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Celta de Vigo v Real Madrid - LaLiga EA Sports Photo by David S.Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images

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9 Tactical Observations on Real Madrid: A rabid counter-press, a savy veteran passer, and the inevitable Güler return

This week, Kiyan checks in on Real Madrid’s press, which players have stepped up, and much, much more.

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 games in (and a little bit of pre-season too!), and it’s time to drop the first big Observations Column of the season. Lots of players have stepped up so far. Let’s get to it:

Opponents, trying to breathe

Would Real Madrid press more with Jude Bellingham on the field and Toni Kroos and / or Luka Modric off it? This is a question I posed to Carlo Ancelotti in pre-season. Ancelotti, to not much surprise, did hint at a more aggressive pressing scheme. Have we got it yet? Kind of.

Real Madrid rank dead middle of the pack in La Liga in PPDA (Passes Per Defensive Action). They have not been that aggressive in their press. But that doesn’t mean they haven’t been pressing — they’ve just done it strategically, in bursts, where the chances of generating chances without suffering transition attacks are high.

It’s their counter-press that they’ve focused on — moments where opponents are pinned deep into a low block, trying to fend off attacks. In those moments, Real Madrid keep a high line — Fran Garcia and Dani Carvajal station themselves as attacking wingers, Antonio Rudiger and David Alaba hedge forward, and all the central midfielders are ready to pounce when the ball is cleared. Aurelien Tchouamni — in phenomenal form — sweeps up any ball in Zone 14 that the defense tries to clear.

Tchouameni’s positioning in those situations has been excellent:

It’s not just Tchouameni. Everyone in midfield has done their part to suffocate opponents in that situation. I didn’t include it, but if you rewind that clip just seconds prior, Fran Garcia is in position to win the ball high up the pitch and recycle possession. Celta, as organized as they were, didn’t have numbers between the lines — or any outlets — in those sequences to put together a counter-attack. Pressing pinned opponents strategically is a good approach if you’re worried about the ability to sustain energy with a more aggressive, 1-to-90 high press. And if you’re Real Madrid, you will have plenty of opportunities to counter-press. (Only Barcelona have had more touches in the final third in Spain.)

Real Madrid have tried to nullify opponents with positioning and tremendous tackling ability in midfield. They have successfully tackled 60.5% of their challenges — the highest mark in La Liga. It will be interesting to see how the press evolves over the course of the season.

Dani Carvajal, a strong start

Dani Carvajal has been awesome to start the season. In the opening three games against Athletic Club, Almeria, and Celta Vigo, wearing the captain’s armband, he’s been playing with bounce and verticality. He’s been a strong two-way presence.

Carvajal’s performances have been vital, especially in Carlo Ancelotti’s diamond which plays narrow — particularly on the right side where Rodrygo Goes and Fede Valverde have taken up space in more central channels, clearing the flank for the Spanish right-back.

Carvajal has been strong defensively. He’s also been good with his cut-backs and crosses, while playing reliable little balls into the right half-space for Rodrygo making the underlap:

Carvajal has been solid defending the dribblers who have taken him on through the first three games. Only seven players in the Big Five European leagues have won more tackles against the dribblers they’ve faced. Of course, that comes with a caveat: Almeria, Athletic Club and Celta Vigo don’t have a star left winger who will test him frequently, but to be fair, Jonathan Bamba was electric in Balaidos, and Carvajal defended him well.

The big question now is: Can Carvajal sustain what he’s doing? He’s been a stalwart on defense while already slinging six key passes. Bigger tests will come, and Carvajal will not only need to raise his game against better opponents, but will also need to stay healthy.

David Alaba, elite ball progression

Enough bad news has happened in the Real Madrid universe — injuries to two pillars, Thibaut Courtois, Eder Militao — that we haven’t had much chance to reflect on how great David Alaba has been to start the season.

Alaba was a tremendous defensive organizer against Athletic Club in particular. His clearances were vital, and he shielded away danger from both Iñaki and Nico Williams anytime they got into the box.

As always, Alaba’s ball progression is reliable. His progressive passing and vertical slingers have been so key in getting the ball through opposing defensive lines and into attacking territory. His progressive passing numbers dipped a bit in the past two seasons (in the Bundesliga, he was top-two or top-three for both passes into the final third and progressive passes for consecutive seasons), but he still has the weapons in his toolkit to be surgical.

Alaba has the vision and ability to split lines:

Alaba has slung 19 passes into the final third — the sixth most in the league through three matchdays. He conjured three key passes vs Athletic and one goal-creating action. We haven’t seen it much, but I’m a fan of any time he gets either himself or the ball into the final third. (Think his goal against Barcelona in Camp Nou on his debut season.)

In the 2019 - 2020 season, Alaba was fourth in the Big Five European Leagues in progressive carrying distance. He can carry the ball in search of a sliver of space to get the ball forward:

It’s great to have a defender who reads the game well on defense but also has the experience and ball-playing ability that Alaba possesses.

The good from Fran Garcia’s nervy Real Madrid debut

Much of the storyline from pundits, particularly at half-time of the Athletic Club - Real Madrid game, was that Fran Garcia was the worst Real Madrid player on the field; that he was nervous, careless on the ball.

The analysis wasn’t necessarily untrue, but I hope that by now, people appreciate what Fran Garcia brings to the table, and that some of his lapses on the ball that day were simply down to nerves playing for the club that he loves.

Garcia’s balls down the flank to Vinicius have been good. When he gets the ball, he zips it to Real Madrid’s most dangerous offensive weapon as quickly as he can:

Fran is always in ‘attack mode’. He may have to learn to channel that, but his obsession with getting up the field does the team more good than harm. He is hard to keep up with, and will ultimately pin opposing defensive lines who are already so focused on stopping Vinicius.

His energy is frenetic. Sometimes his momentum takes the ball further than it should go:

That’s well-intentioned from the Spanish left-back. He pounces on the loose ball, ducks past his man, then attempts a long ball to Rodrygo. The pass is overhit, but the overall play is positive and the rest can be channelled.

Garcia is also underrated defensively, and some of that has to do with his emphasis to contribute in the final third. Last season, no player in La Liga tackled more dribblers than him. On the opening matchday, he had the most defensive recoveries on the field at San Mames. He worked hard to close down crosses despite some of his giveaways on the ball.

Garcia’s next step is to slow down his heart rate and acclimatize himself to playing for the biggest club in the world. That will come, with time. He will leave a lot of space behind him on defense, and the rest of the team will have to adapt as they cover for him.

Bellingham, an early analysis

I love watching Jude Bellingham play. Watching him at any given point on the field, with or without the ball, is like watching a mathematician at work, calculating the next best move — where to be, where to pass, who to set up. He sees plays ahead of the game.

But he makes it look quick, effortless. The game comes naturally to him without much over-complication. He knows where the ball is zipping to before he gets it. Sometimes he sees the plays three steps ahead: He moves between the lines, receives it, plays it off with one touch, then sprints into the box as a target. When he doesn’t get it, you can see the frustration that sets in.

Bellingham is clearly tailor-made for a 10 role in a diamond with his expert movement, technical ability, finishing touch, final ball, pressing, and ability to cover ground. But should Carlo Ancelotti deviate from the current formation, the Englishman can play the 8 without any fuss.

Bellingham is such a dangerous player to face in and around the area if you’re an opposing defensive line. If you swarm him in the box, his dribbling is brilliant, and he can punish you for leaving another player open just to contain him. His one-touch passing is dazzling, but he is more than capable of dribbling through multiple defenders — preserving possession before releasing a dagger pass.

I had said it in July: Don’t be fooled by Real Madrid’s lack of goals this pre-season. The team is struggling to score, but there aren’t many issues creating chances, and Bellingham has been a big reason why. His off-ball runs have been unpredictable: Fluid and purposeful. He has served as a reliable outlet. His counter-pressing has led to good chances.

In pre-season, Bellingham blitzed Manchester United and AC Milan, winning back-to-back Man of the Match awards. His impact against Barcelona was undeniable despite the loss, and against Juventus, his quietest game, he slung three key passes and had a couple impressive interceptions. None of that matters now, it was just pre-season, but even then, you could tell how good he was. Now, three official games in, he leads the Big Five European leagues in both goals and goals + assists. Real Madrid have a hell of a player on their hands.

Regardless of how Ancelotti lines up months from now, Bellingham will be fine. He can play in so many roles while being a focal point in all of them. He is not just a specialist you have to cater to — he is someone who can do damage from multiple positions.

Camavinga, still getting into attacking zones

With Fran Garcia’s arrival, one of last season’s best players, Eduardo Camavinga, is back to playing his best position as a central midfielder.

It would not be too shocking to see Camavinga play left-back again this season — he basically did in stretches vs Celta Vigo — given Ferland Mendy’s health and the plethora of midfielders Carlo Ancelotti needs to give playing time to, but the best news for Real Madrid fans is that Camavinga is on the field, somewhere. He can impact the game from so many different standpoints, defensively and offensively, because of his tracking, ball-carrying, movement between the lines, and overall finesse and athleticism.

The help that Camavinga provided Vinicius as left-back last season — that can be done as a midfielder:

Camavinga has a natural inclination to get into dangerous zones. He is excellent at making runs in half-spaces and pockets of space that help break low blocks.

Ancelotti has a lot of individual brilliance in his squad — tools equipped for creativity. Between Camavinga, Bellingham, Fran Garcia, and Toni Kroos, Vinicius should have more space this season thanks to a solid supporting cast behind him.

Again, there shouldn’t be much difficulty creating chances. Scoring those chances is a different matter.

Vinicius in a more central role

Carlo Ancelotti’s diamond experiment has brought out the best in Jude Bellingham but has somewhat comprised Vinicius Jr, though it was improving with each passing game before his unfortunate injury.

The Brazilian has had to adapt. After Real Madrid’s win over Manchester United in pre-season, Carlo Ancelotti told me that of the two, Vinicius will have a more difficult time adapting to a central role than Rodrygo Goes, who is more accustomed to playing in those zones.

Vinicius still cooks, but some of what is required of him as a striker is just not his game. There were plenty of sequences in pre-season and the real season where, during the build-up phase, Vinicius was playing with his back to goal, in a position where is he expected to hold up play like a traditional nine:

Sometimes he makes those runs down the middle without getting the ball:

Where Ferland Mendy makes that run is where Vinicius loves receiving the ball the most.

It is with some irony that we worry about Vinicius playing in a more central role given that so much of the dialogue (from this author included), was pushing the idea that Vinicius should drift in other zones — central or otherwise — to make him more unpredictable. But that call was somewhat mitigated with Rodrygo’s introduction into the starting line-up last season; and Fran Garcia as a new attacking left-back should provide space for Vinicius to work with.

The bulk of Vinicius’s dangerous sequences so far have come when he received the ball on the left and cuts in. If he’s to go central, he’s better suited to drive the ball forward down the middle channel rather than receive the ball with his back to goal. That’s something he and Ancelotti will have to navigate. A compromise might come in the form of a 4-2-3-1 rather than a diamond formation, or a simple shift in formation where Vinicius goes to the left and receives the ball in stride when the team has possession.

To Vinicius’s credit, he has given maximum effort to making this work. But he is, after all, a superstar, and it may be to the team’s best interest to build around maximizing his offensive output.

A not so bullish Tchouameni / Valverde prediction

After last season’s all-too-familiar post World Cup dip that has plagued so many players for decades, both Aurelien Tchouameni and Fede Valverde succumbed. Tchouameni gradually lost his place due to injury and form; Valverde cooled significantly in 2023.

It’s time to put all that behind us. I predicted before pre-season started that both Tchouameni and Valverde would return to their best. They’re too good, too young, too talented, too professional, and too athletic not to. The luke-warm prediction looks good so far.

But most people know how good these two guys are already — that’s why the prediction is not that hot, not that bullish. We already know what Valverde can do at Real Madrid. Some were still skeptical of Tchouameni. But the Frenchman is a student of the game; an artist that takes his craft and profession seriously — he’s already proved those doubters wrong.

Early signs have been great. Tchouameni looks dominant as a midfield organizer, ball-winner, and ball progressor.

Tchouameni looks great under pressure — safeguarding the ball when hounded and dribbling out of tight corridors with shoulder drops, ball carries, and strong shielding. His ball winning in midfield has been excellent, and he still rattles off the occasional long distance stinger. Few can muscle him off the ball.

It’s hard not to see him continually improve in that role. Last season he lost rhythm after the World Cup. Understandable. Once he gets the pitch under his feet regularly as the starting anchor, a lot of Real Madrid’s defensive issues — tracking runners into the box, covering wing-backs — will start to dissipate.

Both him and Fede Valverde should get back to their best soon:

Tchouameni and Valverde will be fine.

How will Arda Güler fit at Real Madrid?

As a left-footed player who can play as a natural right-winger, Arda Güler may be a unique profile in the squad — but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll play significant minutes.

With seven midfielders in the squad, some of those players will have to shift up from midfield to attack. Jude Bellingham has shifted up the most while Fede Valverde may still get minutes higher up the pitch. Rodrygo Goes earned himself a starting role last season. Brahim Diaz lurks on the fringes. (As I wrote about in July, Bellingham in a diamond may also sniff out significant minutes, and that has already happened.)

How Carlo Ancelotti shakes this out is still unknown. Even Ancelotti himself won’t know until he sees everyone up close over a large sample size, and even then, he may need a few months to evaluate what his best line-up and rotation is.

Despite some of the challenges of overcoming the sheer number of midfielders that Ancelotti has to accommodate, Güler has the skill-set to break through.

As far as pure left-footed right-wingers go, Güler only has Brahim Diaz (who uses both feet) to contend with. Ancelotti has Rodrygo and Valverde, but neither of them are natural fits. Rodrygo loves to overload the left side or roam centrally; Valverde is at his best in central midfield where he can be a ball-carrier and two-way ball-winner without the pressure of breaking lines or scoring goals. Güler’s profile provides more symmetry and a creative spark which can help declutter the tight space that Vinicius has to deal with — and gives Toni Kroos and co. a worthy outlet when Ancelotti’s men make the diagonal switch from left to right.

Güler also has time on his side. Eduardo Camavinga, Rodrygo, Vinicius — all gradually integrated at their own respective paces and are now vital organs of the Real Madrid body. If Güler breaks through this season it’s a bonus, but he shouldn’t be expected to ‘arrive’ for another few years. He’s 18, supremely talented, and like other young signings the club has made, has a good head on his shoulders.

Güler was ahead of his peers in Turkey, dominating several offensive categories when it came to play-making. He also wins brownie points for looking so cool and silky on the ball — playing with bounce and elegance. But he has to fight with several great players for precious, scarce minutes when he gets back. He’ll need time.

Ancelotti: “Rodrygo’s goal will come at the moment when he doesn’t think about scoring”

Immediate reaction: Real Madrid 2-0 Las Palmas

Real Madrid CF: La Liga

CONFIRMED lineups: Real Madrid vs Las Palmas, 2023 La Liga

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