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 last big column of December. This one reviews some World Cup talking points (that I haven’t written about yet), as well as some thoughts on the Endrick signing and who the ‘other striker’ will be in two years:
The wild Eduardo Camavinga at left-back experiment (part one)
At first we could only help but nervously laugh off the idea when it was reported from journalists in the French camp that Didier Deschamps was experimenting with Eduardo Camavinga at left-back.
Camavinga is a box-to-box force. He tracks, has an unrivalled slide tackle, moves well between the lines, carries the ball reliably, and dribbles out of pressure. He does not have some of the tools that wing-backs in modern football require, like devastating overloads and the ability to play 1-2s in the final third to put a cross in. And though he has some of the necessary pre-requisites, deploying him there limits his impact and relieves the opposing team of facing the damage that can be done in midfield.
But Lucas Hernandez got injured minutes into France’s opening game, and the only other natural left-back — Theo Hernandez — wasn’t to be risked in France’s last group stage game vs Tunisia after they had already secured qualification. Deschamps also didn’t want to put a makeshift center-back or right-back there — opting to rest as many starters as humanly possible. That left Camavinga, and a cluster of other out-of-position misfits, to choose from. Camavinga ‘won’ — martyred for his versatility in training — and started as the team’s left-back.
So we went into the France - Tunisia game to witness what we hoped was a one-time occurrence — a small blip in the universe’s grand timeline — that we’d barely have to talk about.
I opened my notebook and didn’t close it once — unexpectedly jotting down Camavinga’s eventful performance minute-by-minute. And it wasn’t just me being superfluous with my analysis, it was that Camavinga had the most eventful performance of any player on the field. He had the most touches, the most tests, and by the end of it, came away with the most duels won (18) by any France player in a single game in World Cup history.
Some of his best moments, expectedly, came from more central positions where he snuffed out transition attacks:
Camavinga also hedged centrally in the build-up phase acting as an inverted left-back where he provided vertical outlets for Jordan Veretout who’d drop behind him.
It was a bizarre performance, and it almost goes without saying that this is not a segment to get carried away with Camavinga’s left-back cameo. He struggled with his positioning. There was clear confusion — especially in the first half — and if it wasn’t for Konate’s coverage, he would’ve been exposed more.
But as the game wore on, he started to embrace the role, cleaned up his passing, and had a four-minute stretch where he had four crucial clearances in the first half. He could’ve hung his head and felt bad about his situation of only playing at left-back (while relying on players like Guendouzi on the wing to help him defensively), but Camavinga put in a hard-working shift and came away with some record-breaking numbers.
The Camavinga at left-back experiment, (part two)
Camavinga is one of the greatest assets to bring in off the bench in a do-or-die game in world football. His ball-carrying and silky dribbling unlocks tired defenses and leg-heavy midfielders. Bringing him in off the bench in the World Cup final when your team needs a jolt seems like a no-brainer.
But given that France were having problems in midfield in both the Argentina and England games, you’d assume that’s where Camavinga would make his impact off the bench. But Didier Deschamps only made one sub against England (Kinglsey Coman for Ousmane Dembele in the 79th minute), and then he put on Camavinga at left-back against Argentina in the final.
Camavinga rose the call again, despite out of position, and did some great 1 v 1 defensive work on Lionel Messi:
His ball progression on the left, and even in central channels — in the David Alaba LCB zone — were encouraging. Again, is it his best role? No. He did have two big gaffs amid his good showing: 1) Leaving Lautaro Martinez free in the box in extra-time; 2) Keeping Lautaro onside for a breakaway shortly after. But Camavinga put his heart out on the pitch and continued proving what an asset he is in big games off the bench. The best football of his career has come in such moments.
“When he enters a broken game, his energy helps a lot,” Carlo Ancelotti said after Camavinga came in off the bench to help Real Madrid beat Espanyol at the beginning of the season. “We won the game because of that energy”,
In his cameo off the bench in the final, Camavinga also had two key passes, which was the most of any French player.
Eder Militao’s right-back cameos
Brazil was too fun this World Cup. They have about three hundred world class attackers who are impossible to defend, their flanks are devastating, Neymar was playing like the transcendant star he is, and the team was getting contributions from everyone — not least Casemiro who was one of the best midfielders in the tournament. (Seriously, Casemiro was so impressive winning balls everywhere, and his long-range distribution was lights out.)
When Brazil got the ball in the final third, magic happened, dancing ensued, the crowd went wild, and Twitter blew up. Getting lost in the party: Brazil’s defense. The backline, shielded by Casemiro, allowed just 1.4xg until the Croatia game (second-best only to Argentina’s 1.3 at that time), and if things broke down, Alisson Becker was a reliable shot-stopper.
Where did Real Madrid’s Eder Militao fit into all this? Tite opted to go with a preferred center-back partnership of Thiago Silva and Marquinhos with Militao on the bench in many of Brazil’s qualifiers, as well as the first game of the tournament against Serbia. Then Tite slotted Militao in as the team’s starting right-back while deploying either Danilo or Alex Sandro at left-back in ensuing games.
Militao did well to win his individual battles while blocking crosses:
Militao will never been an attacking menace from that position, but in Brazil, he didn’t need to be a threat constantly making overloads and beating players before getting a cross in — Tite has elite wingers for that. (At Real Madrid, it might be a different story.)
But Militao was reliable hitting long diagonals, and his role in this particular scheme works. Most of Brazil’s opponents will sit back without pressing them. For the most part, Militao can live on the defensive line stopping wingers and hitting balls over the top as needed.
Spain’s World Cup issues
When Spain lose the way they did (and do), the same debate resurfaces: Is heavy possession-based football really conducive to winning the biggest tournaments in the world? Do these ‘small teams’ have no shame playing defensive football and winning ‘ugly’?
Spain have to look at themselves in the mirror more. It has been proven time and time again that teams that rely on only one blueprint come up short. The most successful teams are the most tactically malleable. Morocco were criticized by some of the Spanish camp after the game for their decision to stay compact and counter. “Morocco offered absolutely nothing,” Rodri said after the game. “In the game, they did nothing. They just waited for the counters.”
I have a hot take: Morocco tried to score more than Spain did. They tried to break with fast transitions, and even edged Spain in the xG department. Spain defended by keeping the ball. Both teams played a variation of a defensive scheme. Spain had little-to-no verticality and couldn’t bind the midfield to the attack. Put Brazil against this Morocco team and they’re breaking lines without circulating possession around the half-way line.
Morocco should be praised, not demonized. They were intelligent, compact. From a tactical perspective, they isolated Spain’s attackers by man-marking Sergio Busquets out of the game:
That clip is cut long and boring intentionally — it’s a sign that Morocco had a plan and Spain looked lost trying to progress the ball. En Nesyri does a great job cutting the passing lane to Busquets, and Morocco make it a point to have multiple shirts around Busi to either prevent him from getting the ball, or make sure he does little with it. Busquets has long been the funnel of his team — stemming back to the Pep Guardiola days.
With Busquets taken out, Spain lacked verticality and relied too much on Pedri coming up with a magic pass from a difficult position. Spain need to find solutions to these situations. This was 2018 all over again.
Tchouameni’s quietly-good tournament
Not sure anyone has talked about it in the media, but Aurelien Tchouameni was one of the best defensive midfielders in the World Cup.
His coverage on both flanks behind his full-backs was great:
France lost both N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba before the World Cup. Their defense held up for a few reasons: 1) Tchouameni is one of the best defensive midfielders in the world; 2) Adrien Rabiot raised his game; and 3) Antoine Griezmann’s defensive work rate and intelligence is underrated.
France were able to supplement their elite attack with a stable midfield that controlled the game on both ends. Tchouameni was the chief organizer from the anchor role. Above you can see how well he tracks the runner behind Jules Kounde and wins the ball. Below you can see how strong his defensive presence is at the base of the midfield:
Tchouameni works in Didier Deschamps’s scheme seamlessly on both sides of the ball. He fits modern football like a glove with his ability to join the attacking third. He doesn’t need to make marauding runs into the box with France who already have a good presence in the final third, but offers verticality from deeper positions — always looking progressively if he can with a pass between the lines or a ball over the top to one of the forwards in dangerous positions in the box:
It was reassuring to see Tchouameni hold it down so well without his two veteran mainstays — Kante, Pogba — alongside him. He led the World Cup in interceptions (14).
Fede’s Uruguay figured it out too late
It took two whole games to put them on the brink of elimination from the world’s biggest stage for Uruguay to finally realize their strengths are in midfield, and not in long-ball prayers from Diego Godin to Darwin Nuñez — the most predictable and stoppable offensive scheme in the tournament.
Valverde, who was merely a hard-working defender who occasionally got on the ball in the first two games, got on the ball more in their final group stage game against Ghana in a match where he had the most touches of anyone on the team. He was also Uruguay’s most important ball progressor by some distance.
Valverde is one of the best ball-carriers in the world. Uruguay ignored his driving ability in the first two games, but finally started to get him bringing the ball forward against Ghana. It was about time. Even subtle bits of ball progression like this were missing from their game as they resorted to passes between their center-backs and long balls from the defensive line to the forwards:
Uruguay need an overhaul in tactics and personnel. Fede should be the face of the change.
The Endrick wait (and dominoes)
I don’t see the Endrick signing as a huge gamble. Now that we know the correct figures (35m plus 25m in bonuses), the signing seems more than in line with the current market. Endrick’s price may quadruple in four years. He is (extremely) promising. He’s a risk, like any other signing, but it’s calculated and has high payout potential.
Endrick is throwing around grown men in Brazil as a 16-year-old. His team looks to him for offense. He’s versatile, can bulldoze opponents and dribble down the flanks, is a physical specimen for his age, and has an instinctual goalscoring ability. There will be pressure on him, but I think it’s reasonable to expect he’ll come good.
But fans should be reasonable with their expectations when it comes to his timeline. He probably won’t be that guy right away. He’ll need patience and tolerance for the growing pains he’ll endure.
I am equally interested to see who the other striker will be in two years. I don’t think we’ll see the club roll out with just Endrick in 2024. I’m eyeing three players in the current squad in particular:
- Karim Benzema: How will he age in two years? It’s reasonable to expect him to still be really good. If Edin Dzeko and Zlatan Ibrahimovic can play at such a respectable clip until their mid-to-late 30s, why can’t Benzema? He could still be the other striker.
- Rodrygo Goes: How will his game as the false 9 develop?
- Iker Bravo: People often forget about him. The club hopes he can develop into a rotational striker at the senior level.
The trajectory of those three will be fascinating.
France missing Benzema
So much has already been speculated and reported about the political side of Benzema’s banishment from the French National Team. I won’t touch on that here, but I did want to discuss what Benzema’s absence meant to the team in pure footballing terms, without getting into the off-field reasons France decided to part ways with him.
Benzema’s tactical fit with France has always been interesting because he’s great at certain things — link-up, finishing, front-line organization — that two other players in the starting line-up — Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappe — can already do. The Benzema - Mbappe synergy on the left works fine; but meshing in Griezmann can be tricky. If you put Grizzy on the right, his influence wanes, and France lose a cutter and line-breaker like Ousmane Dembele.
That was mediated unintentionally when Paul Pogba got injured before the World Cup. Pogba’s injury caused Deschamps to re-invent Griezmann as a central-midfield playmaker. Griezmann shone, and, along with Lionel Messi, led the World Cup in key passes. He also worked hard defensively. Griezmann’s new role probably would’ve allowed a more seamless tactical integration for Benzema. Had Pogba not gotten injured, the tune could have been different.
But where France really missed Benzema was in the last two games — against Morocco and Argentina — when the team completely shifted its scheme from controlling possession and getting balls to Giroud in the box to sitting back and playing a transition game.
Giroud had a fantastic World Cup, but it was up until a certain point where the game suited him. His link-up play doesn’t hold up:
France have depth. They’re high flying. They came as close to winning the World Cup as you possibly could. Injuries eventually took a toll on them, regardless of how deep they were. Benzema could’ve tipped the scale, and what a sight it would’ve been to see him lift the international crown. Alas, it’s been a sad international career.