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Santiago Solari looks damn good in a suit, and Marcos Llorente is starting to look like Redondo

This week’s column, on Solari’s charm, Real Madrid’s expectations, miscues against Bayern, and Llorente’s development

Deportivo Alaves v FC Barcelona - La Liga Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

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.

This is the home stretch. On Friday, the final Champions League draw of the season will be made by UEFA, and our boi Lucas Navarette will immediately post the results on Managing Madrid. Until now, you might say Real Madrid have exceeded expectations — high, mighty, and powerful as they are. Yes, the expectations of the most successful and storied team in football are virtually limitless — without beginning or end — but some caveats need to be laid out here. No team has ever reached the semi-finals of the Champions League seven years running (except for Real Madrid this season), and Zidane’s team has been criticized all season, because, well, a portion of fans feel he’s a mere tactically inept stopgap here to bridge the gap and occasionally tell the boys ‘good job!’ and ‘keep up the good work lads!’ before driving his kids to Valdebebas with a basket of oranges so they can learn all of Solari’s tactical stratagems and get shouted at by Old Man.

I need to interject my own column to say something about Solari here. He is so god damn beautiful that it’s almost impossible to hate him for single-handedly ruining Sergio Diaz’s young career. Two weeks ago, after that same Castilla game where I decided that Old Man has cemented himself as the cornerstone of the Castilla ultras and pronounced his legacy to the world, I walked to the tunnel where the Castilla players leave the locker-room and go home — this is essentially the zone you hang around and kill time until Solari comes out for the post-game presser. These moments are always long (but what are we really talking about here? I’m complaining about waiting too long in the hallway to talk to one of my favourite players of the OG galactico era, and a dude who I worshipped when I was a kid), and while you’re waiting, you’ll see the kids come out of the locker to go home.

So there is something important to note here, even though none of this actually has anything to do with the overarching story about Solari’s physical attractiveness. When you see these kids come out of the locker-room one-by-one, they are literally kids. Even some of the players who look bigger on Real Madrid TV, like Mario Hermoso, are dwarfed up close. And I’m not just talking about height here (Hermoso is, for example, slightly taller than Nacho), but their overall frames are relatively miniscule. It was the equivalent of standing around my little cousins in the driveway before I lined them up, lowered the basketball net, and ended their world with unlawful dunks. I’m pointing this out, because this was around the same time Pepe and Varane were both injured, and everyone was asking me about potential understudies from Castilla. This was (and is) the answer: These kids are just not good enough. They’re also kids. To throw someone like Lienhart or Hermoso into the fire against Atletico, Barcelona, or Bayern would have been like handing Simeone, Lucho, and Carlo a pair of boxing gloves and telling them to punch Keylor Navas into oblivion while one of their strikers gets to shoot the ball from any distance that he wants, while Sergio Ramos has his hands and feet tied behind his back.

After this particular Castilla game — a game where Liernart scored the mother of all freak own-goals to virtually put an end to Solari’s campaign — I patiently waited for a dejected Santi to take the podium. I had attended Castilla pressers before — they are usually 1/20th the size of Zidane’s pressers, and are in a small community-center-esque room. I typically take notes. The Diaz question is old now. Solari feels Diaz can impact from deep and from the flanks, and there’s no reason to strike a nerve to bring it up. He can be defensive when answering questions. In a sense, he’s the anti-Zidane. Zizou is insanely patient with a plethora of really bad questions — but he will look you in the eye, smile, laugh (probably at your soul, for asking about Isco’s bag of Barca chips the day before a Derbi), and give you a witty and tactful answer that is impossible to get angry with. Solari will argue if he feels like it.

That particular night was extra gloomy. There was nothing to be hopeful about. Castilla were long out of a playoff race, and Lienhart’s own-goal was an extra dose of cruel that laced the nail which got clobbered into Castilla’s coffin. I decided to ask Solari about the message he gives to the players after such a demoralizing game, and particularly to Lienhart. His response was the most emotional I’ve seen him, and that’s when it hit me — it is impossible for me to be upset with this man. There are two distinct emotions that have made up my journalism career until now. One emotion is subtle and unconscious — it’s going through the motions. You write, you report, you try your best to make a living while churning out important content. This makes up 95% of my journalism career.

Note: I’m using the first-person here, because I’m not about to generalize my experience to others in the field. I’ve seen miserable journalists who look like they have homework every night, and I always make it a point to distinguish myself from that. I genuinely love doing this. When I put my headphones on and write, do a live video, or record a podcast, I’m on a fucking cloud.

That 95%, by the way, is incredible. It’s not laborious. But then there is the second emotion which makes up the rest of the 5% — that smaller percentage takes you from the clouds and opens up a portal to a different dimension. Every now and then, you’ll experience that, and it’s awesome. Amid all the content, the noise, the condensed April schedule, I experienced that ‘5% feeling’ twice in the past month. Once was during Solari’s response, where he looked me in the eye, and talked for what seemed like a full 500 seconds. It was a sincere reaction to a question during a tough time. He talked about Lienhart’s misfortune, the team rallying with him, and the importance of the future. He also looked like Don Juan DeFucking Marco. His hair slick, his suit fresh, and his tall frame accentuating his presence. And you know what? None of that is actually why the 5% hit me. It’s because when he spoke to me, I realized something: This is Santiago Solari. I grew up watching him. To me he was the most unsung galactico of all. During a time remembered for Zidane and Figo, Solari was an absolute assassin on the left wing. I’ll never forget how he twisted Barcelona inside-out during the semi-final in 2001. That got completely lost in the shuffle with Zidane, Raul, and McManaman doing the statistical damage. 15 years later, one of my favourite players from that era is coaching Castilla, and I sit at home and criticize him a lot for stifling the growth of some very talented kids. But now I’m sitting in front of him, and he’s talking to me in an outspoken tone. That moment was so real.

I appreciate Santiago Solari.

I also appreciate Raul in unimaginable ways. We all have that one person in our lives that was so important to us growing up. And when I say important, I mean that you looked up to this person as a child and thought they were immortal and could do no wrong. Raul to me, was just incredible, in so many ways.

This is all build-up to moment #2.

There are a lot of dope people working with Real Madrid now. It’s kind of just a really fun thing to be a part of, or support. A few months ago, I had a nice heart-to-heart with Butragueno. I was mostly interested in his legacy, but he kept swinging the conversation back to me. We talked about family, life in Spain, and my father (which, if you told kid Kiyan 15 years ago this, he would’ve slapped you). I met Florentino Perez and told him about Managing Madrid. He asked me how the site is doing, and I told him how many hits we get. He looked me in the eye, put his hands together, and thanked me for promoting the Club. It was the most gangster thing he could have possibly done at that point. I’ve also talked to Roberto Carlos, Zidane, and Valdano. And here’s the rotten side of me: after all of those moments, I kind of just said ‘that was neat’, then went back to writing. The subconscious 95% just kind of consumes you.

Enter moment #2. A couple weeks ago, when I walked into the press area at the Bernabeu, I looked around the stadium before setting up shop and getting to work. That’s routine — you need that one moment of soaking it in before getting lost in the grind. I looked left, then did a gradual 180 to the right, panoramically taking in the stadium as the seats filled up. Before swinging the entirety of the half-circle, I knew someone was shoulder-to-shoulder to my right, but never anticipated anything out of the ordinary, until I realized it was Raul, who unknowingly brushed my arm while someone was mic’ing him up. I froze — and no one makes me freeze, not even the aforementioned figures. I think the only other time I froze like that in my life was in grade six when I forgot to do my homework and my teacher gave me the death stare and we just death stared each other for 25 seconds before she told me to get out of the classroom and I just stood in the hallway like an idiot because she didn’t even tell me to go to the office or anything she just told me to get out so I left and awkwardly walked around.

This somehow goes all the way back full-circle to Zidane, who is doing a tremendous job against all odds, and under a lot of shade. We nitpick constantly with him (at times, quite rightfully so) but it could be much, much worse; and the man just wins when it counts. And if we’re talking about expectations, consider this — no team has repeated as a back-to-back European champions since the Earth was frozen and was one continent. We’ll dissect the opponent once the draw is made tomorrow, whichever three of the impressive teams remaining it might be, but you can’t help but feel that anything that happens after this is gratuitous (or just simply brilliant prophecy).

Three observations

Mental miscues

Tuesday’s second leg at the Bernabeu was, at times, pure disorganized chaos. Some of it is to be expected — extra time, tired legs, etc — but a lot of it was preventable. In the past, Zidane has favoured slinging for more goals when leading to really sap his opponents. He would rather go for the kill than put up a shield. He did it against Sevilla in the Copa del Rey this season and he did it against Bayern on Tuesday — and that’s fine. But there is a scent of disorganized chaos with the approach. In Sevilla, Real Madrid opened up rather impractically in search of the dagger, and at the Bernabeu earlier this week, it was more of the same. What ensued was pure anarchy. Leading up to Bayern’s penalty shot which unnerved 81,000 fans, Real Madrid back-peddled in a way that seemed untenable for a team with a lead.

Real Madrid were spread unnecessarily thin when Casemiro fouled Robben in the box, but there were other less obvious miscues — particularly as the game wore on.

Here, Ronaldo decides to spearhead a perfunctory press. While Keylor boots the ball to Neuer, simultaneously ceding possession — much to Modric’s visible irritation — Ronaldo signals the team to press. He goes onward with pure intentions, and the players behind him half-heartedly follow suit — a dangerous situation given how much cohesiveness a press requires. Asensio hedges into no man’s land — unsure of whether he should hound Hummels or track Alaba’s run on Bayern’s left flank. Modric decides to be decisive and push up with Kroos, while Asensio now has to commit. And that’s where it all goes wrong. At this point, Real Madrid aren’t pressing as a team, and Casemiro is stuck in the anchoring slot rather than covering for Carvajal who is left with two players to mark. There is a moment in this clip where you can actually see Carvajal plead for his life and say ‘guys, what on earth did I do to you to deserve this’ before Douglas Costa and Alaba get in behind the broken press and start attacking.

That moment, along with a few others — like Marcelo falling asleep defending an offside trap in the 66th minute — was an in-game decision that might drive Zidane’s hair (um, I’m not sure what other word to use here. Scalp?) out. Here is one that drove mine out, refusing to tactically foul Arjen Robben long before this goal-scoring chance nearly ended the tie:

Counting down the days until Marcos Llorente arrives

You know how I feel about Marcos if you’ve been following my work. I followed him closely since last season when he turned it up in the playoffs with Castilla, and he’s just been a joy to track this season. The kid just makes leap after leap. Defensively, his IQ is through the roof. Offensively, his distribution is spot-on, and his vertical passing has improved tremendously over the course of the season. I’m also falling in love with his aesthetics, and the way he glides. I see a bit of Redondo in him. I bet if you ask him who he watched growing up, he would say it’s Nando. You know how we always say that a recipe for beating (prime) Barca is man-marking Busquets out of the game because everything from the back is channelled through him? I think we’ll talk that way about Llorente in a couple years.

In previous columns and mailbags, I’ve outlined some of his heroics. He can track players into the ground and distress ball-carriers who think they’ve escaped into space, he’s press-resistant with his dribbling and ability to change directions with the ball, and he plays passing lanes in front of the defensive line as good as anyone I’ve seen in Spain this season. His positioning constantly sees him intercepting passes and dispossessing players before launching counter-attacks for Pellegrino’s side.

Below are some of the low-key Llorente moments from Alaves’ 2-1 win over Villarreal on Monday which you can expect to see regularly next season.

Tracking Sansone:

His signature ‘twist-and-turn’ when nothing is on to recycle possession:

Being a constant outlet and demanding the ball (tell me you don’t see a bit of Redondo here, stylistically):

Reading the passing lanes:

Dispossessing Adrian Lopez:

A quick note on Jesus Vallejo, who is out for the season

See y’all tomorrow to discuss the draw.

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