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How Rudiger and Camavinga stepped up against Manchester City

Rudiger needed to be at his best; Camavinga locked down the wing. Some notes.

Real Madrid v Manchester City FC: Semi-Final First Leg - UEFA Champions League Photo by Harry Langer/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.

I re-watched Real Madrid’s 1 - 1 draw against Manchester City today, and felt spurred to write about two players in particular:

Antonio Rudiger, raising the call

This has not been the best season for Real Madrid’s new signing, Antonio Rudiger. Much of the stuff we had been excited about from his Chelsea days — ball progression, long range passing — has escaped him this season. His marking has largely looked poor relative to his previous seasons. He’s struggled to adapt, even if his performances have been better in 2023.

The Manchester City clash was a big game for him. I had circled it: Can Rudiger raise the call and elevate his game when his team needed him the most? Eder Militao was to miss the game due to suspension, and David Alaba (who had a heroic game on Tuesday night), was struggling to get back to match fitness.

Rudiger answered, churning in his best performance of the season in the most important game of the campaign until now. Erling Haaland was contained about as well as Erling Haaland can be contained (21 touches, three shots, zero goals). Rudiger put a body on him.

But as well as Rudiger marked Haaland (with some classic Rudiger antics), his step-up interventions were great all game:

Rudiger is a menace when he’s in his element. He has been to this stage and beyond before as a Chelsea player. Remember: Last season at the Bernabeu, when Chelsea nearly snatched it against Real Madrid, apart from one slip in extra time, the German put together an incredible shift against Benzema — at the time the world’s most transcendant and unstoppable player.

Rudiger needed this performance. Real Madrid needed it. Will we look back at this game as a turning point in his Real Madrid career?

Whether he plays in midfield or left-back, this is the Eduardo Camavinga show

There is, from what I’ve seen, a general consensus that Eduardo Camavinga’s best position is in central midfield. That’s where he can maximize his strengths as a two-way player. But there is also oneness in thought that, even though he’s not as good at left-back, he’s great at playing in that role too, and we’re all at a point now where we collectively shrug our shoulders in disbelief in reaction to how great he is regardless of where he is. Just make sure he’s on the field and let him cook!

Football Reference has sneakily opened up a tab on Camavinga’s page which now compares his advanced analytics to fullbacks. He is, among wing-backs, in the 99th percentile in tackles and passing accuracy, in the 94th percentile in progressive passes, in the 85th percentile in shot-creating actions, and 92nd percentile in successful take ons. (For perspective, those numbers are all better than Theo Hernandez, who ranks higher in goals, assists, and progressive carries).

The knock on Camavinga at left-back has always been on his defensive positioning. Teams know they can exploit the space behind him, but many haven’t been able to — not consistently enough anyway to swing the cost-benefit analysis in their favour. The word of caution was always: ‘just wait until Camavinga has to face a real winger who can take him on prolifically.’ But games passed and Camavinga continued to elevate his game and understanding of that position. A real winger, Raphinha, arrived and disappeared in the face of a dominant Camavinga. Last night, Bernardo Silva came knocking. Camavinga turned him into dust and swept his remnants into a dustbin.

Few things are as devastating to face if you’re a defender than Camavinga running at you with the ball. Last night vs Manchester City, once such action resulted in a Vinicius golazo. His sprints on and off the ball are difficult to deal with:

Camavinga has toasted multiple backlines with such actions, and Vinicius is typically the beneficiary as he receives and extra competent offensive teammate to link up with. Camavinga provides an offensive threat Ferland Mendy can’t bestow, even when the latter is healthy.

Where Camavinga will have to clean up his game is taking care of the ball in key areas. Kevin de Bruyne pounced on his mistake at the Bernabeu. Though, to be fair, the Frenchman has not been the only one to cough up the ball under pressure — but his mistake did get magnified because City capitalized on it.

If I’m Pep Guardiola, I may look at playing a more line-breaking dribbler on that wing, such as Riyad Mahrez. Camavinga, in stretches against both Manchester City and Chelsea, has been alone with defensive assignments on his flank as Vinicius Jr is higher up the pitch and Modric’s tracking hasn’t been as good as Valverde’s on the opposite side. Mahrez could exploit that space better.

(Don’t worry, Pep is not reading this.)

What made Camavinga’s performance vs City even more impressive is that he had to cover a lot of ground on his own defensively in that first half, and, as great as he was defensively, he also led the team in key passes.

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