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.
Back in 2019, when Dani Ceballos departed the Spanish capital to begin his loan stint at Arsenal after two years of Real Madrid purgatory, where his only real stretch of prominence came under Julen Lopetegui in 2018, the Spaniard vowed to return to Real as a midfield cardinal.
“My goal is to return to Real Madrid and be important at the best club in the world,” Ceballos said.
The prophecy has been fulfilled. Last season, Ceballos made important cameos off the bench in Real Madrid’s epic Champions League run. Now, more than ever, he is prominent in the club’s two-way equilibrium. He was great in all of the club’s last three games. In two of them in particular — the Villarreal and Atletico Copa del Rey games — he transcended as a key figure in the team’s remontadas with the Cup season on the line.
Ceballos has always had a clear philosophy about how he wants to play football, and it’s gone hand-in-hand with what Carlo Ancelotti wants now: Defensive work, energy, and quick distribution to the attackers.
“If you want to be a great midfielder it’s not enough to have good vision, to get in the box and score goals,” Ceballos said back in 2017, when he was one of the most promising midfielders in Spain. “It’s vital that you can also recover the ball, help your team-mates and work hard for the side.”
Last night, speaking to the press after a great showing vs Atletico Madrid, he preached Carlo Ancelotti’s own words: “The coach told us to keep possession of the ball and look to play it in behind De Paul. That’s where we found Benzema, Rodrygo and Vinicius linking up very well.”
So much has been said about the current physical state of Real Madrid’s ageing superstars Luka Modric and Toni Kroos. The call for someone like Jude Bellingham provides you with a clear transition plan to handing the keys to talented, younger, fresh and dynamic legs. Does Ceballos’s rekindling make you think twice about how you build your squad moving forward? I still think Bellingham is too good to pass up on, but Ceballos has proven to be a valuable player.
Betis version of Dani Ceballos back in full force has to be one of the most underrated stories of the season— Kiyan Sobhani (@KiyanSo) January 26, 2023
From the notebook..
Camavinga, marking his territory
Like Ceballos, Eduardo Camavinga has been one of Real Madrid’s best players for the past three games (and counting). He’s been active on both ends of the field, has come away with some incredible challenges, has been calm under pressure deep, and combined well with Ceballos (especially) in progressing the ball. Against Atletico Madrid in the Copa del Rey, Camavinga, playing as a make-shift left-back, won 12 of his 14 duels.
He even made good overloads on the left side and combined well with Vinicius Jr.
Ancelotti had to call on Camavinga to play left-back as Ferland Mendy left the field injured against Atletico. Camavinga was great. His ability to get the ball up the field is impressive. His shoulder drops to get past his man are crafty and hard to defend. He has the ability to play nice weighted passes into dangerous areas:
Camavinga is in the 90th percentile of midfielders in shot-creating actions. His passing has been good all season, and he’s still one of the best tacklers and shot-blockers on earth. He might just be Real Madrid’s most important midfielder right now.
Camavinga has made his case now as a starter. Once Aurelien Tchouameni comes back into the line-up, Carlo Ancelotti will had to decide: Can you really keep the Toni Kroos - Luka Modic dyad together? The question becomes even more complicated with the emergence of Dani Ceballos. Real Madrid’s most dynamic performances after the World Cup have come with Ceballos and Camavinga both on the field together.
A variance in Mendy’s offensive instructions
In most games, and certainly in bloodbaths when the entire season is on the line, Ferland Mendy doesn’t leave his post much. Even those wrinkles from last season, where David Alaba and Mendy would switch on the fly, have softened in occurrence this season. Mendy hedges back to lock down the wing on defense.
But there is a useful offensive player in there somewhere. Mendy ventured more into the final-third at Lyon, and even earlier on in his Real Madrid career under Zinedine Zidane. He is still one of the best ball-carriers in his position.
Against Villarreal and Athletic Club this month, Carlo Ancelotti asked Mendy to venture up the field more, even if not prolifically. His offensive bursts were strategic but effective. He made underlapping runs which gave Vinicius Jr a clear — and rare — outlet from the full-back position. Mendy set up three chances total in those respective games. It doesn’t seem much, but for a player that averages less than one key pass per game, it’s a lot — especially given that those three chances were great.
Mendy has the ability to duck into the left half-space to blind-side defenses. His give-and-go’s help create good chances:
Mendy’s defense hasn’t been perfect this season but you know deep down he’ll come good when it matters. If he can add more regular offensive bursts into his game it makes Real Madrid a different beats offensively.