Mon. Jul 22nd, 2024

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.


The following players, in my eyes, are the pillars that have gotten Real Madrid to the top of the table. Are they the five best players in the team? Not necessarily. Are they the only five players who have performed well? Of course not. Andriy Lunin has looked great. Antonio Rudiger has been nearly foot-perfect. Vinicius Jr was hitting his stride before getting injured. Aurelien Tchouameni has reclaimed his place as one of the best defensive midfielders in the world. They’re all, along with some others, among the honourable mentions.

JUDE BELLINGHAM

Jude Bellingham knew that when Real Madrid sat down to offer him a contract, the proposal was something different — something beyond a nominal midfield role. Real Madrid wanted to increase his responsibility, give him freedom, and plant him as a focal point of offensive production.

“Of course, I’ve not just come here because of the size of the club, as it’s also the vision of the team,” Bellingham said on the day of his official Real Madrid presentation. “The ideas they presented were good and it’s an opportunity that I thought I couldn’t turn down.”

What Real Madrid needed from him was outside the scope of a central midfielder. They already have plenty of those. They needed someone who can connect the dots, bind the midfield and attack — put the ball in the back of the net and get the ball into the box to others. They needed his legs, dynamism and agility to press and track without sacrificing the attacking jabs and uppercuts he deals to opponents.

Those demands were heavy, and some would deem unfair on a young player who has yet to set foot in the biggest club in the world. Bellingham saw it as an opportunity.

“I see it as a brilliant responsibility rather than pressure,” Bellingham said. “So I’ll embrace that. In terms of my maturity, I think when you’re playing in a professional environment and with grown men from the age of 15 or 16 then you learn to grow up fast and understand responsibility sooner. At Dortmund, I’ve been given bigger roles with each year and I’ve adapted well to them because of the teammates, because of my family, because of the coaches. They tell me what it takes to be able to carry this responsibility, so I hope to continue that here.”

What Bellingham is doing at Real Madrid is not normal. It may only seem normal over time because great players who show this kind of consistency, in a weird way, desensitize us to their greatness.

“If Bellingham continues like this, he could become the greatest English footballer of all time”, former Manchester United right-back Gary Neville said earlier this season. “He’s exceptionally talented and has a brilliant temperament. He always anticipates what is going to happen next.”

That anticipation is key. Bellingham scores goals, and people will look at that too simplistically at times. The reason he’s scored so many goals is because he knows where to be and when to be there. Once his instinct and football IQ get him into the correct position, his ability and composure take care of the final execution.

“I feel like I’m a midfielder that can do a little bit of everything,” Bellingham said of his playing style. “Whatever the coach wants me to do, I’ll do it. I think probably one of my biggest strengths is that I can give you a wider range of skills and hopefully I can show that in a Real Madrid shirt wherever the coach wants me to play.”

Bellingham has done so much important work defensively this season — mostly gone unnoticed to the media and fans because the headlines are about his goals. But he not only leads La Liga in goals, he also leads the league in blocks. What’s even more staggering is that he actually leads all Big Five leagues in blocks. He is flying back to defend. He does stuff well beyond the scope of a striker.

Some people, half-jokingly — this author included — compare him to Alfredo di Stefano. Not because he, like di Stefano, is a top-seven player of all time, but because of the ground he covers. It’s as rare as a unicorn to see players score, create, and defend at such an elite level:

There are no real flaws to Bellingham’s game. He is a 9 or a 10 in most facets for players in his position: scoring, creating, ball-carrying, progressive passing, dribbling, off-ball movement, defensive work rate, football IQ. The question is not about what he can or can’t do now — it’s about how much he can sustain his armageddon.

“For him, the important thing is to keep this up,” Carlo Ancelotti said in early November. “The great players are consistent. For now, he is showing that and his physical profile allows him to do this.”

FEDERICO VALVEDE

Fede Valverde has rolled into the 2023 – 2024 season in the form of his life, re-cementing himself back onto the pantheon of one of the most valuable two-way central midfielders on earth. At 25, few — if any — carry the ball up the field as dominantly as him while contributing in attack and bullying people on defense.

Fede goes into every 50 / 50 challenge as if there was a gun to his head — trigger ready to be cocked back if he doesn’t win the duel. Going up against him is frightening. What we see so routinely watching him win the ball in midfield needs to be appreciated more. When opponents see him attacking the ball with full steam, they realize what they’re up against — a freight train with endless fuel bulldozing them.

“I always say that when you leave everything on the field and when you sacrifice yourself for the good of the team people notice it,” Fede Valverde said back in 2019 describing his playing style. “I’m a fighter, not only in football but also in my personal life. I try to give everything on the pitch and the fans appreciate it.”

When Fede Valverde is as dominant as he has been, it’s a game-changer for Real Madrid. Last season, before the World Cup, he was laying down offensive carnage with all of his goals — but I’d argue he’s even better now despite not scoring as much.

Valverde is second in La Liga in progressive carrying distance as he drives through opposition lines and breaks them. Only three players have more key passes, and only two players have more passes into the penalty area. He has successfully tackled 78.6% of the dribblers he’s faced — the fifth best mark in the league.

His ball-winning in midfield has been vital:

Fede’s mentality on both defense and offense is the same: He puts his foot down on the pedal and revs up to 100 miles per hour. On defense, if he’s in the vicinity of a ball-carrier, he will hunt him full throttle. On offense, any narrow corridor of space and he’ll carry the ball, full bore, into the heart of the opposition’s defense.

Fede has conjured 50 shot-creating actions this season — the fourth most of anyone in the league. He has read the game well on defense, intercepting passes out of the back reliably — several of which have led to great chances for Real Madrid the other way. Only nine players in the league have more interceptions.

“They started calling me El Pajaro because when I was a kid it looked as if I was flying around when I was running,” Valverde said in that same interview in 2019. “My parents didn’t like it very much but it sticked,”

Valverde flies sometimes subtly. His ball carries can sometimes go unnoticed in the general flow of the game, but are key to Real Madrid’s ball progression. Often times, what makes his carries important, is the speed at which he gets Real Madrid from their own third to the opposition’s:

There is nothing really flashy about what Valverde did in that sequence above, but it’s a good encapsulation of what the Uruguayan is all about. When Eduardo Camavinga intercepts the Braga pass and redirects it to Valverde’s path, El Pajaro doesn’t think twice: He bolts like The Flash. It takes him about seven seconds to explode out of Braga’s counter-press and get the ball to Vinicius on the wing in Braga’s half. Those subtle manoeuvres can be the difference between being trapped in your own box and pulling off a dangerous attack.

Often times those drives with the ball can also break down low blocks. Valverde’s ball carries through Barcelona’s lines were vital to breaking down Xavi Hernandez’s low block in the second half of El Clasico back in October.

Valverde is playing the best football of his career. His all-around ability makes him one of the most complete footballers in all of Europe.

EDUARDO CAMAVINGA

Eduardo Camavinga, who earlier in November signed a mammoth contract extension which sees him locked in at Real Madrid until 2029, has been indispensable to Carlo Ancelotti’s side this season.

And it’s been that way for a long time. Last season, in my weekly column, no player starred more. It was impossible to leave him out of the showcase. He was doing everything needed, and doing it at an elite level.

Camavinga has been great in almost every position he plays in — be it left-back, central midfield, or as a defensive midfielder. Sergio Vilarińo, a good friend of Managing Madrid and author of ‘México 70, 50 Ańos de Fúbol en color’, describes Camavinga as the fusion of Fernando Redondo and Clarence Seedorf — both elegant, technically gifted versatile players who understood the game at an elite level tactical level.

But neither were to be deployed as wing-back while being so good there as they morphed into the team’s best left-back.

Camavinga, who doesn’t like playing there as much as he does in midfield, has done so with his head down, in dominant fashion.

“I’m someone who plays for the team when and where I’m needed,” Camavinga said. “I didn’t know the left-back position before, but it’s where I’ve adapted, whether it’s with the French national team or with Real Madrid. But I don’t particularly like that position. I think everyone knows that, but if I have to play there, I will, even if I don’t necessarily enjoy it. I’m still a midfielder.”

During Aurelien Tchouameni’s injury, Camavinga had to soak up minutes as the team’s defensive anchor. Typically, on defense, Camavinga plays the 6, and in the build-up phase, Kroos drops back and they switch. Camavinga has been hyper alert covering in both half-spaces to put in important challenges:

On the defensive end, Camavinga has been foot-perfect when playing as the single pivot. When he has the ball at his feet, there have been moments where he’s gotten his pocket picked — dabbling on the ball or over-dribbling long enough to lose possession in dangerous areas. He makes mistakes there that he doesn’t normally make when playing at left-back or as an 8.

“I still need to improve my concentration,” Camavinga said while on international duty with France earlier this season. “And also, be more decisive.”

The above sequence is a good illustration of the yin and yang of Camavinga when he plays as the team’s anchor: defense impeccable; press-resistancy needing improvement. The Frenchman hunts the underload and wins the ball cleanly, but his pass out of the back puts the team in a difficult situation, with Rayo boomeranging themselves back into an offensive charge.

Camavinga is top-10 in La Liga in tackles won, and his understanding of where to be on the defensive end makes him reliable with his coverage. His next step is to bring the ball out of the back at a reliable clip — something that Tchouameni and Kroos both do.

Still, Camavinga can, and probably will, improve in that aspect. He has cleaned up some of his understandable kinks at left-back — mainly with regards to defensive positioning. Give him enough reps at the single pivot, and he will likely be elite there too:

DANI CARVAJAL

When Real Madrid get this version of Dani Carvajal, they are a completely different team — their ceiling raises and their efficiency soars. So much of Real Madrid’s offense goes through the left: Vinicius and Rodrygo both love it there; Bellingham hedges to that side; Kroos controls tempo from the left. Carvajal gets the ball on the diagonal switches. How good he is dictates how good Real Madrid can exploit the weak side. Carvajal has looked great receiving those switches and punishing defensive lines who leave him open.

Dani Carvajal has been the best right-back in Spain this season.
Photo by Mateo Villalba/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

Carvajal, along with fellow pillar Fede Valverde, ‘solved’ Real Madrid’s right flank. This is not the Carvajal of last season — it’s a completely new signing. He has done everything nearly perfect on both ends. Though still a hair below his 2016 level on offense, he’s pretty well been exactly what Real Madrid need as a leader and captain. He has occupied that wing with a beastly two-way presence opponents have hated playing against.

Carvajal has been getting into the final third at a high volume. He’s in the 88th percentile among right-backs in touches in the attacking penalty area, and in the 94th percentile in progressive passes received. Him, Antonio Rudiger, and Valverde have had good chemistry in covering for each other. Against Cadiz in November, Carvajal played almost exclusively as a right winger — almost mirroring Rodrygo’s positioning on the left wing while Valverde dropped deeper into a double pivot.

Carvajal is playing with a bounce — a confidence he didn’t have last season. “Regarding my offensive statistics, everything is working out for me and I am contributing to the team,” Carvajal said in November. “In terms of confidence, I feel very good.”

On the defensive end, Carvajal’s individual defense has been reliable, and his step-ups have been timely — intercepting passes that have allowed Real Madrid to counter dangerously. When he wins the ball, he’s been great escaping pressure and carrying the ball through traffic before finding the right pass. Against Cadiz, in a more advanced wing-back role, his counter-pressing was suffocating in the final third:

Carvajal is not as great a dribbler as he used to be, but he can do damage offensively in other ways by making off-ball runs in the right half-space where he and Valverde have been interchangeable and kinetic in taking turns making the run and feeding each other. The Spaniard remains a great diagonal crosser and has been putting dangerous balls into the box all season.

Right now, this version of Carvajal is invaluable to Real Madrid. In past seasons, he only had enough in the tank to step up in big Champions League games. Stepping up to the plate at the apex of the season is great, but Real Madrid could really use more all-year-round production from him, and so far they’ve got it.

RODRYGO GOES

Rodrygo was always going to be Real Madrid’s wild card — the x-factor to how high the team’s ceiling gets raised. How he performs as a secondary star will dictate how potent Real Madrid will be on the offensive end. Could he take a leap as a false nine? Will he score enough goals as a floating attacker to make up for the departure of Karim Benzema? Is he ready to be elite at a consistent level?

After a slow start to the season, Rodrygo has picked up pace, going on an offensive surge as he blitzes defensive lines. He is now first in La Liga in successful take-ons and fifth by that same metric in the Big Five Leagues. Only two players have more goals and assists in Spain this season, and no player in the league has more progressive carries and carries into the penalty area. No one shows between the lines better — Rodrygo is first in progressive passes received.

At the beginning of the season, Rodrygo was trying to do the right things, but things weren’t clicking, even when he was playing on the left side during Vinicius’s first injury of the season. Some of his decision-making could’ve been better, and there were games — like the one away to Napoli — where he floated out of the game as Real Madrid channelled their play exclusively through the left hand side where Vinicius was ball dominant.

But what started off as a small ripple as Rodrygo was trying to find his feet early on, has turned into a tsunami of offensive explosion. Rodrygo is now playing with a special bounce — a confidence and swagger that he didn’t have before. It’s as if he already knows he will burn his defender and wills it into existence — regardless of which or how many opposition players are in his way.

The underlying analytics last season told us that per 90, Rodrygo was among the best wingers in the world, and if he were to be a consistent starter, he could take that leap into elite territory:

Carlo Ancelotti was right to be patient with Rodrygo’s lack of efficiency at the beginning of the season. Growth is not linear — confidence ebbs and flows; luck wavers. But Rodrygo has proven in the past he has ‘it’. Eventually things would normalize. Now they have.

Perhaps Real Madrid’s desperation in needing a protagonist outside of Bellingham has helped. Rodygo has raised Carlo Ancelotti’s call to take on a dominant role on the left wing in Vinicius’s absence.

But now different questions are being asked. Who can help Rodrygo? Against Real Betis, the Brazilian lacked a Karim Benzema-type figure to link-up with and score the chances his dribbling created. Jude Bellingham linked up with Rodrygo beautifully, but the Englishman is also covering so much ground — especially in the absence of Eduardo Camavinga and Aurelien Tchouameni — and not always able to be in those spots in transition. The emergence of Brahim Diaz has helped. Joselu is not someone who can do anything outside the box, and even in it, is not a prolific finisher.

Rodrygo has been a high volume shooter — no player in Spain has shot more than him. The lack of goals was magnified because of the amount of chances he put himself in to score, but didn’t. But Rodrygo has now matched his xG for the season (nine goals on an xG of 9.2).

“Rodrygo is good,” Carlo Ancelotti said after Real Madrid’s 2 – 0 win over Granada on December 2nd. “He’s back to his best level.”

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