clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Real Madrid’s Unconventional Offense: Prolific Dribblers Ready to Defy Critics

Real Madrid do not need a number nine - they have the best dribblers in Europe’s top five leagues and will create more than enough goal-scoring opportunities this season.

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

SOCCER: JUL 29 Champions Tour - Real Madrid vs Barcelona Photo by Matthew Visinsky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Three of Europe’s most successful dribblers play for Real Madrid. All three feature in a new-look attack. Much to the dismay of many following the club, this new-look attack does not contain an out-and-out striker. In fact, for the first time in the club’s entire 121-year history, no one will be wearing the #9 shirt to start the season. That will not matter. Real Madrid will score goals, buckets of them. There will be ingenuity, unpredictability, and eccentric flash in the final third. The trio set to lead the team in the final third will bring an unabashed arrogance – a “I know I am better than you” mentality. They are relentless in their drive towards the goal and derive an insatiable satisfaction from breaking a defender down off the dribble.

Carlo Ancelotti has strategically positioned three of the world’s best dribblers—Vinicius Junior (1st), Jude Bellingham (3rd), and Rodrygo (6th)—as close to the opposition’s penalty box as possible, a ranking determined by WhoScored’s ‘most successful dribbles in Europe’s top five leagues’ last season. All three are playing higher up the field this season compared to the previous. Each sit atop metrics that show the number of touches in the attacking penalty area. Collectively, they attempt approximately 20 dribbles or take-ons per match, successfully completing about half of them. Remarkably, all three consistently land in the 97th percentile or higher for take-ons that result in shot-creating actions, indicating that their dribbling often leads to goal-scoring opportunities. Now that each player’s proximity to the box is closer, it means those shot-creating actions will only improve, and the sheer volume of attempts will leave defenders desperate for reprieve.

Questions have been asked of Ancelotti’s strategic position of his three offensive weapons, particularly the usage of Vinicius Junior. Despite the change in position, starting more centrally, Vinicius is still occupying similar spaces. The major change lies in where picks the ball up. Instead of receiving the ball deeper in his own half, he is receiving in more advanced positions. The Brazilian covers less ground but instead channels his explosive sprints towards more goal-threatening portions of the pitch. This in turn creates the opportunity to score more goals and develop a new portion of his game. Teams were doubling and tripling down when the Brazilian was stationed on the wing, but now he has more players to combine with centrally. The quantity of chances created may be less compared to his output on the left, but the quality may be higher. Vinicius will now be closer to Rodrygo and Bellingham, who are equally adept at creating and combining in the tightest confines of the pitch. Each can create space for the other.

It is worth reiterating: this trio are not just good off the dribble; they are the world-class. All three - Jude Bellingham, Rodrygo Goes, and Vinicius Junior - rank in the 99th percentile for successful take-ons, for touches in the opposition’s box, and for progressive carries. John Mueller of The Athletic creatively coined the term “dribbly bois” to describe players who choose the most challenging yet rewarding path to goal:

“As for the dribbly bois, they get the hype. You do not technically have to take on three defenders to score a goal, in the same way that you don’t have to slide down the banister to breakfast as a kid, but everyone understands it’s the way to go. It’s fast, it’s fun, and it only occasionally ends with you writhing in agony on the ground.”

Data from FBREF

Carlo Ancelotti is unleashing the dribbly bois: an attack that will entertain all season, creating a plethora of chances. Reaching the goal and creating chances will be the smallest of Real Madrid’s problems this season; instead, that front three will need to finish those chances at an efficient clip. One could argue that the chance creation will be so high this season that even by under-performing compared to expected goals, Madrid will still generate 80+ goals in La Liga.

Efficient dribblers also bring another added benefit: drawing fouls in dangerous areas and earning penalty kicks. In the last two seasons, Real Madrid has been awarded 12 penalty kicks in La Liga; expect that number to hit 15+ this season (all based on competent refereeing – looking at you La Liga!). Rodrygo earned a penalty vs Celta, and Bellingham had no less than three shouts for a penalty against Getafe. Bellingham and Rodrygo each rank in the 97th percentile or higher for penalties won. The Englishman is already leading La Liga in fouls drawn (14) with Vinicius likely to be joining him once he returns from injury.

No, there is not a goal-guzzling number nine in Real Madrid’s ranks, but this new-look attack will be unlike any other. Each attacking piece Real Madrid has is unique, but Carlo and his staff are leaning in heavily on the individual quality of his dribblers. Brahim and Guler will add to that mix, while Joselu can bring a different flavor and provide a plan B. Instead of diversifying the portfolio, Real Madrid are going all in on one stock and expecting big returns. Typically, that is a high-risk, high-reward type strategy, but with the quality of Vinicius, Rodrygo, and Bellingham, the gamble likely pays off.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the Managing Madrid Daily Roundup newsletter!

A daily roundup of Real Madrid news from Managing Madrid