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Two key Clasico match-ups

Can Real Madrid play through the press? Can they get the better of Barcelona in transition?

Real Madrid v FC Barcelona - Spanish Copa del Rey Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/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.

Real Madrid plays in a bonus Clasico on Sunday. Facing Barcelona in domestic cup finals is familiar territory at this point. Here are three things on my mind as we heat into tomorrow’s game:

Carvajal vs Dembele

Simplifying a Clasico primer to one match-up on the field is naive. There are so many things happening on the field in games like this. Both teams have cerebral central midfielders, a variety of tactical wrinkles, game-changers off the bench, and plenty of positional duels on the pitch.

How much will Ronald Araujo’s return improve Barcelona’s transition defense from last Clasico? Will Fede Valverde do his bi-annual Clasico damage in that right half-space? Can Vinicius Jr get the better of Araujo — at least in key moments? How will Real Madrid do against Barcelona’s counter-press? Can they press well enough on certain sequences to force Ter Stegen into giveaways?

There are more. But one thing I’ll keep an eye on is the flank where Carvajal and Dembele will find each other often. Carvajal’s gone through a rough patch with his injury and form. But he did last season as well before eating Luis Diaz for dinner in the Champions League Final — a performance which was key to Real Madrid lifting the 14th.

Does he have enough in the tank to contain Dembele?

Dembele — a player who gets scrutinized in Barcelona often — can hurt wing-backs with his unpredictability and raw talent. On his day, he is an elite line-breaker. Poor Aitor Ruibal was put into a blender in the Super Cup semi-finals. Dembele even chopped him up before turning on the Vitamix.

Dembele is one of those high ceiling / low floor type players, but there is little doubt he does far more good than harm generally speaking. He currently sits second in La Liga in assists per 90, third in goals + assists, fourth in key passes, second in through balls, third in passes into the penalty area, and fifth in shot-creating actions. Last season, the French winger was first in all the top-five leaves in xAG per 90.

Carvajal’s performance in denying Dembele will be key to Real Madrid’s success. Expect to see Valverde, Rodrygo, and Modric active helping in those deep right channels.

Fede’s energy is back

It’s not normally worrying for a player to have a dip in form for a few games after a World Cup. There’s no real need to get carried away about Fede Valverde cooling down a bit after scorching the earth for a couple months to start the season.

But Real Madrid could’ve used ‘peak Fede’ in those first few games back given that their offense laboured. With Vinicius also cooling, and Benzema yet to regain his goalscoring form from open play, it became extra strenuous to score goals given that they also didn’t get production from the right wing.

But Valverde’s energy and aggressive counter-press is back. He’s starting to shoot from distance again:

Fire away, Fede. The shots from his boot sting. They invoke panic and fear in opposing fans. If they don’t go right into the old onion bag, they will marginally miss, or create some kind of chaos.

Fede is still in the 93rd percentile of goal-scoring midfielders. If Real Madrid are to go deep into three competitions, they could really use his sustained offensive output.

The Super Cup game vs Valencia was his gradual return to form. Maybe the Super Cup — a competition he loves — was a good way to get him going. He played some nice vertical passes, and had a good two-way read of the game:

Real Madrid’s offense needs to generate more. The volume is still too low — as is the margin of victory. Getting Valverde’s ball-carries, ball progression, and devastating shooting back would change things for the better.

Vinicius Jr’s form

Vinicius met Juan Foyth on January 7th — not for the first time — and went 1v1 with one of the wing-backs that defends him about as well as a wing-back can defend a player like Vinicius.

Foyth reads the game well, and is less prone to biting on fakes and shoulder drops that others fall prey to. Foyth is in the 97th percentile among wing-backs when it comes to successful tackles. He is strong, knows where to be to win the ball with conviction. Last season, he successfully tackled 74.5% of the dribblers who dared to take him on — that was the fourth best mark in the league.

And yet, Vinicius had to be fouled seven times in that game vs Villarreal, slung three key passes, and still got into dangerous zones. Quique Setien’s men didn’t have just Foyth, but three-to-four defenders on Vini at once.

This one didn’t count as a fourth (and game-high) key pass, as Benzema was called for offside (a questionable call on the replay, and would’ve probably counted as a goal after review):

How can Carlo Ancelotti help unlock more space for Vinicius? Rodrygo overloading the left side often this season has helped.

One thing that hasn’t helped: the lack of offensive production from the wing-backs. Ferland Mendy just isn’t ‘that guy’ in the final third. Vinicius needs consistent overloads and underloads to pull defenders away from him. Having a competent offensive left-back would help. Is it time to bring Fran Garcia back home?

But some of this is on Vinicius too. His decision-making needs to improve. He has had trouble beating wing-backs consistently in the last few games, and has lost the ball trying to take players on deep when a simple pass would’ve been a guaranteed source of ball progression. Facing Araujo on Sunday is one of his bigger tests. Chalk that up as another key matchup.

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