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.
Real Madrid have navigated losing their superstar without properly replacing him before — as recently as 2018 when they lost Cristiano Ronaldo. The rationale then was that they hoped they could bide time for one year: One season where multiple players ascend (Gareth Bale, Marco Asensio, Isco, Karim Benzema) until a star becomes available.
Only Benzema ascended, and the star that became available the following season, Eden Hazard, was a bust.
On some level, the parallels to 2018 are clear. Real Madrid lost Karim Benzema. The hope is that they get enough production from Rodrygo, Vinicius Jr, Fede Valverde, Joselu, and Jude Bellingham until the star — erm, you know who — becomes attainable next summer.
Given that reality, we can assess how this season has gone until now, and what needs to improve heading into tonight’s game vs Las Palmas, where Vinicius Jr makes his much anticipated / needed return to the team.
Here is a quick, pre-game check-list for tonight, that isn’t necessarily geared towards Las Palmas, but more about general tactical tweaks:
Jude needs a target
“I think Joselu’s absence gave Bellingham fewer chances to attack from the second line since he often takes advantage of Joselu’s aerial game,” Diego Simeone said after Atletico Madrid beat Real Madrid 3 - 1 on Sunday night. “I think we controlled him better in these situations.”
Bellingham is elite at getting the ball into the box. That’s why having ‘Crouchy’ (as Jude himself puts it when describing Joselu) has been great for Real Madrid’s attacking phase. Bellingham needs runners in the box — targets he can lazer the ball into.
Joselu may very well be ‘demoted’ when Vinicius Jr returns full-time, but in the interim, replacing Joselu with Luka Modric (a tactical mistake in the Madrid Derby) gave Jude nothing to work with, as the Croatian floated around Atletico’s box without being able to act as a target. That hampered the team defensively as well.
Pairings matter on defense
I’m writing about this in full detail in a much bigger column, so will save most of the analysis for when that drops, but the general gist of this point: If you’re going to balance your defensive transition properly, you can’t have Luka Modric and Toni Kroos starting together — especially if Aurelien Tchouameni is also not on the field.
When Fran Garcia is on the pitch as the team’s left-back, that will need to be balanced with a left central midfielder that can defend and interchange with the Spaniard if needed. Eduardo Camavinga is perfect in that role, primarily because his natural left-back tendencies allow him to drop in behind and cover.
When Kroos is deployed instead of Camavinga there, you lose that tracking. (More on that in this video / tweet).
Kroos is also arguably the greatest progressive passer in football history. His pairing might make more sense alongside Ferland Mendy, or, at the very least, you would need Tchouameni and one of Camavinga / Valverde on the field to lift weights on defense as well.
Fede Valverde described the importance of covering for full-backs well after the win over Real Sociedad. “When Dani goes up I go further back,” The Uruguayan said. “Joselu and Rodrygo go more inside”
We need goals. Lots of goals
(Said in the most Keanu Reeves voice ever)
Vinicius Jr’s return should help with this — perhaps to the point we can all breathe a bit.
But this also points to Rodrygo, who now has one goal on 27 shots and an xG of 3.6. Rodrygo famously blows away his xG in the Champions League — but Real Madrid need him to step up and take a leap this season on a more consistent basis. It may be harsh, but it’s also what is expected at this level. Real Madrid need him to start converting his chances at a regular clip.
Better communication and marking on set-pieces and crosses
It goes without saying: Real Madrid need to close their markers better on set-pieces and crosses. Part of the reason teams can get away with playing low blocks is that they know that at least once or twice per game, they’ll get their chance via a set-piece, and once they do — they know they’ll likely get a free header. Real Madrid are not scoring at a high enough rate right now to be so poor on so many defensive sequences.