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 first observations column of the month, where I touched on a range of Real Madrid topics before the team heads out to the United States.
The legacy of Gareth Bale
Gareth Bale’s Real Madrid CV: Five Champions League titles, four FIFA World Club Cup titles, three European Super Cup titles, three La Liga titles, one Copa del Rey title, three Spanish Super Cup titles, first in La Liga in assists per 90 (2015 - 2016), third in La Liga in goals per 90 (2017 - 2018), fourth in La Liga in assists twice (2013 - 2014, 2015 - 2016), second in La Liga in goals + assists per 90 (2015 - 2016), second in all big-five European Leagues in non-penalty goals + assists per 90 (2015 - 2016), top-four in La Liga in shot generation per 90 four times (2015 - 2016, 2016 - 2017, 2017 - 2018, 2018 - 2019).
In May of 2013, just one week before Florentino Perez publicly declared “Gareth Bale was born to play for Real Madrid”, then sporting director Zinedine Zidane said that he turned on Tottenham’s game for the sole reason that Gareth Bale was playing. “Aside from Ronaldo and Messi, who are the top players, I must admit that he is the footballer who impressed me most,” Zidane said of the Welshman.
Watching Bale play in England was must-watch TV. He had the same affect Vince Carter did at the turn of the century, where League Pass revolved around Toronto Raptors games and opposing arenas would sell out everywhere Toronto played. Bale was that special. A freak; an athletic phenom and goalscoring assassin.
Needless to say, the words of Perez and Zidane stirred imaginations. What if you had a left-footed version of Cristiano Ronaldo on the opposite side? How do you defend two Greek Gods cutting in, swapping positions, and towering into the box as a double-headed behemoth with supreme aerial ability?
The era did not disappoint, regardless of where you stand on the Gareth Bale spectrum. Could it have given us more? Sure. But think of how much collective greatness arose from those two. When I think of the Bale - Ronaldo partnership, I will immediately think of them putting Bayern Munch in a blender in Munich in 2014 and eviscerating Atletico Madrid at the Calderon in 2016. Letting Bale carry the ball in transition to feed Ronaldo was a pure cheat code. It borderline should’ve been illegal.
The legacy of Isco
Isco’s Real Madrid CV: Five Champions League titles, four Fifa Club World Cup titles, three La Liga titles, three UEFA Super Cup titles, one Copa del Rey title, three Spanish Super Cup titles, UEFA Champions League Team of the Season (2016 - 2017), first in La Liga in goals per shot (2016 - 2017), fourth in La Liga in passes into the penalty area (2017 - 2018), fourth in La Liga in shot-creating actions per 90 (2017 - 2018), fifth in La Liga in progressive carrying distance (2017 - 2018), second in La Liga in progressive carries (2017 - 2018), fourth in La Liga in xA per 90 (2017 - 2018), second in La Liga in assists per 90 (2016 - 2017), fifth in La Liga in non-penalty goals + assists per 90 (2016 - 2017), second in La Liga in through balls (2017 - 2018).
His two-year peak from 2016 - 2018 was incredible. Beyond all the numbers, what I may miss the most is his bounce and artistry:
For all the flack Isco would receive for being ‘slow’, ‘redundant’ — he was one of the best ball-progressors in the world and was a highly vertical player at the apex of his powers. The above clip is from this season. I never bought into any of the Isco myths that stuck with him his entire career. He made football looked beautiful but always worked hard off the ball and tried to advance it when the team had possession. He never shied from the moment, and all in all, had a successful Real Madrid career.
I’ll track Isco wherever he ends up, and think he can provide valuable minutes for a good team to close his career.
The legacy of Marcelo
Marcelo’s Real Madrid CV: Five Champions League titles, four FIFA Club World Cup titles, six La Liga titles, three UEFA Super Cup titles, two Copa del Rey titles, five Spanish Super Cup titles, France Football Team of the decade (2010 - 2019), four L’Équipe Team of the Season appearances (2011, 2016, 2017, 2018), three UEFA Team of the Year appearances (2011, 2017, 2018), six FIFA FIFPro World XI appearances (2012, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019), La Liga team of the season (2015 - 2016), fourth in La Liga in goals per shot on target (2010 - 2011), third in La Liga in progressive carries (2017 - 2018), second in La Liga in passes into the penalty area (2017 - 2018), third in La Liga in assists twice (2009 - 2019, 2016 - 2017).
Marcelo is one of the greatest left-backs of all time, full stop. But I will miss Marcelo the human as much as I’ll miss Marcelo the player. I’ll miss him beating his chest in a Clasico. I’ll miss his battle cry where he asks the Bernabeu to rise to their feet in a pivotal Champions League knock-out game. And to be clear, he probably didn’t need to ask — they’d do it for him anyway because of his greatness, leadership, and aesthetically-breathtaking football.
I’ll miss his connection with Cristiano on the left wing at both of their peaks, and will cherish forever how much he rose the call against Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Juventus, and pretty well every big game he played in in the Champions League elimination games at his peak. Reliable, beloved.
Is Borja Mayoral good enough to bring back?
It is a bit strange asking ‘is Borja Mayoral good enough to bing back?’ given that most of our dialog has been ‘is X player bad enough to bring in’? With all due respect to anyone coming, they can’t be a star and they can’t be terrible. Being Benzema’s back-up is not a good selling point to good strikers. Finding someone in that sweet spot is challenging.
The ‘sweet spot’, as I define it: Someone who can stay efficient despite being cold and not playing much, can do what Benzema does (about hundreds of levels below the way Benzema does it, to be clear) without reshuffling the scheme entirely. Also, said player needs to never complain, put his head down, work hard in training, and put his life on the pitch when the opportunities arise.
Most players don’t fit that profile. Raul de Tomas — a name floated around — is too good (and entering his peak) to come here and not play.
But Mayoral may work. He’s not good enough to make demands, and not bad enough to be superfluous to the roster. He loves the club, and could perhaps develop into a Lucas Vazquez / Nacho Fernandez type figure for the forward line.
The Getafe’s and Levante’s will always be around for him. Why not take a leap and try his luck here as a worthy Madridista and reliable filler? If it doesn’t work out, he can always go back to the mid-table La Liga life, or heck, as a ceiling, even a club like Roma where he found success under Paulo Fonseca.
It’s been long known that Benzema is Mayoral’s idol. He emulates his game around the Frenchman, and works hard off the ball to press, track, and drop deep to provide link-up play.
He also fits in the category of ‘striker who barely plays but can stay sharp in front of goal’ — something Luka Jovic had trouble with. Mayoral barely saw the ball at Getafe this season, but remained clinical in his few chances, so much so that he led the entire league in goals per shot (.31).
Admittedly, I’m not too pressed about signing a back-up striker at all given it’s such a minimally-used position, and you could throw Rodrygo Goes or Eden Hazard as a false 9 in a pickle. But Mayoral coming in for that role is not a brain-dead idea. Another name I liked: Edin Dzeko. The Bosnian still plays at a high level, and at the age of 36, he may be at a stage of his career where he’d be happy to be part of a championship team, and his experience could keep him ready when his moment arises.
Remembering how good Gonzalo Higuain was
Young Gonzalo Higuain, had he continued on the trajectory he was on, wasn’t that far away from becoming a proper Real Madrid legend. A couple things didn’t go his way — injuries, the presence of Karim Benzema — but he was still really good, and clearly was really good in Serie A after his Bernabeu departure.
Higuain was more than a traditional striker. When he first signed from River Plate, he was an attacking right forward, often in a 4-3-3.
In a historical podcast Matt Wiltse and I recently did, where we re-watched a win over Athletic Bilbao from the 2008 - 2009 season, it was fascinating to revisit Higuain’s role alongside Raul. The latter, known more as a link-up player during the apex of his powers, led the line as a striker and barely touched the ball.
Higuain though, was everywhere. He dropped deep to give Fernando Gago an outlet, won the ball in midfield, worked hard off the ball, and also swapped flanks with Arjen Robben regularly. He was, in a match where he shared the field with a line-breaking Robben and an older Raul, the most efficient dribbler, creator, and goal-scorer. It was impressive. He was a beast.
Of course, Higuain will always have the moniker of a big-game choker attached to him, as many Real Madrid fans still feel nauseous reminiscing his missed chances in the Champions League. But domestically? The Argentine was one of the scariest attackers in Europe. He scored 27 goals in the 2009 - 2010 season (behind only Lionel Messi), and during his Real Madrid stint, he was at least top-five in the five major European Leagues in goals + assists per 90 on three separate ocassions.
Perhaps he was never destined to be a Real Madrid player forever, but certainly a young Higuain was promising and efficient enough to be greater than he was at this club specifically. Revisiting that was nice, and looking back on those old games now, it’s no surprise seeing how good he turned out in Serie A.
A note on Sergio Arribas
I have long been vocal that Real Madrid should not jump into any panic signings for the right wing after the Kylian Mbappe snub. Until now, I would say I’m impressed with the club as they’ve stayed pragmatic with transfers, so far adding two great players — Aurelien Tchouameni and Antonio Rudiger — to an already good squad that just won the double.
The foward line is thinner than the midfield and center-back spots, though, and many are concerned about giving the keys to Rodygo Goes and Fede Valverde. One — God forbid — injury to the front-three and the complexion changes.
But there are squad upgrades that may help you now but hurt you long term. Big contracts to star wingers over the age of 30 gives you headaches three-to-four years down the road. Even some of the younger signings don’t justify their price tags.
For perspective, Leeds’ reported price for Raphinha is around 75m — a wild number which they may get from Barcelona. If Real Madrid got coaxed into that, I’d be worried.
All this to say that Sergio Arribas, a Castilla star, is a player I really believe in and would promote if Real Madrid decide to not sign a winger. Sometimes, for a player from the youth system to thrive, it all comes down to timing. Arribas may be the beneficiary of filling a need in the squad — a luxury many talented youngsters in the past didn’t have.
He’s a great line-breaker, can play on the wing off the bench, and works really hard defensively — fitting the culture that Carlo Ancelotti is looking for.
The Dani Carvajal redemption arc
He still may not be the Dani Carvajal of ‘old’ — the peak version of one of Real Madrid’s greatest right-backs in club history who successfully dribbled past 72% of the players he took on — but given the health concerns and form this season, what we saw from Carvajal in the last quarter of the campaign was highly encouraging.
In the last two games of the Champions League season, Carvajal defended, admirably and successfully, Phil Foden, Joao Canelo, and Luis Diaz. In the final, he completely locked down Diaz, and was crucial in halting several Liverpool attacks on the wing:
What is in a vacuum a simple good read is an important intervention in minute 86 where Carvajal fights to the death in the face of a Liverpool transition attack. He was everywhere in the final — engaged, composed. He didn’t bite on Diaz’s cut-ins and line-breaking attempts. Defensively, he carried himself with courage and heroism — the exact type of leader we expected him to be as he grew into his guardianship as a future captain.
This was, by all accounts, a Herculean run from Carvajal in the last few games of the Champions League season. He had more blocks than anyone in the entire competition (35) — a stat that exemplifies how much he puts his body on the line regularly.
This challenge on Diaz in the first half was met by an ovation from the Real Madrid fans at Stade de France:
Carvajal is at pretty well career-lows in several defensive and offensive metrics, in part because he hasn’t been healthy and his form when playing hasn’t been sharp — but during the Champions League run he made up for what we saw in months prior.
His next step will be to take players on more next season. Of course, his biggest barrier still remains his health — and that’s where fans are skeptical. If Carvajal can improve his durability, a lot of Real Madrid’s right-back issues will naturally go away.
Militao’s step-up interceptions
Militao went through a rough ride in 2022 before closing out an otherwise solid season in the Champions League final with a good defensive shift against Liverpool. We can perhaps chalk up his drop in form — riddled with defensive lapses and mistakes — to fatigue, travelling to South America for international duty, and classic growing pains a Real Madrid central defender has to go through.
One thing that still remains a constant with him, even when struggling: his reliable step-up interceptions. The Brazilian had 32 interceptions in the Champions League this season — the most of any player in the entire competition. He is the best among all Real Madrid players — and has been all season — at getting his gambles right.
He’s masterful at timing his interventions to pick off vertical passes that would otherwise led to breaks for opposing strikers. If he can get out other weaknesses in his game and continue picking off through-balls, he will be a very capable Real Madrid center-back for years to come.
Militao prevented several of these balls intended for Sadio Mane in the Champions League final:
Militao was tasked with tracking Mane’s runs all game. Above you can see him scanning Mane’s horizontal movement. As soon as Thiago slings the vertical pass, Militao pounces and wins the ball before Mane can even think about getting to it first.
Militao’s step-ups serve purpose in a variety of ways. He timed them near-perfectly all season. He makes last ditch blocks in the box look routine:
Militao’s game in Paris wasn’t perfect. He was turned by Mane on one ocassion but recovered well to block the shot, and he let Mohamed Salah slip behind him twice, allowing the Egyptian to get to the ball in the box before him.
But new-found competition from Antonio Rudiger will be good for him. Being a center-back at Real Madrid comes with some tax.
I expect Militao’s arc to continue in a positive direction. We saw these low points with Sergio Ramos too. People often forget Militao is yet to hit 25. There’s been a lot riding on his shoulders — a ton of weighted responsibility in the post-Ramos-Varane era.
Eden Hazard’s recovery and best position
Eden Hazard’s best role now, at the age of 31, off the back of surgery and little playing time due to injuries over the last three years, doesn’t exist at Real Madrid. What Roberto Martinez can give Hazard at the Belgium National Team is not something Carlo Ancelotti can replicate at Real.
With Belgium, Hazard generally plays well, but he does it in a niche role. Martinez deploys a 3-4-3 with Hazard as the left-wing forward. Yannick Carrasco does the dirty two-way work as the left-wing back. Hazard, in turn, doesn’t have defensive duties — he roams and scans the pitch horizontally, moves in both half-spaces, and links up well with others.
But the only player who got a free-roaming role at Real Madrid in the last eight years is peak Isco, and even then, a lot had to line up for that to work around him, including Modric, Casemiro, Ramos, Varane, and Keylor Navas playing defensive hero ball with the defensive dominoes a diamond or a 10 brings. Hazard now is not good enough to justify building an entire system around him.
But Hazard can still be a useful player. Knowing how to use him would be important next season if the team wants to provide Vinicius with some rest while Rodrygo plays more on the opposite wing.
Hazard can’t break lines on the right like Rodrygo nor can he defend on the right like Valverde. He is not going to bench Vinicius or Benzema. That leaves him as a back-up for Vinicius or Benzema. He can’t score goals like the Frenchman, but he can be a good link-up false 9. Hazard can still drop and progress the ball with tight ball control and good vertical passing:
Hazard from 2017 - 2019 was one of the Premier League’s most devastating offensive players — one of the bonafide MVPs and unstoppable offensive forces. He is far from that now, but is still a good ball-carrier and link-up player if you can find him a role where he’s not overburdened. But that in itself is a problem. If I had to guess, he is the back-up left-winger and center forward — but that’s assuming Real Madrid don’t sign anyone else and Hazard stays healthy.