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.
Three observations on this fine Tuesday: A look at how Manchester United exploited Barcelona, Vinicius getting into his sweet spot, and how Camavinga continues to be impressive.
Making Barcelona uncomfortable
It may or may not be intentional that it’s Casemiro of all players I have selected for the below example:
Barcelona don’t like pressure. Perhaps their ethos makes a counter-claim. At their Pep-peak, they invited pressure and tore teams apart. Under Xavi, Barcelona are running away with the league, but that’s because most teams can’t pressure their build-up nor have enough talent to punish their high line. As is well documented, in Europe, it’s different, and Real Madrid have the ability to damage them as well as anyone.
Real Madrid, through various reasons, didn’t make Barcelona sweat in the Super Cup Final earlier this season. One of the main reasons is that they sat back and allowed Xavi’s men to knock it around without feeling threatened. While Real Madrid’s line regressed, Barcelona grew in confidence.
Ancelotti can’t make that same mistake again. With the new found schemes and injection of young players, the team has the ability to pressure Barca and make them cough up the ball in dangerous areas like Casemiro does above.
Winning the ball anywhere in midfield or higher will generate good opportunities. Their defensive line often has moving parts in confusion. A quick ball over the top can exploit whatever center-back partnership that Barca roll out:
There are three Barcelona players around Wout Weghorst when Manchester United win the ball. Another United player drops deeper from an offside position and that’s all it takes to drag away some space. Weghorts peels away and Jules Kounde has no idea what’s happening before it’s too late.
Much has rightfully been said about Barca’s great defense. But it gets erased against big teams, and their xGA in La Liga is 18.84 — over double what they’ve actually conceded.
Vinicius Jr, the art of the cut-back
When Vinicius gets into this zone, defenses are at the mercy of the person receiving the cut-back, hoping the shooter misses the mark:
Either that, or they have to scramble to clear the danger:
Vinicius has faced heavy criticism this season for his decision-making. I have always leaned on the side of empathy with him despite the imperfect nature of his game, and believed some of his resolution in moments can be attributed to the battering his mental health has taken and the heavy weight of expectations on his shoulders both with the ball at his feet and in how he’s supposed to mentally transcend the abuse.
He’s 22, in the top-five players in the world you’d want to build your team around right now for the future, and will surpass his numbers from last season despite the ‘regression’. He is still the best ball-carrier in Europe this season, and the moments he fails come with the high volume. All superstars have high volume attempts— whether it be shots, take-ons, or difficult passes. It’s a necessary give-and-take.
Vinicius had five key passes against Atletico and should’ve probably had at lease one assist. He is currently fifth in La Liga in expected assists.
In the last couple games — Atletico, Liverpool — he has added some more variance to his game. Once he gets to his sweet spot in the left half-space, he’s mixing up what he does to keep defenders guessing: Shoot far post, cut-back, get past his man one more time and get to the byline, cross to the far post, or quick 1 - 2s with Karim Benzema (usually). That he can pull off goals from that position (like he did against Liverpool) makes him even more difficult to defend. He scores improbable goals, and his goal tally has nearly caught up with his expected goals.
It’s exciting to see Vinicius turn up the dials again. Real Madrid need him.
Camavinga’s quick adaption to any position he plays has been remarkable — a God send. Playing as the defensive midfielder at Anfield, the first 15-20 minutes were turbulent. There was confusion on where he needed to position himself behind the ball. But that wasn’t all on Camavinga. Valverde was losing runners and leaving free space between the lines too — and as Ancelotti said after the game, “I told Modrić to press Fabinho”, which opened more space for Liverpool in transition.
Even amid a forgettable opening 15 minutes, Camavinga was active as an outlet under Liverpool’s press and had one incredible slide tackle on Mohamed Salah, and once he and the team re-calibrated, the French midfielder became a standout performer on a historic night.
Camavinga is at his best when he disrupts transition attacks. Just when opponents think they’re through, he snuffs out the break with an interception or an unthinkably clean slide tackle. Opponents don’t know what hit them. What ensues is a Real Madrid transition attack or a Camavinga ball carry. Few do it better, and Camavinga hasn’t even hit his peak yet.
These plays are common with Camavinga now, but especially noteworthy in big games:
Camavinga’s interventions can sometimes come out of nowhere, and that’s what makes his defensive reads so devastating. He hoodwinks passers into hitting those balls in narrow corridors before stepping up (he buried Manchester City last season with the same reads). The one above leads to a great Fede Valverde chance.
Once Real Madrid settled, Camavinga and Valverde did too in the understanding of their defensive assignments. “In the second half, we put Valverde there (on the left),” Ancelotti said after the Liverpool win. “And that helped”. Camavinga and Valverde both led the team with four tackles and two interceptions respectively.