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.
When Vinicius Jr went down injured in the 13th minute of the game vs Celta Vigo, it was hard to be optimistic — not just because the team had already lost Eder Militao and Thibaut Coutois to ACL injures while the club has yet to sign a striker — but because losing Vinicius Jr, even without those aforementioned wounds, is a tough pill to swallow. Vinicius has been, at least, a top-three winger in Europe for two years. He is irreplaceable. Goals were already hard to come by. Without him, goals are extra laborious.
In that moment, there was as big a need as ever to have a left-back who can produce offense at a high clip.
When Carlo Ancelotti subbed off Vinicius Jr for Joselu, he opted to go for a formation change rather than a like-for-like sub.
“I thought about bringing on Brahim,” Ancelotti said after the game. “But I wanted to maintain a balance to avoid surprises.”
Joselu slotted into a 4-3-1-2 of sorts, though it was much more fluid than that. Usually when Vinicius is not on the field, it’s a chance for Rodrygo Goes to play on the left wing. But Rodrygo didn’t go left. He stayed central, where he likes to play the most.
After a few minutes, it was clear what had happened: Fran Garcia virtually assumed left wing duties, playing as a gung-ho attacking left-back that relied on cover from David Alaba, Eduardo Camavinga, and Aurelien Tchouameni.
And it was there where you saw the value of Eduardo Camavinga’s multiple left-back rehearsals last season come into play. Camavinga, having spent so much time in that role in the 2022 – 2023 campaign, feels the game like it’s second nature to him now in that role. Against Celta, he was tasked with shifting behind Fran Garcia to cover his forward runs.
He would at times make the left-sided attacking runs himself after winning the ball for Real Madrid in midfield:
Camavinga’s ball-winning in midfield: Elite. Currently in the 94th percentile in Europe in successful tackles. Look at his two defensive reads here within 10 seconds to win the ball twice vs Celta. So good:pic.twitter.com/e7jyjlENKh @Camavinga
— Kiyan Sobhani (@KiyanSo) August 27, 2023
That’s brilliant defensive understanding in midfield from the Frenchman, matched only by his tremendous athletic ability to: 1) Reach the ball with a sliding challenge on the first tackle which is then played into the clear path of Joselu; and 2) Outwork and outmuscle his opponent on the second challenge before moving into the final third.
Those challenges in midfield are important in creating transition opportunities for Real Madrid — a team desperately in need of generating a high volume of good offensive chances on a consistent basis to grind out victories to challenge for major titles.
Camavinga’s two-way brilliance — not dissimilar to the other midfield starters against Celta — provides vital energy and balance to Ancelotti’s scheme, one that looks to hold a higher line and deploy an efficient counter-press aimed to paralyze opponents trying to breathe coming out of the back. Against Celta, there were large stretches where the counter-press looked good.
But despite the exuberance, and the much-needed attacking ability of Fran Garcia in a game where you lost your left-wing supernova, the defensive coverage needs to improve in the coming games. Camavinga, often high up the field in central positions when Fran Garcia was already ahead of the ball, put a lot of pressure on Tchouameni’s shoulders to cover. Oscar Mingueza, author of 11 crosses on the night, got into the space behind Fran Garcia often enough.
Real Madrid did limit the amount of clear cut chances though. Celta had a high volume of low quality shots. Rafa Benitez’s men had 11 shots in the box, with the most notable one falling to Mingueza at the far post on a shambolic defensive sequence where Fran Garcia and David Alaba were marking central runs and Camavinga didn’t react well enough to close down Mingueza.
Still, the early returns, at least from an efficiency standpoint in the first three games, have been solid. Mingueza’s chance was Celta’s biggest. Real Madrid were able to prevent Kepa from being tested too much in his Real Madrid debut, and that’s a good thing.
But things do need to continually improve on defense if Real Madrid are to sustain their winning. They’ve squeaked out a +.45 xGD/90 (expected goals difference per 90) in the first three games. That might not be a big enough gap over the course of the season. (Barcelona are at +1.58; Real Madrid were at +.96 last season as they virtually lost the league in March.)
Real Madrid will have to face Getafe next week without Vinicius Jr, and José Bordalas is notorious for deploying a physical (to put it politely) scheme that closes space in a low block. Can Bellingham pop up again? Can Rodrygo add goals to his brilliant line-breaking? Can Camavinga and Tchouameni efficiently cover for Fran Garcia, whose offense will be much needed?
This is not going to be an easy season for Carlo Ancelotti given his depleting resources. He will have to maximize both ends of the field, and every game will be a battle.