Monday Musings: The Alaba-Casemiro interchange, new set-pieces, and integrating fresh faces

Matt’s Monday Musings: A series with no rhyme or reason — just consistent thoughts on all things Real Madrid released every Monday. Some weeks may be long form, others just short anecdotal thoughts. Either way, I’ll be posting reflective content on the current, past, and future on-goings of the club:

In what feels like a blink of the eye, Real Madrid’s preseason has come and gone. It was nice having the team back in the US. Although the data is not yet publicly available to back this assertion up, it feels like the Real Madrid brand has grown in this part of the world, especially in the West Coast of the US. Amid the droves of fans flocking to Las Vegas, San Francisco, and Los Angeles there was work being done by Carlo Ancelotti and his staff to prepare for a season unlike any other: six competitions and a World Cup in the Middle East plopped in the middle of the season.

These three games gave Carlo a chance to experiment with some tactical wrinkles, test out some set piece changes, and integrate a few new faces. Below are some of the themes I saw from this preseason that were new and noteworthy:

The Alaba – Casemiro interchange.

In the final match of the US tour vs Juventus, we saw some new patterns that may be replicated in future matches to start the season. The ever-versatile David Alaba forayed forward into advanced midfield positions. Forget the DM role, Alaba was more like a #8, hedging higher than Kroos or Modric. He allowed the two midfield metronomes to the quarterback and instead was picking up the ball in dangerous positions. Given the Austrian’s technique and composure in tight spaces, he was able to get multiple shots off, thread a through ball, and make dynamic runs into the box:

David Alaba’s aggressive nature and ability to step out and intercept passes higher up the pitch means he is often in a position to continue his foray forward after winning the ball. Casemiro’s astute in-game recognition of Alaba’s continued forward movement means he naturally drifts into a center back role. The fluid nature of the interchange makes it look as though these two have been doing this for years.

The question Zidane and many other managers struggled to answer was what to do with Casemiro in the build-up play of possession? The tendency to push Casemiro forward and allow Kroos and Modric to pick up the ball from the defense was often the go-to choice, but it meant Casemiro infamously ended up as the team’s #10. The Brazilian would usually wind up with the ball at his feet just outside the opposition box. Transition moments could become awkward as Case would be out of position and likely have to press high or produce a tactical foul to help the team regain their shape.

With Alaba underlapping or stepping out and continuing to roam forward, and Casemiro casually drifting to a center back role, Carlo may have found a better answer to mask Casemiro’s technical deficiencies. There may still be challenges with transition defending, but this is a tactical tweak to keep an eye on.

Introduction of new set-pieces

The Juventus game was full of fast intricate football, good battles (IE Kroos vs Di Maria, Fede vs Alex Sandro), and quite a few new set piece routines. Oftentimes overlooked by supporters is the importance of quality set-piece execution. Set-pieces can make the marginal difference required to win a competition. Even if a goal is not scored from a direct set-piece, the resulting chaos or rebound opportunity from a free kick / corner / kick-off / throw-in can create a goal. A study done by Werlayne Leite in Brazil found that 40% of the goals scored in the 2018 World Cup originated from a set-piece opportunity. There is too much value from set-pieces just to ignore them.

I would not be the least bit surprised to see some of these new routines filter into the European Super Cup as well as some of the early games in La Liga. Once scouted, Ancelotti and his staff will have to get creative to implement a new range of plays.

Fresh faces – Antonio Rudiger, Aurlien Tchouameni, and Vinicius Tobias

One of the highlights of the preseason is seeing new signings play for the club. The other bonus, of course, is seeing young talent from the academy try to compete for a spot in the first-team. This year, there were not many Castilla call-ups given the lack of a summer international tournament, but Vinicius Tobias was the lone young player to be given a chance. Below are some quick thoughts on the three debutants:

Rudiger

  • Ancelotti’s idea in the first match was to use as an “elbow back” (if unfamiliar with the term, read this). If you look at Rudiger’s heatmap while at Chelsea, it would be easy to mistake him for a left back. He took up advanced positions on the left flank and was critical in advancing the team up the pitch both with his passing and ball carrying ability. Ancelotti attempting to slot him into an auxiliary left back role wasn’t as far fetched as it sounds. My issue with the Barcelona game: Rudiger really ended up playing as a pure left back because of the way Raphina was pinned to the wing and the long diagonal passes Barcelona used to find him. The system Ancelotti wanted to utilize will take more time to work on before Rudiger can be called an actual “elbow back” much like Mario Hermoso has played for Atletico Madrid in the past.

  • Interesting that Rudiger played as a right center back against Juventus and was the only substitute at half time. Militao will definitely have his work cut out to keep the starting birth at that position. Although more accustomed to playing on the left, Rudiger looked just as adept at playing on the right side of the central pairing. His on-ball composure is a level above Militao’s. When the Brazilian gets into a tight spot he usually hoofs the ball forward to the opposing defense, while Rudiger will wait for the right moment and drill an incisive pass between the lines.

Tchouameni:

  • More to his game from an offensive perspective, specifically attacking the box, than I expected. Ancelotti said as much after the Club America game, “He’s a different kind of pivot to Casemiro. Casemiro is more positional. We watched the Barcelona game to see where Tchouameni could do better and position himself better. He is able to get forward well.
  • Prefers the quick one-touch pass to move the ball out of pressure. Constantly moves around the pitch to show up as an outlet for the back four while in possession. I would like to see him attempt some of his more progressive vertical passes, as it felt like he was playing slightly reserved in these preseason matches.

Vinicius Tobias

  • Very little to note on the young Brazilian, but by all reports Ancelotti and his staff have been impressed. It will be an important year for him at Castilla this season and there may be opportunities to see more first team minutes. The player did produce one exciting moment against Club America – feinting like he would move the ball with the outside of his right boot before quickly accelerating on the dribble with his left foot – blowing by the helpless Club America defender. It was a sign of the attacking talent the Brazilian possesses. My guess is he will have some defensive kinks to work out, but will be a threat in the final third.

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