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How Rudiger and Brahim have stepped up — and why losing Camavinga and Vinicius is disastrous

Plus some bonus Ferland Mendy notes!

Real Madrid CF v SC Braga: Group C - UEFA Champions League 2023/24 Photo by Manuel Reino/DeFodi Images via 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.

This week, we’re going to discuss how Brahim Diaz and Antonio Rudiger have provided valuable minutes; how Vinicius Jr was just about to hit his stride (welp), and how Eduardo Camavinga continues to be indispensable (double welp). Also, how is Ferland Mendy doing?

Brahim Diaz, earning himself a role

Brahim Diaz has impressed in nearly all of his minutes this season. He has been a fireball — a surge of energy that has been unleashed on opponents having trouble keeping up with his nimble feet, agility, and obsession with verticality.

It’s not a massive sample size, but he has played well enough to suggest he had earned more than the minutes he received in August, September, and October. Many counter that by saying, ‘well, you can’t bench Jude as the team’s 10’. Sure, but Brahim can also be productive from the wings, doing many of the things he does off the bench. He could give Vinicius and Rodrygo rest or change games off the bench if the team needs a goal. He works hard on defense, and tracks reliably.

There is a certain directness about him. There are times where he needs to simplify things by not over-dribbling in deep positions, but if he’s driving though in transition, he is a force:

There will be games and moments where Brahim will be more useful than others, but given the way Carlo Ancelotti likes to play — erring on the side of conservatism with a mid-block while exploding in transition — Brahim helps. His defense and versatility also allows him to take on a more prominent role. He can also finish chances, perhaps taking on a bit more of the burden that Marco Asensio has taken in the past.

There is a path for Brahim to stay at Real Madrid long term. He doesn’t need to be a superstar — but the club has always needed players like him in their depth chart.

Vinicius Jr, dialling in

Few defenders can contain Vinicius Jr when he’s dialled in and floating like Neo in the Matrix. Even some of the best who have defended him in past few years — Kyle Walker, Reece James, Ronald Araujo — have been cooked a few times while defending him well for the majority of the game.

But sometimes Vinicius doesn’t get into that zone. Early this season, he struggled with various things: a system change, a hamstring injury (31 days on the sideline), long trips to South America with Brazil with little time in between games, and heaviest of all, racist abuse from fans in La Liga — all culminating at its zenith when Barcelona ultras chanted “Vinicius, die!” before El Clasico in October.

Vinicius then had a frustrating performance in the biggest game of the season up until that point, away to Barcelona. His decision-making hurt the team on both ends — and nearly even cost the team a goal when he looked off a simple pass to Toni Kroos in favour of dribbling into traffic. Barcelona won the ball. Dani Carvajal heroically saved Joao Felix’s run into the box.

But that game seemed to have clicked a turning point. He was much better against Rayo Vallecano in a draw at home the next game, where he completed 10 dribbles, broke lines, got into good positions to cut the ball back to runners in the box, and missed two good chances. He worked manically to win the ball when he lost it:

When Vinicius initially broke out on the scene under Santiago Solari, his most underrated trait was his defense. He was a two-way menace on the wings tracking deep and covering for Marcelo and Sergio Reguilon. Over the years, Carlo Ancelotti has taken away his defensive responsibilities and asked him to be ready in transition — but Vinicius’s pressing is still there.

It’s taken some time, naturally, but Vinicius, despite missing so many games because of his hamstring injury, has already overtaken his throne of having the most carries into the penalty area in La Liga. He may just be the most unstoppable player in the world when he goes North - South on a mission.

Against Braga and Valencia, Vinicius took his offensive production to another level — the one we’re used to. His latest big injury is gutting for the team.

Eduardo Camavinga, non-negotiable in big games

This is still the elephant in the room: Real Madrid have two left-backs in the squad and neither of them are as good as Eduardo Camavinga in that position. The Frenchman. off the bench, lifted Real Madrid up out of a tight spot in Clasico and instantly upgraded what Ferland Mendy was bringing to the table. His mobility, ball-winning, and technical ability helped Real Madrid click into gear:

Look at Camavinga eeling his way out of pressure with a roulette, before drifting in a central channel — taking the meaning of an inverted left-back to a whole different level. He hovers centrally throughout the entire sequence while Toni Kroos drops back to cover. His presence in that central role was purposeful, providing Real Madrid with something they didn’t have prior to his entrance: a proper outlet between the lines. Towards the end of the sequence, Dani Carvajal finds him, and Camavinga plays the ball to Kroos for a shot.

Camavinga came in for Ferland Mendy in the 51st minute of Clasico, yet had more touches, tackles, and interceptions. He didn’t misplace a single pass, and had two key passes and two dribbles completed. Some of that is because of the game state: Real Madrid were much more aggressive pinning Barcelona in the second half. But they were in part able to do that because of Camavinga’s presence.

Camavinga started his left back cameos last season with some kinks. He’s gotten enough reps in that position now that he’s virtually erased some of the weaknesses he previously had there. That he is so good there must be on some level frustrating for him, because he wants to play in midfield, where he’s great.

With Aurelien Tcohuameni’s injury, Camavinga would’ve gotten plenty of minutes as the team’s 6. Losing him now complicates things for Ancelotti, who is without his two best defensive anchors.

Wherever Camavinga plays, he’s too vital in big games to be dropped. If that means sacrificing Mendy or Fran Garcia, it probably needs to be done.

Antonio Rudiger’s offensive vision and execution

It’s hard to find a center-back who not only sees the dagger ball from the back, but also has the proper artistry and technique to launch the ball with perfect weight, velocity, and trajectory across the field to create a chance from nothing:

That’s brilliant. At Chelsea, Rudiger was one of the highest ranked passers into the final third for a reason. This is quarter-back stuff. Vinicius makes a great off-ball run that blindsides Gudelj, in part because no one would expect him to get the ball on that sequence. But Rudiger’s technique is elite. He guides the ball up and over, on an angle, that not only reaches Vinicius, but drops softly onto the Brazilian’s foot.

Rudiger’s passing numbers have dipped significantly since his Chelsea days, but now we’re starting to see him come alive. He has taken advantage of the vacancy left by Eder Militao’s injury, and claimed his spot as one of the best center-backs again.

On the defensive end, he’s been ruthless marking strikers out of the game. From the Sevilla game in the above video, the German won man of the match honours. As I wrote about in my last big column, he made Victor Osimhen vanish in Naples. This season, Rudiger is third in La Liga in progressive carrying distance, and some of those carries have been insane, through traffic.

You just have to hope Real Madrid can keep the current three-man rotation of Rudiger, Nacho, and Alaba healthy and out of trouble for as much as possible until Militao returns next season. As we had noted on the Managing Madrid Podcast when Militao initially went down with his ACL injury, there is little concern about the abilities of the remaining three center-backs, but there is worry about them spreading themselves too thin with a heavy schedule.

Ferland Mendy, getting closer to himself?

It’s been a long road back to form for Ferland Mendy, who just hasn’t been himself since that 2022 Champions League Final. 2019 - 2022 Mendy is one of, if not the best defensive left-back the club has ever had. But injuries have derailed him. When he does play — a sight that had become rare in the last year or so — he lacks rhythm, and looks a step slow defensively. Against Valencia in November, he looked to have regained some defensive bounce:

During Mendy’s peak, his step-ups were always clean and reliable. Some of those basic defensive reads that he did so well — step-up interventions, perfect 1 v 1 defending on the flanks, counter-pressing at the right moments — were present against Valencia. It was his challenge that kick-started Real Madrid’s third goal of the game:

But even with some of these defensive plays, he is not the Mendy of two years ago, yet. He still allows crosses without closing down space, and he still slings those bizarre, right-footed crosses across Real Madrid’s goal (one that Nacho had to deal with against Valencia). If Mendy is to get to that level, he needs to stay healthy to regain a sense of momentum and rhythm.

Peak Mendy is elite defensively, but we need to see it. If he’s not other-worldly on defense, it’s hard to play him with how little (zero) he contributes offensively. All wing-backs have trade-offs. The cost-benefit analysis of Mendy not defending well is overwhelmingly negative.

We need to see more of Mendy improving defensively. In order for that to happen, he needs to stay on the field and be productive while working himself back to his best form. I’m skeptical (Eduardo Camavinga still provides the best two-way balance from that position in a big game), but Mendy’s performance against Valencia was a step in the right direction.

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