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Room to improve for Vinicius Junior, appreciation for Raul’s Castilla, and the fullback conundrum

Villarreal v Real Madrid - La Liga Santander Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images

Room to Improve for Vinicius Junior

Neutrals were unanimous in their opinion of Saturday’s match between Real Madrid and Villarreal: a fun back and forth battle with the underdogs coming out on top. It is fair to say the same viewpoint was not shared by those supporting Real Madrid. After Gerard Moreno scored the second go-ahead goal from the spot, Madrid had 30 minutes to react. Now chasing the game, Ancelotti had his team press Villarreal as high up the pitch as possible. The problem? Carlo Ancelotti’s Real Madrid have been notoriously poor at flipping a switch and pressing higher up the pitch. Both on a collective and individual level there were errors abound, but Vinicius Junior stood out.

It’s never been about Vinicius’ effort, as the Brazilian is rightly recognized as a super-star willing to do the dirty work. Instead, the critique comes in regards to the application of his efforts. When the Brazilian runs at the opposition, attempting to apply on-ball pressure, the angles as which he runs allow the opposition ball-carrier to easily pick out the passing option that Vinicius was intending to deny, thus breaking’s Madrid’s entire defensive structure and forcing the backline to retreat — sometimes outnumbered.

In the above sequence, Vinicius fails to deny the passing option to Juan Foyth due to the angle at which he approaches Reina, making it easy for the goalkeeper to play a simple pass into the vacant space. A domino effect then occurs; Kroos tries to cover for Vini, Alaba then tries to cover for Kroos, and Rudiger and Militao are left trying to pick up the pieces with each Real Madrid player a second too late.

Just three minutes later, Vinicius is late to react and fails to recognize the pressing triggers initiated by his teammates. When just one player is out of tune with the rest of his teammates, a high press quickly falls apart.

Compared to other wingers, Vinicius currently ranks as 40th percentile for tackles won in the final third of the pitch and the 18th percentile for interceptions. Due to Madrid’s playing style (Carlo often preferring a low to mid block with a line of confrontation around the top of the center circle) and Vinicius attacking nature, he will never be high in these rankings but his current pressing efforts are often wasted given that he is late to recognize pressing cues from teammates and when he does look to press the opposition, his angles are off making it easy for a team like Villarreal to play through.

Raul and Castilla Appreciation

Watching the first-team’s match against Cacereno in the Copa del Rey, I could not help but direct appreciation towards the efforts of Castilla. The Real Madrid first team struggled to eek out a result with a torrid pitch, intimate stadium atmosphere, and some surprisingly good quality (looking at you Carmelo Merenciano - Cacereno’s #10 on the left wing) all providing the ingredients for a difficult match. This is the type of difficulty Raul’s Castilla have to deal with on a nearly bi-weekly basis when they travel to away grounds in the third tier of Spanish football.

The results speak for themselves, Raul and this young Castilla team appear to be finally navigating the choppy waters of the Spanish third division. Castilla are on a 12-game unbeaten run, which includes four consecutive away wins — formerly the Achilles heel of Raul’s Castilla. They sit in 3rd place, just one point off joint leaders Alcorcon and Cordoba. They have not tasted defeat since October 2nd, which was an away game to co-leaders, Alcorcon.

The likes of Sergio Arribas, the ever improving Vinicius Tobias, and the big dual national, Spanish-Uruguayan Alvaro Rodriguez are all making a name for themselves under Raul. The coach quietly has the team improving and their progress is one to watch for in the Spring. Can they sustain the good run or will the plethora of matches catch-up with this young squad?

More on fullbacks

Kiyan Sobhani and I had a long discussion on the fullback situation last Tuesday on a podcast for Patrons. Our focus was on the right back position and the bizarre lack of talent available on the market over the last 3 years. Even when Achraf was sold in 2020, the hope and expectation was that some new unknown quantity would burst on to the scene and provide an option at that position. It simply has not happened. The top five right backs in the world have remained pretty consistent over the last half-decade. The frustration for a club like Real Madrid has been that those Madrid caliber fullbacks have been unattainable — tied to fellow super clubs on long term contracts.

Toward the end of last season, the object of infatuation for Real Madrid fans — and likely the board — became Reece James. He was one of the few defenders who managed to compete with Vinicius Junior over 180 minutes. Though, his love for Chelsea coupled with a new contract signed this summer until the year 2028 has made a move all but impossible. Could questions be asked of his commitment to the project if Chelsea fail to attain Champions League qualification for next season and the direction of the club continues to sour under Todd Boehly? If Jude Bellingham signs for the Spanish capital club, does that further incentivize Reece James to consider such a move? It’s likely far-fetched, but one can hope.

On the opposite side of the pitch, links persist with a return home for Fran Garcia. If the decision has already been made at club-level to have the former Caterano return, why wait? Madrid are in desperate need of reinforcement at the left back position with a pure left back capable of combining with Vinicius Junior in the final third. If he can improve the squad now, then why put off the inevitable? Rayo Vallecano may be more than happy to take the €5 million re-purchase fee. It is easy to forget how small the might club from Vallecas is, but the club’s highest recorded transfer fee was the €8 million paid for Raul de Tomas this summer. Getting some immediate cash in the door to offset that investment would likely be welcome news.

As early as last year, I was vocal in my support of a Fran Garcia return and why I think he makes the grade over a guy like Miguel Gutierrez. There is no doubt Miguel is a promising player, with a mouth-watering ability to evade a press, but Fran Garcia is more well rounded and further polished. Miguel’s game requires a tactical set-up that can mask his defensive frailties and compliment his offensive skillset. In 2023, he is not at the level required for Madrid to bend their tactical set-up to his needs. A fullback has to be Marcelo-level to drive that type of change. Not saying it is impossible, but it may be a more difficult path back for Miguel.

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