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Managing Madrid Mailbag: March 24

Kiyan plows through your questions for the week

The mailbag has grown tremendously since its inception - you all know this. Last week, as a coping mechanism, we transformed it into a podcast. The reaction was mixed. Some loved the idea of downloading the content and throwing it on for their morning commute; while others asked to bring the written format back.

The solution, for now, is a compromise. I will be alternating between written pieces and audio sessions. They both have different dynamics. Written pieces provide some kind of inexplicably fun leisure reading, while podcasts are less time consuming, and provide a chance for different guests to join the show - not just from staff writers, but outside media as well.

There were at least a handful of questions left out this week, which I apologize for, but please keep those tweets coming, and we'll try to address them in the upcoming weeks.

Alright, we're off.

Naturally, there aren't many footballers on the planet who wouldn't 'love to walk into the Santiago Bernabeu'. I'm not sure how accurate that quote is, as I haven't seen it myself, but prying Wendell Borges from Leverkusen does sound intriguing.

As an alternative to Marcelo, in a rotational sense, providing rest and cover for his Brazlian elder, Borges is the type of player you could gamble on without losing much sleep over. He has an uncanny ability to snuff out counter attacks and stifle players running at him with the ball, and while he's not some kind of flashy offensive wizard like Marcelo, he's relatively comfortable joining the attack and stinging in low-driven cross for on-rushing attackers. In a weird way, Borges, 22, might actually turn in to some kind of Marcelo-Coentrao hybrid who is disciplined on both ends of the field.

Still, being a promising prospect is never enough to justify signing someone. Complications always arise, and in Borges' case, he's a non-EU player, which means the Club would have to cast one of Casemiro / Danilo / James away. He's also having a terrific season, will be sought-after by several big teams, and the cost of acquiring him will be well north of his market value, ranging anywhere between 25-35m.

Signing Marco Veratti would have made more sense two seasons ago when the Club was looking to replace Angel Di Maria's three lungs. Veratti is elite at what he does, but he is not a pure defensive midfielder, if that's what you're looking for. His best position would be to occupy where Kroos and Modric currently roam, and Real Madrid have two of the best players in the World at that position, with a promising Mateo Kovacic ready to transition into Modric's heir in the coming years.

The flipside of this is interesting though. While a defensive midfielder should be priority this off-season, it remains to be seen if Real Madrid are going to find one. If they can't, the next best option is a world-class box-to-box predator like Veratti to complete the midfield trio. Veratti, while not a destroying midfielder, has looked comfortable slotting into deeper roles when Thiago Motta has been absent, and if an option to assemble a Veratti-Kroos-Modric midfield arises, it shouldn't be ignored.

Ruben Neves is a talented kid who you will be hearing more and more of in the next coming years. He's crazy good for his age. Remember how much everyone raved about Borja Mayoral looking like he's 22 though he's just 18? Ruben Neves is an exaggerated version of that - he's an 18-year-old cold-blooded anchor who plays like he's 30. Neves broke Cristiano Ronaldo's record as the youngest Portuguese player to ever play in the Champions League earlier this season, and is probably on course to have a great career.

There is a certain elegance to him, for all you aesthetic-junkies out there. Though he slots in as a defensive midfielder with a great positional sense, he has a Redondo-esque silkiness to him and possesses a repertoire of roulettes, dribbling in tight spaces, short-range one-touch passes, and long-range distribution. His ceiling is much higher than Casemiro's.

This has been a Neves love-fest, but to make it clear, he's still raw, and he's not ready to be a starter for Real Madrid. We won't actually have an answer to how good Neves is for another few years.

N'golo Kante, man

Kante's name has been surfacing more often than not in the past month, and in case you haven't tuned into the last few podcasts to know what I think of him, just know this: he's an absolute peach of a footballer.

People compare him to Claude Makelele, which is a stretch and a half, but Kante does share some unique attributes with his fellow Frenchman. For one, like Makelele, Kante has this aura about him where, if an opposing attacker is attempting to dribble past him, you'd bet your mortgage on Kante winning the ball and igniting a counter. Makelele was a revolutionary player, but did have limitations when he had the ball. Kante does not have those limitations going forward - he can dribble, pass, and venture up the pitch comfortably. Modern football screams for their defensive midfielders to be offensively dexterous, and Kante has answered that call. 

Joe Brewin, digital features editor for FourFourTwo and avid Leicester viewer, said this to me in an e-mail exchange a couple weeks ago:

Kante is incredible - I've never seen a player run as much as he does. Don't think he ever tires, it's ridiculous. With that he's always good for tackles and interceptions, yes - more of those than any other player in Europe's top five divisions last time I checked. His passing is pretty good too.

He's obviously tiny, which could be perceived as a weakness, but it doesn't exactly show itself. I love him.

The Leicester defensive midfielder has been one of the team's most important players this season. He is currently 2nd in the league in interceptions - three behind Idrissa Gueye - and leads the league in tackles won with 96.

Kante, along with Sevilla's Grzegorz Krychowiak, would be an ideal signing for Zinedine Zidane. Krychowiak is the type of suffocative midfielder you want to have when playing against Barcelona. He's a relentless workhorse who won't back down, and his overall IQ as a footballer in that position could catapult the current midfield consisting of Modric-Kroos to a whole new level - a juggernaut of a spine efficient both defensively and in attack.

It doesn't hurt either, that Krychowiak is a 'character guy'. This is a neat anecdote from a FourFourTwo exclusive from January:

Krychowiak is the exact opposite of the stereotypical Polish player. After Sevilla won the 2015 Europa League Final in Warsaw, with the local hero scoring in front of his home crowd of 45,000, he could have been forgiven for letting himself enjoy the night that followed. And yet, when Poland coach Adam Nawalka – a former crafty midfielder and member of the 1978 World Cup squad – went to swim at a nearby fitness centre at 6am the next morning, he was shocked to find his player there. "What are you doing here? Why aren’t you celebrating winning the Europa league?" Nawalka asked with disbelief. "I don’t drink alcohol and I had too much adrenaline. I couldn’t sleep, so I just went for a workout," came the reply.

First off, I don't think I get the chance to say this much: Nacho is a true example of a footballer. His professionalism shouldn't go unnoticed by fans. He genuinely loves the Club, and has always been happy to be a fourth-choice defender rather than leave and be a more relevant player in another La Liga Club.

I'm not sure what it means though, when the tweet suggests Nacho should be in the first team. He already is part of the A squad, and probably exactly where he should be as a multi-dimensional rotational player who can cover as a fourth choice center back or third choice left back. People might forget that Nacho is not a fledgling. He's a 26-year-old player and Real Madrid won't be looking to invest morphing him into something he already isn't.

It is what it is. I used to be disturbed by Benzema's off-field antics, but I've started to tune it out. Whether he's guilty or not, he's not wise or mature enough to stay out of trouble off the field.

At the end of the day, it's subjective how much that actually matters, and the answer to this will vary from individual to individual. For now, he's having his best season as a footballer, has the backing of everyone in the Club, and is genuinely well-liked within the organization. So, that's that. Personally, I love him, and have accepted what he is. He makes Real Madrid a better team, and if he has the support of Zidane, he has my support too.

To be clear, Casemiro is available against Barcelona. I'm posting this here as it's come up more than once. His yellow card against Atletico back in the Fall has been rescinded.

*Author's note: When I answered this question, I read it wrong and completely missed that it's asking specifically about BBC. I answered it thinking it was a general question about tactics.

This is the pure realist in me speaking, but Zidane's defensive scheme doesn't look the part of one that could go to-to-toe with a Champions League semi-finalist.

Offensively, Real Madrid rock arguably the best wing-back tandem in the game, and Zidane fully utilizes this to his advantage, channeling his inner-Ancelotti who demanded a taxing exertion of his wing backs. Marcelo and Danilo / Carvajal will bomb forward constantly, overwhelming defenders already trying to cope with the World's most terrifying wingers. This kind of offense jabs you over and over again, making constant overlapping runs until the final knockout punch is delivered.

It's beautiful, but also risky. Zidane's brought a certain freshness to the team, and it would be to the Club's benefit if he continues beyond this season; but he's yet to prove his tactical versatility. His wing-backs were gung-ho even when 2-0 up against Roma at the Stadio Olimpico. Last-ditch heroics from Ramos and Varane kept the clean sheet in that match, and Real Madrid were lucky not to concede for the amount of counters they gave up against Roma in the 2nd leg. As discussed in previous podcasts, teams like PSG, Barca, and Bayern have huge upgrades over the toothless Mohamed Salah, and they won't be as forgiving for exposed wing-backs who venture forward.

The team's shape from the beginning of this gif right through till the end, where, even Marcelo on the opposite flank is high up the pitch, speaks to something. The goal is brilliant, and Granada is being bombarded with a run from every direction, but if something goes wrong, Real Madrid have shifted far enough forward that it's going to be difficult for them to prevent a counter.

Therein lies a big difference between Zinedine Zidane and Rafa Benitez - the Spaniard was meticulous about always having at least six players behind the ball defensively to snuff out counter attacks. Rarely did both wing-backs make simultaneous runs, and if they did, others would drop back to cover from central positions. It stifled the attack, and failed miserably at times, but it worked brilliantly until the November collapse.

There was a stretch before the season started where we actually thought playing Ronaldo as a striker was a good idea - turns out it isn't. I mean, in theory, it was sound. Ronaldo is strong in the air, quick enough to latch onto through balls, and is a deadly finisher. Naturally though, he needs to be more involved - the more he is, the better he is. As a striker, he was often isolated. It also holds to be true that, Ronaldo thrives teasing his defenders from the left before cutting in and unleashing a shot.

Sometimes formations can be a mute thing. These things aren't often stagnant, and a team's shape throughout the match can look dramatically different than it does on paper. Even in a 4-4-2, Ronaldo will operate from the left rather than cement himself as a target man or shadow forward.

I half-answered this already in the above Zidane question, but to summarize (and add); yes, he can, and I'd like to see what he can do after a Summer of full autonomy on transfers.

A good start would be to figure out how to tighten the bolts defensively, so that Real Madrid doesn't continue to leak outrageous counter attacks where they're consistently outnumbered.

I didn't know this was a thing, but it is - there's a whole internet universe riddled with a Ted Cruz (Zodiak Killer) meme / theory. Luckily, Gabe answered the question already so that I don't have to talk about something I haven't a clue on.

Moving on..


Lukaku is third in the Premiership in scoring, and has a better goal-scoring ratio than Jamie Vardy. He's also just 22. Who said he's trash. Hold me back bro.

It's absurd to say, but Keylor Navas' stellar performances all-around this season won't deter Florentino Perez from going after De Gea again, and again.

So long as Navas is with Real Madrid and De Gea isn't, they will have this love-affair with the Spanish keeper for a few reasons: De Gea is the better story, is from Madrid, and is four years younger than Navas. They will want De Gea as Real Madrid's starting goalkeeper eventually. Plus, Florentino won't be able to live down that fiasco that happened over De Gea's near-signing over the Summer.

Boy, do Real Madrid ever have a player on their hands here. Asensio has been sublime this season for Espanyol, especially when you factor that, at the tender age of 20, he's barely even ripened. He could be years away from his peak despite being a consistent goal creator for his team, and like other young prospects discussed in this mailbag, is quite mature.

I would be comfortable with incorporating Asensio into the first team next season, which is why I cringe when I continue hearing the name Eden Hazard - an expensive headcase that would stifle the growth of other young and talented assets.

Asensio has expressed interest staying with Espanyol beyond this season to keep getting minutes, which, again, shows maturity. That wouldn't be the worst thing in the World. Though he's probably ready to come in as a direct sub for one of the attacking midfielders next season; if Ronaldo, Isco, James, Jese, and Bale are still around, there won't be enough minutes to go around.

Bringing Asensio back this Summer would only make sense if one of the aforementioned players left. Until then, it's wise to keep renting him out.

Well, that changes things, because on a strictly individual level, Morata is behind both of those players. Harry Kane is a monster in every sense and leads the league in scoring; while Aubameyang is another beast altogether, nearly netting a goal per game - his deadly finishing compliments his dynamic creativity.

Both of those players are too good to be Karim Benzema's back-up, which leads to Morata - the most obvious signing of the three. Morata initially left Real Madrid in search of playing time, which he got in his first season with Juventus. This season though, Morata has struggled to breakthrough the Mandzukic-Dybala barrier, and despite some impressive performances recently, has been disappointing overall.

Fully knowing his situation, his return to Madrid becomes more probable. De facto, the possibility of his return is quite real, which Real Madrid fans should be super excited about. In this scenario, the team wouldn't be completely crippled when Benzema is unavailable - forced to morph into a false 9 formation with players who aren't accustomed to playing in that kind of scheme.

The twist is that Juventus would be just crazy to chose Mandzukic over Morata. But as Gigi Buffon mentioned today, this is all in Zidane's hands.

"It's Real Madrid who have to decide because there is a buy-back clause. "What the player or the club where he plays wants is relative, because it seems like Madrid will decide his future."

I could write a thousand words on these two.. And I did. It was published for FourFourTwo yesterday.

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