Segunda B kicks off this coming weekend with Castilla lining up against Real Sociedad's second string in the opening fixture on Saturday night; yet new coach Santiago Solari might not know until virtually the last minute who is going to be in his squad and who isn't. Now that the International Champions Cup is over and it's back to business for Castilla, proper preparations for the new season can begin at last. It's not very often that a Segunda B side has to field a weakened team in pre-season matches due to an International Champions competition being played in the USA; but with several of the squad being called up by Zinedine Zidane for the trip to America that was the situation Solari found himself in. As a result, his selection choice has been limited for Castilla's own friendlies to date.
The pre-season games aren't all about winning; they're more about introducing new players and helping new faces get to know each other. The whole point of the pre-season period is to get the players fit, introduce the newcomers to the side, and to get the team to gel both on and off the pitch. However, being Real Madrid's reserve team, things are a bit different to most of the other sides in Segunda B. Once the basic fitness work had been done at Valdebebas, the first round of friendlies began. Castilla's schedule started with Gimnástica Segoviana and continued with games against Leganés, Huesca, Mérida, and finally Valladolid B last Sunday night.
Despite only recording one win in all five outings against opponents of varying levels and divisions, the signs were there in the Valladolid game that Castilla can take heart from their pre-season performances. Putting results aside and given a steady squad with perhaps some more experienced players, hopefully they should be able to compete with Real Sociedad B et al for the promotion slots. With the likes of Enzo, Mariano et al re-joining the Castilla squad, coach Solari will in theory at least have more options available to him.
How long those options will be available, though, is anyone's guess. There's been talk for weeks now that after Castilla failed to win promotion out of the regionalised Segunda B, several of the more talented or high-profile players such as Martin Ødegaard, Mariano or Enzo would be going out on loan to allow them to experience a higher standard of football. Solari will be wondering how he's going to lift his young squad for the league games based on their results in pre-season; and he's going to have to be quite insistent that their development as footballers has to come before results. It would appear that he's going to have a very young squad once again and could maybe do with a few seasoned pros in the side to help bring them along.
This naturally leads into the usual debate over whether promising youngsters should stay in the Castilla set-up be loaned out to somewhere else to broaden their experience. Many coaches favour keeping a player's development ‘in-house' even if that means playing against perceived lesser opposition while others argue that you need the competitive aspect of games at LaLiga2 level at least if you're going to have any kind of meaningful progression from the Castilla sides through to the first team.
There's probably no real definitive answer. Marco Asensio has come on in leaps and bounds over the last twelve months and that's likely the result of playing at LaLiga level with Espanyol, where he's been able to sharpen his skills against strong league opposition week-in week-out while Segunda B - although perhaps more challenging physically - provides less opportunity in a purely footballing sense to shine against top class opposition. When Marco Asensio signed for Real Madrid initially in 2014, the club agreed to let him play out the season in La Segunda with his club Real Mallorca; an arrangement that suited everyone at the time. However, rather than drop a division into Segunda B with Castilla, Madrid then loaned him to Espanyol for the season and that approach seemed to pay off in terms of his development as a player.
Not so successful, though, was Martin Ødegaard; who by all accounts found life in Segunda B difficult and physical; and the expectations are that young Martin will be moving on somewhere where he can be allowed to express himself and sample first team football at a higher level than Segunda B currently offers. Rennes are the latest side he's being associated with although several others have been mentioned speculatively.
One argument in support of the loan option is simply that players are developing so much younger nowadays than they used to. Most coaches are taking the view that at 16 - 18 years of age these players should be playing regular first-team football and the feeling is that they just won't get the competitive experience they need to play at higher levels if all their football is played within the under-19 system. Had Castilla managed to gain promotion to LaLiga2 last season then perhaps the loan argument would less relevant; since Ødegaard et al would be playing in a team in a higher division.
So although the overview of the pre-season games might be that these are little more than fitness exercises, there are serious undertones as well. Castilla need to win promotion in order to provide the level of competition required for those destined for Real's first team. Not only that, once promotion has been achieved, Castilla need to be winning in LaLiga2 if standards are to be commensurate with those of a top second division side. No pressure then for Santiago Solari or even for Guti with the under-19s. They know the long term plan has to be to get the Real Madrid Castilla teams performing at the level you would expect from a Champions League winning club.