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What we learned about Real Madrid in the past 24 hours

Kiyan’s notes on Tchouameni, the midfield, Courtois, Benzema, Blanco, and more.

RCD Espanyol v Real Madrid CF - LaLiga Santander Photo by Eric Alonso/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.

Reflecting on Aurelien Tchouameni’s performance on Sunday night against Espanyol has been interesting. We had spend so much time this summer discussing whether or not the French midfielder can fill the Casemiro role — whether he’s a destroyer, quarter-back, or box-to-box player — and while, to some extent, he’s all three of those things, the dialogue should’ve been more about how Real Madrid can change their style of play with Tchouameni ushering a new era that may not require a destroyer.

Last night Tchouameni played like Casemiro, but not like the way we remember Casemiro. It was less destroying and more attacking. When Zinedine Zidane was at the helm, he would often have Casemiro play ahead of Luka Modric and Toni Kroos. That wrinkle masked Casemiro’s lack of ability to resist pressure deep, and on top of that, the Brazilian was actually really good at getting forward.

On last Friday’s podcast, a Patron on the Zoom call asked us “With Casemiro gone, will that allow us to break down low blocks better?” The answer is unequivocally ‘no’ for one main reason: Casemiro was actually a cheat code against low blocks because his runs into the box created numerical superiority, and with it, complete mayhem. He was an extra threat on crosses, and his runs to the top of the box created shooting opportunities. Sergio Ramos was used the same way, and whether you think jettisoning Casemiro and Ramos into the box lacks conventional tactical ingenuity doesn’t matter so much because it often worked.

Of course, often it did not, and when it didn’t, it had many defensive dominoes that hurt the team’s structure defending in transition, and in those games in particular, there was always a sound argument to be made that an extra creator or unpredictable line-breaker in the team would’ve made more sense.

What we saw from Tchouameni last night was more akin to the advanced version of Casemiro, and not the one that ‘destroys’ and protects Zone 14, and I’m curious to see how his role evolves.

Against Espanyol, Tchouameni’s quick-thinking to move quickly off-ball after making an initial forward pass to Fede Valverde before playing it through to Vinicius unlocked a goal for Real Madrid. Outside of that, he made several off-ball sprints into the box to drag defenders away for Karim Benzema.

But sending the team’s shield forward meant Espanyol had a ton of space to run into behind Real Madrid’s midfield, and it was a combination of that, plus Diego Martinez recognizing it and implementing a much more aggressive press — and line — which shifted momentum in his team’s favour while also earning an equalizer.

It’s a work in progress. It should be noted that Tchouameni can play as an anchor. Casemiro set the bar high by being the best ball-winner of his generation, but Tchouameni is an elite defensive midfielder on the defensive side of things.

But while the talent is there, the organization of the midfield may take time. The synergy between him, Modric, and Kroos was there on offense. The formation of the double pivot between those three would form naturally in the build-up phase, and every combination was used in the flow of the play. There was an interchangeability to them and the three midfielders worked well in tight-knit spaces to progress the ball.

But fluidity on offense can be detrimental on defense, especially if you don’t have a plan in place to counter-press to avoid treading water defending in transition, and that’s where progress will need to be made.

Some other notes from the past 24 hours

  • Real Madrid’s right side of attack has so many variables. Last night, the entire right side — Lucas Vazquez, Luka Modric, Fede Valverde — was eventually subbed off. When Rodrygo Goes came in, he went to the left to overload that side rather than providing symmetry. It worked. I have no real quarrels that the play is not symmetrical so long as the ball is going into the net.
  • I’m a big fan of chest bumps. More chest bumps please. Celebrate every minor victory like it’s a World Cup trophy. Marcelo beating his chest must live on. I expect Rudiger, Valverde, and Vinicius Jr to be the flag-bearers of the hype train.
  • Thibaut Courtois’s distribution with his hands is other-worldly good, and has been for years now. He would be a monster in the era where back-passes were allowed. He’d just fling 40-yard bombs like Tom Brady and rack up key passes.
  • I love Vinicius’s defensive work on the flank. That side of his game is under-appreciated and doesn’t get mentioned enough.
  • Karim Benzema has 19 shots through three games — the most of anyone in La Liga and five more than Robert Lewandowski. I bring this up to say: I’m not worried about him. This has been a ‘poor’ start to the season for him and he’s joint-top of La Liga with four G+A (and would’ve been first had he not delegated the penalty in Balaidos to Eden Hazard). I would get worried about him if he had three shots in three games and thus been uninvolved. He’s present. Shooters shoot.
  • I’m writing this about an hour after Antonio Blanco’s season debut in the Cadiz - Athletic game, which I unfortunately watched. At the very least, Athletic were fun, but I’ve watched enough Cadiz now to know how this will go: Blanco will barely touch the ball, and most of his notes will consist of his movement on defense off the ball, or how he’ll run around trying to cope with Cadiz’s error-prone back line and lack of meaningful possession. It was a rough go for him tonight starting in the double-pivot alongside Jose Marí. Cadiz were blown away by four goals, and Blanco — doing a respectful job tracking runners — had just 22 touches in 60 minutes.

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