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Real Madrid v Manchester City FC: Semi-Final First Leg - UEFA Champions League Photo by Diego Souto/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

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The Rise Of Eduardo Camavinga: A Cornerstone Of Real Madrid’s New Era

Camavinga always been ahead of the curve: Above his peers at the youth level and now already one of the best midfielders in the world — vital to the Madrid engine

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.

THOSE WHO’VE BEEN FOLLOWING Eduardo Camavinga for the past two-to-three years are not surprised at his emergence as one of the best midfielders on earth — showcasing his skills and authority in the highest-stake games against the world’s best opponents.

“He is not fazed by anything,” Camavinga’s former coach at Rennes, Julian Stephan, said back in 2020. “Every time, he has to go a step higher, he does. He is an incredible young man and an incredible talent.”

“The ease and the maturity he shows on the pitch are incredible,” Nicolas Martinais, Camavinga’s coach when he was just nine, said three years ago. “He’s on the ball a lot, he rarely gives it away and he’s very mature. That’s what knocks you out. For his age, it’s really amazing.

“All the exercises we did, we’d have just finished explaining them and he’d have already understood everything. With some of the others, you had to repeat yourself and show them again. He got it straight away.

“We had to come up with new drills to challenge him, because he was twice as advanced as the others. It was all so easy for him.”

It’s one thing to read those quotes about how ahead of his age group he was, and another thing to see it on the field, in action. Sometimes you hear quotes about ‘maturity’ — an overused, even if appropriate term cast on young players who don’t cause trouble — but in Camavinga’s case it meant something more than being a good kid. For Camavinga, it was not only having a good head on his shoulders, it was greatness in his boots and fortitude under pressure. As a teenager, he bullied the midfields of PSG, Chelsea, and Manchester City off the bench in the highest-stake games in club football. Still a teenager, months later, he was deployed as left-back in a World Cup final and held his own, most notably making an important tackle on Lionel Messi.

THE WORDS OF Eduardo Camavinga’s father, Celestino, in 2013, are engrained in his memory. Upon signing for Rennes’ youth academy, their family house burned to the ground. “They lost everything,” Martinais said. “That house was a sea of tears”. The incident was an additional trial to a life already filled with hardship. Camavinga, who was born in a refuge camp in Angola in 2002, was born there as a result of his parents fleeing a war in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Camavinga recalled what his father said after the house burnt down — without a single item being salvaged and the family having no savings or possessions left. “Do not worry,” Celestino told him. “You are going to be a great footballer and you will build this house,”

“It is true that he told me that,” Camavinga told the media in 2020. “At first it was funny, I was ten years old.

“But with time, and my mother reminds me [of the message] so much, I understood that they were serious, that they thought I could go far,”

The prophecy of Camavinga’s father came true. But probably more interesting than a father motivating his 10-year-old son is that Camavinga’s maturity expounded as he got older. Sometimes players ahead of the curve eventually fizzle out and other players catch up. Camavinga continued to be ahead of his age up until now. Those same quotes from his youth coaches turned into quotes from professionals — eventually peers — much older than him.

“He is very mature for his age,” Steven Nzonzi said in 2020. “That is what makes the difference”. Nzonzi also spoke about Camavinga’s unique versatility — that is something that everyone has lauded at every level. He’s not just ‘mature’ and ‘ahead of his age’, but he can do anything and everything.

“We were like ‘wow.’” Hatem Ben Arfa said of Camavinga in 2019 in an interview with ESPN. “He was incredible. Technically and physically, he’s a monster. Everything he does is perfect. For me, he’s the definition of a modern midfielder. There’s nothing he can’t do.

“He can defend, tackle, head the ball, create, score, assist. He’s powerful but gifted technically with his left foot. He’s intelligent, elegant. You rarely see a player like him at his age. Let’s not forget: he’s still 16.”

The versatility and maturity were evident this year, as Camavinga made an impressive leap from one of the leaders of last year’s ‘bench mob’ to a bonafide, undroppable starter who could play anywhere from central midfield, single pivot, to left-back. Many of his cameos, due to stop-start injuries from Ferland Mendy all season, came at left-back. Camavinga played as Ancelotti’s left-sided wing-back in 13 of his starts this season, while starting in midfield 18 times (two of which, he was deployed as the defensive midfielder).

“Technically, he has nothing to learn and, physically, he has the engine of a Ferrari, not like a (Fiat) 500,” Carlo Ancelotti said of Eduardo Camavinga after a 2 - 0 win over Celta Vigo in April, where the Frenchman was so transcendent at left-back, that the Bernabeu gave him five ovations for his heroic challenges and unstoppable ball-carrying. One particular incredible tackle in transition to stop a breakaway was met with a deafening, thunderous applause. Camavinga was even doing roulettes under pressure.

It’s interesting tracking Camavinga’s improvement and development as a left-back. What started out as a makeshift emergency re-deployment of position, became something more: Camavinga was so good at left-back that he became not just an emergency option, but a good option, full-stop. Football Reference now has a section on the Camavinga page that allows you to compare him, analytically, to other full-backs. He is in the elite range for pass accuracy, progressive passes, progressive carries, shot-creating actions, tackles, and successful take-ons.

At first, his main benefit playing there was the assistance he provided to Vinicius Jr offensively. For much of the post-Marcelo era, there’s been little support in the final third from the left-back. Vinicius, for a change, started getting overlapping support, and someone to link-up with.

It was noted that through many of the games that Ancelotti deployed Camavinga at left-back, Real Madrid were facing an opponent that didn’t pressure them much — teams that opted to hedge into a lower block instead of making runs in behind the Frenchman. On the few occassions where he was tested, Camavinga struggled with his positioning. As we had also noted on the podcast, ‘things may be different for him if he goes up against a winger who will try to get behind him more prolifically’.

But then Raphinha — the winger with the most passes into the penalty area in La Liga this season — made it a point to go at Camavinga each time he had the ball to properly test him. The Frenchman made Raphinha vanish, putting in a dominant performance at the Camp Nou as Ancelotti’s left-back.

Shortly after, Bernardo Silva, one of the best players in the world, was left frustrated — dominated by Camavinga in their wing match-up in the first leg of the Champions League semi-finals. It wasn’t just defensively where Camavinga shut down City’s right wing, but offensively, Pep Guardiola’s men had no answer for the Frenchman’s ball-carrying and incisive movements on and off the ball, which was apparent on Real Madrid’s goal that night.

IT WASN’T ALL perfect for Camavinga at left-back — far from it. Though mostly encouraging, especially for a player who isn’t naturally a pure wing-back, the Frenchman struggled, to put it politely, in the second leg vs Manchester City. Silva went to another level, City went into cyborg-pressing, incisive passing mode. Camavinga couldn’t keep up with the runs being made behind him and the surgical passes being made in the half-space between him and David Alaba.

One month prior, at Stamford Bridge, Camavinga had trouble keeping up with a high-octane Chelsea side where Reece James played on the offensive, and Frank Lampard deployed N’golo Kante in an unforeseen fluid attacking role.

But it should be noted that in both cases, Camavinga was left alone on an island defensively — especially at the Bridge. And, well, at the Etihad, there was a collective meltdown.

Against Chelsea, Camavinga wasn’t getting help defensively from Vinicius and Luka Modric. It wasn’t until Carlo Ancelotti swapped Fede Valverde and Modric mid-way through the first half, where they were able to send the Frenchman help.

After that game, Ancelotti told me they made that adjustment to send Camavinga help.

“I think we suffered from Kanté’s positioning, when he was centre-right,” Ancelotti said. “Camavinga was used to putting pressure on Reece James and it was difficult to control the position of Kanté. In the second half, I changed the position of Valverde by putting him on the left to control the position and we were much better there. In the first half, Modrić went to stay with Enzo and that position was not covered properly and Camavinga suffered two against one. We conceded six crosses from that side in the first half. The second half was much better.”

Chelsea FC v Real Madrid: Quarterfinal Second Leg - UEFA Champions League
Camavinga, vital to Real Madrid’s success, has provided good minutes at left-back despite it not being his best position.
Photo by Rob Newell - CameraSport via Getty Images

Camavinga’s versatility, and general improvement in his positioning and understanding in reading the game, gradually won over the trust of Ancelotti.

By 2022 year’s end, the Frenchman still wasn’t a regular starter. “Camavinga makes more of a difference off the bench because he has great energy,” Ancelotti said back in December. “He has to improve, learn positioning, but he is an important player for us.”

By Spring, Camavinga had already earned that trust, in a multitude of positions, and Ancelotti had heaped praise on him — even on an aspect of his game that he was critical of in the past.

“He feels good playing with Kroos and Modric, manages the position well, and when Kroos sits deeper, he has the chance to go forward more,” Ancelotti said after Camavinga put in a dominant two-way performance as the team’s defensive midfielder against Liverpool at Anfield in a 2 - 5 win in February. By April, Ancelotti said in a press conference: “For me, he can play in any position on the field because he has something special.” The development has been incredible.

Camavinga has evolved in his understanding of defensive positioning and how to avoid pressure in deep positions in a more careful manner. Two seasons ago when deployed as a defensive midfielder, he had trouble deciding when to dribble deep and when to play the safer pass. He’d lose the ball taking players on under pressure in dangerous positions, or pass it backwards when a more line-breaking, driving approach was needed.

It was evident in that aforementioned game against Liverpool that he’s already made strides. He can shift in an out of the DM position while switching positions, on the fly, with the CM (a dynamic I’d expect to see naturally evolve between him and Aurelien Tchouameni over the coming years). His defensive reads have been beautiful, and can indirectly or directly lead to great goal-scoring chances:

In that second clip, Camavinga wins the ball so cleanly and quickly, the ball is out of Trent Alexander-Arnold’s feet and into Vinicius’s stride before the English right-back even knows what’s happened. Camavinga has an artistic way of winning the ball. That clip doesn’t show it in its perfect form, but the French midfielder has a unique ability to make an aggressive slide challenge without touching the opposing player. It’s artistic. He gets all ball, no man. It’s surreal enough that he’s gotten a handful of yellow cards because the referee can’t possibly conceive how the challenge was clean even though it was.

Camavinga proved his versatility this season, further cementing his case as an indispensable figure in Ancelotti’s line-up, even with the renewals of Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, and Dani Ceballos; as well as the addition of Jude Bellingham. “We will not let Camavinga leave,” Ancelotti said in January. “He’s untouchable like Modrić and Toni Kroos.”

But now the question is not about whether or not Camavinga is good enough to start for Real Madrid, rather, it’s about where he should start on the field. Where does he make the most impact?

In April, Ancelotti said of Camavinga: “He is taking advantage of the time he has played as a full-back to improve his boundaries,”

Playing at left-back gave Camavinga different perspectives of the field, and perhaps more importantly, his versatility which enabled him to play in that position unlocked more playing time for him, which was priceless. But will we look back on the 2022 - 2023 season as a strange anomaly for the midfielder, the way we look back on Guti’s 2000 - 2001 season where he had to play a good chunk of games as striker? Fran Garcia’s return this summer may, and should, mean less of Camavinga as left-back.

Camavinga still makes his biggest impact as a multifunctional player in the center of midfield — ideally with a ball-winning defensive midfielder behind him who is comfortable as a ball progresser whom he can interchange with. From there, he can create transition opportunities with his clean challenges; but also get between the lines without the ball and use his dribbling to chip away at defensive roadblocks.

Ultimately, some of the tactical decisions — even more interesting now with the renewals and arrival of Bellingham — will shake out more clearly next season. For now, the most important thing is that, as an institution, the board have given Camavinga an important vote of confidence with an extension and improved contract.

As it should be. Camavinga is a cornerstone and poster-child of the new era that could last another decade, and possibly more.

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