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Real Madrid v Manchester City Semi Final Leg Two - UEFA Champions League Photo by Angel Martinez/Getty Images

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The incredible Camavinga, the space-creating Rodrygo, and a questionable press against Manchester City

In this week’s column, Kiyan looks at Modric’s ball progression, Camavinga dazzling the Bernabeu, and how Asensio is on the verge of some career-best numbers

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.

As we near the end of a successful month where Real Madrid got themselves to a Copa del Rey final and Champions League semi-final berth respectively, I wanted to reflect on some tactical patterns, as well as the resurgence of a certain Spaniard, a continually unbelievable Frenchman, and much more:

Rodrygo, unlocking space

I cannot overstate how much I’ve enjoyed Rodrygo’s emergence as a deserved starter in Real Madrid’s front three. His presence has unlocked space for Vinicius Jr and Karim Benzema. So many great chances — those that result in goals and those that don’t) are orchestrated by Rodrygo’s off-ball runs. He drags defenders around the field with his fluid off-ball movement.

His link-up play, connecting the dots alongside the attackers, has been pure eye candy:

Rodrygo leads La Liga in goal-creating actions (a staggering stat given that he’s started 19 games), and is third in La Liga in successful take-ons — a number that has the potential to be #2 (minimum) if he had started every game.

As the season progresses and Rodrygo continues maturing, it’s clear he’s good enough to be a starter, and something should be said about Real Madrid’s decision to not sign a winger in order to enhance Rodrygo’s crucial developmental minutes.

Will Real Madrid press against Manchester City?

Real Madrid have never really had a consistent desire to press. There have been long periods — months — during Carlo Ancelotti’s tenure where the team has sat back and absorbed pressure. Sometimes they deviate from that and opt to be more aggressive with their line and pressing. When they do, it’s a mixed bag of permeability, dysfunction, and sporadic success.

The numbers reflect Real Madrid’s limbo impulse to press. Ancelotti’s men are 11th in La Liga in passes per defensive action. Teams like Celta Vigo, Valencia, Osasuna, and Sevilla are more aggressive. The Champions League is no different. Barcelona, who exited the tournament in the group stages, have committed three more tackles in the final third than Real Madrid have so far all the way up to the semi-finals. Marseille and Maccabi Haifa have the same amount.

This, in part, is why I don’t think Real Madrid will press aggressively against City. But I can be swayed in the other direction as Ancelotti has recently deviated from his tactics from early winter, and threw a curveball against Barcelona in the first leg of the Copa del Rey semi-finals with an aggressive counter-pressing approach. Last season, he turned up the pressing to full throttle in the second half of the second leg against City.

But that was also partly down to urgency as the team was on the brink of elimination, and it also coincided with fresh legs coming on the field.

Another point to consider: Ancelotti is a firm believer in the energy-drainage of pressing. He looks at the marathon aspect of ties like this. Part of the reason Real Madrid left their heavy pressing for the clutch last season was because their opponents all pressed and ran out of gas. “We knew Chelsea could not sustain their energy,” Ancelotti said after the second leg last week, explaining Chelsea’s approach. He has often spoken about the energy it takes to deploy such a blueprint. He may want to ‘keep the tie alive’ until the final stretch before a final blitz. There is also the matter that the first leg is just three days after the Copa del Rey final — another problem Ancelotti needs to solve.

Real Madrid don’t press consistently enough to form a cohesive, reliable press. They do have enough promising pressing sequences, but plenty of bad ones to balance it out. Villarreal are comfortable here:

Manchester City invite pressing. They love it — the more you press them the more it fits into their game plan. But, that doesn’t mean they can’t be made uncomfortable when pressed, and Ancelotti may feel the best time to do it will be later in the game(s).

Fede Valverde’s pin-point laser switches

(That was one of his less impressive switches in the past few games)

One of the things I’ve enjoyed most from Fede Valverde’s resurgence where he’s bounced back into form is his long range passing. From both sides of the field, he’s pinged diagonal switches to the far side over vast distances, causing defenses to scramble in transition while the ball-recipient on the wing gets space to run into.

Those switches are impressive because they’re typically with defenders breathing down his neck. Valverde not only hits those accurately, but with enough venom and pace to reach its target. The purpose is to break defensive lines that are converged on the strong side.

It has not been a huge part of Valverde’s game. The Uruguayan typically progresses the ball through carries. He slings less long balls than Dani Ceballos, Luka Modric, and Toni Kroos. (The difference between Fede and the long-ball demon himself, Kroos, is 1.8 vs 6.5 accurate long balls per game respectively.)

But Valverde has started to sprinkle those into his game more, and always finds ways to get the ball forward regardless. He’s top-10 in La Liga in passes into the penalty area, and top six in goal-creating actions.

Real Madrid benefit more from Valverde’s presence in midfield, in a deeper position, where he can free up a role for Rodyrgo and impact the game on offense from a deeper position with unsuspecting overloads; while still boasting enough lungs in his chest to help the defensive line too.

Real Madrid’s new(ish) line-up where Fede plays alongside Modric and Kroos and Rodrygo slides in attack while Camavinga hedges to the left-back position has obliterated teams in this mini run. Everyone seems to be thriving alongside each other.

Perhaps a stronger opponent — Manchester City — will bring that line-up down to earth, or at least give it a proper test. Chelsea and Liverpool have not been good — neither against Real Madrid nor this season in general.

Still, it’s clicking for now, and Valverde has been a huge part of that.

Camavinga, natural intelligence and efficiency

My favourite plays are those that combine everything in one stroke: Defense and offense done efficiently in one motion. Eduardo Camavinga understands where he needs to be, when to step up, and when to play a one-touch vertical pass without any fluff:

Camavinga is constantly looking vertical with efficiency. Sometimes that means one touch, other times it means carrying the ball 40 yards himself. He had one such sequence against Cadiz, where he won the ball as the deepest defender before carrying the ball the entire length of the field to the opposing box. He’s done so well at left-back it almost makes me worry: Will he turn out to be an emergency ‘everything’ as his career progresses?

He’s still at his best as a central midfielder, but a lot of those traits that he excels at in midfield help him at left-back. He knows how to help escape pressure, and plays the role of inverted left-back naturally:

From a ball progression standpoint, you can put Camavinga virtually anywhere. He’ll move between the lines when he doesn't have the ball and will get it forward between the lines when he has it. He has improved his decision-making on the ball over the course of his fledgling Real Madrid career.

Marco Asensio, hitting form

We have been waiting for this version of Marco Asensio for years. We got it sporadically before — in games against mid-to-low-tier opponents, but over a sustained stretch? This is the first time he’s looked this good since 2017. The Spaniard, filling in reliably as the third attacker — either off the bench or as a starter — is now first in La Liga in goals + assists per 90 (and fifth in all the top-five leagues) and first in goal-creating actions per 90. As a small footnote, in a stat that I don’t rate highly in football (but it’s interesting enough to note here), Asensio also leads the top-five leagues in xG Plus/Minus/90 — a metric that shows how likely a team is to outscore their opponent when a player is on the pitch.

Asensio has also looked good in two areas where he’s received criticism over the years: 1) showing up in big games; and 2) dribbling. He’s looked good against Barcelona and Chelsea, and his success to get past his man has looked much better of late. Against Celta Vigo at home, Asensio’s dribbling in tight spaces was efficient. He’s still not on the level of line-breaking that Vinicius and Rodrygo provide, but Asensio has now cracked the top-10 in La Liga in successful take-on percentage.

Luka Modric’s natural understanding of ball progression

Luka Modric has some of the best instinctual ball progression the world has ever seen. Maybe that’s not surprising, given the Croatian is arguably at the top of the all-time central midfield rankings. Surely some natural football intelligence is factored in to being so great.

Take note of how he moves off the ball: Where he positions himself to escape pressure, how he drops his shoulder, where he moves after he releases the ball, and so forth. For those that appreciate these tiny wrinkles, it’s a work of art:

Modric drops deep to show for the outlet ball twice before running in behind Chelsea’s initial pressing line to give Dani Carvajal an option. The ball is eventually released — via a progressive pass — to Rodrygo Goes on the flank.

Modric got a lot of criticism for his defensive performance against Chelsea in the second leg. Ancelotti clarified after the game that he had to switch him and Fede Valverde to get Eduardo Camavinga more help.

But there’s something about those big Champions League nights that make Modric so important. Let him rest the in-betweens and let his experience, brains, and impeccable fitness takeover and guide the team forward and into the opposition’s box. Modric is vital in the offensive organization of the team.

I don’t think we’re seeing peak Modric. His genius is apparent but not necessarily every week, and certainly not with the same proficiency of his younger days. But he is at a stage now where he saves his best moments for the most important junctures of the season. It is hard to see Real Madrid without his poised leadership on the field when the season is on the line. The moments of magic in the Champions League knockout ties are still there.

Dani Ceballos getting on the ball

Dani Ceballos may not be playing as much these days, but it still nice seeing him to do good things when he’s on the field. Not all of his passes are cleanly executed, but they are always progressive. He has an insistence to play balls into the box that no one sees coming:

Ceballos’s verticality should earn him more playing time. He has always been a visionary in the final third — useful to pick apart low-blocks with his unpredictability and helpful escaping pressure against high-pressing sides to get the team into open water. He’s obsessed with going vertical and only going vertical — using the sideway or backward pass only if all other options are exhausted.

Ceballos ranks sixth in La Liga in shot-creating actions per 90, and is in the 99th percentile in progressive passes as well as successful take-ons among all midfielders in the top-five leagues. He works hard on defense, and fits with modern-day football’s demand on midfielders to have a box-to-box, two-way presence.

Real Madrid have looked great with him on the field this season. He should be logging more minutes, and will likely play a big part off the bench if Real Madrid make a push for the Champions League title.

Tchouameni’s verticality

I have been vocal enough on podcasts about this: Aurelien Tchouameni’s struggles are grossly exaggerated. He had a strong start to the season, suffered an injury after the World Cup, then had a dip in form and rhythm, was scathingly criticized in the Spanish media, and then all of a sudden, the narrative took off: Tchouameni is a bust.

How quickly we lose our collective patience; our understanding of a young player in a new new league. A player, mind you, who was established in the French National Team, and led all of Europe in tackles and interceptions before he arrivd.

I think he’ll be fine. I have enjoyed his verticality on the ball during his “poor form”. Against Cadiz and Celta he made it a point to find people between the lines.

Seven months ago, Tchouameni was considered one of the top-five defensive midfielders in the world — primed to be the best soon. In his first few games for Real Madrid, he showed that he wasn’t just an anchor, but an offensive contributor. He interchanged well with Eduardo Camavinga in midfield, covered for both full-backs, and even made good runs at the top of the box to pop open for a shot or key pass. He works hard in defensive transition — a must for a Real Madrid midfielder:

Tchouameni has also been reliable on the ball (though could improved on cleaning up some of his cheap giveaways). He has the ninth best passing accuracy in the top five leagues, and the seventh best successful take-on percentage in La Liga. A “failed signing” — are you kidding me? Have we learned nothing watching football over all these years to value the importance of patience? Tchouameni is really good, and will be even better once he gets going in this league. He fits.

Nacho, getting valued

In the summer of 2022, when Real Madrid signed Antonio Rudiger, so much of the discourse (from myself too — guilty as anyone) was about how Carlo Ancelotti will juggle the backline. Rudiger had just come off an incredible season at Chelsea. Would Ancelotti break up the Eder Militao - David Alaba pair that won him the double? Would Rudiger start? At whose expense?

That probably undervalued and even disrespected Nacho, who has probably been Real Madrid’s second best defender this season after Militao. Had there not been so many injuries, we may not have seen that come to fruition. Nacho has played 2000+ minutes in all competitions this season; Alaba and Ferland Mendy have missed a combined 100+ days due to injury.

Nacho has been reliable across the back-four. Most notably, he turned Mohamed Salah into dust over two legs against Liverpool.

In the March 19th Clasico at Camp Nou, despite Real Madrid not being good enough overall and with Nacho walking a tight rope — close to receiving a red card — he put in a really good shift against a very good Raphinha.

Nacho is playing some of the best football of his career. Maybe the numbers don’t paint it that way, but his big game performances do. But he’s been that way for some time now, as he proved by stepping up in the Champions League during the stretch when Ramos and Varane got injured in 2020. Now back with the Spanish National Team (long overdue), Nacho is also among the 80th percentile when it comes to interceptions among center-backs. He continues to read the game at a high level while being reliable on the ball. He even does well to duck out of pressure with a clever dribble. He is a dependable ball carrier out of the back.

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