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Managing Madrid Mailbag: Feb 25

Kiyan goes through the weekly mailbag

The Mailbag is going strong and questions flood in at a faster pace each week. This weekly gig wouldn't exist without your participation, so please accept my deepest gratitude for taking the time to ask questions.

Once again, please tweet me your mailbag questions, as that's only method I'll be accepting and filtering through them! I had to leave out some questions this week, but most of those have already been addressed in previous mailbags or podcasts, so be sure to check those out if you haven't already!

For a team to come back after winning La Decima and go on a historic 22-game unbeaten run the following season despite going through two major shakeups in midfield says a lot about the coach. So right off the bat, it's important to note that Carlo made the same group of players play so good because he's Carlo, and everyone bought into his ideas.

Florentino Perez has made both great and disastrous decisions at extreme levels, and his decision to let Ancelotti go was a mistake rivaled only by Claude Makelele's replacement of David Beckham and the dismissal of Vicente Del Bosque. All three of those moves have set the club back years.

Think about how good Ancelotti actually was for Real Madrid, he was able to mask the departure of Xabi Alonso and Angel Di Maria - two engines of the team. Alonso organized the team, possessed phenomenal positioning and football IQ, was a strong tackler, and distributed the ball at an elite level. Di Maria meanwhile, was a dynamic two-way player who was a key contributor to the double that season. How can you even think of replacing those players? It's difficult.

Sure, James Rodriguez is one of the best at what he does, and has tremendous upside, but Toni Kroos - although coming off an incredible World Cup run and heralded as one of the best central midfielders around - is not Xabi Alonso. And that's not a knock on Kroos, it's just that they are completely different players, and Kroos can't replicate what Xabi did.

There are arguments to be made though, that despite Xabi's role, losing him wasn't Real Madrid's biggest problem. After all, the red beard didn't even play in the Champions League final, though he was integral in the run up to it. In replacing Xabi Alonso with Toni Kroos, Real Madrid chose mobility and youth over an ageing post-peak Xabi. It's clear that Kroos is intelligent enough now to mask his inexperience as a defensive midfielder, though I will probably never agree that it's his best position. He's still more productive as a more advanced central midfielder with one or two midfielders hovering around and behind him like when he's lined up with the German National Team.

Still, Ancelotti is a mastermind at reinventing players - he has a proven track record of this. What he did with Real Madrid last season before the collapse has to be credited to him. His vision of three two-way midfielders who can absorb and apply pressure while breaking out into a counter-attack quickly played right to Real Madrid's strengths. It should also be noted that he focused on the counter-attack, which seemed to really benefit the players Real Madrid has. It makes sense to play this way when you have two of the quickest and athletic wingers in the game in Ronaldo and Bale. To be honest, if anyone asks me what perfect football looks like, I would refer to that game in Munich where Real Madrid looked comfortable absorbing pressure and exploding on the counter and pressuring the opposing back-line into mistakes.

Football has cycles, and Carlo's prolific run in a short span came to an end way too prematurely - conjuring up plenty of what ifs after the collapse was done and dusted. The team burnt itself out, lacked quality depth in the midfield, and suffered too many key injuries through key stretches of the season. Then Ancelotti was sacked, and the potential of the team was sacked with it. Florentino Perez didn't give a proper explanation then as to why he dismissed Carlo, and to this day it's regarded as a decision that has set the Club back.

Why Benitez couldn't replicate Ancelotti's success on the pitch comes down to the tactics he used. While he played defensively, the team lacked imagination moving forward. Ancelotti's scheme was systematic when it got the ball and quickly punished teams; while Rafa's looked lost and out of ideas. The team selection obviously plays a role too. Ancelotti never had to field Lucas Vasquez in big games, and Cristiano Ronaldo was consistently surrounded by players like Bale, Benzema, and James. Injuries have played a part this season, and we all know that Ronaldo suffers without Benzema, which of course means Real Madrid will struggle too.

Eventually, for whatever reason, even Benitez's defense started leaking, and morale nearly hit rock bottom. Zidane's defense has looked quite shaky too, with the team committing plenty of giveaways on the defensive end while looking marginally better in attack. Statistically, Zidane's Madrid isn't much better than Rafa's, even if the eye test makes it look that way. But that's not on Zidane necessarily, and it would be unfair to judge him now.

It should be noted that Ancelotti's system actually wasn't that good defensively, just in case that's how you remember it. Last season, Real Madrid conceded 38 goals in La Liga - worst among the top four teams. The season prior, it was 38 goals conceded again. It's not that Real Madrid were better defensively under Ancelotti, but that the Italian ace was really good at taking advantage of Real Madrid's strengths.

Being defensively inept is something Real Madrid fans have to start living with, as bizarre as that sounds. This team has never really been good defensively. Even when the Club dominated Europe, the defense was always vulnerable, and their best way of defending had always been to keep possession in the opponents half as was the case in Zidane's peak where they had to mask a central defense of Hierro / Helguera / Pavon.

Even under Fabio Capello's impressive La Liga title in 2006-2007, Real Madrid conceded 40 goals, and Fabio Cannavaro somehow managed to go from having arguably the best performance a central defender has ever had in a World Cup to being a complete liability defensively. It was at the point I had truly come to accept that this team would always leak goals, even if it was anchored by prime-Beckenbauer.

While it can be argued that La Liga has the worst officiating of all top leagues, I don't think bad officiating is a problem unique to La Liga.

There are perspectives needed, of course. Being a referee is not easy, and mistakes are inevitable, but there is a certain level of incompetence that Spanish football has to deal with on a week-in week-out basis that's become too ridiculous to ignore. I don't buy into any favoritism or conspiracies, I just think it's bad, for everyone.

How to fix it? I'm sure there will be steps taken over the course of time. We've already seen the addition of an extra official on the goal-line in European Cup matches, and I think that the introduction of more technology is inevitable. People might complain that reviewing plays and stopping the match to dissect tough decisions may disrupt the flow of the game, but I believe it's needed for big decisions in big matches. We've seen many teams suffer from bad decisions that directly affect the outcome of games, and it's better to take a few minutes to pause the match and get the decision right than to make a judgmental call on, for example, whether the ball has crossed the line or not in a World Cup match.

There will be rules on using technology once it's introduced, of course. There shouldn't be a stoppage of play for everything, just big decisions that would sway the result of a match. Other sports have started to do this and it's been hugely beneficial. I hope football follows suit.

I also feel that football referees should be held more accountable. In most professions, if you make mistakes, there are consequences. I feel like while referees have a tough job and are allowed to make mistakes, they're given a pass for certain things when they should be disciplined. If more referees are held accountable we may see an improvement in their decision-making.

I'm going to have to refer this question to the fabulous Gerry Delahunt who wrote about this today.

I tried so hard bro, but couldn't see it. The only parallel I could draw was that they've both been accused of fraud.

I'm a firm believer of the importance of maintaining continuity, growing organically, and making tweaks without blowing up the team, so I wouldn't shake up the roster too much. No need to build a pool when the house is collapsing.

Also, I tend to answer questions like this based on what I would do rather than predicting what will actually happen, because the latter is so difficult to do, and anything is possible in a Summer window with Florentino at the helm.

I would give extra breathing room to Toni Kroos, and essentially end the Toni Kroos experiment where he plays as the midfield anchor. This means that Kroos and Modric will play just in front of a defensive midfielder which will provide some fantastic stability in the team without regressing its attack. Those who've read my work for a while know by now I would part ways with Ronaldo for reasons I've already discussed to death, and his departure would make room for others to rise in his place.

I won't mention any names to bring in, but I will mention the positions that need to be addressed:

  1. Back-up left back (preferably one who can defend)
  2. Elite defensive midfielder who can organize and anchor the team
  3. Back-up striker

I would love to give that team a go and be patient with it.

In response to the 2nd tweet, I always felt that mistakes that happen in Real Madrid's back-line have more to do with the way Real Madrid plays rather than the individuals themselves. I wouldn't touch the Ramos-Varane pairing moving forward, although I would love to incorporate Jesus Vallejo into the rotation within 2-3 years if he continues his development.

The way Real Madrid's squad is currently set up, they are pretty much doomed if a key player is injured. The best example of this was in Malaga where Bale, and particularly Karim Benzema's absence really hurt the team (I wrote about this late last night by the way, and it was published this morning). On the one hand, you want Zidane to implement fresh ideas in these away matches that Real Madrid has struggled in, but on the other hand, you have to feel for him to have to deal with these factors (injuries and lack of depth in certain areas of the squad) that are out of his control. Real Madrid's lack of an understudy for Benzema is costing them dearly.

What do you even change? Clearly, the tactics at the Bernabeu are working. Visiting teams have been bunkering up and getting annihilated, while at home, they become more courageous - pressing high and making Real Madrid uncomfortable in their own half. Zidane has to figure a way around this, and since the league is virtually over, it might not be a bad idea to insert Casemiro in the odd game to combat physical La Liga teams away from home. Kroos and Modric looked tired in Malaga, which in turn, discombobulated the whole team. Malaga snuffed out passing channels and there wasn't enough movement off the ball to beat this trap. The Champions League is virtually Real Madrid's last hope for a title this season, so perhaps trying Casemiro in these away games in the league to give Kroos / Modric some rest will pay off.

Experiments run risks though. Real Madrid's upcoming schedule doesn't really provide much room for tinkering, and given injuries / suspensions, Zidane can only do so much.

I suppose it largely depends on how the draw unfolds for the next round of the Champions League, but Zidane will hope to avoid Barcelona and Bayern Munich for as long as possible. Ideally, they will draw each other and beat up one another. I won't elaborate much on this question, but if I'm Zidane, and I end up having to face Barca and / or Bayern, I'm going to immerse myself in film from the two legs against Bayern in 2014, and the Clasico last season at the Bernabeu. That should give Zidane plenty of pointers on how to win, and it will probably come down to banking on playing a compact scheme that explodes on the counter.

To make something clear, having to play in a Clasico when the title is already decided is one of the worst experiences one can go through if you're on the wrong end of it. Barcelona, off the top of my head, went into this situation twice in recent memory, and it was humiliating for them. In one instance, they gave us a Pasilo and got mopped 4-1, and the other, they lost 3-1 in the Bernabeu where Real Madrid played the match without starting Cristiano Ronaldo. Based on those two instances alone, it's safe to say that Real Madrid probably won't have a fun time in the Camp Nou in April, bar some miracle turnaround where they can trim the gap to two or three points by the the time that match rolls around.

But, of course, you have to fight until the end - anything less is detrimental to Madridisimo culture. Also, there is a clear advantage of coming in 2nd rather than 3rd - you don't have to add games to your already condensed schedule at the beginning of the season.

I don't know much about illegal substances, or even legal ones, tbh.

My guess is that this is in direct reference to a podcast discussion we had a few weeks ago where I disagreed with Josh and Gabe on the Pogba signing. I'm a Pogba fan, but I don't think Real Madrid needs him... At all. Unless you have a firesale to offload Modric.

I have this fear that lies deep within me that Real Madrid will acquire Pogba and place him as a DM, and it would be completely disastrous. Pogba attacks in an advance role with Juventus.. He is NOT a defensive anchor, and you do not simply 'acquire him so that Barcelona don't sign him' like someone mentioned on the podcast.

I'll tell you though, that whole discussion doesn't bother me as much as when Joshua said Busquets is 'garbage'. I love the dude, but you've got to be kidding me. Busquets is a HUGE component of that team's success and is having a tremendous season. It was at a point in the podcast that I didn't feel like refuting the comment, but it was a ridiculous statement, and I hope others picked up on it rather than blindly accepting it.

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