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Managing Madrid Mailbag: March 10

On Mayoral's development and Real Madrid's defensive shape

Great news for all you 'TLDR' junkies out there: Another shortened mailbag! I didn't put out a call for questions until yesterday, so we didn't get the flurry we usually do. On top of that, I had to omit a few questions that asked to shed light on the never-ending James vs Isco debate. As I mentioned last week, that question - along with the should we sell Ronaldo one - won't be taken for the foreseeable future.

Let's do it.

One of the key reasons this team struggles defensively - relative to let's say, Benitez's team at the start of the season - is that they play at a gung-ho pace, constantly stretching forward and moving the ball up quickly, with the full-backs pushing up in unison. There are ways to rectify the problem, to be sure, but it's going to take some tactical versatility to improve on the defensive end.

For one, the team's mentality going into Rome at 0-0 shouldn't have been the same as it was at 0-2. After Jese's goal at the Stadio Olimpico, Real Madrid didn't seem bothered to have a gaping defense - they risked a clean-sheet going into the second leg so that they might add to their 0-2 aggregate lead and suffocate their opponents for good. That's all nice in theory. Had Benzema put away a couple of his chances Real Madrid could have come away with a four-goal advantage. Instead, they gambled, and if not for some luck (and brilliant individual defending from Ramos and Varane to mask the skinning of Marcelo on the left flank), the result could have turned into a draw.

Zidane could learn a thing or two from Laurent Blanc's defensive scheme yesterday in London. PSG were methodical in their attack, but most importantly, were water-tight defensively, and Chelsea struggled immensely to break them down. Rafa Benitez had a similar mentality before the team started leaking goals late-Fall - six players at any given time staying back to defend a potential counter. The full-backs ventured forward more meticulously, and when they did bomb down the flank, they had one of the central midfielders hovering behind him to cover the gaping hole.

Marcelo is a defensive liability - always has been, and will never change. He is what he is, and if you're going to opt to start him - a reasonable decision given he's virtually unplayable with the ball at his feet - you better be ready to draw up a scheme to stop the bleeding from his side. Zidane hasn't been able to do this well consistently even if he's attempted to rectify that problem. Isco did it quite well when Zidane first took over, and Kroos and Modric tend to drop behind as well, but at times they're overexerted, as the entire team attacks in unison, which is problematic because it makes transition defense more hectic.

Mohamed Salah's speed and incisive dribbling probably made Real Madrid's wing-defense look worse than it actually was, but there's still something there. Some teams will punish you for it and some won't. That many of us state Real Madrid won't get away with their defensive shortcomings against teams like PSG, Barca, and Bayern isn't meant to sound negative - it's that the Club will probably be punished more by a team loaded with so many weapons.

Casemiro, by the way, despite having some nice tackles and otherwise allowing Kroos and Modric more freedom, didn't solve the defensive miscues. It's not the formation that's the problem, it's the amount of players that attack without proper cover. When the team is pinned back defensively and forced to defend in lines of four or five, they do quite well. It's when they decide to send players forward while trying to add to a two-goal lead without proper cover that's so counter-intuitive.

And it's not just Marcelo that suffers, either. Plays like this where Danilo over-commits himself just can't happen.

Defense such as this when you need to be preserving a lead can be devastating, and we don't have any signs yet that Zidane is comfortable playing a more defensively-sound and compact approach that Ancelotti and Benitez implemented based on the situations that arose. What Zidane seems keen on is to play the same way Real Madrid played when he was a player - average-to-terrible individual defenders lined up in a system that was masked by a possession-based attacking philosophy that cried out 'we'll score more than you!'.

That is not to say Real Madrid's current central defenders are average-to-terrible, by the way. That's just what the case was earlier in the millennium.

If Zidane wants to defend by keeping the ball, that's fine, but he needs to be able to have his team drop quickly when they lose possession, similarly to the way Barca and Bayern do immediately when they lose possession - suffocating their opponent and defending as a unit.

Shutout to Raiyan for this fun question.

These historical line-up mash-ups are so subjective, by the way. People tend to include players they've never seen play because they've been told who's great and who's not, or maybe they've even watched some clips of said player. Either way, there is probably never a completely accurate answer to these types of questions. I'm going to refrain from including players before 1998 (the year I started watching football), even though the history before that still fascinates me, and I quite enjoy watching videos from more ancient eras.

Here's my take (1998-present day, excluding players who have played for Real Madrid):

Borja has showcased himself as a tremendous young talent who shows composure in tight spaces in-and-around the area. At age 18, he's far from a ripened product, but his upside his huge, and despite the caution we mentioned during this week's podcast that Real Madrid fans should exemplify when evaluating Borja, they can be cautiously optimistic - at the very least.

It's true now is not the time to rely on him, so until Mayoral reaches that stage in his career, the Club needs to bring in some outside weapons. That's tricky, because if you bring in a younger player who's too good, you may hinder Mayoral's development. Bring in an unproven back-up striker, and you can forget about finding a solution to Benzema's sporadic absences which the team suffers from so greatly. Conversely, you can't bring in someone who's so good that he won't accept a bench role.

I touched on possible Benzema understudy's in last week's mailbag. It's a slippery slope. Jese does not hold the ball up or link up with his teammates nearly as well as the Frenchman, and since Mayoral is not quite there yet, Real Madrid need to find someone in the Adebayor mold.

Last week I came up with these names: Lucas Perez, Morata, and Aritz Aduriz. The first two on that list are far too good to be someone's back-up (unless otherwise convinced), and it's unlikely Aduriz leaves Bilbao. So this was the suggestion I made: Fernando Llorente.

Llorente is on the wrong side of his post-peak, but he's an experienced target man who won't mind providing spotty minutes off the bench, and adding him into a steady rotation where he wouldn't feature much certainly wouldn't cripple the team and force them to play without a 9. In this scenario, Llorente is essentially a rental - someone to tide you over until Mayoral (or whoever else) is ready.

Another obvious candidate is Castilla's Mariano. He's 22 and further along than Borja, but he's also still completely raw, and would at the very least probably need to be loaned out to another Primera side first.

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