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How Jude Bellingham and Brahim Diaz have given Real Madrid defensive balance

Also some notes in this week’s column on Rodrygo and Camavinga

Real Madrid CF v Granada CF - LaLiga EA Sports Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/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.

It feels right to start the new year with a new column. Today features some of the more unnoticed aspects of Brahim and Bellingham’s respective profiles, Rodrygo blitzing defenders, and Camavinga’s anticipated return.

Rodrygo, dribbling at a transcendant level

Rodrygo has started to levitate. After a quiet first quarter of the season, he is unleashing a dribbling armageddon. His attacks have been nasty over the past two months. Even when he doesn’t score, defenders don’t know how to keep him from blowing by:

There is always a purpose to the way Rodrygo maneuvers with the ball — somehow with ferocious pace as if he was running without it while the ball sticks to his feet. He wants to break lines, find openings, and get the ball to his teammates in the box when defenses barricade themselves in their end zone.

The way he drives the ball forward with shoulder drops and step-overs full throttle is part of the reason why he leads La Liga in carries into the penalty area. Only three players in Europe — Jeremy Doku, Dejan Kulusevski, Kaoru Mitoma — have more carries into the opposition’s box this season. When Rodrygo decides it’s time cook, no one is stopping his barbecue session:

Rodrygo is an apex dribbler. There are not many you would take over him if you need to chip away at a low block with ingenuity. With Vinicius back now, it will be fun to see the Brazilian dyad mesh and get into rhythm as the team heads into late winter / spring.

Brahim Diaz, offering balance

Brahim continues to impress as his minutes grow. Through injuries, suspension, and his own great play, he has earned the trust of Carlo Ancelotti, and proven himself in a couple different roles in Ancelotti’s new scheme — as either the 10, which he performed well in during Jude Bellingham’s shoulder injury, or as the side-kick to Rodyrgo up top. He’s proven he can co-exist alongside Bellingham in a double 10, or deeper, as a less involved roamer; or as a higher usage creator when Bellingham is not on the field.

I always feel uncomfortable talking about silver linings in regards to injuries. No one wants any of these injuries that the team has been infested with this season. Having said that, absences to Vinicius and Bellingham over the course of the campaign have enabled Brahim to prove he’s an important squad player, and he’s performed at a high level now over a significant sample size.

Brahim is a very capable creator, dribbler, and ferocious high-octane off-ball runner. But he also works really hard on defense, making him invaluable to Ancelotti:

Brahim has also been great offensively (that part is more obvious). His ability to take up dangerous positions as a mobile, highly-skilled roamer has given Bellingham an extra body to link up with:

Brahim’s prominence this season has reminded us why he was such a promising teenager, and how before contracting COVID, he was one of Serie A’s best attacking midfielders. Under Stefano Pioli, he learned a lot about playing the 10 role, whereas up until that point, he was mostly a winger. Now he’s both.

His uptick in minutes, and how he’s performed in those minutes, should mean that even when Vinicius returns, he should get a healthy dose of playing time off the bench.

It’s worth remembering that even in a down year last season, Brahim was second in Serie A in goal-creating actions. Only seven players in the Big Five leagues had more goal-creating actions per 90.

Jude Bellingham, a defensive point of view

Sometimes we spend too much time discussing what Jude Bellingham’s positioning actually is. Many argue he’s a striker — especially those outside of Real Madrid circles who don’t breathe his games the same way. They only look at his goal tally. Others look at him as a multi-functional midfielder who can affect the game in other ways.

Does it really matter at this point? What is most pertinent is that he’s on the field, scoring goals, creating them, and balancing the team’s defensive equilibrium by being an attacker who presses, tracks, and helps escape pressure.

Football has become so fluid, so athletic, that we’re starting to see little parallels to modern-day basketball positionalism — switchability, interchangeability, multi-functionality. LeBron James could / can play across all five positions. In football, you can’t quite go as deep as 11 position, but in this current Real Madrid squad, you already have several players who can play several positions. Bellingham is one of them. He currently leads La Liga in goals, through balls, and blocks. He’s second in passes into the penalty area. He whips balls into the box like a visionary, executed with perfection through high-degree of difficulty scenarios:

Bellingham is posting career-highs, per90, in progressive carries, progressive passes, progressive passes received, shot-creating actions, key passes, through-balls, expected assists, goals, goal-creating actions (he averages one per game, meaning, you’re going into ever game with him on the field with a goal in the pocket), passes blocked, overall blocks, touches in the attacking third, touches in the penalty area, and aerial duel winning percentage. It is somehow not outlandish to say that there may have never been a player (and if there has, it’s a shortlist including Alfredo di Stefano) that has impacted the team in such a dominant, two-way, multi-faceted fashion in his first season at Real Madrid.

And none of these stats are inflated, fluffed, and superfluous. He’s doing what the team requires of him, and right now, Carlo Ancelotti requires him to attack and defend.

Sometimes you’ll see him as deep as this:

In that particular sequence, he was deep because the team was pinned after a set-piece, but there have been plenty of examples this season where he’s covering for his left-back in more natural game-state situations — a lot of onus as the left-winger (Vinicius or Rodrygo) is often higher up the pitch waiting for the outlet pass.

Is it sustainable? The eternal question. My only concern is burnout — not a lack of ability.

As they say in Spain, God bless the mother who gave birth to you, Jude.

Counting down the days until Eduardo Camavinga returns

There are flashy moments to Eduardo Camavinga’s game that are pure eye candy:

Then there are the more subtle things — the way he hovers between the lines without the ball:

Those are two strange plays to bring up in this column. In the first clip Camavinga is the hero of his own undoing — a heavy touch under pressure before he recovers with a nasty nutmeg and unstoppable ball-carry. In the second clip, he doesn’t even receive the ball.

But they are good examples of a couple things from Camavinga’s game that often get overlooked. In the first sequence, his recovery before being taken out (fouled heavily) by Foulquier was met with a thunderous ovation from the Bernabeu. But he does need to be more careful under pressure when he plays as a single pivot (something I wrote about in more detail here).

On the second sequence, on display, one of his most underrated traits: his movement between the lines, and in particular, the damage he can do in the opponent’s Zone 14 — just in front of their box. He destroyed Barcelona as an inverted left-back earlier this season with those movements, and against Valencia (his last game before injury), he popped up in shooting positions undetected while Toni Kroos covered.

Also, like clockwork, he got booked for a clean slide tackle — an all too common theme in La Liga as referees can’t possibly conceive he gets the ball on those impossible challenges:

It should be noted that on defense, Camavinga is just as proactive in his tracking and covering as he is in his offensive surges. Playing as the anchor means you have to be ultra aware in both half space when either wing-back gets beat:

If Real Madrid are to make another deep run into the Champions League this season, they’re probably going to need a healthy and in-rhythm Camavinga to be a difference maker, again.

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