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.
It’s been a wild 72 hours. In this week’s column, we look at the Casemiro transfer, how the team can cope without him, and more, including a massive tactical note dump from August:
A tribute to Casemiro, and a nuanced look at his transfer
Casemiro’s Real Madrid CV: Three FIFA Club World Cup titles, five Champions League titles, three La Liga titles, three UEFA Super Cup titles, first in successful pressure percentage in La Liga (2021 - 2022), first in tackles win in La Liga (2019 - 2020), third in tackles won in the top-five major leagues (2019 - 2020), second in interceptions in La Liga (2020 - 2021), third in blocks in La Liga (2019 - 2020).
When news initially broke out on Wednesday that Casemiro was set to get an offer from Manchester United, it was easy to brush off. United were a mess: a destination stars are trying to escape, and a far cry from the culture and state implemented at the monolith of the 14-time Champions League winners.
Casemiro, a serial winner, was part of a family — a special banded brotherhood. Separation seemed impossible.
But as the hours passed, reports in Spain started to catch wind of what was happening, and by the next day, it became more real: Casemiro was not only open to Manchester United’s offer, but welcomed it. And once Real Madrid have a player that wants to leave, they will always work with them to find a solution.
Could Real Madrid have done more to keep him? Sure, they could’ve budged a little. But meeting Manchester United’s salary was never an option, and handing out big contracts to 30-year-olds has never been a Real Madrid philosophy. It has always been this way, even since the ‘40s, when the club parted ways with their first true superstar, Pahiño, in a similar situation — hedging their bets instead on a younger Alfredo di Stefano.
By Friday, the Casemiro deal had concluded, in what was a win-win-win. Casemiro will net some €12m after taxes — not quite ‘double’ his salary of around €7m at Real Madrid, but a pretty significant uptick none-the-less. Manchester United, in turn, receive the best ball-winner in Europe of this generation, and someone to fix some of their defensive transition issues. (How he fits into Erik ten Hag’s build-out-of-the-back philosophy is a different issue, but one we don’t need to get into now.)
For Real Madrid, they receive around €72m (plus a good €13m in variables) for a 30-year-old — essentially funding the player they signed as his future regimen, 22-year-old Aurelien Tchouameni.
The question begs now: Was the 70m(ish) worth going into next season with a weaker squad? Tchouameni is good, but was expected to be the protégé while Casemiro hangs around for at least a couple years to help with the transition. With Casemiro gone, Tchouameni needs to be accelerated and thrown into the fire. Time will tell how the Frenchman will cope in that role — whether he’ll swim or float.
What is certain: This is not a repeat of the Claude Makelele sale in 2003. When Makelele left the club, there were a total of two central midfielders in the squad: Esteban Cambiasso and Guti. By the following season, Ivan Helguera had already moved to center-back permanently, Cambiasso was sold, and Guti was far from a defensive midfielder.
Things are wildly different now. There is a succession plan in place in all three midfield positions. Some fans may not believe Tchouameni is ready, but many felt that way about Casemiro himself in 2016; about 17-year-old Raul in 1994; about Vinicius Jr in 2019; and about nearly the entire Quinta del Buitre in the 80s when they were promoted from the youth team by Alfredo di Stefano in a situation where the club desperately needed their help.
The list goes on. Real Madrid are riddled in their history with cases of young future legends heeding the call when the club needed them to. Whether Tchouameni will be one of those players or not is something no one (regardless of how sure you are of your stance) can answer yet, but it’s important to note one thing: If you were to sign one player now to replace Casemiro, it’s Tchouameni, who is a spectacular defensive player and ball-winner and has good on-ball abilities as well.
But patience will be needed. With Tchouameni thrown into the fire now, growing pains should be expected — but judgements shouldn’t be formed after one game, or even half-a-season.
It will be interesting to see if Carlo Ancelotti deviates more from last season’s scheme now. Casemiro, almost the last of his kind (rarely do you see any top team play with a destroyer specialist who lacks press-resistancy), was essential in Real Madrid’s dynasty. But he was also essential because of the way Real Madrid played. Casemiro was a fireman, and what the team desperately needed from him amid an era of prolific defensive transition meltdowns was to be heroic and stop breaks. He did that at an elite level.
Can the club be better structured defensively now to rely less on heroics from not only Casemiro, but also the rest of the gang?
“Tchouaméni, for his defensive abilities, is the closest to Casemiro, but Kroos, who is totally different to Casemiro, can play there too,” Carlo Ancelotti said in yesterday’s pre-game press conference. “I remember we won 22 matches in a row in my second year with him in that position.”
Ancelotti’s point about Kroos playing the anchor role is something that should be highlighted among a wild day. It’s important to emphasize a specific point: When Kroos played as the team’s single pivot in the 2014 - 2015 season, Real Madrid’s identity was much different. They controlled, pressed high, won the ball relentlessly, and defended by keeping the ball with a quartet of Kroos, Luka Modric, Isco, and James Rodriguez.
But the team doesn’t play that way now, and if you stick Kroos as the anchor in a team that lacks control, you get a result closer to what happened at the Etihad vs Manchester City last season in the Champions League: A complete bloodbath and a defense that gets eviscerated.
But that in itself might be a precursor of a different approach this season.
“We can’t replace the characteristics of Casemiro, but we have players with different characteristics,” Ancelotti explained. “Others with different characteristics can play in that position too. I remember Andrea Pirlo playing there, who is very different to Casemiro.”
A different brand of football could be in store.
Nacho’s experience and calibration
It’s a bit silly how many good center-backs Real Madrid have. I thought Nacho was good in his pre-season cameos, and knew there would be a few rotations on the opening Matchday of La Liga — but didn’t expect Nacho to start against Almeria. Unsurprisingly, he showed up and balled out next to new signing Antonio Rudiger.
Despite some early miscommunication between him and Rudiger, both remained serene. Nacho recognized the patterns of play after an initial wave: Umar Sadiq and Largie Ramazani would pin Real Madrid’s center-backs and create a gap. Nacho read everything, and single-handedly took Sadiq out of the game.
Nacho either prevented the ball from getting to Sadiq, or man-handled him on 50/50 duels. He was also important in Real Madrid’s build-up from the back after the team weathered the initial storm. He had a game-high four interceptions on the night, had 4/5 successful pressures (a game-high 80%), completed 100% of his short passes as well as 100% of his long passes.
(A side note, Nacho is really good at applying pressure in general. He was 10th in La Liga in successful pressure percentage two years ago. His gambles do sometimes cost the team big chances, though — but he does get them right most of the time.)
Other young center-backs might crack in that Almeria game. Nacho has age and wisdom on his side. Real Madrid likely would’ve come out on top with any combination of Rudiger / Alaba / Militao on the field instead of Nacho — but having Nacho put in such a reliable shift over the course of a gruelling season allows you to strategically rest your big-game center-backs. That approach helped Real Madrid reach the apex of the 2016 - 2017 season in peak condition.
Nacho’s read on Sadiq against Almeria was professional, business-like. He knew the Nigerian was an outlet source for the home side, and ensured the attacker didn’t have breathing room:
Almeria pushed bodies forward late in search of an equalizer. Nacho dealt with balls into the box with ease, and a little bit of swag:
Nacho is still only 32. His passing remains among the best in the league when he plays. When he featured in a career-high 28 La Liga matches in Real Madrid’s title-winning season in 2021 - 2022, the Spaniard ranked third in La Liga in passing accuracy (92.9%). I imagine he’ll be serviceable until 34 when his contract expires.
The Brahim we fondly remembered might be back
It was over a year ago now, Sepmember 2021, when Brahim Diaz had his last great performance. Since then, he’s battled COVID-19 and poor form. From Autumn 2021 he had been a shadow of his promising self. Real Madrid’s perception of him waned off a steep cliff. Brahim needed to prove himself again.
His first game back — a 4 - 2 win over Udinese in AC Milan’s Serie A opener — was a resounding success. Forget the numbers (we’ll get to it) — Brahim’s body language looked more confident. He was involved. He brimmed with bounce as he funnelled the ball into the opposing box.
Brahim, back as Milan’s ‘10’ in a 4-2-3-1, played with verve. He was involved in several important attacking sequences, including all four of Milan’s goals. He scored the game-winner, slung an assist in Milan’s fourth, nabbed the hockey assist on Milan’s second, and his shot in the box led to a penalty for their first.
Brahim is often the first-source outlet in transition. It’s down to him to be positioned freely off the ball to show for the pass as soon as Milan wins the ball. He moved and touched the ball with a purpose and fulfilled his role to a science.
One of his most underrated traits: defense. He does not track as much as he can (by design, head coach Stefano Piolo stations him higher up the pitch to bind things in the opposing half when his team wins possession deeper), but he hounds and wins the ball well.
Milan’s fourth goal was a direct result of Brahim’s insistence on winning the ball:
It’s early, but seeing Brahim have that much energy and ‘alphaness’ again is highly encouraging. Keep an eye on him. The timing may work in his favour when Real Madrid need an attacking player one year from now when his loan spell at Milan ends.
Rudiger’s passing range from deep
These are the passes I was really excited to see at Real Madrid from new signing Antonio Rudiger:
Rudiger, known so much for fire and grit, is technically gifted and a master of ball progression. He’ll help you get to the opposing box whether it’s facing a high press or a low block. The above sequence against Almeria is a great example of a ball over the top of a defensive line that can create a chance from virtually nothing — just simple good ball movement from Karim Benzema and a calculated long-range vertical pass from the German.
Rudiger ranks in the 94th percentile among center-backs when it comes to progressive passing and was seventh in the Premier League in passes into the final third last season. He was second at Chelsea — behind Thiago Silva — in both progressive passes completed and total distance covered by completed passes. He attempted 637 long range passes last season and completed 71% of them. (The percentage could be higher, but it sits at a respectable clip given the sheer volume of home run balls he attempts).
The bag of tricks Rudiger has from the backline is really helpful for the team. In our School of Real Madrid video welcoming the signing, we donned him the ‘Toni Kroos of the backline’ because of his long-distance passing ability.
Rudiger has fit in seamlessly so far (yes, I realize we’re just one game in, but his profile and experience should make the transition pretty smooth). He’s already displayed some freakish clearances, and was dominant after an early mistake against Almeria. His aerial presence is commanding and authoritative. No surprise: Rudiger was in the top-five in Premier League in % of aerials win just two years ago, and if you want to get really ahead of yourself, he’s already completed 100% of his aerial duels after one game.
Luka Modric, still a leader of an exciting midfield
Maybe it’s because I grew up seeing so little talent in Real Madrid’s midfield post-2003. During my time as a Real Madrid fan, I saw players like Clarence Seedorf, Zinedine Zidane, Esteban Cambiasso, Claude Makelele, and Fernando Redondo come and go. Since then? There was a whole lot of mediocrity plus the ultimate ceiling raiser: Guti. Things started to change years later with the arrivals of Xabi Alonso, Luka Modric, and Toni Kroos.
And that’s why I’m absolutely fine with loading up with talented central midfielders in this era, because truly great midfielders change the trajectory of your team completely. They are the heartbeats, the engines. If you don’t have cerebral players who can control, organize, and stay composed, you’re toast, no matter how much talent you have up front or at the back. Modric and Kroos won’t be around for much longer (no matter how well Modric ages). The era will pass faster then you think, and Kroos has yet to renew his contract which ends in one year. It is not inconceivable that to start next season, at least one of those two won’t be in the squad. By then, these discussions of “Why are we trying to sign Jude Bellingham and / or Fabian Ruiz next year?” become pretty moot.
So, expect a lot of appearances from Kroos and Modric — two regulars in the past few years here — in my column this year, because it’s my way of cherishing their greatness.
Modric’s conditioning is superhuman. I don’t see him starting regularly, but that’s a good thing — it means he’ll have more in the tank to be ‘young Modric’ in the games you need him to be unstoppable. Modric is 37 in September. It’s not an exaggeration to say that even on his best day now, he’s the best central midfielder in the world. He proved it in the Champions League knockout stages, where he transcended above every midfielder he played against, even vs the greatest teams — featuring the greatest midfielders — on earth.
I like that we’re surrounding him with so much talent in midfield now. The team has a good array of ammo that can cover ground, help lift weights with ground-coverage and defense, plus good movement between the lines which Modric can play off of. He can do less work now while channeling his energy.
Modric’s natural feel for the game is so good. I love the simplicity — yet efficiency and grace — he plays with. He is always looking vertical and it never feels forced, just elite. Once he releases the progressive pass, he immediately moves off-ball to unlock a new vertical option. Again, subtle, and so important:
I’m looking forward to seeing what game-changing moments Modric will have this season.
Kroos, thriving in a scheme that controls
Almost everyone looks better, more alpha and confident, in games where Real Madrid put their feet on the opponents’ neck and squeeze mercilessly. Kroos is one of those players. He’s always looked better when the scheme is designed control and win the ball high up the pitch aggressively.
That happened against Juventus in the third pre-season game. Kroos is an excellent high-presser — he always has been for both club and country when it’s part of the in-game blueprint. Kroos’s pressing makes up for his lack of defensive tracking.
In part, that’s why he looked so good against Juventus, and any other game that Real Madrid are more aggressive with their line, and their desire to counter-press and control the tempo shines through.
Kroos helped win possession high up the pitch on numerous occassions both against Juventus and against Almeria on the opening matchday of La Liga. He is nimble with the ball and his synapses fire effortlessly. For some, hitting a diagonal ball with range requires some degree of calculation. With Kroos, it was always more effortless. His diagonal switch is basically his version of the Michael Jordan fadeaway.
He has always been great at helping the team win the ball in the opposing half:
I have mentioned this in a previous column: Part of the reason I hope Real Madrid will bring the line higher up the pitch and starting controlling the game more is because it’s just, fun. Kroos excels in that role, and Real Madrid have enough line-breakers in the team, on and off the ball, to justify baking it in their identity more.
Tchouameni, thief in the night
It’s time to see how Tchouameni can fit into Real Madrid’s anchor role. The opening game against Almeria was rough, but at least contained some nice long-range passing sequences and subtle moments of efficient defending.
Tchouameni is more than a mere bit player filling in for Casemiro. His first game ever in a Real Madrid jersey against Barcelona in pre-season, as well as the Almeria game, contained, understandably some issues of unfamiliarity with the players around him.
Naturally, some cohesion-issues arose as Real Madrid struggled to deal with Barca’s press in the first half of pre-season with so much of the ‘A-team’ missing, but man, some of his last-ditch tackles were ever-present and enjoyable.
Tchouameni was second in all of the top-five major leagues last season in completed tackles. He, um, knows a thing or two about thieving possession. In a weird way, I enjoy his subtle ability to dispossess players with an intervention that goes unnoticed just as much as I do as a flying slide tackle (the kind we saw Eduardo Camavinga pull on Bernardo Silva or Luka Modric execute on Lionel Messi in last season’s Champions League run).
Tchouameni, like his French counter-part Camavinga, has the art of making it look like he’s beat, before recovering quickly to snatch the ball:
Once Tchouameni grows into the team and cements his place, I’d wager we see some great things on both ends of the field as more of a two-way organizer.
More counter-pressing sequences
Real Madrid’s ceiling for counter-pressing is pretty high. The team is cerebral in every position, and have the legs now to sustain being more aggressive when last year they may not have been able to. Carlo Ancelotti is now in year two of this project. Some continuity and cohesion exists. I think we can see more of these sequences which lead to opponent panic:
That is great, clean, instinctual counter-pressing by Real Madrid with smooth synergy, spearheaded by Casemiro (goodbye, king). There were plenty of sequences like that vs Juventus.
Real Madrid can generate multiple ‘artificial’ transition opportunities per game with said blueprint — the best way to create a more prolific amount of chances for Vinicius Jr and Karim Benzema instead of relying on sparse counter-attacking opportunities you absolutely have to convert.
Casemiro was huge, for several years now, in getting the timing right on his step-ups when teams initially win the ball in their own half. You can see the artistry in motion below, where Benzema and Modric also immediately react to put pressure on the ball-carrier to ensure Casemiro’s effort is not futile:
Tchouameni can make those same reads. It will, again, be interesting to see how far down the pressing rabbit hole Ancelotti goes down this season.
Ferland Mendy’s lack of connection with Vinicius, part 89
Ferland Mendy turned 27 this summer. I don’t expect him to morph his game drastically at this point. He locks down superstar wingers effortlessly and does roulettes and nutmegs while triple-teamed in Real Madrid’s own box with the same nonchalance as Zinedine Zidane in a pick-up game.
But Real Madrid need more from him in the final third, and they only need small upticks in his offensive game to unlock new attacking ploys.
I wrote about it towards the end of last season: Real Madrid don’t need Mendy to turn in to Marcelo, they just need him to make better decisions with the ball once he crosses the halfway line. Simple overloads will unlock space for Vinicius to cut in and not be met with multiple bodies from swarming defenders.
Vinicius tries to connect, and to be sure, the pair are not completely disconnected. Mendy’s pass down the flank in the UEFA Super Cup to Vinicius created Real Madrid’s second goal vs Eintracht Frankfurt. But there are moments where Vinicius kickstarts give-and-go’s with Mendy but doesn’t get rewarded for his pass-and-sprint efforts.
Mendy is working on it, though, and these runs (like the one below) into the final third help the team unlock fluidity and unpredictability. The pass below should’ve probably been played to Vinicius down the flank earlier, but the well-intentioned pass to Modric instead in the left half-space nearly created something in the box:
Vinicius on the left is the decoy. If one of the two is always making that run, options will arise on offense.
A lot of Mendy’s defense-heavy performances are by design. Ancelotti’s conservatism in big games means Mendy hedges back as a safety net while Vinicius has to go into Spartan-mode single-handedly. But the coverage can be assigned to Casemiro (or Tchouameni), as has almost always been the case in the modern era when Real Madrid need Marcelo’s genius on offense.
But even when Mendy does spend more time in the final third, like against Almeria, there can be clear issues with him offensively due his limited talented, as I outlined here:
Dani Carvajal, sustained, encouraging shifts
Dani Carvajal has transitioned seamlessly from locking down Luis Diaz in the Champions League final into continuing his strong showings this season. He hasn’t played in La Liga yet, but the Super Cup game vs Frankfurt was a good barometer of his form, and if we’re to go by some of the reliable reports in Spain, the club strategically resting him (like they did in the Almeria game) could be a good way to cope with his injury crises.
Carvajal’s defense has been at an elite level, and his ball-progression remains good. He’s still not taking players on (and getting past them, by extension) at the same clip he was in the 2016 - 2017 season, but his give-and-gos on the right-side have worked, and his crosses have been dangerous. Against Frankfurt, he didn’t get the ball on every 1-2 combo down the flank, but the movement alone was well-intentioned and opened up space by dragging wingers with him.
I look forward to seeing how he’ll bounce back this season if the club will rotate him in and out of the team with good purpose, though, admittedly do worry about him post World Cup.