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Hurting Liverpool’s defensive line, and 8 other tactical observations

In this week’s column, Kiyan looks at next season’s offense, Carvajal’s recent form, Brahim Diaz, and much more.

UEFA Champions League Final 2021/22 Jerseys Shoot Photo by Kristian Skeie - UEFA/UEFA 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.

We’ll have much more extensive Champions League previews coming after the Betis game, in both written and podcast form. For now, enjoy one last serving of my observations column to wrap up the league season:

Some notes on Liverpool’s defense

For seven years now Jurgen Klopp’s counter-press has been baked into Liverpool’s nervous system. Everything is second nature to them — from instinctual positioning and timing of the pounce, to reacting appropriately to defend in transition. Teams try to take away space to deny Klopp’s offense. Some teams do it near perfectly and it doesn’t matter — Liverpool will gladly lose the ball in the final third because it means they can create a better chance through their counter-press anyway.

Earlier in May, Tottenham defended Liverpool about as well as any team can in slow build-up phases. Antonio Conte’s men plugged the space between the lines, and dared Mohammed Salah, Thiago and co to hit forced balls into the box into a heavily marked Sadio Mane. It worked. Liverpool looked lost during those sequences. It still mattered little, because they generated chances by giving the ball away and winning it back like cheetahs on steroids:

That is lightning quick reaction time. Again, second nature. Liverpool are always positioned in a way where the pounce almost comes before the ball is lost. The anticipation is frightening, rabid:

It happens from every direction. How quick can Real Madrid think with the ball at their feet? How good will the outlets be? They struggled positionally to escape their half in all three ties in the knockout rounds.

Yet, they’re in the final. Tottenham, meanwhile, pulled two points off of Liverpool that game despite not being perfect in transition. They still created multiple counter-attacks (and, to be sure, they barely escaped their half for the most part). Tottenham have lethal players to capitalize in transition the same way Real Madrid do. They may not need many opportunities. While Liverpool’s midfielders are good at shielding the backline and covering for the high defensive line, there is always going to be room to exploit behind Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold with the right pass:

Liverpool take gambles because they’re so good at most things the cost-benefit analysis is generally in their favour. But if there ever was a team to knock them off their horse in a one-off game and take advantage of their weaknesses, it’s Carlo Ancelotti’s Real Madrid.

The Dani Carvajal Real Madrid fans remember

This is the version of Dani Carvajal Real Madrid had hoped they’d get when they gambled away Achraf Hakimi for financial reasons — praying they could turn to arguably their greatest ever right-back instead. They haven’t been able to really lean on Carvajal until spring of this season due to the Spaniard’s health and poor form. Since the quarter-finals of the Champions League, Carvajal has looked closer to what Real Madrid remember: a reliable 1v1 defender, a press-resistant wingback with a good first touch, a nasty crosser of the ball, and someone you’d go into war with.

Against Chelsea, I admired his fighting spirit and ability to survive as a center-back to close out the game (even if Eduardo Camavinga had to put out a couple of fires because of his mistakes). Against Manchester City in the second leg, the quality matched the aggression more. Carvajal defended Joao Cancelo well, tracked Gabriel Jesus’s movements in hovering zones, and put pressure on City’s wingers when they brought the ball out of the back. His touches out of pressure were neat and tidy, and he took on a role as an inverted right-back on several sequences to help escape pressure.

In 2016 - 2017, Carvajal’s touches on the ball were effortless and smooth. He would sleep-walk into these delicate take-downs:

His first touch remained a constant throughout the game. It’s a little thing, but that’s something that was failing him earlier in the season.

I especially liked his fight on 50 / 50 duels. He felt a sense of entitlement in winning the ball and playing bully:

Carvajal wasn’t perfect. Even that initial pass after the challenge on Gabriel Jesus puts Eder Militao under pressure. On a couple occasions, he made the wrong pass, and his failed attempts put the team into trouble. He’s still not taking players on offensively the way he used to. But right now these Carvajal performances are good — just baby steps. He still needs to be healthy consistently for these cameos to stack up and send him into an upward spiral.

Checking in on our favourite young midfield dyad

There are few things more fun, more exciting and dream-worthy, than the spiritual intoxication one gets watching Eduardo Camavinga and Fede Valvdere together on the field as they throw bodies around, break lines, and slide-tackle opponents’ souls away. The manner in which they closed the game together and navigated a high-stake period against Manchester City in the second leg without any member of the Casemiro - Luka Modric - Toni Kroos trident on the pitch was impressive and a great sign for the future.

Camavinga has improved his progressive passing in the last few months, and where both he and Fede will lack the consistent vertical passing range that Kroos and Modric have, they progress the ball in other ways: Through pure off-ball movement, good dribbling, and elite ball-carrying. Fede is in the 97th percentile of progressive carries in his position. Camavinga can ignite transition attacks through ball-winning all over the pitch, and is in the 99th percentile in tackles completed while in the 96th percentile in successful pressures.

People must be annoyed with me at this point because I mention it so much: Camavinga’s slide tackle, where he’s several feet behind the ball and snatches it away cleanly, like a king cobra pouncing on some helpless prey, is currently the most aesthetically breathtaking defensive play in the entire sport:

Camavinga and Fede cover so much collective ground on both ends of the field. The latter may lack some progressive passing, but few players can get the ball from point A to point B with the ball at their feet so efficiently:

The best way to to compliment these two moving forward would be to airdrop a playmaking ball-player who is comfortable as a quarter-back. Aurelien Tchouameni would fit that profile nicely. If you somehow get those three, you’re athletic, young, and get the job done on both ends of the field.

Ferland Mendy’s rare escapades into the final third

These runs from Ferland Mendy are too rare. Real Madrid need more of them:

Mendy torched Levante with those runs over and over again, both on the overlap and underlap. On the goal he scored, he was quick to recognize Karim Benzema had dropped deep and that Luka Modric needed an outlet high up the pitch. Mendy didn’t hesitate, sprung into a full on sprint and received the ball on the break.

Those runs work, time and time again. But we don’t see them enough. Part of it is that Carlo Ancelotti wants Mendy to be the stopper on big Champions League nights where he has to face superstar wingers on a regular basis. Also, Levante in this game weren’t going to test him much on the other end.

But there is a strong case that Real Madrid need more of those runs from him on a regular basis, even against big opponents in big games. Vinicius, as great as he’s been, runs out of space regularly on those big Champions League nights, and without an attacking full-back by his side, it’s easier for opponents to send help and snuff out the Brazilian’s space. Mendy’s runs help de-glue those congested areas in the final third.

Mendy doesn’t need to be prime Marcelo. Those runs in a vacuum create space and unlock offensive opportunities. Mendy is still one of the best ball-carrying wingbacks in the world and slings 2.24 shot-creating actions per 90 — well above average for his position. I’d expect those numbers to rise if he can continue making those runs.

The first-leg press — was it really that good?

Real Madrid scored three goals against City in a back-and-forth melee in the first-leg (though, most of the melee took place in front of Thibaut Courtois), and, reflecting on their chance creation that night is interesting.

Much was made of the press being a rare source of offense in the first half as Real Madrid coaxed Ederson (3 / 10 long balls) into several giveaways. That’s true, but revisiting the structure of the press gives more insights, namely: It wasn’t actually that good. Carlo Ancelotti’s men went with a zonal press for large stretches, and those Ederson giveaways were down, in some, to him having an off-night with the ball at his feet — missing open targets and easy holes behind the Real Madrid front line.

City love being pressed the same way Batman loves being in the dark. They invite, dance on the line of safety, and blitz through with numerical superiority. On the flipside, give them comfort on the ball to control the tempo in a slower-paced offense, and they like that too. But you can also make them uncomfortable both in a low block or by taking the game to them with a higher line — Atletico did both to them over the course of two legs and frustrated Guardiola’s men. If your press is as good as Liverpool’s, you can unnerve City to no end.

Maybe having Karim Benzema leading your press gives you extra voodoo energy to win the ball even if your press is disjointed. There were at least three sequences where I saw Benzema single-handedly rush either Ederson or Ruben Dias and jumped out of my seat in anticipation. But let’s not pretend that Ederson, as shaky as he looked in the first half, didn’t grind Real Madrid’s defense into dust at times:

Real Madrid allowed 17.4 passes per defensive action in the first leg compared to City’s 8.1. It’s clear which team was more aggressive. If Ancelotti is going to play a deeper line and allow Liverpool to come out of the back, he can — but those strategic pressing moments have to be better, or, just more strategic — more cohesive.

In the preview podcast before the first leg, Jose Perez and I agreed that Real Madrid can choose to either: 1) go in a deep block (theoretical pros: defensive solidity; theoretical cons: positional inferiority to escape half); or 2) press and take the game to City aggressively (theoretical pros: bully City into mistakes and create opportunities; theoretical cons: get skinned). But we also pointed out that choosing the middle ground is the worst, and that’s what Real Madrid did. Go back and watch that game again and revisit the pain if you don’t believe me.

Dani Ceballos, working his way back into a valuable player

There has been a certain incisiveness and directness to Dani Ceballos’s latest performances. He bounces vertically with simplicity and efficiency. At Arsenal, he was criticized for dabbling on the ball superfluously at times — but now he’s playing with purpose.

I enjoyed the magical touches that drew out the oohs and aahs from the Bernabeu crowd on title-clinching day against Espanyol. But these are the sequences I enjoyed the most, where Ceballos shows a bit of everything within the span of a few seconds:

In the first clip, Ceballos recognizes that Eduardo Camavinga has left the anchor role. The Spaniard tucks centrally, hovers in Zone 14, and pounces on Raul de Tomas’s lax ball before evading rough challenges and getting the ball out wide to Marcelo.

Ceballos has a good read on those passes in general.

His tenacity and ability to pounce is manifested in the second clip too, with a sliding interception as Osasuna try to escape their box. He’s positioned centrally, but as soon as Benzema leaves the central passing lane, Ceballos goes into a full sprint — like a bodyguard throwing himself in front of a gunman — to win the ball and ignite a good attacking opportunity for Benzema to orchestrate.

Ceballos conjured 10 shot-creating actions in his nine cameos before getting injured — an impressive feat given he’d only spotted Ancelotti with 228 minutes until that point. If he stays, I expect his playing time to rise next season provided he can stay healthy.

Brahim Diaz’s continued struggles

Brahim Diaz just hasn’t been the same since returning from COVID back in October. Prior? He was electrifying — an exciting proposition to bring back. Post-COVID, the Spaniard’s influence has waned.

Stefano Pioli has remained undeterred and faithful to Brahim, continually installing him as the team’s #10. Diaz hasn’t been terrible, but it’s not uncommon for games to pass by — leaving you wondering if he was on the field at all.

Diaz has struggled with his decision-making in the final third. His dribbling and touches out of pressure remain fine, but his impact has regressed and his final ball has gone missing. Against Fiorentina earlier in May, Diaz had six attempted passes at half-time at a 66% clip. His through-balls were overcooked.

Yet, Diaz’s talent is impossible to miss. He’s a reliable presser and positions himself between the lines well. Much of Pioli’s scheme has Diaz making runs into the box trying to get on the ends of impossible crosses — the types of balls reserved for freaks like Zlatan to reach with a flying scorpion kick in traffic.

Diaz looks like he could use some rest. Hit the reset button and come back next season stronger.

Jesus Vallejo, resuscitated

Jesus Vallejo is already 25. It wasn’t long ago where we looked at him as a 21 year old who looked mature beyond his years — the type of player that could lead the defensive line and be a leader one day. (Who could forget him giving a pep talk to Cristiano Ronaldo at half-time in 2017?)

Almost every game since leaving Eintracht Frankfurt has been disastrous for the Spanish defender — so it was nice seeing Vallejo, by all accounts one of the most humble players around, come back to life in his return against Espanyol.

Vallejo had four important interventions, and worked hard to get into position to intercept cut-backs:

That’s good tracking. Vallejo did a solid job defending crosses and getting to the ball before his marker did — a nice sight given that’s been one of his weaknesses historically. (Bonus! Ceballos doing Ceballos things to escape the backline after Vallejo initially wins the ball.)

I’m not sure Vallejo has it in him to be a long-term Real Madrid player unless it’s as a fourth-choice center-back, but here’s to hoping he can use these games as a launchpad to reignite his career and be an important player somewhere. He’s been impressive as a center-back to close out the season.

The Lunin revenge tour

Cannot emphasize enough how Real Madrid winning the league as early as they did changed the immediate fate of several fringe players. Had the team still have been playing for something, prospective buyers wouldn’t have been able to see the value of players like Jesus Vallejo and Andriy Lunin.

Lunin, facing his former Real Valladolid manager Sergio Gonzalez, was vindicated against Cadiz on Sunday night as he made five saves — three of them point blank, including a penalty.

One important point: It wasn’t necessarily Sergio’s fault that Lunin wasn’t playing. At that time, he had one of the better goalkeepers in the league in Jordi Masip. These loan deals need to be better planned by all parties — and Real Madrid need to garner some of the responsibility for sending Lunin to a team where he’s a luxury.

Lunin performing at a high level now is a good showcase for La Liga teams to take him on next season. Staying as Thibaut Courtois’s backup is a development-stalling decision. Maybe Real Madrid want to keep him on the books just in case, but certainly they need to find him a home at the top level, at a team that enables him playing time so that we can be treated to his saves on a weekly basis.

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