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Managing Madrid Mailbag: Feb 11th

On Real Madrid's pre-season travelling, Gareth Bale's injury concerns, and more

Denis Doyle/Getty Images

These mailbags have become super-fun, and I appreciate all the questions tweeted at me throughout the week. Again, the number of questions flooding in each week increases which is great confirmation to keep this going on a weekly basis, and just provide something different on the site. I also appreciate getting to know the readers a bit better by engaging with them through the mailbag.

Here we go.

That Real have topped the rich list for that long surely is a testament to the marketing value of these business tours. I'm putting my entrepreneurial hat on for a second - from an economical standpoint, these trips are quite conducive to Real Madrid's branding growth. A businessman would look at this question and respond by saying you 'don't stop innovating just because you've reached the top'. In order to stay on that plane, you have to keep doing these things consistently.

Real Madrid are the first Club to open permanent offices in China, and their recent deal with Ali Baba will see them reach an entirely new - and quite frankly, absolutely massive - market to millions of buyers. Another note: Over 60% of visitors at the Bernabeu each year are from outside of Spain - many of them from China, Japan, the Middle East, or the USA.

Economically, decisions to play abroad pay off, and it builds a fan-base that previously didn't exist. The top two games with the highest ratings in China have been Real Madrid vs Barcelona on October 25 2014, and Real Madrid vs Granada on April 5 2015. The latter may sound surprising, but it correlates with broadcasters working with earlier kick-off times which fall on ideal times in China. That match against Granada was at 6 pm Beijing time. Pushing for earlier matches in order to capture large audiences in the far East is something you can start seeing more of.

These are some small details that not every Real Madrid fan realizes when they continually call for Florentino's head. He has a business mind, and a rare one at that.

Entrepreneurial hat off*

Real Madrid needs to win trophies more than anything. As it was touched on in last week's mailbag, Real Madrid's trophy-to-season ratio this century is abysmal, particularly when you compare it to two things: The amount of money the Club has spent; and Barcelona's ratio which is far more impressive. The players get fatigued with these tours, and it would be super interesting to see some statistics of success in seasons where the team doesn't travel to another continent with seasons where it does. Jose Mourinho spoke out against the idea of pre-season travelling over long distances - and he's completely right. The Club tends to pay a price for this in May. Last season was perhaps the most grueling of all. Real Madrid traveled twice - once in the pre-season and then once more for the Club World Cup. That, coupled with Ancelotti's tight rotations and lack of quality depth was a terrible recipe.

The goal of pre-season football is to prepare for the season - to allow the manager to get a feel for his scheme and iron out some kinks before the main event. But these days it's beyond that - it's about building brands, making money, and appealing to a global audience. For the players, a match in Los Angeles or New York is meaningless. Apart from enjoying the city as a tourist, they don't see the game itself as that important. But for denizens of those cities, it's like attending a Champions League final. The stadium is packed and the streets are filled with Real Madrid apparel. Seriously, it's incredible how seriously these overseas countries treat these matches. I remember being in Chicago as a kid when Real Madrid were playing an exhibition game against Chivas Guadalajara. There were Real Madrid kits everywhere - even at breakfast tables at random restaurants far from the stadium.

And that's exactly what Real Madrid - the brand - want to see. It's a very powerful image to have.

Real Madrid won't stop their pre-season tours. Whether or not they should is a different question. And this conundrum, by the way, is not unique to Real Madrid. Chelsea and Manchester United travel the same distances, and Barcelona isn't too far off. De facto, you will see more and more travelling from big Clubs as the season's roll by. The reality is that the World is getting smaller, and pretty much everyone and everything wants to expand their brand globally. The NBA wants to eventually expand to Europe, and even if they won't actually do it for a while, they've been sending NBA teams to the UK for a few official games every season, and mind you, that's in the middle of a jam-packed 82-game schedule.

There's no end in sight to all this. In 2000 years, our descendants could see teams travel to Mars for pre-season matches, and they'll look back at us and say 'what a primitive age... we have to travel 15 hours to a different planet and they had to travel 15 hours to get to another country'.

Here's what I would do, since it's clear that pre-season tours across the planet won't actually cease: Instead of having it yearly, do it strategically on certain years only. Only travel on seasons when there are no World Cups, Euro Cups, or Club World Cups to be played. For every year in between, just stay in Europe and set-up some mini tournaments inviting various big Clubs.

Hey Sahil,

I think this question has come up in every mailbag and every podcast for the last few weeks. I have a feeling it will continue to come up too, so I'll just copy and paste my answer from a previous mailbag each time. For those of you who've read this already, I apologize - feel free to scroll to the next question. Bottom line: We don't need to purchase anyone for that position, we already have a pocket ace in James who we need to integrate as a key player.

In the event of an inevitable Ronaldo departure, others will rise in his place. I'm going to have some fun with this question and answer it quite literally by ways of how I would personally handle the situation, rather than what I think the Club will do. The first thing to get out of the way is that it's pretty well impossible to rotate Ronaldo once he's in the squad. He has the type of persona about him that, if he's in the team, he has to play. It's the same kind of presence that Raul or Casillas demanded even if they don't directly say it, and generally you need to part with these players on the early side of their decline.

In what World is James Rodriguez a squad player and not a starter? James is an ace. The average age of James - Bale - Isco is 24, and that's a tantalizing core to build your team around. I don't see Ronaldo as a part of this core moving forward, and, as I've mentioned several times before, it by no means indicates that the Portuguese legend is devalued or under-appreciated.

Ronaldo has been efficient enough to be on his own historical plane of greatness, but naturally, he has declined, and generally, the more you rely on athleticism as a player, the sooner you will regress as a footballer. There is no shame in admitting the Club will be better off to cut ties with Ronaldo now and move him in the Summer, because quite frankly, the idea of a James - Bale - Isco trio binding the midfield and attack for the next few years is too good to pass up, and Bale could generally develop into the team's alpha-dog which is a position he should thrive in.

At the end of the season, I'd have a frank conversation with Ronaldo to say 'we appreciate everything you've done for us, and this is the direction we are headed in'. Then hold a massive tribute for him and pack the Bernabeu. Send him off with a clear conscience and start building your team for the future.

Vallejo is 19 - one year older than Varane was when Real Madrid signed him. Whether Real Madrid bring him back next season or not, they need to get Vallejo out of Segunda. He needs to play in La Liga at the very least - maybe loan him out to Getafe or someone in that category. Again, that's the very least Real Madrid should do. I also like the idea of him playing with the A team next season, because the learning he can receive from players like Pepe, Ramos, and Varane will help groom him. There is always a distinct advantage being surrounded by great players, even if you're not playing as much. With the amount of injuries and suspension that happens to our central defense, it would be good to have a fourth CB in the team other than Nacho, and Vallejo could play Copa games too.

Regardless of what happens with Pepe, it shouldn't effect Vallejo's immediate future, as he should only be a fourth choice CB if he returns to the Club. If Pepe leaves, another quality CB should be signed to replace him in the Varane-Ramos-Pepe rotation. You still need three CBs ahead of Vallejo who has time on his side.

The idea to bring Vallejo as a fourth-choice CB is highly debatable, of course, and I wouldn't lose sleep if this didn't happen so long as he plays in La Liga as a consistent starter similar to the kind of burn Asensio is currently thriving with. Mind you, Vallejo has a much bigger chance to make it, because not only is he really good, but he's also a central defender which means less competition.

Bale's situation induces a huge sense of helplessness and frustration. On one hand, you feel for a player who, every time he gets into a proper rhythm and looks to lead this team, he suffers an injury - and then he suffers a set-back. On the other hand, you wonder how serious and chronic Bale's problems really are.

This injury is Gareth Bale's sixth to his calf since he signed and 11th injury overall, so there has to be something there. Conspiracy theories aside, you can't deny that six calf injuries in the span of 2.5 seasons has to be something real and problematic.

It doesn't help that these injuries are never timely, either. In an extreme sense, Bale is Robben's heir - both fantastic when on the pitch, but injuries kept both of them out for prolonged periods. Ironically, when Real Madrid traveled to Rome for a knockout tie in 2008, Robben was also injured - and Real Madrid could have seriously used him in that match.

Another problem is that Real Madrid tends to rush Bale back quite often. If you average out Bale's wages, he gets paid over half-a-million pounds per match. That's a lot - regardless of how great you are - if you're not consistently on the pitch. Whatever the issue is, Real Madrid need to figure it out. Overall, I don't know enough about the anatomy of the human body to answer this question properly - but I imagine the Club has enough resources to pin-point the issue and fix it, even if it takes going through a longer healing process.

Smart teams press high, and quite frankly, I don't understand why more teams don't apply this tactic as it completely disrupts the flow of the opposing team, makes them work harder off the ball, and forces them to find a different way to build from the back. So, big daps to teams that are doing this.

Of course, that kind of pressing has its weaknesses, but so far Zidane has struggled to overcome this high-pressure in away games and exploit those weaknesses. Teams like Betis and Granada play with a lot of momentum and pride at home against big teams, so the fact that they'll make their best efforts to disrupt the flow of the game shouldn't be a surprise, but they can leave their midfield very exposed when they do press and that has to be recognized.

Without the ball, Real Madrid will need better spacing from their front three to isolate opposing defenders. If one of the four defenders has the ball and is met with four players who are pressing high to close channels, then a simple outlet to Modric or Kroos will be difficult, because it means even if the ball gets there, the next defender shuffles up the pitch to close down the central midfielder, and finding another passing outlet will be challenging.

When Bale/Benzema/Ronaldo/James make long runs without the ball, though, it will force the defenders to track deeper, which will free up space for Modric / Kroos / Isco in the middle to receive the ball. It would help if Isco played slightly deeper when Real Madrid have the ball at the back and are being pinned by four opposing players pressing-high. After re-watching the match in Granada for the sole purpose of answering this question, I noticed that the front three often do stretch the field high to create more space for the central midfielders, but Isco is also pretty high up the pitch. If he drops a bit deeper in the Modric - Kroos territory, then he can provide an extra outlet.

The problem in this type of scheme where you're trying to combat a high-pressuring system, is that once your attackers successfully isolate the defenders high up the pitch, the formation can't remain stagnant. The middle-three need to drop into positions where they can get the ball. It's exhausting, but that's football. Once you can get past the initial press in your own half, you're basically in a position to start an attack with a numerical advantage. Also, pressing-high manifests its vulnerability once the game opens up and becomes transitional. In the moment below, Granada already have 6+ players committed high up the pitch, meaning if there's a breakdown in their system, Real Madrid can release their high attacking-trio, as was the case below, where James' long pass led to a great chance for Ronaldo.

There are a variety of ways to breakdown high-pressing schemes, but they require a lot of movement off the ball. A lot.

Socios would cringe at the notion of throwing in the towel for La Liga already, but if I'm Zidane, I'm seriously looking at the schedule and focusing on where it makes sense. La Liga is not over by any means - Barcelona do have periodical slips, plus Real Madrid can theoretically shave three points off at the Camp Nou, but the Champions League is pretty favorable right now. Looking at the draw, Real Madrid get to see some potential threats out as early as the round of 16.

Real Madrid fans be like

Zidane's decision not to rotate in Granada worries me, because if there was one game where the rotations should have started given Real Madrid's upcoming schedule - it's that one. On this week's podcast, Om and I discussed the possibility of Casemiro or Kovacic providing some relief in these tough away matches, and it would've been a perfect situation to give Kroos and Modric some rest. By the time the match in Malaga rolls around, Real Madrid will have played four matches in three weeks, and it would be difficult to do this with the same starting eleven in each one.

For most elite teams, the backbone of their success lies with their defensive midfielder, which makes this question really interesting. Since the year 2000, every-single-team that won the Champions League had a pure DM.

  • 2014-2015: Sergio Busquets
  • 2013-2014: Xabi Alonso
  • 2012-2013: Javi Martinez
  • 2011-2012: John Obi Mikel
  • 2010-2011: Sergio Busquets
You get the point.

Is this Kroos-Modric-Isco tandem enough to overcompensate for the lack of a pure DM? If fatigue sets in due to lack of rotations as the season's wear-and-tear becomes apparent, then it's unlikely.

Toni Kroos has done really well to progressively fit into the DM role, and his progression there is actually quite interesting. Considering that he went from always having at least one defensive midfielder behind him (in some cases like with Germany, he had two), he's adapted well, and it's hard to blame him for any lapses in that position. His positioning has looked really good this season, dropping into the pocket in front of the central defenders both with and without the ball. He's still better in a more advanced role, but that evidently is not possible with Real Madrid.

Should they? I'm not sure I'm fit to answer this question, it's completely subjective and differs from player to player. In an ideal World, it would be great if Kobe Bryant retired two years ago - but he has way too much ambition. I bring up that example because pretty well any successful athlete has that same kind of ambition and drive - they will push their bodies to the limits and try to be 'the one' who breaks the status quo. Of course, decline is natural, and I think most teams do a good job of phasing these older players out when the time is needed.

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