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MM Mailbag: Pre-Clasico Edition

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On Aleix Febas, the CDR squad, and questions heading into El Clasico

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‘Someday’ is pretty ambiguous, and it seems like an infinite amount of time for Castilla’s most consistent player to earn some minutes for the first team. We talk about Sergio Diaz, Odegaard and Achraf a lot - mostly because pound-for-pound they have the most star power of the lot. But none of them have been as consistent game-in game-out as Aleix Febas, who provides an offensive spark more often than not when Solari’s team looks completely stagnant and unable to create anything going forward.

And he’s grown over the past couple years. It was always clear he’ll make it - if not here, than somewhere. It’s hard to see a scenario where none of the 20 teams in La Liga won’t be interested in signing him at some point. He’s an engine that you could foresee dictating a midfield, and his ceiling at this point looks higher than someone like, let’s say, Dani Parejo. I’d argue even that he’s more promising than Borja Valero was, given how many times he’s turned a game on its head with moments of individual brilliance.

The more interesting question indeed, is not whether he’ll make it, but whether he’ll make it with Real Madrid. With each passing game, he seems to make a solid case, but his problem is that Real Madrid are locked-in solid at that position with Toni Kroos still in his prime, Luka Modric alive and well, and Mateo Kovacic making his official leap this season as a footballer. Febas is 20, and if he’s going to cut it at Real, it will take a lot of dominoes to fall his way, and if there’s any chance at all he’s considered, it will be the Alvaro Morata route - purchased at a higher price after impressing elsewhere.

If we’re asking why he won’t play in tomorrow’s Copa Del Rey clash - a match which surely will give some of the players further down the pecking order a chance to impress - it’s more complicated. Castilla call-ups are not always based on merit - though sometimes they are. Zidane prefers to keep certain players available to Guti, for example, in the Youth Championships, and other times, like in this particular case, he might want to keep Febas fresh for the upcoming clash against Navalcarnero. He is, after all, less expendable than Odegaard, Tejero, and Enzo (all of whom have been called up, and have players like Achraf, Quezada, Valverde, Sergio Diaz, and Cedres to cover).

More tweets

As much as I’d love to write an essay on this question, I’m going to keep it brief. Yesterday, I spent an entire day watching film from the 2014 Clasico for a feature I wrote for FourFourTwo on how Real Madrid can beat Barcelona without Gareth Bale. Once it’s published, i’ll be sure to link it here, but unfortunately for you, this question almost sucked the life out of me yesterday.

The short version is this: I think it’s healthy for Zidane to veer away from his traditional 4-3-3, even with Casemiro available. We know Casemiro shows up in big games, and chances are Zidane will stick to his guns, but I’m a fan of non-traditional Zidane - quite simply because non-traditional Zidane is the most fun Zidane.

Look, the reason I spent a day re-watching 2014’s Clasico at the Bernabeu and snipping gifs out of it is simple - that was also a match without Gareth Bale in the lineup, and it was the best performance the team has had against Barcelona in the last few years. And unless you count Toni Kroos, Real Madrid played without a traditional deep-lying anchor in that match too.

Some will call it small sample size, but I call it uncomplicated brilliance. Real Madrid look lethal when they pack the midfield with technically gifted midfielders versatile enough to interchange multiple positions. Outlets manifest at a game-changing level, opponents are hounded, and in this particular case, the already uncomfortable Sergio Busquets will be defanged even further.

We know James lacks the understanding needed to close passing lanes in deeper roles where he’s asked to sit back - we also know Isco does this profoundly better than him. Furthermore, we know James excels in an advanced role, and the closer he is to goal, the better his football IQ can be illustrated. Roll with it. Let Isco and Marcelo do their thing on the left wing — one of my discoveries in studying film yesterday is just how easily that tandem blitzed through Barcelona’s flank — as they interchange, cover for each other, suck defenders away from one another, and create space in almost impossibly tight situations; while James plays a bit further up the field to compensate for the lack of Gareth Bale to link the midfield to attack.

So bask, brethren, in my yolo lineup that Zidane turned down when I had lunch with him today: Navas; Carvajal, Ramos, Pepe, Marcelo; Kovacic, Modric, Isco; James, Ronaldo, Benzema.

Zidane could call up Solari as well as the entire Castilla squad for this game and probably still avoid a six-goal loss. Still, given the circumstances, it’s hard to be too harsh with Zidane’s squad selection for tomorrow. This game is for some of the A-squad as much as it is for Castilla call-ups. Mariano, James, Casilla, Asensio, and Casemiro all need minutes, which takes up quite a few positions on its own. After that, as discussed above, there are several factors to take into consideration when summoning younger players from the youth armoury.

Be careful what you wish for. I can’t think of any scenario where Iniesta playing this match would benefit Real Madrid. His absence - apart from Luis Enrique’s unrefined rotations, his mistrust in Ivan Rakitic, and Barcelona’s depth-quality - is easily Barcelona’s biggest problem right now.

Busquets has been a corpse this season, relative to his standard elite level from previous seasons. Some of that is on him — see: misplaced short passes to open outlets — and some of that is on Iniesta’s absence. Iniesta is the type of player who will drop deep to show for Busquets when he receives it from the defenders, making life a whole let easier for Sergio. Andre Gomes simply doesn’t have nearly the same understanding, and now that opposing coaches understand this universal truth — snuffing Busquets out of the match is paramount to stopping Barcelona — Barcelona’s midfield has suffered greatly. To add fuel to the fire, Luis Enrique’s faith in Ivan Rakitic has been sporadic this season, and the Croatian just hasn’t looked himself, nor has he been able to compensate for Iniesta’s injury.

A walking Iniesta gives Barcelona a better chance of beating Real Madrid over a healthy Andre Gomes.

This makes me nauseous.