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.
Here are some notes from the past month before Real Madrid return from the international break to play Sevilla on the weekend. Bar the Atletico Madrid game (discussed below), things have looked good.
Fede Valverde on an absolute tear
Is there anything more devastating than Fede Valverde making his signature run into the right half-space?
Fede’s final pass in the box fails him, but there are few better on earth — especially when Fede plays like the form he’s in now — that are better at ripping the defensive line to shreds in that zone between the opposing left-back and center-back. He makes so many undetected runs there. Look at the above clip — he accelerates like a gazelle.
Fede is back to his best. He may not be scoring like his pre World Cup barrage, but he’s affecting the game in so many different ways, on both ends of the field. His tracking and counter-pressing have been foot perfect. He’s still contributing well offensively. He’s third in La Liga in key passes, passes into the penalty area, and progressive passes. Only five players in the Big Five leagues have more shot-creating actions.
His tracking on the wing makes him an excellent two-way right central midfielder:
Think this season's formation has gotten the best version of Fede. He's so good as a RCM. May not be scoring as much as he was as a RW before the WC, but the best version of Fede is when he's using his 3 lungs to affect both ends of the field.pic.twitter.com/0DEvLNQlSP https://t.co/htSpGqIqKv— Kiyan Sobhani (@KiyanSo) October 17, 2023
It’s hard to understate how vital the Uruguayan has been to Real Madrid’s early success this season. This version of Fede — playing with three lungs, defending like a maniac, carrying the ball in transition, creating offense — is the real Fede. There is a little bit of Angel di Maria in him. His energy is infectious and breathes oxygen into the team.
Rudiger on a big Champions League night
One of my favourite things to do during a big Champions League night is to zoom in to see how Antonio Rudiger performs when he’s asked to mark one of the best strikers in the world. Last season, he had the task of containing Erling Haaland in the first leg of the Champions League semi-finals — expertly done — and earlier in October, he had to quell Victor Osimhen.
Osimhen is not an easy player to mark. He is an expert off-ball mover and a tank attacking crosses.
But apart from one sequence where the Nigerian leapt over Rudiger, the German put him in his pocket.
Rudiger tracked Osimhen.... perfectly. He anticipated his movements in the box, got to 50 / 50 balls first, hunted him on every cross and cut-back, and even covered for both of his full-backs throughout the night.
Rudiger may not be perfect throughout the season, but overall he has been reliable, and has a knack for hyping himself up to good effect when the spotlight gets brighter on a European stage.
Revisiting that Rudiger vs Napoli performance. So good.pic.twitter.com/a2ZFSfPJRN— Kiyan Sobhani (@KiyanSo) October 16, 2023
Tchouameni, dominant and making a statement
Let’s check in on my pre-season prediction that states Aurelien Tchouameni will bounce back and cement himself as one of the world’s greatest defensive midfielders. It, looks... Great! This is not a gloat. It wasn’t a hot take to begin with nor was it difficult to predict. He is too talented, too ambitious, and has a great track record under his belt already. And last season’s struggles were easy to diagnose.
Tchouameni’s ball progression from the anchor role has been brilliant — something that some worried about in games where Toni Kroos is not on the field. He has orchestrated build-ups, and bullied people off the ball on defense. His counter-pressing in particularly has been incredible. He steps up high up the pitch to ensure a second-wave of attack hits opponents.
Tchouameni has a nice mix of abilities to be a modern day single pivot. He reads passing lanes, covers for full-backs, and can distribute. He makes vital challenges inside his own penalty area. He is technically sound on the ball.
Tchouameni has been so good at reading passing lanes. Just when the opponent thinks the pass is on, Tchouameni know its coming, and makes up for being behind by anticipating the pass and sliding to intercept. Has regained possession like this all season.pic.twitter.com/MTJ0AVBTg9— Kiyan Sobhani (@KiyanSo) October 7, 2023
Tchouameni is ready to pounce at any moment — even if he’s seemingly behind the play. He’s been reading passing lanes well all season. That’s his bread and butter, and a good reminder of where he was two seasons ago in Ligue 1: Top two in the Big Five leagues in both tackles and interceptions.
Tchouameni can still improve. There have been moments this season where he stops tracking runners in the box. They are rare, but consequential.
But he’s at a level now that makes him indispensable. Benching him in a big game could be disastrous.
Brahim Diaz, real depth
Brahim Diaz had his “breakout game” (used loosely, due to degree of difficulty of the opponent, imperfect game, and small sample size) vs Las Palmas. He showcased his line-breaking and flashy ingenuity. I took note of some of the smaller details:
Revisiting Brahim and Joselu's role in the build-up phase vs Las Palmas for the column. Their positioning between the lines was excellent. Here's a sequence where Brahim makes the right 3rd man run for Joselu to hit with a 1-touch pass:pic.twitter.com/4iGJVUkIeN— Kiyan Sobhani (@KiyanSo) October 2, 2023
You can’t see it on camera, but I noticed it being at that match — Brahim was positioning himself between the lines as an outlet for Antonio Rudiger on that particular sequence. Once he realized Joselu was a better outlet, he peeled off the shoulder of the defensive line as a third-man runner, anticipating a through-ball from his striker. Joselu played it perfectly with one touch.
Brahim is a good player, a respectable asset as a squad player at the biggest club in the world. Last season, despite not being at his best, he ranked second in Serie A in shot-creating actions, and eighth in the Big Five leagues in shot-creating actions per 90.
Some of his intelligence and understanding in moving efficiently between the lines will have come out of playing the 10 role under Stefano Pioli in the last two seasons. His reps there now give Ancelotti the ability to keep his system if Jude Bellingham needs rest.
The problem with fielding Modric and Kroos together in 2023
In the last few years, Real Madrid have not had a great track record in big games in the minutes Luka Modric and Toni Kroos take the field together. All of Real Madrid’s comebacks in the historic 2022 - 2023 Champions League run came at the tail end of the second leg when Carlo Ancelotti took one of them out, opting for a more high octane and aggressive approach. Against Atletico Madrid, more recently, Diego Simeone’s men enjoyed running into the box without being tracked.
Systemically, opponents can take advantage of the defensive structure — especially if Modric is playing in an advanced role and / or Toni Kroos is playing in an anchor position where he’s asked to cover for full-backs.
But even when Kroos plays as the 8 on the left side, his pairing with Fran Garcia is problematic defensively.
2 back-to-back sequences that show defensive problems on Real Madrid's LW. Fran Garcia very aggressive with his pressing. His gamble means Atletico can easily break behind Kroos, who doesn't track. Camavinga only midfielder sprinting back in that zone.pic.twitter.com/hwNj8SzFGy— Kiyan Sobhani (@KiyanSo) September 26, 2023
It’s all about pairings. All of Fran Garcia, Toni Kroos, Eduardo Camavinga, Luka Modric (and on) have their strengths and weaknesses. Neither Kroos nor Fran Garcia are defensive specialists. Ancelotti may have to juggle Ferland Mendy and Kroos together; or Fran Garcia and Camavinga as the left side dyad. In both scenarios, not having Aurelien Tchouameni — the team’s best six — hurts the team’s balance.
Against Atletico, Camavinga was the only midfielder tracking back in that zone. Had Tchouameni been in the line-up, some of those issues get rectified as you have more insurance and more players tracking runners. Modric’s inclusion at the Metropolitano also took away a spot for Joselu — and one less player for Jude Bellingham to find in the box.
Towards the end of that first half, Ancelotti had Kroos and Camavinga swap positions, presumably to help Fran Garcia a bit more on defense. Last season, he switched Valverde and Modric at Stamford Bridge after Modric and Camavinga were getting cooked on defense (Camavinga was left on an island by himself defensively). There is enough data now to suggest Ancelotti may have to rethink fielding both Modric and Kroos together in big games, especially for defensive purposes.
Real Madrid have enough defensive problems by sheer reason that two safety nets — Thibaut Courtois and Eder Militao — are out. With the offense struggling to score, the margin of error is too small not to zip up the defense. That starts in midfield, where Real Madrid are supposed to be at their strongest.
10 out of 11 wins is nothing to be too upset about — but it’s worth reflecting on what went wrong when Ancelotti’s men lost the first big test of the season.
Is Lucas Vazquez... an underrated right-back?
Perhaps this is a strange stance to take. Real Madrid’s only pure right-back is Dani Carvajal, and given his stop-start nature due to injuries, it’s always been troublesome that his only back-up, Lucas Vazquez, is naturally a right-winger.
But this has been on my mind for some time (and especially bubbled to the surface of my brain after the Bernabeu roared in appreciation after some diligent defensive tracking and effort against Union Berlin): Maybe we — media, fans — overlook and under-appreciate what Vazquez has done over the years.
He isn’t Cafu, doesn’t have much offensive flair, and doesn’t fly in for spectacular slide tackles. But his baseline is respectable, and, his underlying analytics on offense look pretty good compared to other wing-backs.
Vazquez may not be a pure right-back nor may he be the most talented player in the squad, but that has never stopped him giving every ounce of energy he has when called upon to play there.
Is he underrated? Peep the comments on this tweet to see how many people actually realized this was Vazquez’s stats chart:
Dani Carvajal, reclaiming his mojo
Through five La Liga games, no player had successfully tackled more dribblers than Dani Carvajal, and only two players in Spain — Sandro Ramirez, Rodrygo Goes — had received more progressive passes. Could he sustain it when Real Madrid started playing twice per week?
Carvajal has cooled a bit since then, and numbers have started to normalize, but he still looks better than he did last season. He has been involved heavily on both ends of the field. The Spanish right-back has been one of the main reasons for Real Madrid’s hot start. His defense on the wing has been air-tight, and on offense, he’s shown great energy to get involved — sprinting to meet long diagonals and through balls.
His defensive reads have been tremendous.
No player in La Liga has successfully tackled more dribblers than Dani Carvajal through 5 games. He's been heavily present on both ends of the field. Sharp defensively; active in sprinting to meet long diagonals and through balls. Will he sustain it?pic.twitter.com/gsnjyCLTtQ— Kiyan Sobhani (@KiyanSo) September 20, 2023
Peak Carvajal is likely long-gone. But this current version of Carvajal is massive. If he sustains this form, it’s a borderline new right-back signing.
Some of his efforts on offense have been impressive, encouraging. Does Carvajal reach passes like this last season?
Carvajal has also been making good underloads in the right half-space, and his understanding with Fede Valverde has provided Real Madrid’s right flank with a seamless interchangeability:
Of course, now the question is: Can Carvajal, again, sustain this form? He suffered a muscle overload in September — a minor blip. It was not a serious injury, and hopefully the niggles don’t pile up to the point where the issues from last season boil back up to the surface.
But the schedule is getting more intense, and Real Madrid will face much better wingers as the season goes on while Carvajal remains to be Spain’s starting right-back. We’ll have to revisit this item a few times this season. Early signs have been good.
Vinicius Tobias, incremental improvements
Shocking news: A young player is getting better. Who would’ve thought?
When Real Madrid brought in Vinicius Tobias on loan in 2022, the hope was that he would develop at Castilla — possibly even get some sporadic minutes at the A-team level — and morph into a future right-back option in the post-Carvajal era.
Tobias struggled in his first season, despite showing clear signs of physical tools and talent. He accelerated too much unnecessarily in precarious positions, overcomplicating simple build-up sequences, taking too many players on, and losing the ball. He left space behind him, and was insistent on dribbling at all times.
Eventually he learned to let the game come to him, but it’s been incremental. Despite not having a breakout season, Real Madrid decided to extend him in the summer for one more year.
He is starting to show more promise now. His energy is electric, and physically speaking, he is a specimen. Tobias, a right-winger in a right-back’s body, is reading the game well. His step-up interceptions are well-timed, and he has the pace to catch up to players. He’s strong on the ball, and if he tracks reliably, can provide a strong two-way presence. He already has the dribbling and crossing tools to give you good overloads and offensive production.
Does he have a future at Real Madrid? That’s still unknown. Real Madrid will have to pay Shakhtar Donetsk around €15 million if they decide to keep him next summer. Triggering that seems more realistic now than it was a few months ago, given his progress. The right-back market is thin. Don’t be surprised if Real Madrid — a club that has sided with frugality — decide to keep the Brazilian.
Takefusa Kubo, making leaps
In case you haven’t been paying attention, Takefusa Kubo has been dusting defenders this season:
Kubo is dusting defenders this season and has been an unrelenting offensive menace. Constantly in attack mode. Love this sequence from the Granada game (where he scored 2 goals). Shoulder drop, release, get it back in a tight-space for a quick 1-2. pic.twitter.com/UMl1Xl03lH— Kiyan Sobhani (@KiyanSo) September 8, 2023
Kubo has been an unrelenting motor on offense this season. Look at him whiz around tirelessly above. He shoulder drops inside, sending his defender the wrong way, releases the ball out wide, shows for it again, and makes a quick decision in a tight space to play a 1-2. He didn’t get the ball back, but that’s besides the point — he keeps it moving directly. In that same game vs Granada, Kubo scored two goals. His efficiency on the ball has improved. He is taking a leap.
Kubo has always been great on the ball. His first touch and turn out of pressure is immaculate. His final pass or shot needed major improvement. He’s starting to get it now. Through eights games, Kubo is fourth in goals + assists and second in goals. It’s a tiny sample size, but the eye test looks great. If you have time and Real Sociedad are playing, you should tune in. They are fun — Kubo is a big part of it.
Jude Bellingham’s ‘simplistic flashiness’
There is a simplicity to the flashiness that Jude Bellingham — La Liga’s newest superstar — plays with. A brilliant dibbler and visionary playmaker, Bellingham’s flair is uncomplicated, natural.
Through eight La Liga games, no player has slung more through balls, and only two players in the Big Five leagues have scored more goals. Bellingham, primarily known for his offensive genius, also leads the league in blocks.
Bellingham has been clutch, stepping up in key moments, and putting himself into the spotlight, especially during a desperate time when Real Madrid didn’t have much offense due to Vinicius’s injury earlier this season.
Bellingham’s anticipation and natural instinct has been on full display on all of his goals:
Bellingham's instinct on the game-winner vs Getafe: He makes the run to get to the rebound before Vazquez even shoots it. 'Right place at the right time' is no coincidence. He has the ability to simplify the game. Knows where to be off the ball and reactspic.twitter.com/LQk6uSoMxv— Kiyan Sobhani (@KiyanSo) September 5, 2023
Bellingham starts his run towards Getafe goalkeeper David Soria before Lucas Vazquez even lets his shot fly. He is anticipating that one of two things happen: 1) Vazquez sees the difficult pass through the left half-space into Bellingham’s path; or 2) A shot and a rebound. Cristiano Ronaldo most famously scored these ‘tap-ins’ no one else could. He scored them because he understood off-ball movement better than anyone.
Bellingham’s passing into the box is diverse, and typically, done by creating space for himself first by separating himself from his marker before flinging it dangerously:
Through 4 games, no player has hit more passes into the penalty area than Bellingham. Always looking for the most direct paths.— Kiyan Sobhani (@KiyanSo) September 5, 2023
One run, doesn't get it; another run down the flank, effortless shoulder drop past his man to create space for a cross:https://t.co/cOuiEJmBSX
That ceaseless off-ball motor is part of what makes Bellingham so hard to defend in a number 10 role. His first run is in the right half-space. Seconds later, he makes a run down the right flank. The defender who meets him there gets barbecued through some combination of athletic ability, shoulder dropping, and elite dribbling. The ensuing ball into the box is great. (If that’s Joselu attacking a cross, and not the well-intentioned, erm, shorter Fran Garcia, that’s a great chance).
Bellingham’s unpredictable movements in a free role keeps defenders guessing constantly.
Some of his passes into the box are less flashy, but reflective of his insistence in finding his teammates in advanced positions as quickly and as often as possible:
There is little you can do against Bellingham. Get too close to him, and he’ll cut past you. Give him space, and he’ll find the right pass. On defense, he has tremendous pressing and tackling ability, and can track and hound you in transition. He ranks in the 95th percentile in tackles, 99th percentile in interceptions, and 98th percentile in blocks among all attacking midfielders and wingers.
Of course, the question will continue to be: Can Bellingham sustain his scoring? It would be reasonable to expect a cooling off — possibly even significantly — with regards to goal-scoring specifically. It would only make him human, and it shouldn’t be held against him if and when that happens. He is not a striker.
But, as I have outlined recently, there is a case that he continues scoring:
He’s playing more advanced than ever, and that won’t change anytime soon. Bellingham won’t stop being in goal-scoring positions for a while, so seeing even more goals from him is still on the table.