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Eight Observations On Real Madrid’s Transfers, Tactics, And Player Development

Kiyan Sobhani’s column this week also highlights how Real Madrid won their 6th UCL title, Kubo’s latest weapon, Benzema vs Raul, and more.

Real Madrid v Granada - La Liga Photo by Burak Akbulut/Anadolu Agency 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.

Another winter transfer window is in the books, and we’re nearly approaching some epic, season-defining clashes where the seasons gets really interesting

Let’s reflect on some of the things that have happened in the past few weeks, and check in on some of the relevant (and hipster!) talking points.

Gento’s last European title

In 1966, at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels, Paco Gento — one of the ‘big three’ of Real Madrid’s first dynastic reign — had to play a European Cup final for the first time without Alfredo di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas. Gento, 32 at the time, had to dig deep to lead a team made up largely of the famous YéYés. For the most part, the team had never won the big prize before. Gento was the spiritual leader, and still a menace to deal with on the wings.

It had been six years since Real Madrid had last won a title. Di Stefano and Puskas had declined, and the former had already left after a falling out with Miguel Muñoz. This was, on a minor scale, La Decima of its time. The team was starved of European success. They had gotten to the final twice since beating Eintracht Frankfurt 7 - 3 in 1960, but lost both times to Benfica and Inter Milan respectively in ‘62 and ‘64. In the ‘66 final vs Belgrade, they went down a goal in the second half. Things were looking to end in heartbreak again.

But that team had cojones, and led by the experienced Gento, overcame the deficit and won 2 - 1. That cemented Gento’s legacy. It was his first European Cup final win without his two legendary superstars besides him.

That’s my favourite way of putting it. Gento deserves the label of the leader of La Sexta, and with that final European Cup to his name, he became (and remains to this day) the most decorated Champions League footballer of all time.

Gento With The Cup Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The reality is that team was more than just Gento. The great Puskas scored five goals over two games in the semi-finals to get them there. Amancio Amaro — who many in Europe heralded as the next Di Stefano — was an other-worldly line-breaker. Sure, he never became a pantheon-level player, but his sorcery was eye candy. One of the standout things from the ‘66 final, which Matt Wiltse and I broke down recently on a podcast, was how Amancio was performing surgery on multiple defenders at once, in the tightest of nooks in the box while surrounded by defenders. It was Amancio’s goal that kick-started the comeback against Partizan, and it was truly special.

Go ahead and hit play to see it, and while you’re there, stick around for Fernando Serena’s winning goal which is an absolute banger:

That final got me thinking: We really ought to do a podcast ranking all of Real Madrid’s UCL final goals. There are so many special ones in there.

Alvaro Odriozola in the right scheme

I have been highly critical of Odriozola this season. He has not improved defensively at all despite having regular playing time for the first time in four years, and is still easily bullied off the ball. (He is truly bad in this aspect. Some players get bullied; Odriozola gets flicked off in the same manner Thanos would dispose of a knat.)

Fiorentina do a good job of masking Odriozola’s deficiencies. They create a system with proper coverage. Milenkovic slides over and Bonaventura drops to cover. Odriozola plays as a right wing-back miles high up the pitch where he does a good job pressing wingers, and has enough juice in his speed to recover in transition if needed. He does not need to face wingers dead on defensively one-on-one often because of his higher position. But at least a few situations every game, Odriozola is put in unavoidable situations where he has no choice but to defend. It’s always a mess, and it’s easy for anyone to brush past him:

If I’m any team facing Fiorentina, I’m playing that ball over the top constantly. Fiorentina are most vulnerable when you hit a pass over and through the half-space between Odriozola and Milenkovic. Those two still haven’t formed a good understanding with each other, and quite frankly, Milenkovic is an average — at best — defender while Odriozola is even worse.

Odriozola’s saving grace will still be his speed and specialization in carrying the ball up the field, while also being a good passer and tremendous outlet for his teammates. He often comes out of nowhere, in impressive fashion, to provide his team with an escape valve in the final third:

Odriozola has made strides offensively at Fiorentina, but he’s still not as good as he was on that end as he was in his Real Sociedad days. I’m still not high enough on him to bring him back.

Deadline day reflections

Now that the winter transfer deadline has passed, it’s interesting to reflect on the ‘non-signings’. No one was entirely shocked Real Madrid didn’t sign anyone. Usually the scouting reports and tactical fit articles are reserved for the summer in this universe. But there was a surge of rumours on the final days, and the void that Real Madrid seemed most willing to fill was the back-up defensive midfield slot.

That could be for a variety of reasons. Some of the more pressing concerns (back-up right-back, center-back, etc) can be addressed through the pool of free agents this summer or from the loan army. The back-up left-back slot is a concern once Marcelo leaves if Ancelotti doesn’t trust Miguel (don’t forget we still have a buy-back on Sergio Reguilon that can be triggered), but Marcelo leaving (along with Isco and Bale) in itself will be the portal to more salary space which isn’t available yet.

Which brings us full circle to the profile that the club were looking to fill this winter that won’t be as ‘easy’ to fill through free agency: The back-up defensive midfield slot. Carlo Ancelotti doesn’t seem high on any of the current central midfielders as single pivot anchors, and, as always, there is concern facing high-pressing teams in big Champions League knockout rounds where teams will hound Casemiro.

Aurelien Tchouameni would’ve been a great signing. The club had him at the top of the list. And, as a source confirmed to Managing Madrid’s Lucas Navarrete on deadline day, they were looking at Franck Kessie as a potential plan B.

Tchouameni ended up being too expensive, for now — but wait a little and you might be able to squeeze Monaco once the contract starts running down (currently, it expires in 2024). Tchouameni is just 22, and can do just about anything. I’m happy to table this one for now since Casemiro is still just 29, but as a successor who fits with the current evolution of football, the Monaco midfielder is someone to take seriously. His reading of the game is great. He thieves opponent passing lanes, is good in the air, and is a tremendous ball winner. On the ball, he’s sound: press-resistant, good dribbling ability, and a crisp vertical passer. He’s not a bad contributor in adding shot volume from his position either (in the 87th percentile among midfielders).

In that light, Kessie makes little sense as a plan B. The AC Milan midfielder is more suited to a double-pivot role, and is not an upgrade over Eduardo Camavinga or Fede Valverde — nor does his lack of progressive passing compliment either of those two. The club is better off grooming Antonio Blanco if the alternative is Kessie.

Kessie may have just been an attempted bargaining chip for Monaco to lower Tchouameni’s asking price — that’s the only plausible explanation. Otherwise, from a scouting perspective, I don’t see it.

Who should play left-back vs PSG?

The drop-off defensively from Ferland Mendy to (virtually anyone) is going to be dramatic. Having Marcelo defend Lionel Messi or Kylian Mbappe is horrifying. Carlo Ancelotti doesn’t trust Miguel Gutierrez. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that Real Madrid have a really good left-back in David Alaba at their disposal.

“There are two options: Alaba on the left or Nacho on the left,” Ancelotti said before Real Madrid’s Copa del Rey quarter-final clash vs Athletic Club where he was missing both Mendy and Marcelo. “One of the two will play there. I know, but I’m not telling you.

“My assessment of the left back has nothing to do with whether Nico Williams or Berenguer plays. It could be that against Nico, Nacho would be better — but Alaba gives us options in attack.”

Real Madrid v Atletico Madrid - La Liga Santander Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images

The tactical wrinkle we’ve seen this season of Mendy and Alaba forming symbiosis and switching positions mid-game gives me optimism that you could have Nacho and Alaba starting together and letting them switch in and out. The entire team has created a nice flow state and understanding when it comes to switching positions on the fly and covering for each other. Alaba is the more natural fit at left-back, but you could have situations where you start the Austrian as a left center-back, let him kickstart the build-up, before flying down the wing to combine with Vinicius while Nacho drops. Alaba has a wicked cross on him and is reliable in the final-third.

Alaba is a reliable individual defender too. His defensive deficiencies come mainly because he leaves space behind him, and not because he’s a bad defender when sized up. If the coverage is good, you can mask that.

Has Benzema surpassed Raul?

I started having this conversation — mostly with myself, and some with Matt and Om on the podcast — last season. No player has shot up the rankings in my upcoming book over the past few years more than Karim Benzema. Part of the difficulty of writing a book that revolves around ranking the top 100 players in club history during the tail-end of an ageing dynastic team is that you have to go back and re-write so many parts to ensure it’s up to date upon release.

Benzema and Kroos have risen the most since I started to write my book initially three years ago. Benzema’s ascent has thrown my reality into a frenzy.

Real Madrid Training Session Photo by Helios de la Rubia/Real Madrid via Getty Images

Raul was my hero growing up. I lived in a bubble. I was the kind of kid that, if Twitter were around back then, I’d create a Raul fan account, and post Raul propaganda all day, and fight with people who said there’s a better forward on earth.

I lived in denial during his decline after 2003. I couldn’t fathom how a player so good could drop off so badly, seemingly overnight. His performances from 2004 and on are the reason he failed to bolt down his place in Real Madrid’s historical standings. His numbers dissolved, and his goal + assist ratio dispersed and began to look underwhelming for a player of his calibre.

Fast forward, and one of his former teammates, Benzema, actually got better with age, and if we’re looking at raw numbers, it’s not even close: Benzema has .91 goals + assists per 90; while Raul sits at .39. An important caveat: That includes Raul’s stint at the New York Cosmos, and doesn’t include data from 1994 - 1999, where he was great. I imagine if you stack that all up, it gets closer — but still doesn’t cover enough ground.

What we do have in data since the beginning is goal ratio, where Benzema sits at .63; and Raul at .46. Benzema will likely pass Raul in overall goals for Real Madrid soon too.

What seemed an impossible discussion (Raul vs Benzema) a few years ago, now looks like a formality in a way I never expected.

Playing in quicksand

It’s not just low blocks that Real Madrid tend to struggle against — something that gets lost is how sometimes the team can’t find solutions in the build-up phase even against mid-block teams.

Luka Modric and Toni Kroos are obvious wizards who solve so many of those problems: They show between the lines, receive, evade pressure, and keep the ball flowing forward either through a ball-carry or an incisive vertical pass before moving into space again. Sometimes even with them on the field, the team looks like they’re dragging their feet through quicksand bringing the ball out of the back:

This is a zonal press by Athletic Club, designed to coax you into thinking you have a sliver of passing opportunity when in reality the pass is pretty well closed, and even if the ball gets through to one of the central midfielders, Marcelino’s men are in position to snuff out their space.

Alaba, normally so reliable dealing with this stuff, lets his mental guard down. He leaves the wing-back position to come in centrally. That’s well-intentioned, and allows Rodrygo to be the outlet on the wing while the Austrian provides something more vertical. But Rodrygo is in no position to receive a pass, and once Alaba gets it, he fumbles it instead of finding Kroos with the square pass. To be fair to Alaba, almost every single Real Madrid player looked like they were in a coma at San Mames.

Opponents allow Real Madrid 13.71 passes per defensive action. Only Sevilla sling more. I’d like to see what that number looks like if teams pressed Ancelotti’s men more instead of sitting deep. Alcoyano and Elche had recent success with a more daring approach. Perhaps more teams should make that effort? This is a Real Madrid website — hopefully none of them are reading this.

Takefusa Kubo: silky touches and getting things done

Kubo is starting to come alive in Mallorca’s side as a right-winger / offensive funnel. His touches are becoming more efficient, and he likes to drift centrally or kick-start things from the right half-space. His cross is killer. He has always been an elegant silk-weaver — those touches and turns are still pretty and are becoming more conducive to getting the ball into the box. His final ball is improving.

Kubo’s press-resistancy is impressive. His ability to drop his shoulder and escape certain tight situations has always been good. He creates space for himself in and around the box for a shot or a final ball. He’s also reliable in skipping past wing-backs before releasing a perfect cross on someone’s head. Most recently against Cadiz, Kubo’s target was the unmissable behemoth striker (and new signing) Vedat Muriqi who had seven shots and won 13 aerial duels. Kubo had four key passes on just 14 passes. (Absolutely staggering stat: that came off the back of an entire 40 touches!).

One of my new favourite things that Kubo does is a very unorthodox cross, where he cuts in from the right, and puts his laces through the ball — almost in the same manner Cristiano Ronaldo hits his free-kicks — and the ball dips with perfect velocity to the striker:

Kubo is making strides, but he’s nowhere close to the finished product. He still has to work on his decision-making in the final third, and his defense is apathetic. He doesn’t care much to close down crosses on the wing or track back — though his pressing on the wing has been good, and he did have one important challenge as the last man back in transition against Cadiz.

A concept: Players off the bench are helpful!

Sorry, I don’t let sarcasm trickle into my articles much — it’s mostly reserved for Twitter. But I couldn’t help but feel some kind of relief that Fede Valverde, Luka Jovic, and Eden Hazard made a positive impact off the bench against Granada. Dice it up more negatively if you want: Jovic should’ve done better with his four shots; and you still need more production from both overall. But given how little they both play (especially Jovic), and how difficult it can be to establish rhythm when you’re not trusted and barely see the field, it’s hard to be consistent.

Though, I do feel a little for Eduardo Camavinga. Fede Valverde was awesome in the second half off the bench — nothing will be taken away from the Uruguayan. But he also got to play in Camavinga’s best role: A box-to-box brute that can win possession and carry the ball up the field. The French midfielder started as the team’s anchor where he didn’t look comfortable. It wasn’t until he started to get up the field and break lines with his movement in and around the box where he started to make an impact. Then he was taken off for Valverde at half, and Toni Kroos dropped into the quarterback role.

Ancelotti said before the Granada game that that only reason to rotate is if he doesn’t trust his starters. I read that differently. The sub-communication was “I don’t trust most players not in the XI.” Development doesn’t happen overnight. Trust is earned, sure. But grooming players into rhythm is important — otherwise when the time comes for “next man up” in a crucial big game when one of the key starters are injured, that player will have to play without the backing of game-momentum and integration. That, and, um, starters getting burnt out and injured (I think we’ve seen that movie before) is not fun.

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