With Casemiro’s departure from Real Madrid this week, apart from the main story of a club legend leaving on such short notice, the main dialogue surrounded Aurelien Tchouameni and the new-found burden on his shoulders to be Real Madrid’s firefighter in the anchor role.
It was time to put Tchouameni’s words to the sword. What stood out about his time in Monaco and the France National Team was his elite ball-winning, athleticism, ability to read passing lanes, defensive tracking, and vertical passing. What stood out about his Real Madrid presentation back in June were his words about his mentality, hunger to win, and how his inspirations were Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. He was here to fight, to win.
His first game against Almeria was underwhelming, understandably. In the first game of the post-Casemiro era — a showdown in Balaidos vs Celta Vigo — his bounce returned. Tchouameni anticipated nearly every run and bullied Celta on 50/50 duels. He progressed the ball, combined well with Eduardo Camavinga, and together, the French duo helped Real Madrid put in a monstrous defensive shift.
Seeing how those two functioned together on defense was eye-opening. When Real Madrid first signed Tchouameni, my mind immediately jumped to scenarios where we might see him and Camavinga together in a double pivot. Both thrive in box-to-box roles, both have the Cobra Tackle (the most aesthetically-breathtaking defensive play in the game), and both have the dynamism, athleticism, and defensive IQ to pretty well put a blanket on Real Madrid’s defense that would be hard to lift.
Tchouameni embraced his role as the six against Celta, and met the challenge Carlo Ancelotti set of him the day before the game, when the Real Madrid manager publicly said: “He’ll need to improve positionally, but he has quality.”
But Ancelotti also knew Tchouameni, a monster defensively, can be great. “Tchouaméni, for his defensive abilities, is the closest to Casemiro,” Ancelotti stated.
We saw more of those defensive qualities against Celta, where Tchouameni’s anticipation of Celta’s runners, as well as the reading of the attempted passes behind Real Madrid’s midfield, was near-perfect. On the ball he was encouraging too. By half-time he had three key passes, and by the end of the game, he had a momentous, Casemiro-esque challenge deep before carrying the ball up the field to help construct Real Madrid’s fourth goal.
Seeing the cohesion between him and Camavinga already was promising. While Tchouameni was the single pivot, there was an interchangeability to the two, and, Camavinga was often the deeper of the dyad. Both covered the half space between David Alaba and Ferland Mendy, both protected Zone 14, and on the ball, Camavinga was readily available to provide Tchouameni with a vertical outlet:
Camavinga can provide that outlet for anyone. It’s an underrated, subtle trait that he’s so good at. His movement between the lines off the ball has always been of line-breaking nature.
The above pass was not that frequent due to Real Madrid’s scheme at Balaidos. Most of the passing between Tchouameni, Camavinga, and Luka Modric was tight-knight, in close quarters. They’d play off each other in the middle before one of them would sling the ball to Ferland Mendy who would then either hit a diagonal short pass to Karim Benzema, or get the ball down the flank to Vinicius Jr.
But that pass is there, and will be there all season. Camavinga will show, and Tchouameni is good at quick-firing vertical passes between the lines.
Once these two form even more chemistry together (and I mean not just over the course of the season, but even as they marinade for the next few years as they bake their identity into starting line-up), I could see it being a daunting midfield to play against. Imagine going into the channels and coming up against not one, but two behemoths with their talent and IQ. Celta, who disappeared offensively as the game wore on, got a glimpse of it.
It should be noted: Tchouameni’s performance vs Celta Vigo wasn’t perfect. This is not a blind, one-sided analysis. There were moments of poor ball control early under pressure, and on one instance, he failed to track Iago Aspas in the box, and dodged a bullet when Celta didn’t get the ball to their open star.
But this was a solid 8/10, and gets highlighted for one main reason: All eyes were on him to see how he’d respond to Casemiro’s departure.
Generally, we may never fully know if it would have been better for Tchouameni’s development had Casemiro stayed as a mentor for two more years or so; or whether or not playing him Tchouameni regularly would’ve been the better course of action. I lean towards the latter. There was so much noise among fans, asking ‘Why sign Tchouameni for that much money if he’s not going to play? We already have Casemiro’. That question is answered now, and, if you want him to play, you got it. I’ve seen a 17-year-old Raul thrive because the club needed him, and I’ve seen Vinicius Jr do the same as a teenager. Neither were supposed to be ready. They were. They had to be.
I had decided that even if Tchouameni had a poor game against Celta, I’d be patient with him for a few months to ensure a fair analysis (and to be clear, while he was good, it doesn’t mean he’s not going to have dips in form and suffer growing pains — or that he’s some guaranteed cornerstone for the club). But I did have my eye on one thing: If he did pass the initial test and lift the heavy weights off his shoulders with all the pressure on him, I’d jot that as a good sign for where his head is at.
Tchouameni looked confident. People need to be reminded that he’s not that raw. A starter for France is more polished than you think.