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8 Observations, including the good and bad of Kubo, the problem with the new Bernabeu, and media frenzies

Kiyan Sobhani magnifies the pros and cons of one of Real’s most promising loanees, the upcoming clashes vs PSG and Barca, and more.

Real Madrid Present Tenders For New Bernabeu Stadium Illustration provided by Real Madrid 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.

Let’s start March with a bang. There are two big clashes coming up this month, and a lot on my mind:

What Kubo is and isn’t good at

Takefusa Kubo is now 16 games deep into this season. He’s started 12 games — scoring one goal in the process. He ranks 10th in La Liga in shot creating actions per 90 minutes (3.91), and is the most important ball-carrier into the final-third on this Mallorca team. He absolutely torched Valencia this past weekend. Matt Wiltse and I both agreed on last night’s loan-tracker podcast: It reminded us of a Martin Odegaard Real Sociedad performance. 5 key passes, 5 shots, 5 completed dribbles and some absolutely ridiculous hair-splitting dagger through-balls.

But Kubo will have his challenges making it to the elite level under any tactician who values balance and reliable tracking on the wings. His current vice: He’s lackadaisical on defense, and cares little about what happens on that end. Think Marco Asensio, but with worse shooting and better dribbling. He’s silky with the ball at his feet, but at this stage of his career, not a reliable goalscorer and he’ll leave you vulnerable on the defensive end. That’s not going to fly at the best teams in the world.

Against Real Betis in February, Kubo was yanked at half-time by Mallorca head coach Luis Garcia. The Japanese international missed multiple defensive assignments, and let Alex Moreno, Juanmi, and Nabil Fekir rain fire on Mallorca’s right flank. Kubo continually let runners past him with ease:

Kubo — taken off for Lee Kang-in at the interval — also let Alex Moreno slip behind him for Betis’s opening goal:

As Matt and I both noted on a loan-tracker in February, Kubo was excellent on the ball in that same game. Betis swarmed him on the flank and he eeled his way out of it — finding slivers of space to escape and feed his teammates. His turns were audacious and full of good, calculated risks. He didn’t dabble when it wasn’t needed, and would try to hit Mallorca’s new behemoth center forward, Vedat Muriqi, with a quick cross to catch Betis off guard in the box.

But there are going to be games where the cost-benefit analysis doesn’t add up on a tactical level. Unai Emery benched Kubo at Villarreal (for much longer periods, given his philosophies and the demands of his own team) for the same reasons Luis Garcia did against Betis.

Where Kubo does thrive defensively is with his pressing. He’s better behind the ball than ahead of it. He’ll put pressure on opposing wing-backs at a reliable clip, and reads the game well (87th percentile in interceptions among all players in his position). But to make full use of that, you’d need to be a possession and pressing team, which Mallorca aren’t, and Getafe certainly weren’t last season.

Some would argue ‘why do these teams take these players on if there’s not a fit?’. It’s a valid question (for the Villarreal and Getafe stints), but with young players, it’s often forgotten: Not everything is known about these players. We’re learning a lot about Kubo during these loan stints: stuff that wasn’t apparent from beautiful highlight reels from the Japanese national team.

Victor Chust, in a new, interesting tactical blueprint

When Alvaro Cervera was in charge of Cadiz, they boasted (and still do, to be sure) the second lowest xG in La Liga. Only Elche have less shots in the league, and Cadiz still have the least amount of passes into the final third of any team.

New coach Sergio Gonzalez has shaken things up, and that means a different role for Real Madrid loanee Victor Chust. Cadiz have shifted from a deep block to a mid-block in a 3-5-2. Chust has gone from left center back in a 4-4-2 to the left elbow back role where he gets more touches on the ball.

That’s exciting for people like me who watch Cadiz play regularly, something that is, um, not something I recommend people do in their spare time. Part of the problem with covering Chust was that there wasn’t much to analyze. He barely got the ball, and the only thing to look at was how he dealt with crosses (and that wasn’t good, given he is a liability in doing that specific thing). Now we at least see him more relevant to our television screens.

Against Getafe in February, Chust had 83 touches — the second most of anyone on the field. He completed 92.2% of his 77 passes — both also game highs. For context, Chust averages 35.6 passes attempts per 90 on the season, and just 46.8 touches.

Victor Chust’s heat map vs Getafe, per WhoScored.

The way Cadiz held the ball vs Getafe isn’t sustainable every game. Getafe are one of the handful of teams who care little about having the ball (and in turn, care more about going into a defensive shell). But I’m interested to see what this looks like for Chust moving forward.

Borja Mayoral is on the radar again

In one month at Getafe, Mayoral has already played as many games as he did all season in Serie A with Roma (5). He scored three goals in his first five games — a nice uptick from the big fat zero under Jose Mourinho in Italy. It’s nice to see Mayoral playing again.

The concern for Mayoral, as hinted in the above section, is that Getafe don’t like having much of the ball. That means all the link-up play that Mayoral loves doing — and did so well in Roma under Paulo Fonseca last season — will be less on the menu. Mayoral’s diet will shift from pulling strings and being involved in possession to having less touches on the ball and getting ready to pounce in transition. How efficient will he be with less touches? The numbers so far are good, but his goal against Cadiz came through an early penalty, and he was a ghost otherwise. On the few times he got on the ball, he overthought the play, and heavy or clumsy touches killed the attack. Players like Mayoral can’t stay away from the ball for too long — they get cold.

Still, early signs with Getafe are largely good. Mayoral’s non-penalty goal conversion per 90 is .56. That puts him in the 89th percentile of strikers, ahead of players like Alexander Isak (currently struggling), Jonathan David (who is obviously better while playing more), and Jamie Vardy. Mayoral is also a good passer, dribbler, and presser. He fits the modern game well, and should have a nice career in football somewhere.

Scouting Barcelona ahead of the upcoming Clasico

Xavi and Barcelona have been making noise in the past month or so. The new signings have slid in comfortably, the tactics and morale have improved, and they are feeling themselves again. What could that mean for the March Clasico?

They’ve almost gotten their press down to a science. They unnerved Napoli to no end, and obliterated the best defense in Serie A to ashes. They defended higher up the pitch — the stuff that Barcelona fans harp about from their glory days. What does that mean moving forward? For one, it’s still too early. This could go way north or way south. Napoli were stifled in their build-up, but were also making terrible decisions on the ball even when Barcelona weren’t pressing in sync. Napoli ignored open triangle passes and dribbled into the wrong spaces. Credit to Barcelona for that psychological assault, but a better team, let’s say Manchester City, would carve those weak spots.

But Barcelona won’t be facing Manchester City anytime soon, and it should be noted that Real Madrid struggled against Barca’s press earlier in December in the Spanish Super Cup (though there were a few decent sequences). Barca now sit at 6.83 PPDA (passes per defensive action), marking them the most aggressive pressing team in Spain (that number puts them ahead of even teams like Liverpool and Manchester City). Ancelotti has to anticipate it, plan for it, and do better than last game (and virtually every game Real Madrid have been eliminated in the Champions League in since 2019).

For more discussion on Xavi’s work until now, catch this segment from Diego Lorijn and I on the Churros y Tácticas Podcast:

The lack of nuance in our dialogue

This is always on my mind, and I have to get it out of my system at least annually: We need to include more nuance in our dialogue about everything. I cover football, so we’ll focus on that — but it applies to everything in life.

We have little to no truths in football, and not enough people accept that. People talk in extremes, with too much certainty. Relax. Take in the data, take in the ever-evolving aspect of the game. Analyze what you see but be ready for your analysis to change over time. What’s true this week may not be true next week. Things change. Be open to that. We have to look at things over large samples of data over long periods to even begin to understand something. There is no need to talk in extremes about anything.

The new Bernabeu will be spectacular, but hopefully not quiet

There are plenty of new stadiums in the world. I was at the Wanda Metropolitano not long after it opened for a Madrid Derby, and it was spectacular. But even that, as beautiful as it was, will be primitive compared to what the new Bernabeu will be: A state-of-the-art spaceship, city hub, and money-making machine. The new Bernabeu is going to be amazing and revolutionary.

It will come at a price: A potentially subdued atmosphere. Ticket prices increase every year (new stadium or not). There will be less general seating capacity and more VIP seats where rich people can wine and dine in comfort as they quietly take in a game. There will be less die-hard fans who can afford to go to games, more passive tourists coming through, and suit-and-tie folk who can now really show off their tickets and views.

I have been going to the Bernabeu every month for about five years straight now (bar a good chunk of time after the March 2020 Clasico where the entire earth shut down because of a global pandemic) and have noticed the drop-off in atmosphere first hand. Now, the best atmosphere is the one outside the stadium (which even now has subdued, but probably only due to the pandemic). Two hours before the game, pre-pandemic, it would be common to see the side streets off of Avenida de Concha Espina packed with flares and flags and people jumping and chanting. You could barely move — as if passing through a nightclub on a Saturday night at 1am — on Paseo de la Castellana on game day. That’s not as common anymore unless it’s a big game (though, even that March 2020 Clasico wasn’t as crazy as it normally is).

Go back and watch highlights at the Bernabeu from the 90s, 80s, etc. Heck, check out the absolute chaos and mayhem a goal from Gento in the 60s caused. It’s unbelievable to revisit. It looks nothing like that now unless you’re watching a massive game. Part of that, of course, will have to do with the Ultra Sur being banned. But they were rightfully kicked out, and to be clear, I’d rather have a quiet stadium than a dangerous one. But this has less to do with the Ultras than you think. Some of those people who make the most noise outside the stadium (and do it in a safe way) — they can’t attend games inside, and will have a more difficult time doing so with each passing year. The club has to consider that moving forward.

To be clear, though, this is a double-edged sword. The club absolutely has to look at maximizing its profit margins as much as possible. There is always a call for the club to splash money on the best players in the world. Well.... That’s the counter-argument right there.

You can’t “try” to press!

After Real Madrid’s 0 - 1 win away to Rayo Vallecano, Carlo Ancelotti said in the post-match presser: “I have seen a team with energy, trying to press up high.” I’m not sure what that means, and would like to explore it more.

Real Madrid barely pressed vs Rayo. They did it on less than a handful of occasions, and this is what it looked like:

Real Madrid’s PPDA sits at 10.77, which marks them as the 14th most aggressive pressing team in Spain. Only Granada, Alaves, Elche, Espanyol, and Cadiz press less. Flipping the press on and off sporadically, without any seemingly collective decision to do so (in the above clip, some players decide to press, and others don’t?) is nearly impossible when there’s no synergy or identity built around it. “Trying” is not a good idea. As one famous little green dude would say: “Do or do not. There is no try.

Many are expecting Ancelotti to use the next week or so in the build-up to the PSG 2nd leg to implement a pressing scheme. I don’t see it. At best, Ancelotti will probably hold a higher block (think the second half blueprint vs Villarreal at Ceramica) while still trying to stay compact. The main purpose in that scenario wouldn’t be to win the ball prolifically high up the pitch, but rather to get the team in a better position to escape their half. Real Madrid were too deep — too suffocated — to counter and take advantage of the space behind (the human freak) Achraf Hakimi. They have to find ways out of that, and it likely can’t be done through a deep block.

Media hysteria, transfer craze, and clickbait

As a journalist, I have to accept how the game works: People care less about my tactical articles and more about drama, transfer rumours, and gossip. We have proof of this in the Managing Madrid stats — just as every publication knows the same universal truth. I can complain and push back, or get on my surfboard and ride the wave. I choose to ride the wave and accept, while being ok that I can get 10% of the niche market who care about nerdy tactical wrinkles and actual football analysis (because that 10% is still a huge number of people).

I have seen many people criticize clickbait headlines while demanding more football analysis — but it doesn’t add up with what the demand actually is. If you want more X’s and O’s and non-sensationalized, uncorrupted discussion, then vote for it with you clicks. Support creators and quality journalism. Comment on tactical articles and well-thought out, long-form pieces. But again, fighting this war is futile. 90% of Managing Madrid traffic and revenue (and in turn, how we feed our family) is generated through the stuff that people say they don’t want.

That’s partly why we have to play with headline bait. If one of our writers writes something brilliant, we have to make sure people read it, otherwise it’s a tremendous waste of energy. Those articles take an incredible amount of time — something you may not realize until you actually do it. Think about going through film and clipping it, forming visuals and making data fun — as well as the story-telling aspect which is a mental exercise in itself. If the headline doesn’t draw people in, it’s a failure.

My heart goes out to young and / or aspiring sports journalists who are trying to ‘make it’ in this space while doing it in a meaningful way, grounded in providing value to consumers rather than forming an identity forged around aggregating transfer news solely — especially in an ever-volatile industry. My advice to you would be simple: Don’t be discouraged. While it’s difficult to break through, there’s also more opportunities now — more than ever, literally in the history of mankind! — to be a meaningful creator. Plenty of people are succeeding thanks to platforms like Patreon, Substack, and YouTub. You don’t need to work for ESPN, The Athletic, and The Guardian anymore. In fact, I know many who don’t, and are more successful in building a brand and revenue stream than those who work for those places.

Find your tribe. As Kevin Kelley wrote in 2008, in what is now one of the most famous blog posts of all time: “To be a successful creator you don’t need millions. You don’t need millions of dollars or millions of customers, millions of clients or millions of fans. To make a living as a craftsperson, photographer, musician, designer, author, animator, app maker, entrepreneur, or inventor you need only thousands of true fans.

“A true fan is defined as a fan that will buy anything you produce. These diehard fans will drive 200 miles to see you sing; they will buy the hardback and paperback and audible versions of your book; they will purchase your next figurine sight unseen; they will pay for the “best-of” DVD version of your free youtube channel; they will come to your chef’s table once a month. If you have roughly a thousand of true fans like this (also known as super fans), you can make a living — if you are content to make a living but not a fortune.”

100, 000 passive fans on your social media will never be as valuable as 1000 true fans who will travel to the ends of the earth with you.

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