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 am working on a larger column that breaks down Real Madrid’s tactical themes, with video breakdown, that will be published in the coming days. In the meantime, here are some thoughts on a Tuesday as the team prepares for Friday’s game vs Celta Vigo.
So far so good
Heading into this season without an additional striker signing beyond Joselu, one of the biggest concerns was rightfully about Real Madrid’s ability to score goals. That’s still the case, but in the meantime, Carlo Ancelotti’s men have opened the campaign with two wins, five goals, one conceded, and have outperformed their xG by two. Jude Bellingham (most recently seen flying into the box to score a header like he’s prime Christian Vieri) has been a huge part of that early success.
As the squad is currently constructed, what Ancelotti has rolled with in the first two games is likely the best possible XI. Of course, Thibaut Courtois and Eder Militao are missing due to devastating injuries; and you could argue there isn’t much (if any) drop off if Toni Kroos starts over one of the central midfielders from Matchday 1, but more or less, the spine of the XI is clear: 1) Aurelien Tchouameni is indispensable as the midfielder anchor; 2) Eduardo Camavinga provides great two-way balance in midfield; 3) Fran Garcia gets into attacking zones prolifically; 4) Jude Bellingham and Vinicius Jr pick themselves; and 5) Rodrygo Goes can do more than Joselu as a multifunctional roaming creator, line-breaker, and defensive tracker.
There are more points to be added, and some of them will be debatable (will Ancelotti value Mendy more than Garcia upon return?), but these are likely the key players that will define Real Madrid’s season on the field. (On the Mendy - Garcia point, I often think fans underrate the Spaniard’s defensive ability, pinning Mendy vs Garcia as ‘defense vs offense’. Garcia is a capable defender, quick to close down crosses and can go toe-to-toe with most wingers. He’ll leave space behind more than Mendy will, but Tchouameni’s presence as the anchor, in conjunction with Camavinga’s ability to drop and Garcia’s ability to track back, mitigates that issue and turns Garcia’s cost-benefit analysis into a net positive.)
Bellingham has been brilliant. While his goals are desperately needed, he does so much more than score and create. He’s flying back on defense for crucial slide tackles. He’s a menace hunting down opponents, and pairing him with the other young, tireless high-fliers in midfield is a nightmare to deal with if you’re on the other team.
But pointing out how much Bellingham does on the field in all facets of the game is also, in some way, a source of concern. If Real Madrid don’t bring a striker in (and by all accounts and sources, they won’t — it’s either Kylian Mbappe or bust) then the onus on Bellingham is a lot. He may be able to handle quite a bit — he’s certainly capable — but putting a heavy goal-scoring burden on him when he’s not a striker is likely not sustainable.
The concern for now is about sustainability, not just of Bellingham scoring, but also all over the field. Real Madrid are currently on a one game per week pace. That will soon ramp up. The center-back depth chart is thin. Dani Carvajal — brilliant in the opening two games — will be asked to sustain himself physically over a long, gruelling season. Opponents will get better, and the wingers Carvajal will have to face will get better too. In the opening two games, the Spanish right-back has been vital on both ends of the field, and has contributed some great balls into the box. He has been proactive getting into the final third, providing much-needed width in the diamond. Teams with better wingers will pin him more.
But perhaps these concerns are for a different day. No one likes a party pooper. Through two games, there are plenty of encouraging themes. For all the skepticism this author has of Carvajal’s ability to sustain his health and form, he has been great. Fran Garcia, despite some nerves in the first game, has provided a tenacity and fire in the attack that Real Madrid haven’t seen much of since peak Marcelo. Tchouameni is clearly the player Real Madrid had hoped they signed last summer.
Through two games, Fede Valverde (instrumental in several sequences already), Tchouameni, and Carvajal have successfully tackled 100% of the dribblers they’ve faced; while Vinicius Jr has made more dribbles into the penalty area (seven) than any player in La Liga.
Which brings us into another discussion: How is Vinicius doing in the diamond role? The above stats are, in many ways, too limited to expand on. The general rule of thumb is you need at least 1000 minutes in a season to start taking the analytics seriously, but it is interesting to expand on Vinicius so far.
Are his struggles down to the diamond formation, or are they simply down to him trying to find his rhythm?
His collective heatmap from the from the first two games show him getting plenty of touches on the left, but he’s spending much more time in the left half-space than last season:
Vinicius's heatmap from the first two games. Still getting plenty of touches on the left, but spending more time in the left half-space than he would in a regular 4-3-3: pic.twitter.com/jPEMRNIrt5— Kiyan Sobhani (@KiyanSo) August 22, 2023
Most of Vinicius’s struggles this season that have to do with the diamond specifically have come from him receiving the ball with his back to goal as if he’s a traditional hold-up striker (I am writing about this in much greater detail in a different article, so won’t go too deep here). He’s much more comfortable receiving the ball in stride, especially in the left wing.
There is a quick fix: Ancelotti can shift to a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 in possession when Real Madrid win the ball so that Vinicius can move left and receive the ball there. Once he has the ball, he can drive through the middle and do damage either centrally or through the left. Last season we had called for Vinicius to go down central channels more in games where opposing defenses packed the flank and snuffed out space. There is a middle ground somewhere where the Brazilian can attack both zones as a ball-carrier while Fran, Bellingham, and Rodrygo move in parallel zones accordingly to create space.
Vinicius’s goal production should come with time. I am of the position that some of this funk (he’s still doing good things, despite the struggles) are down to him catching rhythm more than the formation.
This discussion is also difficult to have without acknowledging the bigger picture: Ancelotti is trying to make due with a squad that just lost Karim Benzema. He may revert back to a 4-3-3 at some point — something he’s admitted publicly already — but, so long as Real Madrid continue winning, he will stick with this and hope the cohesion and rhythm will continue to improve.