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Real Madrid’s defense needs to improve despite hot start

5 wins out of 5 — not bad for a team missing several key players.

Real Madrid CF v Real Sociedad - LaLiga EA Sports Photo by Mateo Villalba/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

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.

Through five La Liga games, Real Madrid have generated the second-highest xG — a hair below Barca — and have averaged two goals per game. Only two teams — Michel’s high-flying Girona and an offensively potent Barcelona — have scored more goals. Carlo Ancelotti’s men top the table. That’s, not bad for a team that’s missing one of the best wingers in the world, Vinicius Jr, as well as their starting goalkeeper. The ship is afloat, for now. Vinicius will likely be back after the October international break, while Ancelotti confirmed today that Arda Güler will return next week.

“Güler is good,” Ancelotti said in today’s pre-game press conference ahead of the Union Berlin game at the Bernabeu. “He’s ending his individual work and he’ll join the team for training on Monday.”

Jude Bellingham has been the alpha of the attack. His ability to roam, connect dots, and get the ball into the box at an elite level, has been essential to the team’s first five wins. He is a visionary, and his paranormal ability to be at the right place at the right time — unparalleled instinct — should see him continue scoring at a consistent clip.

But it hasn’t been just Bellingham. Joselu has missed a couple great chances, but has also converted a couple while acting as a thorn in opposing defensive lines — tough to mark in the box because of the gravity he brings with him. Fran Garcia, still finding his feet defensively, has been relentlessly attacking the left wing. Rodrygo, though just one goal to his name, has not been shy. He’s led La Liga in shots. Some may point to him being selfish, but it’s a positive that his shot volume is so high — he’s taking initiative. The rest should fall into place for him, eventually.

Once Vinicius returns and settles into the surrounding pieces, Real Madrid’s offense should click into gear enough to put themselves into contention in all competitions — even despite not signing a striker other than Joselu.

Where they may struggle more, still, is on defense, where they’ve still been reliant on last-second heroism. Against Real Sociedad, the heroism came from Kepa. In other games, it’s been Antonio Rudiger, Dani Carvajal, and David Alaba, flying in for a last second block or tackle. Is the margin of error big enough this season to keep getting away with lapses on defense? Set-piece marking continues to be an issue too. Real Madrid have conceded a higher xGA then Rayo Vallecano, Barcelona, Valencia, Sevilla, Atletico Madrid, and Athletic Club — though, with some luck, have conceded less goals than anyone.

How good Real Madrid track runners from game to game matters, and will dictate how much the last line of defense will have to do. Against Real Sociedad, a rare lapse from Tchouameni led to a goal conceded. In every other game, he’s been nearly foot perfect. Tchouameni will have a lot to do as the team’s anchor this season, in particular in games where Toni Kroos and Fran Garcia start together on the left hand side (Takefusa Kubo cooked that duo in the first half on Sunday).

Fede Valverde, perhaps one of the team’s most underrated players this season, has been phenomenal zipping up the right side along with Carvajal:

Real Madrid have always embraced chaos and anarchy, even in their most successful periods in history. And those tracking sequences, like the Fede one above, are part of the reason why; and by extension, why there is such an emphasis on the high flying two-way ability of the young midfielders. That includes Jude Bellingham, who has defended so well in transition despite being deployed in an advanced role. With Fran Garcia venturing up the field as much as he does, individuals will need to be conscious of their tracking assignments — with little room for anything outside perfection, especially when the stakes get higher.

And that does further make the case of the importance of Eduardo Camavinga at left center-midfield, where he can naturally shift into a pseudo left-back role when Fran Garcia bombs forward — similar to the dynamic between Fede and Carvajal, which was explained by the Uruguayan on Sunday night.

“When Dani goes up I go further back,” Valverde said after Real Madrid’s 2 - 1 win over Real Sociedad. “Joselu and Rodrygo go more inside.”

Regardless of the scheme or the personnel, the midfield engine will need to work overtime tirelessly. Luckily, it’s the team’s deepest position.

Tomorrow, as the team embarks on its first phase of mid-week games, Camavinga will start, and Vazquez will take the place of Carvajal (muscle overload) on the right. Rotations will come more frequently in the coming months. How will the team cope with a heavier schedule?

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