One can look at the glass half full or half empty. After Santiago Solari was hired, many were justifiably pessimistic given his tenure as Castilla manager. If one were to continue down this negative spiral, fingers could be pointed at Solari for his management of Isco and the poor performances against Eibar, Huesca, and Rayo. Pushing the negative swirl to the side, there are positive marks that Solari has already left on this Real Madrid side, especially when we focus on individual players:
Marcos Llorente: From Zero to Hero
Marcos Llorente had nearly both feet out the door by the time Solari came along. A return to Alaves was on the cards after a year and half with meager amounts of game time. After an injury to Casemiro and a failed Ceballos defensive midfielder experiment, Solari was one of the first coaches to give young Marcos an opportunity. He started a big Champions League match away in Rome and hardly put a foot wrong. What did Solari do the next match? Started him again. And then again. And then again. Marcos Llorente has now started 6 matches consecutively—something that was unfathomable mere weeks ago. As many Madrid fans expected, Llorente is the perfect competitor to Casemiro’s defensive midfield position and he has now had the chance to prove that thanks to Solari. Credit where it is due, Solari was the first to give Marcos a real chance and then stick with him—the faith and confidence the Argentine has given Marcos was something both Zidane and Lopetegui failed to recognize or utilize.
The Full Back Conundrum
On the eve of El Clasico, reports had started to surface that Nacho Fernandez would be the starting right back in place of the injured Carvajal. Though Nacho, who had performed admirably in said position during last seasons Champions League final, was not the man Real Madrid paid €40M for in the summer. Alvaro Odriozola barely featured for Lopetegui even when Carvajal was injured—the exact reason he was brought in—to have a ready-made replacement! When starting left back, Marcelo gets injured, who was to replace him? Apparently, for Lopetegui, it was Nacho again! Even Lucas Vázquez was plugged in as a right back and Nacho as a left back before playing two burgeoning young Spanish talents—Sergio Reguilon and Alvaro Odriozola.
For so long, Madrid fans lamented the lack of a solid left back replacement for Marcelo. Theo filled Madridistas with hope, but ultimately failed to perform on the big stage and lost his confidence. The rise and rise of Sergio Reguilon, a kid who has featured for every level of Madrid’s youth teams, has been one of the most pleasant surprises this season. Despite his incredible performances in the preseason, Lopetegui never gave him a shot. Under Solari, Reguilón has already amassed 495 minutes and nearly puts in a man of the match performance every time he plays. Madridistas can finally breathe a sigh of relief knowing they have Reguilón on their books as Marcelo’s back up.
Just like Llorente and Reguilón, Odriozola has been given a vote of confidence. And he has responded, especially in terms of production: Xxx. The back up full back conundrum has finally ceased—Reguilón and Odrizola are the real deal and Solari has given them the chance to prove it.
The Heir to Toni Kroos’ Throne
Yet another to be given substantial and relevant minutes by Solari is 20 year old Uruguayan, Fede Valverde. At such a young age, Fede already demonstrates immense composure on the ball, much like his idol Toni Kroos. Many thought it would be a wasted year for the Uruguayan, especially after his lack of minutes under Julen Lopetegui, but Santiago Solari has given the kid a role to play within the squad.
Say what you will about Solari and his tactical nous or his man management, but he has given life to talented players who were once left to the fringes. In what was always going to be a transitional year after the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane, Solari has had the fortitude to push through the red tape and political hierarchy of the dressing room and play the potential next generation. Under Solari, Real Madrid may not win yet another Champions League trophy or play aesthetically pleasing football, or simply play well as a collective, but during his tenure—however short it may be—he will leave his mark by discovering which of these crop of youngsters has what it takes to be a Real Madrid player over the next decade. Even if it is to be a “dark year” in Madrid’s history, one can always find some speckles of light.