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.
THERE MAY NOT be a better midfield to build your future around than the one that currently exists at the Bernabeu. The long-awaited signing of Jude Bellingham gives Real Madrid the perfect modern day midfielder — versatile, high defensive IQ, great dribbling, multi-functional, creative, technically gifted, athletic. The Englishman slides into a team that is methodically building a young squad with players just like him: Players that can do everything and anything in a variety of roles.
Versatile players like Bellingham are always welcome at a team like Real Madrid that prides itself not on one single identity, but rather titles, through whatever means necessary. In 2016 - 2017, Zinedine Zidane’s diamond was about control, fluidity, and pressing. In 2014 - 2015, Carlo Ancelotti’s quartet of James Rodriguez, Isco, Luka Modric, and Toni Kroos was about high-octane pressing and short passing triangles. A year prior, he blitzed Bayern Munich with a counter-attacking scheme led by the BBC and a different midfield engine. Last season, it was a conservative brand of football that relied on minimal chances before a final blitz of pressing against tired opponents. What does next season have in store?
Ancelotti’s job security, secured for next season, is shocking to some given the disastrous league campaign. Some feel a foundational tactical identity and more complex scheme is needed to fight teams like City next season. Others sense that the Italian has earned enough credit in the bank — the benefit of the doubt that he can improve the team next season so long as the board improves the squad for him.
It will be interesting to see if Bellingham’s arrival is the tipping point to play a different brand of football. He arrives at Real Madrid as an assumed starter as one of the best midfielders in the world who can do anything and everything. Ancelotti’s explanation for not pressing more has always been that Modric and Kroos don’t have the legs to sustain that brand of football. But Eduardo Camavinga (freed from left-back shackles with the arrival of Fran Garcia), can. Bellingham can. Fede Valverde and Aurelien Tchouameni can. Dani Ceballos can too, though is future is still in limbo. (That may change if Luka Modric opts to take the lucrative offer from Saudi Arabia.)
Will Ancelotti play a more aggressive, pro-active blueprint with Bellingham’s arrival? His track record as a manager suggests he can implement a successful high-pressing and aggressive brand of football if the pieces fit. Many, including this author, have shared skepticism that Ancelotti would deviate from his Modric - Kroos reliance in big games, but at some point cycles turn their last page. Not that the Modric - Kroos era is over — but a transition where one of them (probably the older Modric), plays less, is in the cards.
Part of the reason Ancelotti couldn’t shake up the legendary central midfield duo was because Camavinga spent so much time filling an urgent hole at left-back. With Fran Garcia’s arrival, that part of the equation is sorted when Ferland Mendy can’t play. With Camavinga and Bellingham, Ancelotti has two players who will be hard to drop — leaving just one or two spots open for the rest of the midfield generals.
But Ancelotti could go another route, and this particular option is under-discussed and realistic enough to theorize about: Bellingham could compete with Rodrygo Goes and Fede Valverde as much as he does with Eduardo Camavinga, Luka Modric, and Toni Kroos.
Bellingham’s versatility allows him to soak up heavy minutes as an attacking midfielder, where he could take on a role as the third attacker alongside Vinicius Jr and the new striker (or possibly Rodrygo as a false nine in some games).
In such a world, Bellingham wouldn’t take on the role of a traditional right-winger that would provide symmetry, but rather a roaming attacking midfielder who could, on one sequence, be overloading the left-side and linking up with Vinicius, or roaming centrally to play an incisive pass into the box; even taking players on on the right wing — all the while still contributing defensively.
Bellingham is a line-breaker and incisive dribbler. He had 86 successful take ons in the Bundesliga this season — the most of anyone in the league. He also had the second most progressive passes and third most passes into the penalty area. Only three players blocked more shots than him and only five players had more tackles. He is, in a nutshell, the poster-boy of the modern midfielder who can do everything. In that sense, he is quite similar to Eduardo Camavinga — a cerebral multifunctional player who, in addition to being technically gifted, is built like a Greek god.
Bellingham’s arrival unlocks more options for Ancelotti to unearth a more aggressive blueprint — but before talking about an improved season and a more fun style of play, Ancelotti will also need the board to give him a lethal striker in the transfer window, otherwise all the incisive dribbling and creative output will be hard to capitalize on if there isn’t a target to finish the chances on a consistent basis.