger players doesn’t scare me.”
But there are moments where Camavinga chooses the wrong time to take players on (twice against Valencia he lost the ball in deep positions while over-dribbling), and other times where the team needs him to put the foot on the pedal and carry the ball into the 30 yards of space in front of him and he ignores the assignment. That’s where Mateo Kovacic was so reliable.
Again, I’m not worried about Camavinga. He’s great, and by all accounts, is an open-minded learner and hard worker. His decision-making should get polished as he continues to mature.
PSG’s talent-to-structure ratio
It’s been a strange season in Paris. So much hype, so much talent, so much personality — yet so bleak, so dull, so tedious. I’m not sleeping on PSG. They have the transcendant talent to trump everything that’s happened this season. Heck — they’re top of their league without sweating much while barely having their full team available, ever. I think they can put it together for a couple do-or-die games in the Champions League. They showed glimpses of their ceiling against Manchester City, and even if they don’t play well, they can gut you in a single moment.
Mauricio Pochettino’s men have created 11.8 xG in the Champions League — the sixth most and a hair above Real Madrid. It’s their defense that’s been a sieve. They have the seventh worst xGA, 10.7 (that is almost Sheriff / Malmo territory), and xGD of +1. That kind of defense is not going to hold up against the Bayern / City / Liverpool’s.
A lot of the criticism has rightfully fallen on the defensive effort of the front three. That narrative is not exaggerated. They are easy to bypass, and most good teams play with numerical superiority attacking them. From a pure defensive perspective, they remind me a bit of Real Madrid 2017 - 2018, when opponents could get from their own half to Keylor Navas’s goal with two or three passes. It’s a mess.
Even when Neymar and Lionel Messi aren’t on the field (in the below clip it’s Mbappe, Di Maria, Icardi) their front three goes through long stretches of apathy, which even teams like Brest can pounce on:
One note: Kylian Mbappe remains a constant. He is, quite frankly, ridiculous: A reliable line-breaker, solution-creator, and goal-scorer. He alone, makes it worth tuning in.
Fede Valverde, getting re-integrated as an important player
Those who’ve been listening to me on the podcast know my feelings on the SuperCopa — it’s a nice bonus cheque; but a mid-season tournament that charges tax on squad health during an already heavily-taxed season, and I always worry how that will hurt the team in May. But I can’t deny some special moments: Courtois karate-kicking a penalty back to Raul Garcia like it was a ping pong ball (seriously, I’ve never seen that before), Marcelo lifting a trophy as a captain as he equals Gento’s trophy count, and plenty more, including Fede Valverde putting his imprints on a tournament he performs well in.
Valverde’s cameos have been sporadic this season. Two seasons ago under Zidane, he was benching Luka Modric even in Clasicos. Since, Modric has been undroppable, and Fede’s performances have dipped. What shouldn’t be missed is his terrible luck with injuries, which have no doubt caused him a hit. Since winter of 2020, he’s missed some 27 games due to a combination of muscle injuries, shinbone troubles, sprains, and corona virus. He hasn’t quite been able to rediscover his bounce from the 2019 - 2020 season.
Such a great sight to see him making a difference again. He’s such a fighter — a player I’d proudly go to war with. The way he started his goal and finished it against Barcelona encompassed what Valverde is all about. He’s a ball-winner and tireless demon. His two-way ability reminds me of Angel Di Maria (of course, only in their speed of ground coverage, not stylistically). From one box to another. Fede hurts you with movement and extra lungs. He was great in his performance off the bench in both the SuperCopa games.
I love Valverde’s ability to shape-shift into whatever is needed from him. I don’t think he should be played out of position regularly, and his best minutes will still come as a CM brute — but he can reliably carry the ball up the field on the right wing with tremendous purpose, make dangerous runs while combining well with his full-back and whoever else is on that side. He dribbles past players more reliably than Asensio. He is piercing in the right half-space. He’s left his mark as a non-traditional right winger in two of the last three SuperCopas.
There is zero complication to his game. Point A to point B, as quick as possible:
One impressive stat: Despite playing just 930 minutes in La Liga, Valverde is 7th in the entire league in carries into the final third. It’s his bread and butter.