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Mailbag: Predicting the future, European Super League, Castilla, and more

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Kiyan does a mini mailbag to lift your spirits

These observations — where I look at Real Madrid’s history, its players on loan, Castilla, tactical tidbits, and other relevant thoughts -- are now a regular weekly thing. All previous editions can be found here.


Turn your brain off for a minute or two and kick back. Not every topic has to be about a Real Madrid crisis, yeah? Treat yourself to this mini mailbag, where I took some questions from Patreon and Twitter. I’m hoping to do a more thorough mailbag during the upcoming international break, so this might serve as a nice appetizer, at least.

As always, catch me on Twitter or Facebook, where you can bug me and I’ll try my best to respond.

Alright, let’s get it.

First, from some of our Patrons:

We’re really starting to dig deep now, aren’t we? In the last couple mailbags, I’ve been asked about sports journalism, how I got started, and advice to young writers — now you (people) want to know about my meditation practices. Next mailbag, would you like to know my sleep schedule, how many times I brush my teeth per day, and how many Marcos Llorente statues I have in my courtyard?

You’re good though. I actually enjoy these questions (keep ‘em coming). Also -- I don’t have a courtyard. I do meditate. I don’t know if it classifies as the Buddhist interpretation of ‘mindfulness’, but there’s not a day that passes where I don’t meditate at least twice per day — once before sunrise, and once later in the evening.

The second part of the questions is obviously the one people care more about. Here’s the thing: It’s not that I don’t like doing it, it’s just that I’ll be wrong with my prediction. I don’t care how much of an expert you are — if you claim to know what’s going to happen in football a year from now you’re crazy delusional. Five years? Impossible.

For context, if this question came to me five years ago, this is probably what I would’ve predicted:

6/11. I actually did better than I thought I would. I mean, it’s actually interesting to break down the ones that I would’ve gotten wrong:

De Gea: A fax machine, Keylor doing well in the post-Iker era, and the players (and Zidane) having his back during his down season.

Coentrao: Surprised about this one given his youth at the time, and his world class performances over the course of the next two seasons which peaked in the Decima year. He is an athlete defined by injuries.

Khedira: Meh. I was never wowed by him, but was struggling to think of the best young DMs in 2012. Busquets was the most promising, but he was obviously going to be impossible. Javi Martinez, maybe? Arturo Vidal? Gundogan? Lucas Leiva? Everyone else would’ve been too old to foresee as a starter in 2017. Khedira just checked out mentally in 2014. I wasn’t devastated he left.

Ozil: In 2012, I would’ve sworn this guy would’ve ended up as a club legend. Stylistically, he just fits with what Real Madrid fans love. His biggest barrier ended up being Gareth Bale, Carlo, and Flo.

Di Maria: Another, in hindsight, I’m really surprised about not being here, still. This is what makes predictions so difficult. Di Maria almost did nothing wrong. He was inconsistent when he first arrived in 2010, but over the years, he morphed into a menacing attacking threat with blitzing pace. He made Puyol do the splits at the Camp Nou, was involved in some of the most memorable counter-attacks in Real Madrid’s recent history, and then evolved into a perfect two-way midfielder under Carlo. Again, predictions are tough. Alas, the team obviously moved on without him.

Ok, let me have a go for 2022 (sin Marcos):

I will be wrong. But, let’s see who cares about this enough in 2022.

It’s ironic that I’m writing this off the back of Castilla’s best game of the season — a 1-4 away victory away to Celta Vigo B, where Quezada and Regulion formed a nice duo on the left flank, and Solari’s team came back from a shaky start and ended up having a great game offensively. But, yeah, Solari has to go. The sample size of mediocrity is too heavy to ignore.

I agree with you on letting Guti finish the season with Juvenil A. I see no real reason to disrupt that right now. On the flipside, I always see value in letting go of a manger immediately if you realize the fit is bad. Why wait until the end of the season to do it? Too many teams get shtick for being ‘impatient’ with managers when they’re just being pragmatic.

This quote from Jerry West is great: “When it's time for me to walk away from something, I walk away from it. My mind, my body, my conscience tell me that enough is enough.”

West has long adopted the rule of cutting off a rotting branch before the damage becomes irreversible. It goes for any profession: If an employee is a detriment to the company you don’t wait until the end of the calendar year to replace them.

My sense though is that nothing will change in the immediate future. The way Solari speaks about the importance of development over results is sound in a vacuum, but he’s only started to downplay the importance of winning now that Castilla is a below-average Segunda B team close to relegation. It’s too easy of a fallback. I’m also not sure the club itself sees a crazy amount of urgency in shaking the coaching staff at this moment, either. My guess is Solari will see the season out, as will Guti. Next season? Who knows.

Second part of the question, on the key Castilla loanees:

Fede Valverde: Hasn’t featured much with Depor this season after being impressive in the pre-season. Pepe Mel occasionally would play him as a left central midfielder (some fans said it was as a winger, but he was more like a Kroos in that scheme), and he didn’t stand out. Most recently, new manager Cristobal Parralo started Valverde just behind Lucas Perez, which was interesting. But Fede didn’t shine there, either. He had a really quiet game against Las Palmas despite the win. He’s better suited to play a bit deeper where he can take advantage of his box-to-box skills.

Martin Odegaard: Just looks great. Starting regularly, involved as a direct channel in a lot of what Heerenveen do offensively. Looks great at the international level too. Something something failed galactico AS journalists smh

Sergio Diaz and Aleix Febas: Admittedly, I’ve only watched Febas play twice with Zaragoza this season, and I’ve yet to watch Diaz at all with CD Lugo. Diaz is having a rough go, unfortunately. He’s yet to start a single game, and has made six appearances off the bench. Febas is starting regularly though, and the limited amount I’ve seen from him, he looks fine, and has played some great through-balls from deep.

Philipp Lienhart: I have not watched him with Freiburg this season, but he’s started nine games in the Bundesliga, and Sam’s been impressed with him.

Kovacic. I think we really missed having his combative and technical presence in the last few games. He was incredibly key last season when either Kroos or Modric went down, and was brilliant in any big game he featured in.

I would’ve been swayed to say Ceballos a couple months ago, because he has the ability to turn a game on its head when you need him — but it still amazes me we haven’t seen him at all while we’re all screaming about James leaving. Everyone points to James and Morata and the inability to keep them under the circumstances. Honestly, Ceballos could be our James at least, if given the chance. One of James’s best attributes was his decisiveness in the final third. If Isco and Asensio wait to suck defenders in before releasing a pass, James is the opposite — he knows exactly where the ball is going before he even receives it. In his head, he can already see the ball zipping to its destination before he’s taken his first touch. That’s not a knock on either style, but if we’re looking for that direct James magic, we should be looking for Dani Ceballos more.

I mean, no, but what am I going to do about it? The only thing that would be ok is the fact that we’d get one step closer to a Super League — just like I used to manifest in FIFA 99 under the ‘create a custom league’ setting.

But it can’t be the same stagnant 20 teams every year. You’d need a relegation and promotion system. That’d be dope. The starting 20 would be (in no real order apart from the order of the teams that come to mind):

  1. Real Madrid
  2. Barcelona
  3. Atletico Madrid
  4. Manchester United
  5. Manchester City
  6. Chelsea
  7. PSG
  8. Bayern Munich
  9. Borussia Dortmund
  10. Juventus
  11. Napoli
  12. Porto
  13. Valencia
  14. Sevilla
  15. Liverpool
  16. Roma
  17. Tottenham
  18. Inter
  19. Leipzig
  20. Arsenal

This should go in conjunction with the Champions League, and would replace the domestic league. So, winning the double no longer means you win continentally and domestically — it means you would win both European formats.

Bottom three get relegated to the second division of this league, which contains another tier of good teams: Milan, Benfica, Villarreal, Sevilla, Lyon, etc.

After that league? You’d keep the remaining European teams playing in their existing domestic league, fighting to get promoted to the European Leagues. So, the bottom three from the second division would get relegated to their domestic league; while the winners of the domestic leagues (let’s say it would be teams like Sociedad, Nice, and Schalke) would all go into a playoff to qualify to the second division.

Replace domestic cups with a massive pool of every single team in the continent and put together a gargantuan KO tournament where any team from any country can draw each other based on coefficients. I mean, how cool would it be if a team from third division Wales got to draw Real Madrid and host them at their ground? Would be fun as hell for them.

Non Patrons (but still fam)

To fit with this team? An anchor who reads the game in his sleep, organizes the team, and is extremely skilled: Fernando Redondo.

Yes, they absolutely can ‘minutely’ challenge for La Liga. Valencia’s leap this season is wild. Marcelino dug them up from the earth’s core where they had almost been consumed into another dimension never to be seen again.

There is nothing I can nitpick with them right now. I thought Parejo was an inconsistent joke last season who was mentally frail and couldn’t be counted on, and now he looks fantastic alongside Kondogbia and Soler. I thought Guedes had some decision-making issues when he first arrived, but now he looks like he’s setting fires on the flanks and is terrifying in Valencia’s counter-attacking scheme. I thought Zaza would only be Van Basten against Real Madrid — nope.

Before the season started, I had predicted for FourFourTwo that Valencia will qualify for Europe. That’s almost a certainty now. Top four seems real too. Title challenge will be tough, but I don’t know how much longer we’ll be waiting for them to fold, because I’m not certain they will fold at all under their current conditions.

It might be interesting to see at what level they’ll be at in the spring even if they don’t fold. Marcelino has never had his team qualify for the Champions League. The closest he came was in his last season at Villarreal where he didn’t get a chance to see out the remainder of his contract and help them qualify in the playoffs. This is far and away, until now, Marcelino’s best season as a manager, winning over 72% of his games in charge. Let’s see them sustain it.

Nacho, every time. In the future? Who knows. I wasn’t that convinced Achraf was ready after watching him regularly with Castilla last season, and I’m still not coaxed into his hype completely. He’s going to be a really good player, and his pace is incredible, but I don’t understand the rush with him. I also don’t believe he’s better offensively than Nacho right now. Nacho’s had a lot of really great offensive contributions from the flanks over the past two years. He’s a solid presence on both ends of the field.

Dear Zinedine,

Dani Ceballos, Marcos Llorente, and Jesus Vallejo are not as raw as you think. These are all proven players in top leagues who excelled and carried teams at an elite level without much talent surrounding them.

P.S. Achraf is rawer than you think. He needs a stepping stone like the aforementioned players. Let’s ripen him a bit. I mean, you don’t bite into a light-green-skinned avocado, do you?

Dear Florentino,

I’m eagerly awaiting having lunch with you in December to talk about my upcoming book. Until then, I will refrain from pushing my luck.

Nice, Saad. Second mailbag in a row you’ve asked me to write 200 words about Real Betis. Here-goes:

I can’t believe how many parallels we can draw between Betis and Las Palmas. A) You couldn’t miss a single game of Las Palmas last year, nor Betis this year, because they’re always either getting scored on epically or scoring epic goals themselves; B) They both go out of their way to build possession from the back; and C) They’re fun.

Only this Betis team is much better than Las Palmas was last season. This one is more stable, has a good balanced midfield, and is deep enough to give you multiple looks offensively while allowing key players rest. I’ve been impressed with Sanabria making it possible for Sergio Leon to sit so many minutes. Guardado has been one the league’s best players until now, Joaquin does at least one 2002-God-mode move per game, and now we have Joel Campbell terrorizing the right flank.

Daps to Quique. They lost Ceballos and still had an amazing summer. The squad looks invigorated and confident. They put a hault to Real Madrid’s historic scoring run and set the tone of what’s achievable at the Bernabeu. I hope Quique stays in La Liga forever, possibly even at Betis. A strong Betis is so good for the league, and Benito Villamarin is one of the best atmospheres in Spain.

And let’s take one more:

I’ve only been inside the Bernabeu and Alfredo di Stefano stadiums. I’d love to venture into more. This is my wish-list in order:

  1. Benito Villamarin
  2. Mendizorrozza
  3. Sanchez Pizjuan
  4. Butarque (need to experience that sunset in person)
  5. Mestalla on a Champions League night