The 2022-23 season is underway and Real Madrid have begun their league title defence with a flawless record, becoming the only team in the league to win all four of their games. They have started the season with 5 straight victories in all competition for the first time since the 2016/17 season. The victories are different this time around, the team has changed, there are new faces in the side and that has in turn had an impact on how things unfold / will unfold on the field.
Ancelotti has a squad of only 23 first team players — the fourth smallest squad in La Liga — but his squad management with rotations has been good so far. The distribution of minutes and integration of young players in the dressing room seems to be going smoothly and that is translating into performances on the field.
Here are four early talking points from Madrid’s season so far
Tchouaméni’s positioning in midfield
Aurelien Tchouaméni was Real Madrid’s big money signing of the summer, brought in to serve as a future replacement for Casemiro. The transition has had to be fast forwarded with the Brazilian’s surprise summer transfer to Manchester United. Tchouaméni has seen himself start for Real Madrid in the midfield, doing a solid job so far.
Tchouaméni in essence is not exactly a lone pivot, he has box-to-box qualities and an incredible ability to win the ball in midfield. His ability to regain possession and recover the ball has been on display in all of his early appearances. In his 238 minutes for Madrid so far, Tchouaméni has made 26 ball recoveries — an average of 9.38 ball recoveries per 90.
His physical attributes give him a large zone of control to claw back possession from the opponent. He is a towering presence in the air as well, winning 11/14 aerial duels.
Madrid have effectively managed to replace an incredible ball winner with another magnificent one. One of the major differences between Casemiro and Tchouaméni is their abilities on the ball. Tchouaméni’s verticality in his passes are a big asset for Madrid. He is able to play line-breaking passes from deep after a turnover, further adding to Madrid’s threat on transitions. His recoveries in front of Madrid’s defensive line coupled with the vertical passing enable him to kickstart quick transitions.
His deployment and usage in midfield has been rather amusing. Ancelotti has voiced his opinion on wanting Tchouaméni to play higher and influence games with his passing. The assist for Vinicius against Espanyol was a prime example of his ability to do that. We are still seeing Tchouaméni be positioned higher than Kroos and Modric during buildup phases, much like Casemiro. The territory map from the first half the trio played together shows the Frenchman positioned higher than the legendary midfield duo.
This may change in due time over the course of the season as midfield synergy develops further. Tchouaméni is very serviceable on the ball from deep, sharing some of the load during the buildup and progression phases.
The Frenchman was voted as the “Player of the match” against Real Betis in Real Madrid’s return to the Bernabeu on Saturday. His seamless transition into the side is a testament to the caliber of the player that he is.
Right-wing and left-back conundrum
Real Madrid signed Antonio Rüdiger from Chelsea for free, in one of the coups of the summer. However this did raise questions about how Madrid’s backline would line up in the 2022-23 season. Ancelotti looked inclined to not break the partnership between Militao and Alaba at CB to fit the German. This has seen Rüdiger feature at RB a couple of times as well.
The upside of playing Rüdiger at CB, as discussed at the time of his signing, was to free Alaba to play as the LB and influence games in the final third. Alaba played 16 minutes at LB against Almeria and another 90 against Espanyol. The Espanyol game, albeit very scrappy, provided a good overview of what Alaba can offer. His off-ball movements towards the inside of the pitch seemed very promising in that game.
Vini often found himself lacking in support from the fullback in the attacking third and it allowed opponents to double down on him or him running into a cul-de-sac. Alaba would help alleviate some of that while also offering massive improvements on crossing from the wide areas. This is something to keep an eye on over the course of the season.
Another area of mild concern for Real Madrid has been their right wing. Ancelotti has persisted with Fede Valverde on the right wing for most part but the Uruguayan is far from a natural winger. While Fede is able to have tangible impact on games from that role it’s only a stop gap solution at best, though admittedly a very good one. The 24 year-old adds balance to Madrid’s midfield and helps out defensively but adding an attacking difference maker could be a game changer for Madrid.
Rodrygo has the best claim to that spot at the moment. The Brazilian grabbed a goal on his first start this season against Betis and bagged an assist off the bench against Espanyol. He adds a direct threat from the opposite flank and is incredibly efficient inside the box with his finishing. His presence can add a dual threat to Madrid’s attack.
Marco Asensio’s level has fallen off a cliff in the last couple of seasons, with the Spaniard struggling to make a mark. He fails to add the direct threat that Rodrygo provides and has lost a step in his 1v1 as well. Lucas Vazquez is serviceable and good at getting crosses in after some stepovers to generate space but is seen as very much as utility option in the squad.
Vinicius Jr and Karim Benzema shouldered Real Madrid’s attack last season and have picked up from where they left off. While Benzema has looked a little leggy in Madrid’s last two games, he has still scored three goals and provided one assist in fou games. Vinicius has a similar record as well.
Right here. Just before the first goal. Benzema and Vinicius run in different directions at the exact same time. Benzema drags the CB away and Vinicius runs into that exact channel. Simple things. Beautiful. pic.twitter.com/NUX2c8RV7L— Kiyan Sobhani (@KiyanSo) September 3, 2022
The synergy between Vinicius and Benzema keeps developing, with the players making perfectly synchronized counter movements to pick apart defences. The execution of these movements has been a regular source of threat for Madrid. Benzema’s clever run to disrupt settled defensive shape enables Vinicius to threaten in behind and use his pace to get on the end of balls in behind.
Vinicius has been a menace, as usual, running at the defenders and creating opportunities. His development in the last year has seen him add goals while being an excellent ball carrier. He regularly managed to penetrate the box but is often seeing himself run into a cul-de-sac while dribbling and teams doubling down on him. His burst of pace fused with his skills make him a nightmare to come up against and leaves the defender with little to no choice than to foul him. He has drawn 13 fouls already in just 344 minutes in La Liga, 3.42 fouls per 90.
Real Madrid’s goalscoring output is largely shouldered by the ViBe duo and it’s become increasingly obvious for teams now. Both players are capable of creating a moment of magic from nothing to decide games but a dip in the form of either players could prove detrimental to Madrid’s season.
There is a youthful zest about this squad now. Vinicius is a match winner who can decide games with a moment of magic. Rodrygo and Eduardo Camavinga have earned a reputation of being game changing subs last year. Fede Valverde is a machine who works for the team. Eder Militao has become a mainstay in defence, although there has been a recurring pattern of mistakes in his game since the start of the year. All of these players are under 24 years of age.
Real Madrid is slowly building a spine around these youngsters and while there is still work to be done over the season and transitioning from all-timers like Kroos, Modric and Benzema will be difficult, the future seems promising with the current pieces. Madrid have game changers in these young players already, who will develop and mold the way Madrid plays in the future.