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 in this week’s column before a season-defining stretch:
Manchester City’s defensive versatility
Manchester City are rabid behind the ball. They have the lungs, tactical nous, cohesion, synergy, and depth to sustain long periods of aggressive pressing:
City allow just 10.26 passes per defensive action (PPDA) in the Premier League. It’s a miracle Arsenal took so long to give the ball away.
But an interesting — and underrated — part of City’s defense is their versatility. They’re not just a high-pressing team. Their PPDA is actually down from last year (8.25). They can downshift and rotate quickly even when defending in their own half:
That’s not an easy defensive block to break down. Consider that the above sequence was one of Arsenal’s best spells of possession all game, and it amounted to nothing. City hedged back, had defensive width, and moved as a unit all over the pitch. By doing so, Arsenal’s wingers were completely nullified. On the strong side, they were suffocated, and on the weak side, they were isolated.
Arsenal passed their way into City’s half in part because they’re good at doing so (generally), but also because they had to find a solution to escape their half where they were pinned. But in doing so, they escalated their risk. Less than a minute after City won the ball above, this is the carnage they unleashed:
Arsenal opt to stay up the field and press, keeping their defensive line high. City invite it then cook it. You can argue Arsenal’s press wasn’t good here, and they shot themselves in the foot, but I would gently point out Real Madrid haven’t fared much better when they press, and that final gamble which sets Kevin de Bruyne on a break is on the table at the Bernabeu and Etihad. Most of Real Madrid’s central defenders, namely Eder Militao, Antonio Rudiger, Nacho Fernandez, are generally aggressive with their step ups, and will have to calculate everything perfectly when the semi-finals roll around.
Fran Garcia showing up in big games
In this last three ‘big games’ — against Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid — Fran Garcia has posted either a goal or an assist in each encounter. But beyond some of the metrics, there is a certain body language he’s carried himself with. He has claimed the flank as his own on those nights, as he has on so many occasions this season. He loves the spotlight — intoxicated with playing in the biggest fixtures.
Garcia is one of those players you have to watch to truly appreciate. His advanced analytics don’t pop as much as some other full-backs. But he works hard on both ends of the field, doesn’t stop moving off the ball, and has a natural understanding of stepping at the right time to intercept a pass and then drive the ball forward 40 yards.
His work ethic makes him an excellent presser. If he’s not winning the ball himself, he’ll be in a position to receive the pass when his teammates thieve possession. Typically his movements in attack are in the left half-space, though he can also overlap and get a good cross in. His link-up play in Real Madrid alongside Vinicius Jr and Karim Benzema would be excellent. He’s already formed a solid understanding with Alvaro Garcia on Rayo’s left wing.
My hypothesis is that he’ll look better in a better team, where he and others can elevate each other. His assist rate and key passes should shoot up with attacking players to ping off of.
Garcia’s best asset is his ball-carrying and defense. He currently leads La Liga in dribblers tackled and is top-10 in interceptions; while he’s second in both progressive carries and progressing carrying distance. Only three players in Spain have slung more crosses into the penalty area.
Garcia is still young. Sometimes things don’t pan out. Sergio Reguilon was one of the best left-backs in Spain at Sevilla but he couldn’t sustain that same form consistently in England. Garcia has the tools to succeed, but there’s still a long way to go.
Is Rodrygo as good as Vinicius?
This is a question that Lucas Navarrete and I were asked (response here) on a mailbag podcast a few weeks ago: Is Rodrygo Goes as good as Vinicius Jr? The answer, scientifically speaking, is ‘no’. Vinicius will be a Ballon D’or nominee, has already passed his numbers from last season, and for the second consecutive season, is the best winger in the Champions League.
But it does open an interesting thought exercise: Would Rodrygo be in Vinicius’s position now had timing been on his side? Vinicius was signed first, and was more established to claim the left wing. Rodrygo came later, and because of his versatility (and Vinicius already claiming the left), he came in off the bench — most often not in his best position.
And he has, for the most part, cooked. His dribbling has been insane. He works hard on defense and has a good range of roamability as a link-up player. I don’t think it’s crazy to state he’d be just as good as Vinicius had he come first, and if he wouldn’t be, I don’t think that gap would be significant.
Rodrygo’s numbers are really impressive. He’s second in La Liga in successful take ons (behind you-know-who). He’s fourth in La Liga in assists despite only starting 22 games. He’s also first in goal-creating actions per 90, and second in carries into the penalty area. He probably eclipses the league in several categories if he starts every game.