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Real Madrid v Barcelona - Preseason Friendly Photo by Omar Vega/Getty Images

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8 Observations on pre-season, transfers, and tactics

Putting a spotlight this week on the transfer window, something specific I’d like Ferland Mendy to improve on, and the clear upgrade Rudiger provides for Real Madrid

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.

The first observations column of pre-season is here. We’ve highlighted some tactical things, notes on the transfer window, and more. It’s been fun hanging in Vegas and San Francisco. Thanks for coming out to our in-person podcasts!

Let’s get it:

Takefusa’s struggles, departure, and future

It has been a long journey for Takefusa Kubo since signing for Real Madrid in 2019. His first stop on loan in Mallorca was really good. It took him some time to work his way into the team, but once he did, he locked his starting role down, and even created 18-goal creating actions in La Liga — the second most of any player in the league!

Things have not been as easy since. Kubo ‘levelled-up’ by going to Villarreal, where he struggled to earn the trust of Unai Emery due to his defensive deficiencies. He and his agent asked to leave, and quickly learned that going elsewhere is not always more beneficial. Had he stayed at Villarreal, he may have grown tactically with some tough love, the same way Samu Chukweze did. Chukweze was benched regularly like Kubo, but ultimately improved and earned a starting role.

Kubo joined Getafe — a team that bunkers defensively and allows for limited touches in the final third — mid-season, and, though he played more, there was stagnation with his development. He then went back to Mallorca where he initially succeeded, but his career there got derailed when Javier Aguirre took over the team and sent the Japanese international to the bench.

Kubo is still just 21, and highly talented. Watching him turn out of pressure and caress a ball with his first-touch is genuinely beautiful. But perhaps he really needs this move to Real Sociedad to work under someone like Immanol Alguacil. Kubo needs to work on his defensive-tracking and his decision-making in the final-third — both traits which are currently sub-optimal for a player of his potential.

Real Madrid holding on to 50% of his rights is a good piece of business. Real Sociedad will be invested in developing a player they own (as oppose to Kubo’s previous teams), and Real Madrid can still be arms-length away in case he fulfills his potential.

Will Real Madrid press more next season?

When I asked Carlo Ancelotti about it in a press conference this summer, he did acknowledge that the team needed to improve on last season despite winning the double. “If you look at the Champions League, we have a lot of possibility to improve our quality and attitude,” Ancelotti said. “To try to do better compared to last season.”

Ancelotti didn’t elaborate what he’d like to address specifically, understandably, but did he say he has a lot of systems he could try.

Most of the kinks are easy to diagnose, and in a highly over-simplified way, it comes down to pressing: both dealing with pressing, and being efficient with pressing. The former is a ball-progression issue; the latter a matter of defensive structure.

It feels like years ago now, but at the beginning of last season, Real Madrid were not only starting Gareth Bale and Eden Hazard together, but also implementing a highly aggressive press.

There were plenty of drawbacks, including loose defensive structure, a permeable first line of defense, and a clear lack of cohesion. But hey, it was fun. There were a total of 30 goals in Real Madrid’s first seven game of the season, and they didn’t lose a single one of those matches. At least, our request of being entertained was met. And amid all the chaos, naturally with the sheer volume of pressing sequences, there were some good ones scattered in:

I wonder if Ancelotti will try the early-season pressing blitz again now that he’s seen the team go through an entire season that found success through pragmatism. Though, it should be noted, Real Madrid did become more aggressive towards the end of Champions League ties when fresh young blood came in off the bench, and that’s where they scored the majority of their goals. Ancelotti also now has an entire summer to re-strategize the press.

One last chance for Brahim Diaz

Brahim Diaz was a teenager when Real Madrid signed him from Manchester City for some 18m, in a deal that many felt superfluous after the club had already signed Vinicius Jr and Rodrygo Goes for hefty fees (admittedly, pocket change now). I was skeptical. Brahim was a rare winter signing, announced amid a period of turmoil the club was going through in 2019.

The more I watched of him, the more he won me over. His few cameos to end the season as a winger under Zinedine Zidane showcased his ability to break lines and work hard defensively.

He then went to AC Milan, where he continued to grow. First as a rotational player in Stefano Pioli’s 4-2-3-1 — where he could play across three attacking positions — then as a bonafide starter as the 10. He pressed well, moved well between the lines off the ball, and was a reliable creator. He ranked fifth in Serie A in the 2020 - 2021 season in goal-creating actions per 90.

But after a solid start to the 2021 - 2022 season, Brahim contracted COVID-19, and when he returned in the fall, he just wasn’t the same. His form dipped, his numbers dropped. Brahim lost his bounce.

How concerned should we be? For what it’s worth, Brahim’s role shifted a bit. Much of his off-ball play consisted of making second-man runs into the box to meet crosses, which wasn’t his game. Pioli was asking him to play closer and closer to goal.

My hunch is that Brahim will use this summer to reset himself mentally and physically, and given that he’s playing for a place in Real Madrid’s 2023 - 2024 squad, he’ll come out guns blazing this season to prove a point. The club still believe in his talent, and they’re right to feel that way. Brahim has shown how good he can be, and he’s not a lazy player which gives me he hope that he can recover.

What I’d like Ferland Mendy to improve on this season

Multiple media outlets in Spain, as well as Managing Madrid, reported that Carlo Ancelotti is ‘leaning toward’ starting David Alaba as Real Madrid’s left-back next season in order to accommodate Antonio Rudiger. This would allow both Eder Militao and Alaba to keep their starting spots, and in turn, Alaba can use his ability to join the final-third and put crosses in, cut in for some shots, and link up with Vinicius Jr. Carlo Ancelotti later clarified that although he doesn’t want to disrupt last season’s center-back partnership, Mendy is his first-choice starting left-back.

I do think it’s important to point out that Ferland Mendy’s defensive ability and ceiling (and proven track-record) to lock down superstar winger after superstar winger is special, and if he could sharpen some skills in the final-third, this discussion could be put to bed easier.

But Mendy is already 27, and has probably already evolved into what he is: Arguably the best defensive left-back on earth and a player who hasn’t been able to connect with Vinicius in the final-third.

And that last point is what the Frenchman needs to work on most if he’s to unlock an extra layer to Real Madrid’s offense. Mendy has formed symbiosis with David Alaba — possibly because Alaba has meshed with everyone. The next step is to form synergy with Vinicius.

He does not need to do too much, nor does he have to inherit Marcelo’s powers. One simple tweak to his game could create space for Vinicius: More overloads. Far too often is Vinicius’s space clogged due to Mendy hedging back. On rare moments the French wing-back moved progressively off the ball on the wing while Vinicius was dribbling inside, Real Madrid’s offense on that side looked more fluid.

The minimalism of that wrinkle is by design. Ancelotti erred on conservatism, which meant so much of Vinicius’s attacks were single-handed, in transition.

If Ancelotti opts to roll with Alaba and Mendy together as left center-back and left-back respectively, he can let them switch on the fly more — something they did so well last season. Alaba would attack the final-third and Mendy would cover. The understanding was spectacular.

A reminder that Mendy had the best +/- of anyone on the team last season. I care little about that stat, generally, but the results with and without him are there for all to see. He is an important player.

Eduardo Camavinga’s technical ability and composure

I didn’t analyze Real Madrid’s loss to Barcelona on a tactical level much, though I did take many notes on it that I know will probably never see the light of day — much like any pre-season notes I’ve taken over the years. But I did have little takeaways, and believe it or not, was even impressed with some Real Madrid wrinkles while others had proclaimed doomsday was nigh.

Amid the initial 20-minute (or so) wave that Barcelona had to start the game with their high press, a couple players, namely Lucas Vazquez and Eder Militao, looked particularly uncomfortable. But a couple players took initiative to salvage the team’s build-up from the back.

One of those players was Eduardo Camavinga. Several of my friends who were at Allegiant stadium, watching Real Madrid play for the first time, remarked to me that seeing Camavinga’s composure in person was an incredible experience, especially when comparing it to the contrast of Vazquez and Militao.

They are correct. The difference in technical ability and confidence level in those moments where the team was being pressed was stark. Camavinga dropped into channels, shielded the ball, and turned away with intricate dribbling while holding players off. He is a reliable outlet and hold-up player:

Camavinga is gifted moving between the lines. Pairing him with any good vertical passer and having him positioned ahead of the play enables the team to escape any press. Few players can break lines with their off-ball movement — most players do it with dribbling. Camavinga’s subtle, sly hovers across the pitch unlock passing lanes:

He is dynamic both on and off the ball. Seeing him in person is always special. You can’t leave your guard down on defense if he’s in your vicinity. One off ball dash, even subtle, can get the team into the final third. Camavinga received 2.78 progressive passes per 90 — well above average for his position. In more advanced roles, that number will climb even higher. He’s often stationed deep, but helped advance the team’s overall defensive line when he entered the field off the bench last season.

Camavinga’s two-way play is going to be elite, if it’s not already. He will hunt you defensively as reliably as anyone. Last season he racked up more pressures per 90 than any player in the squad in all competitions. He also blocked 1.93 passes per 90 on defense — the most of any Real Madrid player.

The early returns from Camavinga’s signing have been overwhelmingly good.

Dani Ceballos’s frenetic energy

He plays in the most stacked position on the team and is a complete luxury as a borderline sixth-choice central midfielder, yet, despite it all — I am absolutely loving everything I see from Dani Ceballos.

In all likelihood, Ceballos is probably too good to stay, but he might stay anyway, and if he does, as things stand, Real Madrid would have the deepest depth chart at center-midfield of any team on earth.

But if Fede Valverde makes an even more prominent shift to right wing, Ceballos may not be as superfluous as you think. Aurelien Tchouameni and Casemiro could compete for one spot, while Ceballos and Eduardo Camavinga could rotate with Toni Kroos and Luka Modric while the team flaunts six midfielders for three positions — two deep in each one. With Isco gone, Ceballos would fit well as a ball progressor in games where both Kroos and Modric sit.

It’s hard to question Ceballos’s fit given what we’ve seen from him since returning from in injury in the second half of last season. It was a small detail, but Ceballos was a member of the bench mob in the Champions League run, and had impressive minutes in the knockout stages. He wasn’t shy, made good decisions on the ball, and his energy was infectious.

And, not that it matters, but he’s also been one of the bright spots of pre-season. Ceballos instills fear in defenders who have the ball at their feet. He is often the most aggressive counter-presser the team has:

Ceballos is also very good at sneaking up in players’ blind spots, virtually anywhere on the field, to win the ball back:

The above sequence is classic Ceballos at Betis stuff. He wants the ball, and he wants his team to have the ball, at all times. Tchouamni and Camavinga are also both good at said tackles. Pairing all three together is a bit of a defensive cheat code. Their presence changed the pace and aggressiveness of the game vs Club America.

“We struggled at the start of the game since they’re in better rhythm, but we had more intensity in the second half,” Carlo Ancelotti said after the 2 - 2 draw vs Club America. “It was a more roll and roll second half. Ceballos and Camavinga did well, bringing a lot of energy with the ball.”

Don’t sleep on Ceballos as a contributor next season. He has the tools, and Real Madrid might need him. The sample size was small, but last season in the Champions League, Ceballos had the most pressures per 90 of his career, while boasting a personal best in shot-creating actions per 90 in La Liga. Are we on the verge of a Ceballos awakening? He may not have even hit his peak yet.

Early Rudiger solidity

It’s still early, but it’s pretty clear that Antonio Rudiger is a solid, solid player who is reliable on both ends. Not that we needed to see it in pre-season, but he’s been good covering for both full-backs in both games:

Rudiger exudes enough confidence that it projects outwardly into the hearts of Real Madrid fans watching. It’s rare you see superstar players dribble at a defender and, with confidence, you’d unwaveringly put your money on the defender. Rudiger has 1 v 1 defending to a science, and the brutal physical ability to go with his masterful reading of the game:

Rudiger won’t play left-back again bar some crisis or emergency situation. For what it’s worth, even though it made little sense to put him there, he passed every defensive test when deployed there, because he’s that good at so many different things. So, it was kind of cool to see evidence of that in a meaningless game, I guess?

Rudiger successfully tackled 65.2% of the players who tried to dribble past him in the Premier League last season — the fourth best mark in the league. Regardless of how good Eder Militao and David Alaba were together last season, it’s a no-brainer that Rudiger, one of the best in the business, is a great addition to the squad.

Panic, depth, rivals

I may feel the collective anxiety more than most because of all of the correspondence from fans that comes in through social media and our podcast, asking us to address Barcelona’s stockpiling while Real Madrid have remained pat (until now) with regards to signing attacking players since Kylian Mbappe’s decision.

The reality is that Barcelona are signing players because they’re in a much more desperate situation than Real Madrid, who, by the way, just won the double! Naturally, a team that just won two major trophies needs less reinforcements than a team that crashed out of the Champions League group stages before detonating out of the Europa League.

(Quite frankly, and I say this without bias, I don’t know dishing out 65m plus variables for Raphinha is worth it. It might be for Barcelona, as he’ll add depth and insurance to the right wing, but it wouldn’t be for Real Madrid. He’s not good enough to justify soaking up Rodrygo Goes’s minutes, and if that’s the level of the player you sign, why not take a gamble on promoting the excellent Sergio Arribas? If you can sign Serge Gnabry or Bernardo Silva, then by all means, pull the trigger. Those are the studs that would be worth splashing on. Raphinha is not on that level.)

Does that mean Real Madrid can’t improve? Of course not, though, they have improved anyway with the additions of Antonio Rudiger and Aurelien Tchouameni. But one of their attackers will (should) win the Balon D’or while the other was the best winger in the Champions League and La Liga. The third slot, right wing, could go to a player they really believe in (Rodrygo). And adding depth beyond that is more difficult than fans think.

Real Madrid v Paris Saint-Germain: Round Of Sixteen Leg Two - UEFA Champions League Photo by John Berry/Getty Images

Certainly there is room in the roster, though, especially if Marco Asensio leaves. And again, to hammer it home, I’m in favour of signing someone, but if it’s not the right guy, I’d rather it be Arribas.

And to hammer it home further: The right-wing slot does worries me. As I said, the team needs to improve, both in its squad construction but also in its play on the field. My biggest concern: If there is reliance on Asensio leaving before signing a right-winger, there many not be any interesting options left late-summer, and missing out on Gnabry will look even worse in that scenario.

There is a real case that Real Madrid should sign the player they need, while worrying about what to do with Asensio or Mariano after.

Adiós, Benzema : 7 June 2023

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