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.
With Real Madrid clinching their spot to the Champions League quarter-finals, let’s look at three interesting talking points from the last few games before the discourse quickly moves on to Clasico and Real’s future Champions League opponent.
Nacho Fernandez, capturing Mohamed Salah’s soul
Mohamed Salah had about 27 minutes of freedom over two legs against Real Madrid, until, after an injury to David Alaba in the first leg at Anfield, Nacho Fernandez entered the pitch as the team’s left-back. As soon as the Spaniard arrived, he locked up Salah and put him in chains, putting an incredible defensive shift that was admired even by Jurgen Klopp.
Liverpool’s scouting report about Nacho must’ve been loud and clear in their locker-room as they tried to come up with ways to get behind him. They succeeded in doing so a couple times in the first half in the second leg. But Nacho adapted, quickly adjusted to to those passes over the top of him, and churned an incredible performance against Salah on defense. These two legs will forever be remembered by Nacho’s authority and supremacy.
The below clip is cut long to show three momentous moments: 1) Nacho sprinting and going toe-to-toe with Salah and making him uncomfortable; 2) Rudiger’s help defense and ensuing high-five; 3) Nacho sending Salah a message with a strong challenge seconds later.
You can almost see Salah feeling Nacho’s footsteps at the top of the clip — it is like he’s hearing Doomsday inevitably sneak up on him. Nacho got in Salah’s head, as did Rudiger who was a spiritual leader on Wednesday night. The two worked hand-in-hand to zip up the left flank.
Eduardo Camavinga’s left-back positioning
Eduardo Camavinga’s offensive numbers are up from last season, in part, because he’s getting in much more advanced zones when he plays left back. His shot-creating actions per 90 in La Liga are at a career high, as he’s experienced a big uptick from last season (from 2.48 to 4.03). Those numbers are also the highest among wing-backs in La Liga, and ahead of midfielders like Pedri and Sergio Canales. Simple runs into the left half-space give Real Madrid something to work with in the final third:
It’s not much nor really is it that impressive. It’s basic football that Real Madrid don’t often get from their wing-backs. Camavinga looks vertically. When there are no options, he opts for the square pass to Luka Modric, but helps the team get forward by moving into the box after he releases it. That provides Vinicius with an outlet. How many times have we seen Vinicius cut in only to find a wall of opponents?
But that’s the offensive side of things. On defense, Camavinga struggles with his positioning from that slot. He misread the flight of the diagonal ball behind him on Espanyol’s goal last weekend, and has had miscues with his positioning in most games where opponents test him more defensively at that position. Why is Didier Deschamps so hellbent on playing Camavinga — a player who, again, was incredible against Liverpool in midfield — at left-back? France have plenty of left-back options while Camavinga is comfortably one of their best midfeidlers.
(Camavinga is more than fine 1v1 defensively at left-back, it’s just his positioning where he needs to improve.)
I still think Camavinga’s best position is in midfield, but Real Madrid will get away with the majority of games putting him at left-back in emergency situations. There are going to be games where Real Madrid won’t dominate the ball as much and elite wingers will take advantage. One such match-up is against Liverpool where Jurgen Klopp deploys his Mohamed Salah and Trent-Alexander Arnold tandem. In such games if Mendy can’t play, it has to be, and was, Nacho.
Fede Valverde, getting in his flow
It’s good to see Fede Valverde forcing less and flowing more. Through personal problems, a devastating World Cup exit, and a post-World Cup dip, he’s regained a foothold. Sure, he’s not back to scoring a goal every game — but perhaps it’s unfair asking him to sustain such an offensive output when it’s not his natural game to score prolifically.
(A note about Fede’s insane goal-scoring form prior to the World Cup: He was scoring so much that even now, still, he has .22 goals per 90 minutes, which puts him in the 92nd percentile among midfielders in Europe.)
He can affect the game in so many other ways apart from scoring, but his main bread and butter — blazing the field vertically and creating havoc in the right half-space — is back:
It’s also worth noting that Fede has been at his best during many big games this season, including the league Clasico at Bernabeu, and a difficult Derby at a hostile Metropolitano. Through seven Champions League games this season, he’s averaging a career high in tackles, key passes, and interceptions per 90. Unsurprisingly, he slings the most shots on the team from outside the box, and they’re generally lethal.
One last point: While I don’t think his goal-scoring form from before the World Cup is sustainable, I do think he can be a regular 10-15 goals per season player from midfield.