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Real Madrid’s direct paths to goal: Quarterbacks and finishers

The team’s ball progression looks good

Atletico de Madrid v Real Madrid CF - LaLiga Santander Photo by Denis Doyle/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.

What is the best way to stop an attacking trio of Vinicius Jr, Rodrygo Goes, and Fede Valverde — three high-flying fluid runners who can dribble and score — from creating chances? There may not be anyone on earth who can carry the ball with the efficiency and devastation of Fede Valverde. Nor are there many wingers who can dribble past players at will like Vinicius does. Rodrygo’s cuts off the ball go undetected regularly, and his finishing continues to improve.

The three work in unison to make runs in behind the defense. They create, and move swiftly in the right spots. They can hurt you even in the tightest of spaces. Giving them space to work with is suicide.

And that’s exactly what Atletico Madrid did in the first half of September’s Madrid Derby. Diego Simeone had his team hold a high line, which is a cardinal sin when defending Real Madrid, a team that wants nothing more than having free space to run into. Watch Vinicius and Rodrygo off the ball at any given moment to see where they cut, and it’s always into space where defenders can’t catch them. When they receive the ball, they lay it off and sprint behind the line. Holding a high line against them is the equivalent of throwing up an alley-oop to let them dunk on you.

To make matters worse, Simeone’s mid-block didn’t press. They allowed Aurelien Tchouameni, Luka Modric, and Toni Kroos to receive the ball into space and pick their targets:

What is Atletico’s structure here? Holding that high of a line without pressing is what I call “in limbo” — stuck between two worlds. The ‘lines’ are shattered. Toni Kroos ranks in the 99th percentile in progress passes from his position. Modric is in the 96th percentile; Tchouameni 84th. Tchouameni’s balls over the top are particularly spicy. Giving them space and daring them to play quarter-back is a kamikaze mission.

Here’s another instance — one of many — where Real Madrid took advantage of Atletico’s composition:

Rodrygo’s break starts from a Thibaut Courtois goal-kick. It is inexcusable to concede a 1 v 1 from that situation. First they let Kroos receive the ball deep, and then leave Modric free between the lines. One quick note: Atletico were bad, but that shouldn’t take away credit from the work that everyone — Carlo Ancelotti and players on the field — did to take advantage of the situation. All three of Kroos, Modric, and Rodrygo are brilliant here. Kroos plays the vertical ball with 1-touch; Modric’s through-ball is perfect; Rodrygo’s off-ball run is great.

What I love about the above sequence is the simplicity with which it is executed. There is no overthinking from anyone. Football purists often moan about Real Madrid’s lack of identity. Gobbledygook. This is Real Madrid football. Point A to point B. Direct paths. Defend, attack. And it is beautiful. This is what Jorge Valdano meant when he described Real Madrid’s philosophy as “They want the shortest way to score”. No — this ideology is not unique, it’s just that Real Madrid don’t gloat about playing a certain way, they just do it, and win more than anyone while doing so.

In the second half, Atletico pressed more aggressively. It was better, but also allowed Real Madrid to showcase some stunning passing sequences. Modric’s ability to progress the ball with his communication, movement, and passing was on full display:

That’s Modric playing puppet master. There are subtle details at play. Modric is initially nearly square to Dani Carvajal, but points to his right-back to play the ball ahead into space. Carvajal obliges, and Modric gets to the spot. He then passes it out wide to Fede Valverde and moves diagonally ahead of him as a decoy. Seconds later Real Madrid have the ball switched into open water on the left side.

It’s barely any sample size to go by, but Modric already leads the league in through balls and is second in xA/90. He’s sixth in goal-creating actions. And anyway — regardless of if the sample size is small or not, he’s been doing this his whole career. Watching him now is not that different to watching him at age 27. If an outsider who knew nothing about him watched him play now, he’d assume this is a player in his late 20s, at this peak.

There is an argument to be made that he is at his peak anyway. This might be the longest sustained peak for an older player of this entire generation. It’s lasted nearly a decade. The increased depth in midfield might prolong it even further, and allow Modric to save his Mortal Kombat Fatality finisher for when it really matters in the spring time.

What remains to be seen is the aftermath of the World Cup. Perhaps there will be an uptick in reliance on Toni Kroos (internationally retired) and players who may not play as much in Qatar— Eduardo Camavinga, Dani Ceballos — to help carry the team to the finish line. They won’t need to be burdened for the whole season, but enough to keep the team fresh.

No matter how you spin it, Real Madrid’s nine straight wins to start the season have spoken for themselves. And the process, in addition to the results, has largely been encouraging.

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