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.
He is not the main story of Real Madrid’s season, nor was he the protagonist against Elche. But Antonio Rudiger, currently 10th in the team in minutes played, has quietly put in a really impressive campaign.
Rudiger, boasting the sixth best passing completion % in La Liga, has begun showing his elite passing range that made him so good on the ball at Chelsea:
It’s not hard to see why Rudiger has fit seamlessly. He is a home-run signing on a free-transfer without any real weaknesses, making him malleable and easy to integrate. If you pair him with Eder Militao, you have elite aerial ability and great step-up interventions throughout the backline. Pair him with David Alaba and you’ll get world class ball progression. In the unexpectedly good Rudiger - Nacho partnership, you get leadership, good tracking, and valuable rest to the aforementioned starting defenders. Rudiger can do everything well, and works in any backline combination.
I don’t think we’ve truly seen how important Rudiger is until we see him in big Champions League games in 2023. In his career, he has played every big game imaginable, is seasoned, and can lock down some of the best attackers in the world. That in itself, is invaluable.
It remains to be seen whether or not he’d start over Militao of Alaba with the season on the line, but that in itself may not matter as much as some — including myself — initially thought. The reasoning comes down to this: It hasn’t mattered much who sits out of Alaba, Militao, or Rudiger, because they (along with Nacho) all provide valuable minutes throughout the season. If Militao and Alaba are playing in a Champions League knockout game, it probably also means they are well rested and at the peak of their powers because Rudiger’s level has, in part, allowed for that to happen.
That depth factor should not be discounted when looking at Militao’s form now. The Brazilian suffered a dip in the second half of the season before rounding out into great form again at the end of the Champions League title run. Militao also, to be fair, played over 4490 minutes — the most of any outfield player on the team in the 2021 - 2022 campaign.
This season, Militao has looked great. That should be, first and foremost, attributed to himself. But you can’t help but look at some intangible factors that have allowed that: Healthy competition in the form of Rudiger which pushes Militao to be his best while allowing him to rest in key moments.
Against Elche, Rudiger, as he nominally is, was heavily involved in the build-up phase, especially with the team holding a higher line than normal. He was an ever-present outlet, in position to receive passes from the attacking players who need a quick lay-off before cutting back into space.
Rudiger has an impressive ability to scan the pitch from deep and play surgical through-balls:
Elche gave Rudiger all the time in the world to play quarter-back — not a great tactic. But even under pressure from deep the German center-back can hit the needed accurate pass to help the team escape their half:
Benzema has to leap to get there (and him dropping deep like that to cushion it to Fede is a great testament to the French striker’s own importance), but make no mistake, Rudiger is one of the best in the business on the ball and is reliable hitting the escape pass.
In my Rudiger article when Real Madrid first signed him this summer, I noted:
‘Rudiger slung 220 passes into the final third this season — the seventh most of any player in the Premier League. His teammates passed him the ball 2197 times. Only three players in the Premier League were the target of more passes. He successfully tackled 65.2% of the dribblers who took him on — the fourth best in the league. What does all this mean? To put it simply: Rudiger is not shy. He is the focal point of his team’s build-up, shows as an outlet constantly, finds solutions, and progresses the ball at an elite level. And, he puts in a mean challenge.’
Rudiger’s step-ups are also brilliant. He has a natural feel of knowing when to step up and when to hedge back. He can either intercept passes, or pounce on a heavy touch at the right time to kickstart a transition attack:
It’s a long season, and Rudiger will be just as important as anyone else in the defensive line. My guess is that he will continually remind us, with more and more exclamation, why he was such an important signing.