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Managing Madrid Mailbag: Feb 4th

This week's mailbag touched on Mateo Kovacic, squad depth, and Real Madrid's transfer policy

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Another week of mailbag fun is upon us! A huge thank you to all those who read these and ask questions. This is the third week running now that the mailbag has come into fruition, and each week the number of questions increases. I had to exclude a few questions this week as, after 2.4k words (this after meeting a deadline for another article this morning), I was pretty fried. Hope you enjoy, and make sure to fire off some questions for next week's mailbag when you have the chance!

Mateo Kovacic is a really exciting player who has the misfortune of playing in a squad riddled with talent at the position he plays in. This wasn't so much a problem when Rafa Benitez was in charge, but under Zidane, the rotation is different. Right now, James and Jese are the first two players off the bench. The importance of Jese under Zidane is particularly notable, because Zidane's view of Jese - based on the small smaple size that we have - is that he's in front of Kovacic in the pecking order even if one of the central midfielders have to be sacrificed. This in essence means that the entire formation has to shuffle. If Modric can't play or is pulled from the game, Jese will push up the field while James will drop deeper. This is not an ideal situation, but it works fine against smaller teams. James' best position still lies just ahead of the midfielders in a more advance role attacking and creating from the right, but without doubt he will be used as a more versatile utility player who can cover three different positions when needed: On the right wing, in the pocket between the midfield and attack, and as a deep-lying play-maker. Essentially, those positions are currently occupied by Bale, Isco, and Modric.

Given that Jese and Isco will cover multiple positions and are prioritized, it will be difficult for Kovacic  to break out with more minutes barring injuries or suspensions. That said, Kovacic has tremendous upside and has all the tools to become a world class modern box-to-box midfielder - if he hasn't already. What Kova brings to the table is pretty great. I'm not sure about the 'no one seems to remember he's at the Club' bit. Does he have a future with the team? Resounding yes, so long as Real Madrid can groom him properly.

I'm actually not sure there is a better heir to Luka Modric than Kova. For all the talk about Pogba - I take the rare stance of being content with sticking with someone like Kovacic as Modric's inevitable replacement. And I'm a Pogba fan, mind you. With Pogba, you have the headache of starting him and shuffling someone out of the lineup, and you're probably playing him in the Kroos zone which is not his best position.

With Kovacic, Real Madrid have a player they can transition into the team more slowly and can play Modric's position to a tee. He can create from deep, drop back and do his due-diligence on the defensive end intercepting passes and making impressive tackles, and is extremely comfortable pushing forward with his dribbling skills. Also of note, like Modric, Kovacic is great in his distribution - both in intricate short-range exchanges as well as long-range bombs that can catch defenders off-guard. This makes him a perfect glue-guy for any team.

The one knock on Kovacic is his inability to score goals or shoot from long-distance where he typically hovers. This would be a bigger problem in a smaller team though. At Real Madrid, his lack of goal-scoring can easily be masked with the players who lead the attack at a clinical rate.

I do hope that Zidane can incorporate Kova more regularly, though. The more burn he gets, the more match-fit he'll be when needed.

I don't think there will ever be a more loaded question than this. I could write a book about it (in fact, I'm considering writing a book revolving around Florentino Perez and this very subject), yet, I'm having trouble actually dissecting this question right now.

Since the turn of the century, Real Madrid have won 9 major trophies in 15 seasons. That's a pretty unimpressive statistic. The number gets even uglier if you're in the camp that doesn't believe the Copa Del Rey is that big a deal. The number also looks unflattering when you compare it to what Real Madrid's arch rivals, Barcelona, have done: 14 in 15 seasons. Sure, it can be argued that Real Madrid had to go up against Guardiola's historical machine which probably prevented them from silverware - but that's football, and Real Madrid did certain things along the years that hindered their own progress and restructured their DNA year-after-year.

The answer to this question is: Yes. Real Madrid's recent philosophy HAS affected their future. How it is affected moving forward relies heavily on the board.

The list of decisions that have hindered the Club in the past are well documented, and I see no reason to reiterate them. Moving forward, I think there are a couple factors that need to be considered:

  1. How patient will the board be with Zidane?
  2. How often will a galactico have to be incorporated into the team in order for Florentino to feel relevant in the branding / marketing side?
There are limits to the galactico spending sprees. The period of 2000-2003 was incredibly enjoyable as a Real Madrid fan. The team was producing scintillating football with four or five of the best footballers that ever lived, anchored by a defensive midfielder who could organize the team and mask it's defensive deficiencies. Real Madrid was feared and respected by all. At a certain point, basically every position that needed upgrading (apart from central defense) was upgraded. There was nothing left to upgrade - but it was tinkered with anyway. It all went south after that.

I'm going to actually just end it here. I could go on about this for quite some time, and perhaps I will dedicate an entire piece to it in the next month or so. I'm very passionate about this subject if you haven't guessed it already, and these questions are what spurred me to write this 6k-word bomb in the Summer. You might enjoy reading it as it has to do with this very subject.

Not that any of us actually know that there is any truth to these Lewa rumours, but if it ever came down to Lewandowski signing for Madrid in the off-season, it would be exactly the kind of agitating move directly related to the question above. Real Madrid are riding the ridiculous form of Karim Benzema who is having his best season to date. For Real Madrid to stick with Karim Benzema through all these years, be patient with him in difficult times, and sell Gonzalo Higuain to give the Frenchman the keys to the starting role only to eventually part ways with him when he finally starts delivering at an elite level consistently would be dumbfounding.

It would be surprising if Real Madrid off-loaded Benzema even despite the off-pitch scandal, as he's playing out of his mind right now and Florentino has always had a father-son type relationship with him.

The only way this scenario might work is if Real Madrid shifted to a 4-4-2 and dismissed Cristiano Ronaldo while Benzema played as a second forward. This sounds intriguing on paper, but probably is still not the best use of resources given that Real Madrid have Isco and James both ready to assume a starting role along with Bale and Benzema.

Zidane has reintroduced Ancelotti's ideas and added his own twist. Like Ancelotti, Zidane's tactics see the team morph into a 4-4-2 without the ball, closing down channels in a slow-paced game pretty well. Offensively, the front three seem to play pretty freely. Real Madrid look much more creative and less stagnant than they did a month ago. You can also see Isco playing similarly to how he did under Ancelotti in last season's clasico at the Bernabeu, where he would often drop to cover Marcelo's runs down the flanks.

While we've had four games to see what Zidane's ideas are, we're still far too early into the process to draw conclusions. There are going to be some tough games in the upcoming schedule where Real Madrid could struggle defensively. Three of the next five matches are against Bilbao, Roma, and Atletico. That run is going to be a good measuring stick of how good this team actually is. February is a condensed month with lots of games - will Zidane rotate the squad to stay fresh unlike Carlo? Big question.

I hope someone shoots this question at me again in a March mailbag, it would be interesting to evaluate then.

I'll be honest, Shashi, when I first saw this question, I dismissed it and didn't think much of it. At first glance, the answer is too clear: we don't currently need anyone new, we just need every-single-player on the pitch to perform at a high level - without exceptions.

But then I thought about this a bit, and realized that out of everyone in the current starting eleven, Real Madrid needs Cristiano Ronaldo to step-up in big matches desperately. Lucas had a tweet that exploded over the weekend, and the poor guy got a lot of flack for it.

The stat is true - by every single measure. What Ronaldo did over the weekend was fantastic, but those performances have to come in bigger matches. That he can still come up big for Real Madrid is not out of the realm of possibility. Cristiano Ronaldo is, traditionally speaking, a big-game player. This year Real Madrid are getting goals from other sources at a pretty efficient rate, but would certainly be in a better position in the table if they could get more production from Ronaldo in the crucial matches leading up to the title.

As mentioned above, February is a condensed month, so if Zidane is going to start rotating, now would be the time. There are few teams in Europe who are stacked in so many positions as Real Madrid currently are, so there is little excuse for under-utilizing a squad riddled with depth. This is a really good opportunity to slot in Kova for some extra minutes. Last season Real Madrid didn't have the luxury of giving Modric and Kroos rest, but this season Kova and Casemiro are both good enough to start in games Real Madrid should take three points from. Fielding Casemiro and Kova together might not be a good idea, but alternating them or rotating them into the squad is more than doable.

Here are the two matches in between the three big ones: @ Granada, @ Malaga. Those are the two where some rotation should present itself. The game in Malaga will be tough, but it's also sandwiched in between a trip to Rome four days prior, and a game against Atletico six days after.

Last season Carlo Ancelotti said that there are two players that never need rest: Sergio Ramos and Cristiano Ronaldo. Both are physical specimens laced with superhero genetics. That was only a season ago, and I would be shocked if Ronaldo has regressed physically that much in one year. He looks out of form more than he looks tired.

ICYMI, I touched on this last week and it's still relevant. I'll just insert it below:

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.

And lastly, just to remind y'all to download our weekly podcast for your commutes:

It's here, homie. The cloud button!

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