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.
Seven observations this week, including Jude Bellingham’s transcendence, Eduardo Camavinga’s efficiency on the ball in different positions, and the frightening manner at which Fede Valverde hunts opponents:
Jude Bellingham doesn’t need to score to dominate
I said it after the Clasico SupeCopa final (and not entirely sure what the dialogue was to know if there was push-back or not), but Jude Bellingham’s performance in that match was my favourite game of his of this season so far, despite the fact that he did not get on the scoresheet.
Maybe I’m being too hipster, too edgy. He’s had so many crucial game-winners, while putting in an immortal performance against Barcelona earlier this season at the Montjuic with a big-ball brace.
But something about that final in Riyadh was really special, and overall, more complete. He had a gorgeous through-ball to Vinicius early on which opened the floodgates, and was demonic on defense: tracking and pressing without cease. His dribbling on so many sequences was nonsensical. It didn’t even seem realistic:
As I noted on both Twitter and on the post-game podcast that night, his performance on defense was remarkable. Jules Kounde, Ronald Araujo, Pedri, and Ilkay Gundogan were all victims of Bellingham’s robberies. He picks unsuspecting pockets regularly. There were phases of the game where he dropped into a double pivot alongside Aurelien Tchouameni on defense, and more than one sequence where he blocked two passing lanes at once.
Bellingham’s recent performances have reminded everyone that this guy is a central midfielder that can virtually play in any position in the front six and look elite. He is, as the cliche goes, built different. And that’s what makes him so great: If he’s not scoring, he’s doing everything else — making life for his teammates easier.
This is your weekly reminder that Bellingham still leads La Liga in both goals and blocks. His conversion rate is ridiculous: .33 goals / shot — good for first in Spain and fifth in the Big Five Leagues.
Eduardo Camavinga, anchor
Eduardo Camavinga started in place of Aurelien Tchouameni at the base of midfield against Atletico Madrid in the Copa del Rey. As is often the case when he plays the ‘6’, he’s terrific on defense — a stalwart and fierce protector in Zone 14 and a masterful tackler.
But it’s give and take. Camavinga, supremely gifted on the ball, for whatever reason, takes a step back with his dribbling and passing out of pressure in the build-up phase as the single pivot. Those problems vanish when he plays as a left-back or central midfielder, but linger when he’s the defensive midfielder.
Against Atletico, Camavinga had several sequences where he would win the ball deep, then carry it forward, and misplace a pass. He coughed up possession multiple times doing so (though overall, I thought he had a really good game on the defensive end).
Once he shifted to left-back in the same game, his press-resistancy was on full display:
Interesting to note how Camavinga's press-resistancy increases in different positions. Watching a lot of film over a long sample size, he's at his best under pressure from the left-back slot. The way he evades challenges and distributes:pic.twitter.com/ESFzPTx1IZ— Kiyan Sobhani (@KiyanSo) January 25, 2024
From a pure on-ball standpoint, Aurelien Tchouameni and Toni Kroos are more reliable ball-progressors from the single pivot role. Camavinga evades pressure better as wing-back or central midfielder.
Fede Valverde, hunting the opponent
Like clockwork, this guy:
If Real Madrid lose the ball on Fede Valverde's side, odds of retaining it right away: High: pic.twitter.com/Hz77LeshtI— Kiyan Sobhani (@KiyanSo) January 18, 2024
How does Fede Valverde play so relentlessly on every possession? Perhaps it’s better to ask less questions and show gratitude to him. He was one of the less-than-handful of reasons Real Madrid’s defense was kept afloat during the injury crisis. With Aurelien Tchouameni and Eduardo Camavinga back now, he can start flying up the field with his unstoppable ball-carries more. The way he hunts defenders down who think they’ve just won the ball is second-to-none. If Real Madrid have even a half-decent counter-press (on most sequences their counter-pressing is very good) and Valverde is anywhere near the vicinity, odds are Carlo Ancelotti’s men have already regained possession.
Valverde still carries the ball across the pitch more than any player in La Liga (he is currently first in progressive carrying distance). Still, this spoiled author would like to see it even more, though I understand why it’s not sustainable to do it on every possession. His drives forward with the ball are one of the single biggest football cheat codes to break any mid or low block. Defenders fall off him like he’s greased.
From the same game from the above video (the Atletico Madrid SuperCopa semi-final), Valverde did it all: pin-point diagonal switches to Ferland Mendy, getting into Atletico’s Zone 14 to link-up with Jude Bellingham, passes down the flank to runners (mostly Rodrygo), excellent wing defense, and intercepting passes Atletico slung out of the back.
It says something about Valverde when, in a team loaded with elite midfield talent, the Uruguayn is unquestionably a fixed starter in the ‘Once de Gala’. As I wrote about in a mid-season column, he is one of the five pillars of Real Madrid’s success this season.
RB Leipzig... early thoughts
RB Leipzig sling 15.81 passes per opponent defensive action (OPPDA) — the fourth most in the Bundesliga and a mark that would sit second in La Liga behind Real Madrid. They are patient in possession and are good at evading pressure — circulating the ball just long enough to find the right incisive, vertical pass.
Real Madrid’s press has been OK. They are at times disjointed when facing slower build-ups, but thrive when it comes to counter-pressing.
Marco Rose’s ultimate preference is to attack as quickly as possible to catch the defense napping, but that isn’t always possible due to teams going into lower blocks. But they have found a way around that through purposeful build-up.
All of Leipzig’s midfielders, particularly Schlager, are good at dropping between the lines and moving up the pitch incrementally — with the occasional long-ball dagger coming out of the backline to by-pass the defense. Their goal is to get the ball to the most advanced attackers through the most direct possible route.
If your press isn’t cohesive, Leipzig are well-drilled enough to punish you:
These are the phases where Leipzig can hurt you if your press isn't 100% cohesive. Under Marco Rose, they want get the ball to the attackers as quickly and as directly as possible, but they're also very patient and organized in the build-up phase:pic.twitter.com/xe2HJNrANF— Kiyan Sobhani (@KiyanSo) January 25, 2024
Leipzing are good on the ball, and like to play a high line, that’s why, in some ways (like Barcelona), Real Madrid match-up well against them.
But be weary: Leipzig can also go into deeper blocks against bigger teams and blitz on the counter — something they did for large stretches against Bayer Leverkusen in a thrilling 2 - 3 loss.
The Vinicius Jr show is coming back
Vinicius Jr is starting to hit stride since returning to full health, looking again like the apex predator he was before injuries derailed his first half of the season. Some theorized whether or not Brahim Diaz should start in his place. Nope. That’s not a knock on Brahim, who has been a supernova this season; but you don’t bench transcendant players likes Vinicius — they are superstars for a reason, and need to play through inefficient games sometimes. You don’t bench Cristiano Ronaldo in the 101st game if he has 100 poor games; and you don’t ask Steph Curry to stop shooting if he misses 100 threes in a row.
In the SuperCopa final against Barcelona, Vinicius put in one of the most dominant individual performances in a Clasico in recent memory; but even that is under-selling it, because he elevated his whole team, not just himself. Perhaps lost among the noise of eclipsing Barcelona that night was Vinicius’s work ethic on defense and his quick decision-making on offense. It was the best we’ve seen in his link-up with Jude Bellingham all season.
Meanwhile, his link-up with Rodrygo continues to be an extension of how well they connected with each other in the second half of last season — with Rodrygo as the primary roamer. Vinicius overhits this pass, but the point is valid. The two orbit each other in a beautiful dance that makes them hard to defend:
Have enjoyed the link-up play between Vinicius and Rodrygo. Was starting to hit stride before Vini's last injury but it's back now. Rodrygo is so good at making these undetectable runs into the box where he blindsides defenders:pic.twitter.com/JH0CRrVu2Y— Kiyan Sobhani (@KiyanSo) January 18, 2024
Once Bellingham fully meshes with these two, it’ll be hard to think of a more devastating attacking trio in Europe. Part of what makes this trio so special in particular, as opposed to, for example, the failed Neymar - Messi - Mbappe trident, is because unlike the latter, two of Real Madrid’s attackers — Rodrygo and Bellingham — bring much-needed defensive balance; and the only reason Vinicius doesn’t is not because of his own inability (we saw Vinicius play great defense under Santiago Solari) but rather by design as Carlo Ancelotti asks him to stay up the field as an offensive outlet.
Where Vinicius still struggles the most is against compact deep blocks who swarm him with multiple bodies (think Atletico Madrid and Almeria recently). In those moments, Ancelotti should try looking at putting Vinicius alongside Camavinga or Fran Garcia to create more space, and ask Rodrygo to come over to the strong side to facilitate better link up.
There’s something about Arda Güler
It was only Arandina, but we’ve been waiting for months to see Arda Güler dawn a Real Madrid shirt in an official game. We got it, and it was, awesome. Güler has the understanding of the game to play as a 10, a role which consists so much of: Move, pass, show as an outlet, receive, pass, find openings, roam, repeat.
It will be a long road back still for Güler, who has a whole slew of world class midfielders ahead of him in the depth chart (plus a ridiculous Brahim Diaz), but maybe that’s a good thing. There is no pressure on Güler for now — no urgent need to rush him or throw him into the fire. Carlo Ancelotti can introduce him in favourable game states and let him build his confidence. He has a whole career ahead of him, still.
I enjoy the simplicity and verticality with which Güler plays with. He’ll only take one touch if needed, but has the necessary silk in his dribbling to take multiple touches around defenders to find the right opening, the right pass.
At his peak, I expect Güler to be a high volume dribbler and shooter. His skillset is that of someone who can cut in for a deadly pass or a stinging shot; while having the off-ball intelligence to sneak himself into good goal-scoring positions. He’ll also press efficiently if the scheme requires him to do so.
Fran Garcia’s devastating crosses
Fran Garcia hasn’t yet lived up to the hype from his Rayo Vallecano days, where he showed himself to be a lungless menace. At Real Madrid, the start was jittery, the touches shaky, and the defense gaping.
But he is making incremental strides, and his comfort-level in a white shirt has looked more natural of late. Against Union Berlin away in the Champions League, he was terrific on offense. If he can be a reliable passer down the flank while creating space for Vinicius on his runs, he can be a good asset. He already has the energy and work ethic — next comes composure and defensive positioning.
What I’ve enjoyed the most from his game has been his crosses:
Fran Garcia: Still has a lot he needs to improve on, but one thing he's been really good at is crossing. The way he whips balls into the box with such calculated weight and arch -- very hard to defend: pic.twitter.com/hInO4YKqEU— Kiyan Sobhani (@KiyanSo) January 25, 2024
Fran Garcia’s cross volume is down significantly since last season, naturally, as he’s played far less minutes, but when he does whip a ball in, it’s almost always dangerous.
Last season, Fran Garcia slung 26 crosses into the penalty area — the fourth most in all of Spain. His .44 assists per 90 were the third most in La Liga. There is a capable creator in there.
The Spaniard may not be the ideal match-up against every opponent. In almost every big game Carlo Ancelotti will prefer Ferland Mendy’s defensive acumen, or Eduardo Camavinga’s two-way, overall ability as a left-back. But situationally, Fran Garcia makes sense, and there will be plenty of games against low blocks where you’ll need his overloads and crosses to take advantage of Joselu’s height in the box.