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8 Observations on Real Madrid’s epic run on the quest to a double

Kiyan has notes this week on the Benzema - Vinicius Armageddon, tactical wrinkles in the midfield, and more.

Chelsea FC v Real Madrid Quarter Final Leg One - UEFA Champions League Photo by Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/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.

With just over a month and change remaining in the 2021 - 2022 season, Real Madrid have hit their stride in classic Real Madrid fashion — awakening in the spring from their winter hibernation to cut some throats and break some hearts. A win over Sevilla gave them nine fingers on the league trophy. Can they nab the double? Some things from the last few weeks:

Karim Benzema and Vinicius Jr leading the attack

Of all the numbers that caught my eye from the first leg against Chelsea (and there were many, including several milestones and back-to-back Champions League knockout round hat-tricks): the Frenchman had more touches than both Toni Kroos (in about eight less minutes) and Fede Valverde. I highlighted it on the post-game podcast that night: If you exclude his three goals, his performance was still impressive. His leadership and organizational ability to drop deep and help escape high-pressing sequences was sorely missed against Barcelona.

Responding to a Clasico waxing with a huge night in the Champions League is so Real Madrid. There is nothing this club has loved to do more, historically, than to click just in time for the do-or-die European clashes all the while sleep-walking through games domestically (and in this case, still doing enough when it matters to win the damn thing!).

If Real Madrid are going to make an even deeper run, and *gasp*, actually go on to win the Champions League, Benzema and Vinicius will have carried this offense as far it can go — like Tony Stark, on his last ounce of energy, saving earth. What the two collectively are doing this season is remarkable and downright nasty, and that’s even accounting for Vinicius’s dip in scoring in 2022. Benzema and Vinicius lead every major offensive category in the Champions League. Vinicius is currently first in progressive carries (with Lionel Messi, a distant second, long gone from the competition) and first in completed dribbles. He is first in goal-creating actions, tied for first (with Kingsley Coman) in shot-creating actions, and first in key passes. There is a likely scenario the Brazilian finishes first in all categories while Benzema tops the tournament in scoring. The Benzema-Vinicius dyad is by far the best attacking marriage the club has had since Ronaldo-Benzema.

Stamford Bridge magic

I had the privilege of covering only my second Real Madrid away game ever in the first leg of the Champions League, and, it was magical, and somehow eclipsed so many nights I’ve experienced at the Bernabeu.

There is something unique about Stamford Bridge: it houses a big club in a tight-knit, intimate atmosphere, where you’re so on top of the action, it feels like you’re a ball boy on the field or a random waterboy in the dugout. The press zone is straight behind the benches rather than at the top of the stadium where you view the pitch from an aerial perspective. Even with the sheer volume, I could hear almost every word uttered by Thomas Tuchel (where he spent most of the first half yelling at Christensen for getting his defensive angles wrong). Seeing Davide Ancelotti basically run the sidelines up close was an experience in itself.

The other main element that contributed to the magic: The positioning of the away fans. We’ve all seen what it’s like watching Chelsea games over the years on the television. The away fans can take over the stadium because of their placement on the field. While teams like Real Madrid and Barcelona are good at stashing away visiting fans in the top corner of the stadium, Chelsea have them basically on top of the pitch.

Let me tell you: It was mayhem, carnage and chaos from minute 1 - 90. It was like being at a home game. Just the sheer scenes of Benzema running to celebrate in the corner with a bench of delirious Madridistas was incredible. You felt every emotion penetrate your blood.

There were other cool perks about the stadium that I won’t bore you with, but I just wanted to shout out all of the Madridistas who attended that game and made it so special.

Getting excited about future midfield options

Getting more and more glimpses of the Fede Valverde - Eduardo Camavinga pairing has been fun. They don’t, on the surface, have complimentary skillsets — but they’re both so good at similar things it’s like they connect into one human two-way bowling ball that bulldozes opposing midfielders into exhaustion. They’re so athletic. Both move great off the ball. Both carry the ball up the field in unstoppable manner. One side perk: Camavinga even provides aerial help on set-pieces (an achilles heel of the team)!

It is not Camavinga’s most visible attribute or the one you think of right away (nor should it be), but it is a side perk: Camavinga is in the 61st percentile of central midfielders when it comes to aerials won (a stark contrast to Luka Modric and Toni Kroos who are both below the 8th percentile). The Frenchman is an extra pillar in the box the team could use. It’s likely Real Madrid will have to change its playing style once moving on from the Modric - Kroos dyad. Camavinga and Valverde fit a more bully-ball style — but both intelligent and technically gifted enough to make the team tick. Calling them athletic might even be a disservice. They are both so good on the ball and cover so much ground off it.

Camavinga had five interceptions against Getafe recently. That’s not something he’s known for, but just something interesting to monitor as he develops. You can see his comfort and fluidity starting to rise with more playing time in his natural position. His role is more clear now than it was in the fall.

On of my favourite Camavinga traits: His freakish tackling ability, where he snaps his leg out like a king cobra to thieve the ball from opponents who think they’ve long escaped his clutches. This is not a traditional tackle, but a good example of it:

It will be interesting to see how aggressive Real will approach games if the Camavinga - Valverde partnership becomes a regular thing in the coming years. They’re both good line-breakers from midfield. While Kroos hurts teams with incisive through balls, Camavinga and Valverde do it by dribbling the ball forward 15-20 yards on any given sequence. Fede is a master at it. He typically has multiple memorable ball-carrying displays in any given game he plays, and is already top-10 in La Liga in carries into the final third despite not being a regular starter.

I particularly enjoy Valverde’s counter-pressing initiatives that ensures opponents can’t take a breath trying to escape their half. Ancelotti tapping into more of these talented young players has been refreshing.

Dani Carvajal, still fighting

It’s been evident for quite some time: Dani Carvajal is not the player he used to be. He has lost a step defensively, and the offensive surges he had around 2017, where he reliably beat his man and created space for an accurate cross, are but a distant memory. Fans now look at his latest contract extension — one that sees him on the books until 2025 — a slow-moving clock that couldn’t run out soon enough. He was, in part, one of the reasons Real Madrid allowed Achraf Hakimi to slip away. The consolation prize being some money that helped them short term, but probably cost them even greater in the long run.

But you can’t take away Carvajal’s love and dedication to the cause that Real Madrid fights for. Throughout his injuries and decline, the work ethic was relentless. It came to the fore against Chelsea in the second leg at the Bernabeu, where Carvajal, among the leaders left on the field when Real Madrid went down by three goals on the night and one goal on aggregate, who didn’t flinch. His body language remained staunch, unwavering. He helped Ancelotti close out an emotional rollercoaster by playing as a makeshift center-back, in what undoubtedly will be remembered as part of his legacy 10 years from now. ‘Remember that game where Carvajal played center-back?’ My prediction: We’ll remember it the same way we remember Sergio Ramos playing in midfield against Atletico Madrid in the 2015 Champions League. Two distinct circumstances that can’t really be compared — but memories of players playing out of position in a knockout game nonetheless.

Carvajal was far from perfect. In extra time, he gave the ball away with a heavy touch. Thankfully, Camavinga put out the fire. The right-back also had trouble tracking Mason Mount’s runs, and the entire flank had large stretches of confusion dealing with the fluidity of Chelsea’s offense.

But Carvajal also had crucial defensive interventions on Werner, and a particularly important one on Hakim Ziyech in the 100th minute — deep into extra-time and nail-biting territory. While he wasn’t a big presence in the final-third, he was a solution-maker on several build-up sequences where Chelsea pressed him, and his quick thinking and movement unlocked some important press-resistancy:

Carvajal’s drop-off, unfortunately, has been astronomical. He isn’t elite like he used to be, and is bang-on average or below average in so many important categories where modern football demands more from their full-backs: crosses, assists, dribbles , ball-carries, and other offensive metrics. The heart, though? The heart is there, and, it may even be measured in this one stat: Carvajal has 24 blocks in the Champions League this season, which is the most of anyone in the entire competition. He continues to put his body on the line.

Checking in on the loose, confused, and random pressing sequences

Much like the PSG 2nd leg, most of Real Madrid’s good moments vs Chelsea at the Bernabeu came in the final quarter of the game. Everything before that was mediocre and exploitable. That’s reality. Can the team put together enough good stretches against Manchester City? Will one second half blitz be enough now that they’re facing one of the top-two teams in Europe?

It’s the defensive structure that remains vulnerable. As I’ve labelled it all season, the press has been, for months on end, ‘random and confused’. While the team did have a couple successful zonal high pressing sequences early on against Chelsea — in part because Tuchel’s men failed to recognize the easy open switch — they also melted far too easily:

Chelsea were exploiting that virtually all game. Look at the ease with which Antonio Rudiger is allowed to carry the ball past Modric as Marcos Alonso pins Fede Valverde deep and away from the play. Casemiro, the remaining central midfielder who’s still behind the ball, has to step — causing a domino effect that sees Alaba leaves his defensive line. Chelsea moved Real Madrid around as they worked their way into the box.

That’s the danger zone Real Madrid often find themselves in: Neither pressing, nor hedging back to close passing lanes.

Chelsea recognized the imbalance in Real’s shape immediately and worked it for a solid 75 minutes. With Casemiro occupied with the constant fluid movement of Tuchel’s attacking line, and Valverde isolated, they were one pass behind Modric away from offensive clockwork:

Real Madrid had 54 successful pressures in the 2nd leg — nearly 20 less than Chelsea. Being either conservative or aggressive is fine so long as you do one of them properly. Teams can even flip through both to conserve energy and catch opponents off guard. Real Madrid are often neither of those two things behind the ball, which is basically defensive anarchy.

The deeper you go into this tournament, the less margin of error there is. How will this look against Manchester City? Ancelotti’s men did have gears they hit which paralyzed both Chelsea and PSG, but having that sustained energy for 180 minutes is impossible, which has made the contributions of Camavinga, Rodrygo, and Vazquez off the bench so vital. The insertion of Valverde has also been huge. But having energy for longer periods is something that needs to be implemented, somehow.

As Ancelotti alluded after the game, Real had an uptick in energy later in the game because of how the game went prior. “Chelsea put an awful lot of effort into their press and that gave us the edge in extra time because we were fresher than them at that stage,” Ancelotti said. But the tie could’ve easily been over at that point — luckily it wasn’t.

Luka Modric, the leader Real Madrid needed

I can’t post two clips highlighting Modric getting beat defensively without giving him his proper dues. I don’t think its an exaggeration to say Real Madrid would’ve been out of the competition right now had Modric not transcended in a single moment of brilliance which not only swayed the tie back in Real’s favour, but was also the birth of a Modric masterclass in its own right. When the Croatian genius slung the outside of his boot into that diagonal cross to Rodrygo for Real’s first goal, he carried that momentum and had an incredible two-way performance from that point forth.

The improvement in both Modric’s and the team’s play from that moment can’t be understated, and speaks to the power of momentum shifts in football. Things can turn on its head in a single moment, and its the main reason why I always talk about the importance of having star players and freedom over elite tactics and simply ‘good’ players. (Ideally, you have both your tactics and talent down to a science, but generally these Champions League titles are won through superstars putting the team on their backs and fighting through psychological pain and adversity — something even the best of tactics can often fall short of.)

But I’ll take the Modric ‘awakening’ as far back to when it was still 0 - 2. The moment I knew we were in for a wild ride was when Modric stopped a break as the last man back, on a sequence where Casemiro had just made an off-ball run as a pseudo right center-forward:

Modric flipping a switch — and to be clear, I have no scientific proof of any of this — is a combination of a few things: adrenaline, urgency, love for the shirt, pride of oneself, leadership, responsibility, mental fortitude, technical greatness, talent, and fitness. Allow me to highlight one more thing: when you’ve played that much football and you’re on your last legs, staying sharp mentally is even more difficult. You’re thinking less clearly, making poorer decisions. When Modric created Rodrygo’s goal, he chose the most difficult pass on the table; while the most obvious pass (which would’ve been a pretty great option, if you ask my primitive tactical brain) was the through ball down the left half-space to Vinicius Jr. Modric not only saw an option most others wouldn’t, but also had the talent and focus to execute it.

(I think it’s also worth noting more than once: Rodrygo’s run and finish were both perfect. The play from start to finish, including the team counter-press and Alaba interception, was great.)

If there is anyone qualified to hit a through-ball, by the way, it’s Modric. He has the most of anyone in the Champions League this season (6).

Fede Valverde not backing down

Circling back to midfield discussion to highlight a theme: Valverde has rightfully been lauded for his two-play, but he has struggled of late with his defensive positioning. He was one of the dominoes that fell in the defensive breakdown on Timo Werner’s goal at the Bernabeu, and struggled behind the ball vs Sevilla over the weekend at the Sanchez Pizjuan. Tecatito Corona bamboozled him twice in the first half with a couple shoulder drops, and Valverde, well-intentioned, can leave the defense vulnerable with missed gambles:

Some of Real Madrid’s defensive structure can stay in tact if players can avoid those kamikaze missions. Little tweaks can hold the scheme together and prevent the team from having to dig themselves out of a hole and go into remontada mode every game.

In the last 10 years, at the apex of their powers, in 2017, this team could snatch those passes off with high-octane pressing and collective, suffocating pressure. Modric led the way, reading passing lanes like he was Kawhi Leonard — coaxing you into making a pass he knew he was going to expropriate. The team fed off that energy and cohesive synergy.

But while Valverde has struggled with his defensive positioning, he has excelled as a two-way fighter. He is reliable as a warrior, someone you’d go into battle with. He does not back down to anyone:

That’s phenomenal fight from the Uruguayn after Nemanja Gudelj initially takes the ball from him. Fede bounces up and slaps back to kick-start a Real Madrid transition attack.

He may be suited higher up the pitch, in a more simplified role to what we saw him play than in the first half vs Sevilla, where Ancelotti big-brained having him deeper than Modric. Valverde is a good right-winger, if not a traditional one. But if you play him there, you might as well play him there. Valverde was listed on that side on paper, but it was Modric who played the pseudo-winger role, and by that token, no one really tested Marcos Acuña defensively until Rodrygo Goes came in and solved that at half-time.

Playing without Casemiro

I don’t care how you spin it, there is no sure-fire way to play when Casemiro is out of the team unless you change your blueprint. Every scenario has its strengths and pitfalls. Against Sevilla, it was apparent: If Toni Kroos is the anchor, you lose tracking ability, the one-man human barricade in Zone 14, last-second slide tackles in transition, and coverage on both flanks when the wing-backs push.

Eder MIlitao got crucified for his mistake on Erik Lamela’s goal, but watch Kroos off the ball: He fails to both pick up the passing lane or react to where Lamela is — something that Casemiro would’ve read instinctually.

By that same token, Eduardo Camavinga is not a defensive midfielder either, and Ancelotti switched their roles in the first half to stop the bleeding without much success. What finally worked is the only way it can work: Play a higher line, press, and get a hold of the ball so that Kroos can play quarter-back. The German can take the ‘6’ role on one condition: You have to control and counter-press — win the ball high up the pitch to mitigate damage for his lack of tracking. Play through him, let him dictate, and win the ball collectively before teams can even test him.

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