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.
We’re finally at a stage where we’re ‘allowed to talk’ about Liverpool. That will come tonight and tomorrow in written and podcast form. For now, I have three items to hit you with from that past few games:
Vinicius against everyone
The other 19 teams in La Liga must have at one point held a secret conference on how to collectively get under Vinicius Jr’s skin. It’s like watching the same movie every weekend. The physical and verbal abuse from the opponents is one thing — the racist chants from the crowd and toxicity in the away atmospheres is a whole different thing altogether. Everything feeds into each other to create a tornado of aversion. I made this point on Saturday night’s Managing Madrid Podcast: No one knows why they hate Vinicius anymore — they just hate him because they think they have to.
So it was refreshing to see that Osasuna’s tone after the game was respectful and logical, aimed to diffuse the unnecessary tension. Jagoba Arrasate praised Vinicius after the game, and goalkeeper Sergio Herrera’s post-game soundbite was bang on:
“Vinicius’s behavior has been normal,” Herrera said after the game. “I think that, in the end, the Vinicius case, it gets worse with each field that he goes to, it is being revolutionized and gaining traction... What is happening with him has to be stopped. We are giving to much importance to this topic,”
On top of that, Ultima Hora reported that a fan who hurled racist insults at Vinicius in Pamplona has been identified and is facing charges. If we’re to have any chance of eradicating these disgusting behaviours, we need more opponents speaking out and more public announcements of punishments for racists in the crowd.
Rodrygo, a different kind of left winger
Rodrygo had a rare start on the left wing vs Elche. He will play this role only if Vinicius Jr misses a game. It’s a rare sight to take in.
Rodrygo cooked. The left-wing is arguably his best role (although he loves playing down the middle and is great at doing so) — it’s where he played the majority of his games in Brazil. Against Elche, Rodrygo had five key passes and five dribbles, while nearly going the entire game without misplacing a pass — an impressive feat considering he was attempting difficult passes into the box.
Rodrygo doesn’t stay stationed on the wing. He loves to drift into central channels on and off the ball:
His link-up play in the middle is excellent:
“He is a complete player and can play anywhere in the attack,” Ancelotti said of Rodrygo after the game. “He feels more comfortable on the left, because he started his career there. But, he comes inside a lot more. We had a lot more space down the left wing for the left-back because of that so it was good to have David Alaba there.”
The give and take of Toni Kroos
Real Madrid really missed Aurelien Tchouameni in the many games he hasn’t played in 2023. Maybe that’s not evident yet, as the Frenchman hasn’t yet fully hit his stride after the World Cup — but he will, and he is Real Madrid’s best answer to Carlo Ancelotti’s single pivot.
Ancelotti has found answers in 2023 to losing his only pure ‘six’ due to injury. His preferred deployment: Toni Kroos. As readers are probably annoyed to death with this preaching of mine, I’ll say it quickly: Kroos as the anchor only works if you’re pressing high and controlling possession. Otherwise, it’s a death sentence. Ancelotti, to his full credit, has figured this out, and since the end of January, has brought the line higher and asked for more energy and pressing. Dani Ceballos and Eduardo Camavinga have helped with this — as has the resurgence of Fede Valverde of late.
Kroos thrived. He was electric as a counter-presser who didn’t have to chase people in transition or track runners into the box. So much has been made about his poor form. Standards are sometimes unfairly high — especially for a player who’s been so good for so long at the club. Kroos is still having a monstrous season despite being in the twilight of his career.
When Kroos can focus on progressing the ball from point A to point B — from midfield and into the box — there are few better (if any) in football history at achieving said task. This season, Kroos leads the top-five leagues in passes into the final third while he leads La Liga in progressive passes.
But Kroos is what he is. No player is perfect. The strengths and weaknesses of each player make the holistic brawn of the team. With Kroos, it’s always been his tracking. He did improve on several defensive aspect of his game this season (as I wrote about here), but that streak has normalized now. So many of the chances Real Madrid concede are down to the lack of defensive numbers in the box. If you rewind the tape far back enough, it’s often Kroos’s man who sprints into the area unchallenged.
Kroos had two such instances against Al Ahly in the Club World Cup semi-finals that went unpunished. In Morocco, it wasn’t enough to thwart Real Madrid’s footslog to the trophy. In higher stakes games (see: Manchester City, 1st leg, Champions League last season), the outcome may not be as forgiving.
But Kroos’s cost-benefit analysis is overwhelmingly positive. Once you recognize what he does (at an all-time level) and what he doesn’t do on the field defensively, you can mask it. Tchouameni getting back into his grove will help. Ceballos, Camavinga, and Valverde all lift weights defensively. A lot of onus will be on the center-backs to cover ground. This isn’t all on Kroos — far from it. Real Madrid have had weaknesses ensuring runners are marked, particularly on crosses and cut-backs. The defenders need to do better too.