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The International Break Mailbag

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A colossus of a mailbag which touches on the insane April schedule, tactics against Bayern, transfer rumours, Castilla, and much, much more.

Bayern Munich v Real Madrid - UEFA Champions League Quarter-Final Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Bongarts/Getty Images

Brace yourselves. This week we have an unprecedented amount of questions to go through, and I could barely scratch the surface. As an important note, I excluded any questions that had to do with transfer targets (Hazard, Mbappe, etc). If you’re wondering what my thoughts are on these, read my column from last week.

Let’s. Go.


Let’s map this out:

No Marcos Llorente on April 2nd because of an evil loan clause means that Alaves will be stripped of their organization and stability; rendering the front quartet of Deyversen / Camarasa / Ibai / Toquero defanged on the counter-attack without their head ‘steal the ball (and your soul) before distributing the ball up the field quickly’ anchor in Llorente. That leaves just Theo as the main threat bringing the ball out of the back, and he’ll already have his hands full dealing with any wing-back / winger combination Zidane puts on the right. With all due respect to the Marcos-less version of Pellegrino’s Alaves, this should be a W even with a few rotations scattered in. That clause, in hindsight, is way more important than any of us originally perceived at the beginning of the season, and might be the single reason Real Madrid are the only big team that hasn’t suffered against this gloriously organized team from Álava.

Away to Leganes three days later should be routine. This is essentially — in theory — a less difficult version of the away game against Eíbar, where Real Madrid won comfortably without Bale, Ronaldo, Kroos, and Marcelo.

Then hell starts, and Satan strikes. Those first two matches are essentially the equivalent of ‘Skull Island: Kong’ when the choppers first arrive on uncharted territory, taking in the sights of beautiful mountains, greenery, and gorgeous waters splashing about; before looking ahead to the sunset only to see .. ‘OH MY GOD, WHAT THE HELL IS THAT THING! WHY IS THERE A PLANET-SIZED MONKEY FLICKING AWAY OUR AIRCRAFTS AND EATING US ALIVE!’. I think in this scenario, the month of April is Skull Island, the beautiful mountains and streams are Alaves and Leganes, the giant friendly Elk who does nothing but watch you and eat shrubs is Marcos Llorente, the horrible Skull Crawlers are Atleti and Barcelona, Tom Hiddleston is Zidane, and Carlo Ancelotti is Kong — the big dude who you are unsure if he’s on your side or not, but certain that he is capable of crushing your corpse and destroying your season (and life) if he really wants to.

Somewhere in-between is Sporting Gijon, who will casually pop up amid the chaos and serve as a trap. Gijon is like that big ugly spider who will be annoying to deal with as they fight to stay afloat, but ultimately, in comparison to the massive Ape, they are a breath of fresh air. All things are relative.

If we’re asking where the rotations should come, it should definitely be against any opponent not named Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Bayern Munich — those are the do-or-dies. Every single rotation and rest period this season has built up to this moment — it’s the pinnacle of the season. Rest be damned against any of those three aforementioned teams. This is it. This is where the season is made or broken. Imagine rotating Tom Hiddleston against a Skull Crawler? It’s inconceivable. First of all, not that there is any world where the Champions League isn’t the biggest priority (even if Real Madrid hasn’t won a league title since Fabio Coentrao was one of the most promising left-backs on the planet, European glory is unrivalled), but those games against Atletico and Barcelona are ubber-important. Atletico are surging and will probably finish the season in the top-three, and giving Barcelona any glimmer of hope or window of opportunity at this point sounds disastrous. Any reason to step on Barcelona’s throat and withdraw their momentum should be taken seriously.

Do what you want (when it comes to rotations) against Alaves, Leganes, Sporting, and Depor. In the remaining four fixtures, it’s full throttle with the best players on the pitch.

Nadal is of a very rare mould that could realistically run against Florentino. Putting a timeline on it is difficult, but I think in a world where there is a rule that states you need to, essentially, be lucky enough to be born Spanish, have been a socio for a couple decades, and be unthinkably rich (or provide a bank guarantee of 15% of the club’s annual budget); Nadal could do it.

Eventually, once Florentino does leave (most realistically, it will be on his own terms, when he’s ready to retire), it will be someone out of left field like Nadal. In this world — why not? The margin of error is less with someone respectable like him, than it is with someone like say, Ramon Calderon. I think if Nadal ever ran with Florentino out of the picture, no one else would put up much of a fight given he’s a hero with Real Madrid fans and socios. Maybe Raul is another who would easily be voted in, but the latter has expressed he wouldn’t want to take on a presidential role; while Nadal has.

I don’t think juice is good. I’m amazed its lasted this long as a mainstream product. I mean, what are we really talking about here? It’s an inferior version of whole fruit — liquified and ransacked of its nutrients and made into a sugary fluid. You might as well take a needle and inject a sugar crash into your veins. It is a waste of calories without a good enough taste trade-off. In what world is drinking a glass of OJ better than cracking open a fresh pomegranate or mango? If we’re talking juice, let’s at least talk about use a juicer to extract all the nutrients and pulp.

Give me Coke Zero! I’ll save my calories for a trip to the closest sushi bar.

I don’t think pears are good. I respect God for creating them, but I also think he created them less delicious than other fruits so that we can appreciate the other ones in their full glory.

Help them. Eliminate circumstances which require interpreting a rule or implementing one incorrectly whether it’s down to honest mistakes or pure incompetence.

When I’m elected as FIFA president, my first order of work, after sending Raul Garcia into a space shuttle and launching him into orbit, would be to find an efficient way to implement video replays.

  1. Create a system which requires referees to observe match replays on the following game-altering calls: unclear penalty calls, marginal off-sides leading to goal-scoring chances, and goal-line clearances. They would not be checking these replays themselves (see: Point #3).
  2. Offside calls that are close would require all players to play-on, fully understanding that a replay will ensue if a goal is scored.
  3. Referees would not check the replay themselves, they would be informed of the correct call by someone working in the stadium via headset who has access to the replays.

Disregard any argument which tells you this might slow the game down. This is why I emphasized the word ‘efficient’. A quick message via headset would do it. Besides, how much time would we save avoiding have to deal with players arguing with the referee until their blood vessels pop?

To be clear, none of this has been implemented yet, because, well — people are silly and petty. From a previous mailbag, where I answered a question as to why La Liga hasn’t adopted goal-line technology yet:

I’m not rationalizing it, but I’ll just let you know how it actually is being rationalized:

It costs 4 million to implement.

There is so much tension between the league’s president, Javier Tebas, and the Spanish Football Federation president, Angel Maria Villar, that they won’t even consider sitting down with each other to discuss it.

Yeah. It’s backwards.

Yeah, I think Monchi would be a really low risk signing. At worst, he does no harm. I wrote about this on my Facebook page (which, you should feel free to follow):

Thoughts on potentially bringing Monchi in: he's elite at what he does, yet, there is always a question of fit.

At Sevilla, he's found unbelievable talent from the edges of the earth, and despite the club hitting 'reset' an infinite amount of times, the team remains to be good -- much better than what's perceived on paper.

They blew the team up over the summer and are contending for the league title, and several of their under-the-radar signings (N'zonzi making the most obvious leap to one of the best midfielders in Spain; but also Jovetic, Mariano, Sarabia, and others have all improved greatly) have actually made them better. That's unthinkable when you think of the stars and head coach they lost.

But again, what is the fit with Real Madrid? Where would his talents help? Monchi is a scouting wizard; and Real Madrid zeroes in on superstars. On the surface, there is no fit. Or is there? If anything the past years have taught us, stockpiling assets and being more economical with purchases is now an actual thing. There is a case to be made that Real Madrid will look to their youth factory more and more: Vallejo and Llorente should, and probably will return -- prioritized over bigger names.

Who's next after them? It's a legitimate question. Castilla is struggling right now, and despite being in the playoff race there is not a whole lot of talent to extract. Febas is far and away the best player on the team, and he's coming up in an era where Real Madrid are the deepest in that position they have been in the last 20 years.

This is where Monchi would help. We cannot brush him aside just because Real Madrid's transfer policy is different than that of Sevilla's. Besides, we've now entered an era where Real Madrid are no longer the team with the most financial muscle, even if they offer more intangible things like prestige and culture.

Here's where Monchi would fit: boasting talent levels in Castilla, bolstering squad depth in terms of rotational pieces where Coentrao and Danilo currently reside. And look, Danilo at the time was a great signing given how great he was at Porto, but you'd be kidding yourself if you think Real Madrid couldn't bring in a respectable back-up right back for a fraction of the price.

Verdict: bring him in if you can. At worst, he won't hurt them team, and is an additional voice of reason in the room - an extra brain for Zidane and Perez to pick.

Yeah, I always promise to not get sucked into transfer talk during the international break; but the back-up left-back position is getting more and more interesting. Historically, this is a weird (and difficult) position to fill. Marcelo is a bonafide superstar now, and anyone you bring in at this point will have to be content with playing sporadically. The same thing happened with Roberto Carlos — you can’t just bring someone in to be his understudy. Most transfer targets are too good to warm the bench; which means you’re essentially improvising and scrambling to make it work when the bridge needs to be crossed (this season it’s been Danilo and Nacho, which, has been just fine).

With Roberto Carlos, you just had to tread water and put your hands together and pray that something didn’t happen to him; because the alternatives were: shifting Solari deeper than he was used to, or slotting in Raul Bravo who was the forefather of Raul Albiol, Alvaro Arbeloa, and any type of defender you wanted to avoid having to field on the pitch in an important game.

All this rambling has lead to my hottest take of this week’s mailbag. I have a very important announcement to make:

I’ve purchased five tickets to the Luismi Quezada hype train. These are one-way tickets, and only need to be purchased once. I think this is a great investment, because I’m the first one to purchase Quezada hype train tickets, and I envision prices soaring if you don’t buy them soon.

I’ve been preaching about Quezada a little louder every week. We were all dazed by Tejero’s performance against Cultural Leonesa; but that was deceiving. Even at that point, I thought Quezada had been the better left back with Castilla in his limited time, and since 2017, he’s been Solari’s best wing-back option — even outperforming Achraf. He’s scoring goals, putting in incredible tackles, bombing up the field and getting assists, clearing sure-goals off the line at the back, and he whips in a mean set-piece. I think we start taking his development seriously now. Loan him out next season and see if he can find success in a higher flight of football. I think if he continues to develop, he’s a legitimate option as a long-term solution at the left-back position.

I don’t think Enzo makes it. He’s improved certain aspects of his game over the course of the season (he’s become a little more decisive and a little less superfluous; and has even been doing some good defensive work lately with Castilla), but he’s nowhere near the same level as other promising players his age. He still can’t channel his elegance into dictating games the way Febas can, and I just don’t see him as being good enough to be a Real Madrid player in the future.

He’s also not really a kid anymore. He’s 22. Sure, his father was a late bloomer, all things considered, but he was also a solid player in Ligue 1 at 22. I think the Enzo train has passed.

I fully understand why, economically, a summer Clasico in the States makes sense. For a lot of people attending this game, it’s their only opportunity to see either of these two teams play, and even at those astronomical prices, the place will easily sell out.

But I want to propose something here: I think we should challenge Barca to take their gauntlets off and play their youth team. It would be the equivalent of Hugh Jackman and Chris Hemsworth fighting each other without their superpowers, but better. Imagine both youth teams going at it? There would be so much pride at stake, and we’d actually watch a match that would be genuinely interesting, and it would be a good opportunity the debunk the myth that Barcelona perpetually have a stronger youth system.

*Spoilers: They don’t, and, this would never happen, because paying ticket holders want to see Ronaldo and Messi!

Someone a few weeks ago asked a similar question, but wanted to see a team for five years down the road, rather than ten. Half-a-decade from now was tough enough to envision. Ten is impossible! The team will have players we don’t even know exist yet; and I imagine the only players who still might be around would be Varane, Vallejo, Achraf, QUEZADA, Llorente, Febas, Asensio, Diaz, and Mayoral. And even those are all unknowns.

The ‘Kroos snooker goal’ is more robotic than aesthetically pleasing. I understand that’s a highly subjective and controversial statement, but hear me out: Toni Kroos is a cyborg. I imagine that when Skynet programmed ‘scoring goals from outside the box with precision’ into Toni’s brain, it was for efficiency reason, not for aesthetics.

Two of my favourite types of goals growing up were Ronaldo’s (OG), scissor-inside before cutting out-wide and scoring far-post; and McManaman’s karate kick when he used his left foot like a reload button before slinging it into the net with his right foot.

These questions are all intertwined, because ultimately it asks: ‘In a Champions League final, with everyone healthy, just what is our best XI?’ Heck, why look that far? The same question appears in the form of the Champions League quarter-finals. The current ‘Once de Gala’, with the traditional 4-3-3, has looked great just once this season, and that was back against Napoli (excluding Bale, who was unavailable for that match) in the first leg, where, apart from a spell in the first half where Napoli did really well to escape a good Real Madrid press, Zidane’s 4-3-3 actually looked fluid on both ends of the field.

It’s difficult to know where to the draw the measuring stick from. Real Madrid has looked good in so many different situations this season, and so bad in so many others. The rotations and formation shuffling has been such that, there isn’t enough sample size to draw on one way or another. The only reason why I’d give Zidane the benefit of the doubt with the 4-3-3, is that, despite it looking disjointed in most games this season (the coverage for the bombing wing-backs hasn’t looked as good as last season, and the transition from midfield to attack has looked unimaginative at times), is that it always seems to manifest it’s most efficient form in the biggest games. Benzema in Europe has been clinical, Ronaldo is peaking at just the right time, and Casemiro — for all the criticism has received — has been a very important contributor in the highest stages of the Champions League.

We can say the 4-3-3 has been reliable in big games, but we can also rightly point out its flaws (under the current blueprint). Bale (or James) can’t be isolated and resorted as passive right wingers who’s job is to provide an outlet, and occasionally cut inside. This problem existed away at the Mestalla with James, and away against Napoli with Bale until the Welshman dropped a bit deeper in the 2nd half. And because they were acting as traditional right wingers in schemes where the midfield is stretched alive, they become too stationary to help when the midfield is overloaded, or when it needs an extra gunslinger down the middle to go down the throat of the opponent. Often you’ll see Modric or Kroos (or even Casemiro sometimes, who Zidane sends as the highest point of the midfield to avoid him trying to escape a press deep in his half, which has hurt the team in the past), act as the spear of the midfield to connect the dots, but this gamble can also gut your transition defense like it did against Las Palmas and Villarreal. Again, as I’ve mentioned this almost every week this season, these are not issues of ‘effort’, nor should they cause anyone to rain down blame on individual players. These are schematic issues.

Against Bayern, seeing Robben sling runs at you on a wing without proper defensive coverage in transition for Marcelo is frightening. You can combat this by playing deep and narrow in a counter-attacking scheme (see: away win @Camp Nou last season), or your can pack the wings (see: away win @Calderon this season). Either way, it’s tough to envision this side playing a high line against Ancelotti while attempting to dictate possession.

Having considered all of this, I would consider sacrificing Benzema to put Ronaldo up top as the spearhead. The 4-3-3, generally, has worked better without Bale (with James or a more natural midfielder mingling with midfield trio). With Bale, you get the best out of him when you A) either allow him to act as a traditional winger in a four-man midfield when he can naturally protect the wing-back and bring the ball up the field on a counter; or B) give him an interchangeable free-role where he can roam, swap wings, or come down the middle.

I think you can make a strong case to push for a 4-4-1-1 against Bayern without Casemiro, and two diligent two-way wingers; but we have to detach ourselves of these opinions, fully knowing Zidane will not deviate from the 4-3-3.


Rapid fire time, because we’re over well over 3000 words at this point

Factoring in only players who have retired (with several tough omissions):

Zamora; Chendo, Hierro, Santamaria, Roberto Carlos; Makelele, Redondo, Di Stefano, Zidane; Raul, Puskas

I wouldn’t bite on anyone for the center-back position. I’d fight to convince Pepe to stay for one more season, and keep Vallejo at Frankfurt before bringing him back for the 2018-2019 season.

Fatigue is a real thing, and Modric is not young. For this reason, I could never understand why Zidane doesn’t use Kovacic more. We haven’t seen him since the Las Palmas fiasco. It’s absurd that he doesn’t play more regularly given how impressive he’s been this season, and how other-worldly he was against both Barcelona and Atletico.

But hey, here’s some good news.

Stay. You know who can leave? Every single person who’s rumoured to come to replace him.

Ben Mathison is a saint (and a patron); but Pulisic’s guaranteed marketing draw doesn’t trump the need to sign him for footballing reasons, as nice as he is.

I think Isco’s gone. Out of the two misfits who bind the midfield and attack, James seems more willing to come off the bench and fight for his place. Isco is at a point in his career where he will want to start consistently. And no, he’s not going to Barca.

This worries me. On one hand, I’ve watch nearly all of Llorente’s games this season, and have followed the insane leap he’s made. He would immediately help the current team. On the other hand, I don’t want him to merely be an Asensio-type role player. It’s tough.