Yes, we’re a bit late on doing this, but we wanted to make sure we as much of the crew as possible to chime in. So, sit back, put aside about 10 minutes, and bask in this Managing Madrid roundtable discussion!
Psst: Gabe and I are launching an additional mid-week Managing Madrid podcast to go along with our weekly Sunday night recordings. So, if you’re worried about sever FoMo, make sure to become a Patron: Patreon.com/ManagingMadrid
Is it possible Real Madrid are actually stronger than they were last season?
Joshua Sutter: It's very possible, and in my opinion, a reality. The emergence of Isco, Asensio, and Kovacic as not only solid role players, but reliably excellent options, gives Real Madrid an added element of depth that will take pressure off the starters to play game-in and game-out. The improvement of those three players simply adds to the cohesion that has taken place with more time in Zidane's system. Real Madrid are indeed stronger this season.
Matthew Wiltse: It is possible. We’ve already seen Zidane’s tactics improve. The overall pressing and the ability to switch between a four-man midfield and front-three forward line have been evidence to that point. To continue improving, the squad needs to remain humble, continue to put in the hard work, and Zidane will need to continue to implement tactical innovations or slight tweaks. If we failed to do so, other teams will begin to figure out how to beat us.
C-Trick: The losses of Morata and James make it very difficult to argue that Real Madrid are stronger this season. Add to that the departures of Danilo and Pepe, and it’s almost impossible to do so.
There is a form of compensation for James in the form of Ceballos and Llorente who may be more functionally suitable for the setup of the team in light of the tactical framework. And Vallejo and Achraf could prove to be capable, or even dare I say superior options to Danilo and Pepe, but that’s an extremely speculative take. However, there hasn’t been a similar direct replacement for Morata whose goals were crucial last season. The bigger issue is addressing a potential gap in this position should injuries arise, but it could otherwise be managed with a healthy squad. Ultimately, the answer is yes, it is very much possible that the team is stronger this season.
Om Arvind: Yes. Not only do the veterans and players in their peak - Modric, Ramos, Marcelo, Ronaldo, etc. - seem to be maintaining their level from last season, but our younger guys seem to be getting measurably better. Kovacic continues to take big leaps, the sky seems to be the limit for Asensio, and players who are past that stage of rapid growth (but still relatively young) still seem to be on an upward slope; i.e. Isco, Kroos, Casemiro, etc. There's also the fact that we've added key new signings in Theo and Llorente, and that they're going to be blooded into a tactical system that boasts chemistry and versatility that's better than ever. Yeah, we're fucking good.
Timm Higgins: I think they are. So strong in fact that a treble is not out of the range of possibility for the squad as currently constructed. You can look up and down the bench and see that this is possibly a stronger squad than Los Blancos have seen in years. And imagine if Bale can remain healthy and the BBC really click this season — I have a feeling they’ll be unstoppable. Let’s be real, Zidane has weapons of mass destruction from his starting XI to the bench. It’s going to be an amazing season.
Tommy Kulkis: I have a very hard time seeing how this team won't be stronger than last season. Consider the fact that Real Madrid won 93 points in the league, and looked dominant through the entire UCL campaign despite below average seasons from both big-name forwards Benzema and Bale. It is very possible that these two players' seasons were anomalies, and now add that improved production to what we currently have. On top of that the squad is a year older, meaning guys like Asensio, Kovacic, Varane, Carvajal, and others are still going to get a lot better. All of this and we finally added reliable backups for Marcelo and Casemiro.
Naguib Anam: Well, this is a tricky question. Morata and James' absence will definitely be felt in some capacity. I have no doubts that Ronaldo will always do his part, but Morata's 20 goals will need to come from somewhere. Hoping for an injury-free season from Bale and a prolific season from Benzema.
The cool thing about Madrid is everyone is a goalscorer. You just name it. From Ronaldo to Casemiro to Nacho. Everyone can cross/score goals. So yeah, the answer if we are stronger or weaker than last season can only be answered at the end of the season.
Who do you think will be the biggest threat in La Liga and Europe to Real Madrid repeating another double?
*Note: these questions were answered before Barcelona signed Dembele.
Joshua Sutter: The biggest threat in La Liga is always Barcelona, and this year that will likely stay the same. Despite the dominant nature that Barcelona were beaten by against Real, they'll likely add another player to stabilize the offense and be competitive in La Liga.
In Europe, Juventus and Bayern Munich will likely be the biggest threat to Real Madrid. Juventus have been able to keep their offensive core together, and despite losing Leonardo Bonucci to AC Milan, will still be rock solid defensively. Bayern Munich always possess the talent to dethrone anyone in Europe, and if they come together under Ancelotti's system, they could be a scary threat for Real Madrid.
Matthew Wiltse: Unless Barcelona begin to invest the Neymar money wisely, I think the biggest title threat will be Atletico Madrid. If they do ultimately sign Diego Costa, and his incorporation, along with Vitolo, could be the difference-maker halfway through the season. In Europe it will be the usual suspects of previous seasons — Bayern, Juventus, Barcelona, Atletico, and now PSG.
C-Trick: In La Liga – Barcelona without a doubt. In the CL – this season is shaping up to be a dog fight. The biggest threats will be Bayern, Barcelona, PSG, Juventus, Manchester clubs, and Chelsea. There are a host of other clubs that could easily be on that list.
Om Arvind: It has to be Barcelona in La Liga. Despite the loss of Neymar and their current weaknesses in depth and their starting XI, they still have a lot of quality players. Messi is pretty decent, Suarez isn't bad, and neither are Rakitic, Alba, Pique, Umtiti, Busquets, and Iniesta. Valverde is also a pretty good coach and should be able to cover for his side's deficiencies (once he eventually figures out what tactical plan he wants to implement). Besides, no other Spanish team (besides us) is better than Barca, making them our number one rival for the title by default.
In Europe, I'd place Barca up there as a big rival, as well as Atlético Madrid, Bayern, Juventus, and Manchester City, but I think PSG are going to make a real run for it this season. They picked up the biggest coup of the summer in Neymar, and I think that's going to be a catalyst for a strong European campaign.
Timm Higgins: In La Liga, I’m going to have to go with Atletico Madrid — they’ve got a strong squad and could cause problems at the top of the table and it could be a three-way race for the title. Though I’m not ruling out Barca by any stretch – I just think Atletico is going to be the stronger of the two. As far as Europe goes, that’s a tough one. I think with the addition of Neymar that PSG are looking tough and could have a deep run in the Champions League and we could see Juve again too – another strong squad.
Tommy Kulkis: In La Liga it has to be Barca. If they fail to make a signing though, we should roll through La Liga. In Europe, while I can see teams like Barcelona and PSG knocking us out of Europe due to Messi and Neymar, I really think there are only 1 realistic team that could beat Madrid in the champions league. That team is Bayern Munich. While I felt like we were clearly the superior team over 2 legs this past season, Bayern has the only midfield that could potentially rival Madrid's. Lewandowski had burned us before, and having attacking quality around him like Robben, James, and Muller (maybe?) while having Neuer in goal makes this a very dangerous team. Let me say that if Madrid is on its game during the KO rounds then they'll likely lift the big ears for a 3rd consecutive year, as Los Blancos possess a gear that no one else on the planet possesses.
Naguib Anam: Football Club Barcelona in La Liga. While it is as obvious as it can be, they are weaker without Neymar and to add to that, early injuries for Suarez and Iniesta make a bad case for them. However, as long as the second best player in the world plays for them, they are never really out of the race.
Manchester United: strong squad, doing very good in the Premier League and will gel well by the time they meet us in the knockout stages of the Champions League.
Bayern Munchen: Carlo and James will come looking for blood. It will get ugly this time. Carletto knows how to make the most of James' services and I fear the latter doing a Morata (CL 2015).
Name one game on the calendar that you think will be much trickier than most people think.
Joshua Sutter: December 10th against Sevilla will be tough leading up to El Clasico on the 20th. Playing against Sevilla is tough enough, but 10 days before El Clasico could provide Real Madrid with a bit of distraction.
Matthew Wiltse: Mid-February we travel to Seville to play Betis. They have made some astute summer signings and Quique Seitein is a quality manager. Unlike last year’s 6-1 drubbing, the green and white will be no pushover.
C-Trick: The next game, and not just because it’s Valencia. Real Madrid are on top of the world right now and are draped in a cloak of invincibility. Sky-high confidence can sometimes easily lead to underestimating opponents and more pertinently expecting to dominate and never struggle.
Om Arvind: Girona FC, who picked up a 2-2 draw against Atlético Madrid after leading 2-0 on the first matchday of the season. The confidence that will bring, mixed with their brave style of play, will make it a tougher encounter than Real will probably expect.
Timm Higgins: There’s two that make me slightly nervous -- December 2 away to Athletic Bilbao, and the following week against Sevilla. Both teams have a record of playing the Royal Whites tight. Though Sevilla is the more dangerous of the two.
Tommy Kulkis: My pick is very early, in fact it's matchday 2, a home match against Valencia. Surely Valencia will be better than the past 2 seasons, and having to rely on a potential Bale-Benzema partnership up top troubles me, as the former is just simply not suited for the role.
Naguib Anam: Sevilla Away, 22 April, 2018. Sevilla love making things difficult for us and will relish doing the same at such a crucial stage in the season. A bad result will pressure our team before El Clásico.
As of now, the squad is deep, and perhaps even too deep in certain positions. How tough do you think it'll be for players like Llorente, Ceballos, and Vallejo to find playing time?
Joshua Sutter: It'll be incredibly tough for players the likes of Llorente, Ceballos, and Vallejo to get consistent playing time. They're so talented and ready to play a part in Real Madrid. The problem is that there are simply too many players ahead of them that will take their place even with injury problems to any first-teamers.
Matthew Wiltse: I have a feeling Llorente will be loaned out (Sevilla maybe?). With Kovacic slotting into the DM role with ease against Barcelona and first choice Casemiro taking most of the minutes, Llorente will continually be left out. It would be better for him and better for Madrid to have him pick up crucial minutes elsewhere. We will see what the player and Zidane decide by the 31st.
As for players like Ceballos, Vallejo, and even Mayoral and Achraf, they will have chances this season. Zidane has made it clear that you will need to earn your way into the reigning La liga and European champion’s squad — so whether they get a full game, or the last two minutes of a blowout victory, they need to take the opportunity as a chance to impress and prove they deserve more time. Each player will get a shot under Zidane, it is then up to the player to prove he deserves a bigger role.
No better example than Asensio last year — he often was left out of the squad in the first half of the season. He gradually put in great performance after great performance and earned more significant minutes.
C-Trick: Hard to predict as injuries could have a huge influence on how many minutes they get. But I think Vallejo will be a clear fourth — and sometimes third — choice CB, so he may accumulate close to as many minutes as Nacho did in 2015-16. Ceballos and Llorente however may stay more in the periphery due to the sheer depth of midfield.
Om Arvind: I think Vallejo will be fine, but things are certainly going to be difficult for Llorente and Ceballos, as I felt that Ceballos was an unnecessary signing from day one. James left because he was surplus to requirements and because he couldn't get enough minutes (even with Zidane's vigorous rotations). Bringing in Ceballos restarts a problem that I thought we had solved. In order to keep him happy, Zizou will probably stick him on the bench and give him game time coming off of it, which will shove Marcos out of the squad list and hurt his minutes. This worries me, especially since Marcos has previously stated how he would be willing to move on from his dream club if the promise of playing time arose elsewhere. I get that Ceballos is a talented player and Barca were looking into him, but what happens if another talented CM pops up next season? Do we get him too, just because Barcelona might be interested? That doesn't seem like a viable strategy.
Timm Higgins: They’re going to get minutes, because inevitably injuries happen. So, in those moments, when they get those chances - they're going to have to step up and show what they've got. I see Vallejo getting minutes (when healthy) but like him, Varane is made of glass.
Tommy Kulkis: I have never thought too much depth is an issue, one just has to be mentally strong. Having so much depth means that players are going to give their all every time they play because they'll obviously want more minutes. I think this is what made Madrid's "B" team so good. They'll be fine. They knew exactly what to expect coming in, and it's going to lead to some hungry youngsters.
Naguib Anam: While Zidane has denied several times that there are two teams (A & B), we all know that is not the most honest Zizou has been. Llorente, Ceballos, and Vallejo will definitely get minutes against opponents like Leganes, Girona and Levante.
Give us your predictions for:
A) Unsung hero of the season
B) MIP (most improved)
A) Raphael Varane
B) Mateo Kovačić
C) Cristiano Ronaldo. Playing a more central role with the likes of Isco, Bale, and Asensio providing depth from the wings — he'll score a ton of goals as usual, and be able to rest more consistently.
A) Raphael Varane.
B) Jesus Vallejo
C) Cristiano Ronaldo
A) Unsung hero of the season: Mateo Kovacic
I think that this season is Kovacic’s coming out party. While we all know how good he is, and that eventually he could take Modric’s place, we haven’t seen him at his full-on best yet and I think he’s going to help a lot more this season than most people think.
B) MIP (most improved): Nacho
He’s a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to filling in the back line. Whether it be at one of the center-back positions or at either full-back position. I think we’re going to see a big improvement on last year, as he’s set to get (I feel) a lot more minutes than in previous seasons.
C) MVP: Gareth Bale
I truly believe that Bale is set to have a great season. The last couple haven’t gone as planned with injuries but I feel that he’ll have a productive season –- and stay off the injured list.
Unsung Hero: Keylor Navas
MVP: Its almost too easy to pick Ronaldo here, so I'm going for someone I think will become an absolute rock this season: Raphael Varane. Good luck scoring on Ramos, Varane, and Case.
A) Unsung hero of the season
Karim Benzema. His contribution will be vital for Real Madrid's success, as it has been all these years.
B) MIP (most improved)
Kovacic. Not that he was ever not good. I am expecting a lot from him.
My answer would have been Cristiano Ronaldo because well, he is Cristiano Ronaldo. But, I am going to gamble big here and say Gareth Frank Bale. I have never doubted his caliber and while he might be taking some time to get into his old stride, I have no doubts that he will be great this season. I believe this will be an injury free/minimal injury season for him which will see him make history again with Real Madrid.
What weaknesses does this team have?
Joshua Sutter: Too much depth? In all seriousness, I'm sure there are weaknesses that will show during La Liga play, but in the preseason, there weren't glaring errors that will slow this team down.
Matthew Wiltse: I think we still leak too many goals and give away too many easy chances. It comes down to concentration levels and intensity, not ability. This is something Zidane stressed early in the season last year. We have improved dramatically since then, but I still would like to see more clean sheets this year.
C-Trick: Fullback depth and versatility as Theo and Marcelo appear to have similar profiles. While Nacho contrasts well with Carvajal, the level of competitiveness the latter offers is not maintained when Nacho plays. Consistent chance creation (i.e. incisiveness) and finishing are also recurring problem areas that are likely to persist this season.
Om Arvind: Ummmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm... Besides some tactical stuff that needs refining (compactness, consistency in preparation for the counterpress, some stale structures in build-up, blah blah blah), we're pretty close to perfect.
Timm Higgins: I think we’re a bit weak at the FB position — not many options there without a dip in performance. While I see Theo as a viable option, I think that Nacho will do most of the filling in. But if he goes down, we’re not in that good of shape. So hopefully, as seems to be the theme – Carvajal and Marcelo need to keep as healthy as possible.
Tommy Kulkis: If Zidane doesn't plan on using Ronaldo as a striker, then a backup striker who is proven could be necessary. A Nacho/Vallejo partnership could struggle against top teams. Aside from those 2 issues this team has no glaring weaknesses, and most are worst case scenarios through injuries.
Naguib Anam: None. Just wish Mayoral had some proper playing time with Wolfsburg during his loan spell, that is not to say I don't believe in him.
Give us your final season predictions: Standings in La Liga, Copa, and UCL.
Joshua Sutter: Real Madrid will finish first in La Liga and the Champions League. They'll win Copa by accident. All of the depth and youth that Zidane has to throw out in Copa will pay off. Of all the years to win the treble, this is the year for Real Madrid. The mixture of prime talent, combined with youthful hunger is a gorgeous blend to take in.
Matthew Wiltse: I think we do the domestic double this year (La Liga & Copa). Everyone will be gunning for Madrid in the UCL and one bad match, one poor call, or just a string of bad luck/injuries can have you crashing out. A part of me thinks I should predict the treble, but I am going to remain conservative (conservative for Zidane’s standards!).
C-Trick: La Liga Champions, Copa champions and CL champions – predicting a treble but then I do so every year until it’s no longer a possibility (mathematically).
Winner of La Liga: Real Madrid
Winner of the Copa del Rey: Real Madrid
Winner of the Champions League: PSG
Tommy Kulkis: I hate to expect a treble, because then I set myself up for failure if the team fails to win even one trophy. The only team that can truly beat this Madrid team is itself. Winning a treble is half skill, half luck, but at the same time you often create your own luck. The baseline expectation should be La Liga given Barca's state. I think we 3-peat in Europe, but I think lapses of judgement in the Copa Del Rey prevent a treble though. Another double.
Real Madrid win La Liga
Real Madrid win the Copa del Rey
Real Madrid win the Champions League