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.
When Jude Bellingham put his head up in the second minute of Real Madrid’s win over Union Berlin on Wednesday, he looked to see which one of his teammates were in the box. He spotted Joselu — all 1.92 meters of him — in the area. Bellingham slung it, expertly, onto Joselu’s head.
Joselu reached it and headed it towards goal. It was his first of 11 shots on the night. For Bellingham, it was a routine pass — so simple yet effective. Bellingham sees who is in a good position and gets the ball to him, ignoring barriers. Point A to point B, north-south. Few combine vision and execution as well as the Englishman does.
Real Madrid have not had difficulty creating chances this season, but they’ve been scraping by with marginal victories — often leaving it late. On Wednesday, Real Madrid’s xG was 3.27, and their impeccable transition defense held Union Berlin’s to just .19. But it took a 94th minute goal from Bellingham to walk away with three points.
(On Real Madrid’s transition defense, I was happy to see Ancelotti single out Antonio Rudiger as “outstanding” in the post-game press conference. David Alaba, Nacho, and Lucas Vazquez were great too.)
These are not necessarily complaints nor criticisms, though they may seem to be. The reality is Carlo Ancelotti will be thrilled to have won every game, no matter how it was done, while improving incrementally along the way until Vinicius Jr returns to amplify the offense. Bizarrely, it may actually be a good thing that Rodyrgo and Joselu have only scored three goals this season from a combined 42 shots. Real Madrid are winning despite those two not fully joining the goal-scoring yet. That probably won’t last forever. In theory, offensive production should increase once those two get going and Vinicius returns.
“This was a very difficult game for Rodrygo, he’s very good in open spaces and in the last two games he has had very little space against defences which have shut down and he’s found it more difficult,” Ancelotti said after the win on Wednesday. “Today he had bad luck, he could have scored on two or three occasions.”
Ancelotti is right, in many ways, when he chalks Rodrygo’s goal-scoring form up to bad luck. Scoring streaks come and go. It could be argued that on a couple occasions, Rodrygo could’ve let someone else shoot, but a lot of the times he has fired, he has had the right to. Against Union Berlin, he had one brilliant sequence where he nodded the ball with his head, in stride, past his marker, then launched from a tight angle when there were no cut-back options. Seconds later, he volleyed a shot off the post.
With Joselu, it’s more of the same. He has scored two goals on an xG of 3.5 (Rodrygo, for comparison, has scored one goal from an xG of 3.5). Both have had high shot volume overall. In Joselu’s case, he has been a helpful target when facing low blocks. Few defenders can put a body on him, and, though he’s not the Real Madrid starting level striker fans are used to, he, at the very least, fights on every possession to out-leap and outmuscle his opponents. He won five aerials against Union Berlin. It felt like every set-piece and cross would somehow land on his head.
That’s a nice weapon to have. Joselu’s gravity pulls defenders towards him.
“I think it’s quite clear that Joselu improves our aerial play,” Ancelotti said. “We are more dangerous than before. It’s not just Joselu, Bellingham comes from the second line and when we put crosses into the box, something can happen. In the opening minutes, a header just wide, in the second half against the post. In the air we are dangerous.”
As always, any analysis, including this one, has to take into account that after six games total, we have no real definitive proof that Joselu and Rodrygo will had a good season or not. The sample size is minimal. By December, we’ll have a better picture of how good this team is. One thing is for sure: The best teams have stars that outperform their xG regularly. It’s simply not enough, at the elite level, to only be in good positions and create chances — in the end, the ball needs to go in the back of the net, prolifically.
And that’s why the team can not live and die by Bellingham’s goals. Rather, the ceiling of the team this season will be defined by how much players like Rodrygo and Joselu can step up in the post Karim Benzema era.
“What I think today is what I thought before the first game,” Ancelotti said. “That we have a competitive squad and we can compete in every competition.”
It will be interesting to see what gear the team can click into with the return of Vinicius Jr, and even Arda Güler, who has plenty of creative potency on the ball.