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RCD Espanyol v Real Madrid CF - LaLiga Santander Photo by Pedro Salado/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

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Real Madrid’s squad building in midfield and attack has a long-term vision

It’s not easy juggling immediate and long-term success

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 REAL MADRID BOASTS in midfield now is far different than what many had envisioned back in 2017. The slate of players are new; old promising faces are gone. But a different direction worked in this case. Young players, seemingly auspicious at the time, were upgraded. It’s hard to argue against Mateo Kovacic, Marcos Llorente, and Martin Odegaard leaving when those three departures, in one way or another, opened the door for Eduardo Camavinga, Aurelien Tchouameni, and Fede Valverde. All six players are good. But Camavinga has eight years on Kovacic and fits the Kroos-Modric transition timeline better. Tchouameni is better than Llorente by virtually every metric. And while Odegaard is great and is a more incisive passer, Valverde is the better line-breaker, ball-carrier, defender, and for lack of a better word, offensive bowling ball. And, quite frankly, the most obvious trait that Valverde has over Odegaard: He wants to be at Real Madrid.

What Ancelotti has, and to a great extent, it’s by his own design: two-way players. Everyone in the starting line-up is a specialist in their own way, but there isn’t anyone in the ‘Once de Gala’ who doesn’t contribute on both ends of the field. What gets lost about Vinicius sometimes is that he’s not just a superstar, but he’s also a great defensive player who helps tirelessly on the wings. Benzema organizes the team behind the ball and picks the pockets of midfielders. You can go down the list: Everyone in the XI provides balance. When your best players work the hardest, the culture is infectious.

That in itself will give the team a huge chance of fighting for titles. In Real Madrid’s history, the top-heavy nature of the team was sometimes too much of a burden to carry. It led to inconsistency in La Liga and over-reliance on certain players. Part of the reason Real Madrid won the double last season, and have started this campaign with nine straight wins, is because the team has the ability to lock things down defensively while distributing the work-load without overtaxing a handful of players. They collectively grind it out. Some may even call it boring, or anti-football, but the reality is that winning has always been about efficiency and solidity.

And that Real Madrid are in this position now comes down to their ability to be patient in the transfer window while pouncing on market opportunities. Some of these things are hard to predict, but at the very least, are calculated, and will be proven either right or wrong over time. Selling Casemiro makes the squad worse short-term, but is there an argument to be made that it made the team better because Tchouameni gets more reps and integrated faster? Not signing an attacker — either to back up Karim Benzema or to play on the right wing — has meant more precious minutes for Valverde and Rodrygo. Sometimes too much depth is a problem. Narrowing the inner circle of players helps sustains rhythm. I’m not sure you get the same version of Valverde, Rodrygo, or Tchouameni if their minutes are split in half.

Some of Real Madrid’s decisions were admittedly financial, and plenty of mistakes will be made along the way. Luck is involved. But that has always been the case with any great team, and there is measurably no greater club than Real. If there is competency at the board level, the hits will outweigh the misses. I have always erred on the side of continuity and pragmatism if the team is already good. Slight retooling is generally the way to go unless the team is in a dire state. In Real Madrid’s history, great young players have always stepped up when signings were not possible. Valverde and Rodrygo are now the modern version of what’s been repeated countless times before them.

Challenges exist, though. No one can predict injuries, suspensions, and the toll the World Cup will take on the squad. Next summer the pool of attacking free agents isn’t great. The names aren’t necessarily more exciting than they were this summer.

New names will likely arise — they always do — if the club requires someone. The club is also primed in 2023 to sign Jude Bellingham, who would slot nicely into the team as a multifunctional midfielder in a post-Modric world.

As always, the most difficult thing to do may not be the process of signing someone, but moving on from heavy contracts that belong to post-peak players. Eden Hazard’s value will likely drop even further. The older he gets, the more expensive he looks. There is no real solution around that one other than keeping him around.

Real Madrid CF v Real Betis - LaLiga Santander
Rodrygo and Valverde have been big winners of the transfer window
Photo by Antonio Villalba/Real Madrid via Getty Images

SO MUCH TALK has been made about who should start on the right wing between the team’s two best options, Fede Valverde and Rodrygo Goes. But we’ve come to realize now they play brilliantly together. Benzema’s absence in September showed us one thing: Rodrygo as a false-nine connects well with Vincius; while Valverde can be a dominant ball-carrier on the right-wing. The three work synergistically in fluid — yet defined — roles that make them hard to defend as a trident.

Valverde’s offensive leap early has been tremendous. Can he sustain this? His 13 key passes after six La Liga games is the fifth most of anyone in the league. The Uruguayan has increased his offensive output while maintaining his defensive importance. Rodrygo, who has taken advantage of his playing time, leads La Liga in goal-creating actions, and is second in xA per 90. Between Rodrygo and Valverde they’ve summoned 11 goals + assists in La Liga combined. That’s tremendous contribution during Benzema’s absence.

Is Valverde’s shift to right-wing Ancelotti’s newest re-invention? Does he fall in line with predecessors like Andrea Pirlo and Angel di Maria, who shifted positions despite wide skepticism?

One of the most difficult things opponents have had to cope with this season has been Rodyrgo’s unpredictable runs. Last season he torched teams with simple, off-ball diagonal bursts from the right which allowed him to go undetected in the box. This season, he’s taken his movement to a whole new level — hedging to the left even when deployed as a right-winger and roaming freely horizontally. Overloading the left side has proven problematic to defend, and it’s been a cause of great link-up play between Rodrygo and Vinicius — and even Benzema when he plays with the two. The wrinkle has created three goals this season and plenty of chances as well.

Deportivo Alaves v Real Madrid CF - La Liga
The offensive burst from Valervde and Rodrygo to start the season has been pivotal to mitigate the damage from Benzema’s injury
Photo by TF-Images/Getty Images

FOR TWO YEARS prior to signing for Real Madrid, Eduardo Camavinga’s name was intertwined with the club. Zinedine Zidane liked the midfielder’s profile. Camavinga was a promising 16-year-old in France then. When the midfield phenom helped Rennes qualify for the Champions League — particularly shining in a 2 - 1 win over PSG — in 2019, Camavinga’s name, and Real Madrid, orbited each other even closer.

In the 2020 - 2021 season Camavinga cooled, as did rumours. That’s partly why when the two parties inked pen to paper just before the transfer deadline last summer, there was some surprise.

Only time will tell, but it almost certainly was a home run signing. Real Madrid needed a young midfield talent to come in and help with depth and build a solid foundation for the future. Over the years, they’ve lost Mateo Kovacic, Marcos Llorente, and Martin Odegaard. Dani Ceballos, a 20-year-old budding star they signed in 2017, did not pan out the way they had hoped, although, ironically, the Spaniard has had a resurgence as a role player. But Before Camavinga’s signing became official last season, the midfield depth had slowly evaporated.

It’s hard to live up to what Modric and Kroos did for so long (and are still doing), but at some point, the transition needed to begin.

It’s too soon to phase out Kroos and Modric, but the metamorphosis has begun, and it’s not inconceivable that at least one of them won’t be in the squad next season. You can’t piece together everything that Modric does — press resistancy, defensive security, deep-lying playmaking, ball progression, final balls, composure, leadership — in one single player. You’ll have to invent something new that’s less reliant on an individual elevating a tactical scheme. Kroos and Modric are unicorns in the history of football. They will sadly be gone one day, and when they leave, Real Madrid will continue. The club has always been malleable with their identity and for that reason have almost always been successful.

Valverde offers Modric’s ground-coverage, ball-carrying and off-ball runs; Camavinga brings the Croatian’s ball-winning, movement between the lines, and dribbling. He is technically gifted and can read passing lanes.

The Angolan-born midfielder also bullies people off the ball, is extremely agile, and has one of the most gifted slide tackles in the world. While he isn’t a more traditional defensive midfielder like Tchouameni, he can also cleanly dispossess players and is reliable stopping runners. Neither Valverde nor Camavinga can take the Toni Kroos role, but that’s a less urgent discussion, for now.

Pairing both Valverde and Camavinga together without Kroos — a discussion that was prevalent before Tchouameni was signed — would’ve been tricky, and would require a supporting cast of reliable vertical passers. A trio of Casemiro, Camavinga, and Valverde together might not’ve been something to fall back upon regularly, but with Tchouameni at the helm now, the need for a vertical and incisive passer is lessened somewhat. Modric and Kroos are visionaries. They see passes no one else on the field sees. Camavinga and Valverde are different kinds of players. That’s something the club may need to address in coming years.

We may see Carlo Ancelotti lean on some non-Modric / Kroos lineups more this season. Having Ceballos in the mix in said lineups would help with distribution.

I had wondered how Real Madrid would ultimately juggle the squad construction this summer to deal with the minutes where both Modric and Kroos sat out. Isco would’ve been a solution to help progress the ball, but that ship clearly sailed months, probably even years ago. They could’ve either extended Isco, replaced his expiring contract with someone like Brahim Diaz, or put more faith in Ceballos. I think they’ve made the right call by choosing the last option.

I’ve long been vocal that Mikel Arteta mis-used Dani Ceballos as a deep-lying anchor. It put the Spanish midfielder into spectator mode on offense. Ceballos’s vision is what makes him special, and having him in a more advance role makes much more sense. I’m not stating Ceballos is a long-term solution, but the club certainly sees him a useful player, which lessened the pressure of buying someone out of panic this summer.

Real Madrid v Celta de Vigo - La Liga Santander
Camavinga is a brilliant young player who you can build your midfield around. But he’ll need help, and won’t be your primary creator.
Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images

It will be interesting to see how worn down the squad gets after the World Cup, and how it might re-calibrate the thought process of the board with regards to signing someone. As things stand, 15 players will be off to Qatar. That number may fluctuate depending on what Luis Enrique decides to do with his squad. The returning tax from the mid-season World Cup could be heavy.

But even if a signing in the winter becomes a reality — something I doubt — it will likely be minor. Recently, Fernando Llorente said he’d sign as Karim Benzema’s back-up for free. Obviously Llorente is not going to be a Real Madrid player, but the ilk of a savy veteran who wants to chase a title in the twilight of his career could be something to consider.

It’s still hard to see. Would Carlo Ancelotti have trusted someone like Edinson Cavani over Rodrygo or Asensio? The Adebayor’s of the world were more likely to play back in 2011. You might be better off integrating Sergio Arribas as your break-in-case-of-emergency wild card.

Players like Arribas — just like Rodrygo — will preserve your defensive balance in attacking roles. An underrated aspect of Benzema’s game has always been his ability to drop deep in midfield to dispossess players. On defense, Benzema has only been dribbled past .16 times per 90 minutes. For context: the average for players in his position is .48. Benzema ranks in the 94th percentile when defending a player behind the ball. Older veteran strikers wouldn’t give you that same kind of stability. Arribas — a defensive work horse, versatile creator and solid finisher — would. Rodrygo does.

Ancelotti was widely criticized when he publicly stated the team has plenty of options as Benzema’s back-up. Was he wrong? In some ways, he is the face of the team’s ‘damage control’. He has to publicly defend the decisions of the board and praise the squad he’s given. But I’m willing to bet he would rather toggle the existing false nines who can create and defend over an old striker who would sacrifice balance.

The route the team took while saving cash seems pragmatic, safe. Younger players who needed to be developed are now on course to be long-term pillars. When market opportunities arise, the team will be in a financial position to pounce.

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