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Mailbag: PSG Weaknesses, Summer Transfers, Zidane’s Job Security, Improving La Liga, and More

Kiyan answers a ton of questions. Bookmark this one.

Real Madrid CF v Paris Saint-Germain - UEFA Champions League

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.

Remember last mailbag, when I broke it into three separate parts, so it wouldn’t be 3500 words long? Well, I couldn’t help myself this time. Bookmark this one, if you have to. It was fun.

First, from our Patrons:

Tebas is Tebas. The fact that he’s taken this long to graduate from the stone age is unbelievable, really. His petty feud with Angel Maria Villar, the Spanish Football Federation president, and the obstacle it became in strengthening La Liga’s officiating system really hurt the league (though, Villar isn’t free of blame here, to be sure). He often says things he probably shouldn't be saying. He’s an open Madridista, which is fine — we’re all human and have feelings for certain clubs, blah blah blah — but the fact that he’s candid about which team he supports makes statements like this look weird. There is a general lack of wisdom in the things he does, and it probably wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if a younger visionary like Puyol or Raul stepped in (both have done work with La Liga as ambassadors after retirement).

Give him his due, though. The most important bit of business if I arrived to office on the first day of being elected, would be to sort out the VAR mess, which is already underway. We won’t see La Liga use the Hawk Eye goal line technology, but with VAR in place next season, goal-line rulings should get taken care of anyway. Goal-line tech might be quicker, but you’ll still get the right call with VAR in place, at least. (Congratulations La Liga, you save €4 million next season!)

Some of the stuff Tebas has made an emphasis in implementing is pretty cool, though, like the 360 cameras in the Bernabeu and Camp Nou. It’s not a top priority to have that stuff, generally, but it’s cool.

Priority #2: Make the tail-end of the league more interesting than the current humdrum eye-sore of disinterested teams going through the motions before vacation starts.

Buckle up for an edition of ‘Kiyan thinks out loud and it may or may not make any sense

The problem: The last remaining matches in La Liga (and in most major leagues, for that matter) are generally meaningless for so many teams. Half the teams in the league have nothing to play for. They’re either relegated already, out of Europe and safe from relegation, or already locked into their Champions League / Europa League slot. What’s the point?

The solution: Playoffs. Not a single team outside of Champions League slots should have comfort. Make every position in the standings matter, because this will be important in their playoff seeding.

The method:

If the league ended today in my playoff scenario, then 16 teams underneath Real Madrid would go into a tournament bloodbath where everyone fights for their lives. Top seed (Villarreal) plays against bottom seed (Malaga), and so forth. The tournament would get broken down into two brackets, only the final two remaining teams don’t actually play each other in a final — they just go straight through to the Europa League. The teams who lose and get knocked out? Five of them are safe. The three who go down to Segunda are the three with the least amount of points in the league table before the playoffs started. So, if Malaga, Las Palmas and Depor all win their matches against Villarreal, Sevilla and Celta; while Alaves, Levante, and Sociedad lose their matches, the three to go down are Alaves, Levante, and Sociedad, and not Malaga, Las Palmas and Deportivo.

Are you still with me?

I’m not about to sim that entire bracket, but I know it would make for one hell of a wild ride. Admittedly, the cons are that teams have to play more games after the season is over just to make fans more excited, but, it would be an immediate upgrade over what we currently go through in late-spring.

Yes, there are logistics to consider: “What if it’s a World Cup year?” “Isn’t this overkill?” “Wouldn’t it be unfair for a team in 15th place to theoretically get relegated?” -- don’t wanna hear it. Traditional methods can be poisonous.

Here’s the thing about Premier League money, Siddharth, it will have to also rely on good scouting, sound spending philosophy, and proper direction. I think part of the reason why we’ve seen English teams suffer in year’s past, is because they just didn’t have great minds channeling their spending properly. This led to entertaining games domestically, and failures in Europe against tactically astute teams who had a lower budget. They’ve started to learn it’s not just about money, it’s about identity too. Part of the reason why they’re surging now, and finally reappearing as a force in the Champions League (admittedly, that’s a premature statement, but the signs are there) are because of this realization.

Give Pep, Conte, Poch, Klopp, Mou (gulp) enough time, and they’ll crack that league — particularly Pep. I don’t know if this is an unpopular opinion here or not, but he’s a genius. A lot of criticism will go his way for his ridiculous spending, but I always respected his unorthodox methods and ability to mask defensive weaknesses with a counter-press, and ability to suck in offensive lines into deep positions before ripping them apart. Yes, he can be beaten, and has weaknesses in his scheme as we’ve seen and demonstrated quite a bit in the past few years, but the general point I’m making is that if you pair your spending with a brain behind it, you’ll probably become successful eventually, and that seems to finally be happening with Premier League teams.

One thing fans tend to overlook when evaluating the financial gulf between leagues is that just because La Liga teams are earning less money (they’re behind both the Premier League and Bundesliga), they’re still earning a ton of money, even if it’s relatively less than English teams. Couple that revenue with good scouting (which teams like Sevilla, Villarreal, Alaves, and a bunch of others have done really well), and you’ll still be really good, and you’ll snatch up all the players the English teams didn’t have room to sign, or just straight-up overlooked. Also, teams like Real Madrid and Barcelona will always have prestige and attractiveness. If you ask me, La Liga’s deep talent pool and it’s scouting networks will prevent them from turning into Serie A post Calciopoli.

Priority #3: Stop punishing social media influencers for promoting your league. Several big La Liga accounts on Twitter have been suspended for posting highlights / compilations of La Liga. Ludicrous. These people do not deserve the anxiety and stress they receive from this. They have to rebuild their base of followers (usually in the tens of thousands), and have to deal with all kinds of headache. These people are promoting your league, not infringing upon it. Leave them alone.

One last thing: don’t do embarrassing things. Earlier this season, Getafe played against Eibar. Both teams have a Japanes player (Goku and Inui), and the match was geared towards the Japanese time zone. Neither player started, and the match was a dud. It was a weird look.

Y’all know I hate transfer questions by now, right? But out of respect, and out of full awareness of the fact I always dance around this question, I’ll actually answer it this time.


Unshackle the chains from the feet of Llorente and Ceballos. Don’t sell them by any means, but let them play at a high level week-in, week-out. Loan them out. I never understood this idea of stifling the progression of talented young players by bringing them in as cold spectators. These guys were key cogs in Alaves and Betis respectively, and were hitting their developmental milestones just fine. Send them out again, and bring them back when you actually need them — or if you decide you don’t need them after their loan spell, you’ll at the very least raise their value before selling them.

Kiko Casilla, God love him, is not a Real Madrid player. He needs to find a new club. Javier Belman, Castilla’s goalkeeper, is better. This is not to say Belman should be the direct replacement for Kiko, necessarily.

Karim Benzema needs to accept a lesser role at this stage of his career if you decide to keep him. He can be valuable in the squad, but as a consistent starter, he’s on the wrong side of his peak

My latest opinion on Cristiano Ronaldo can be found here (starts at 45:25 mark, and goes through until about 60:00)


I’m not interested in going down a deep rabbit hole with a list of players for each position. Those are details we can discuss in the summer time. I’ll just say this: Harry Kane should be a priority, if he’s on the table. So many fans are on this weird train that Harry is a Tottenham lifer, he’s super loyal, etc. I don’t buy it. I get he loves that club, but it’s not inconceivable that Real Madrid can pry him this summer. I imagine Florentino has an itch to scratch. The team has been in a net positive when it comes to transfers in the past couple seasons, and the team’s current striker is not what he used to be. Harry Kane is lighting the earth on fire (although, I’m sure fans will find something wrong with him at some point if he did end up being a Real Madrid player), and he’s a player that can not only score buckets of goals, but will fit seamlessly into a scheme that demands more versatility and link-up (I’m starting to hate this word, because it’s so overused now, but it’s descriptive to the point we’re making here) from its striker.

Enticing him can’t be that complicated. Florentino shows up to his home with Modric, Bale, and a briefcase. Bale and Modric spend the entire night talking about the career leap going from Tottenham to Real Madrid, and Florentino keeps stuffing bills into his pockets. Done.

I don’t think there’s anything I can add to the first question on top of what I’ve already analyzed:

The second question, asking about PSG (I’m assuming) and their current state is interesting. I was planning on doing a preview podcast (hopefully with a PSG beat-writer) on this specifically, but there are interesting notes to go through even now.

The reality of PSG’s blitzing season, where a terrifying front-three run havoc week-in week-out, is that they don’t get tested too often, and when they do, they have glaring weaknesses. We saw these weaknesses against Lyon and Bayern respectively. I’m being very cautious about this, in case you interpret me the wrong way. PSG are a great, great team. Huge sections of the Real Madrid fanbase were unreasonably happy about the draw. I even saw comments like “we’re going to slam them” when the draw was made. Ridiculous. Even now, we need to pump the breaks after our last two La Liga games.

To reiterate: This is a tough game.

This is Real Madrid though, and it would be equally naive to consider they’ll roll over here. This is a team of fighters and legends, who’ve stepped up in the most hostile and unlikely of circumstances. Cliche statement: It should be a really great two legs between two teams who have great players and cohesive weaknesses.

Like Real Madrid, they’ve struggled at times this season getting out of a press, and their passes out of the back haven’t been sharp, which leads to chances conceded. Both teams might struggle with this generally this season, but the BBC is much better without the ball (higher defensive IQ, better pressing) than MNC (I have no idea if this abbreviation is used universally, or if I just made it up), so there is a strong likelihood that Real Madrid can unnerve PSG’s backline into making mistakes. If you can pin them, and force players like Rabiot, Le Celsco, Veratti, and Draxler (who is playing unnaturally deep this season) deep; Emery’s men labour getting in between the lines and hitting their outlets higher up the pitch.

We often dissect Marcelo’s defensive naivety and lack of proper coverage for him. Neither has been good this season. PSG have a similar problem with Kurzawa, who’s been a defensive black hole at left back. He is error prone, and the center-backs can get spread thin trying to cover for him. PSG have some devastating flanks, with plenty of offensive overloads, but if Neymar hedges too far forward and the coverage for Kurzawa isn’t there, Bale could have a ton of space to work with. Both these teams on their day can live and die with their full-backs. It will be interesting to see how they react to each other.

Keylor Navas is having a fantastic season. Areola — not nearly as great. His positioning is questionable, and we’ve seen a couple crazy long-distance shots scored on him as a result. Are you listening, Bale, Casemiro, Ronaldo?

If Real Madrid can get into good dead-ball positions, then players like Varane, Ramos, Bale, Casemiro and Ronaldo can also exploit PSG’s set-piece defending.

Any question is fair-game in the mailbag, Doug. As a reminder, I wrote about Barca’s success without Neymar for FourFourTwo magazine here. There’s no point in rehashing it again, given that the article itself is still relevant. But here’s what I’ll highlight here: Ernesto Valverde was a massive upgrade over Luis Enrique. The latter’s tactics were a deviation from what Barcelona were comfortable with, and LE as a personality wasn’t the most conducive to team morale. He wasn’t a ‘player’s coach’.

People often forget that Valverde was in many ways a Cruyff disciple — not in the traditional sense, but they were friends, and Valverde likes to incorporate a lot of the Dutchman’s ideologies. Look at the Barca’s counter-press against Valencia, one of the best counter-attacking teams in Spain. Marcelino’s men could barely tread water both in the Copa match, and in the first half of their La Liga game earlier this season. Barca are not perfect this season, by any means (see: several smaller teams taking advantage of their high line), but their results are there.

Still, I want to see a team really put them to the sword this season. Juventus weren’t at full strength when the two teams met in the Champions League. Atletico at their low point held them to a draw. Valencia really made them suffer in the second half at the Mestalla. Real Madrid shot themselves in the foot and collapsed which was entirely preventable. Chelsea are struggling a bit heading into this tie, but it will be interesting to see what Conte draws up.

I’m curious to see how Coutinho gets integrated. On his debut, he looked like a seamless fit. But Valverde’s insistence to keep Coutinho on the right (Dembele too for that matter) in order to keep Alba’s flank uncluttered might not get the best of either of their two new signings. Coutinho is much more dangerous when cutting in from the left.

I’m not a sports scientist or medical doctor, obviously, so I don’t feel qualified to answer this question. If I was in his position, I’d also be listening to the team of professionals around me. This might be better answered by our resident physio, Gerry (@Vamo_os on Twitter). (He actually just published an article as I write this. You should read it.)

My only contribution would be: Maybe don’t rush him back?

Glad he looks fine now, though. The team needs him. He’s the best two-way player Real Madrid has, and he is going to be ridiculously important against a team like PSG (or anyone, for that matter).

I’m trying to be really objective about this. You have to take into consideration these factors before you make your decision:

  1. He gave us one of the most memorable seasons in the Club’s history
  2. He was ridiculously successful immediately taking over the team
  3. He became the first manager ever to win the European Cup back-to-back
  4. He’s largely (not fully) responsible for the team’s historic slump
  5. He’s a very respected figure in Real Madrid circles, and rightfully so

I wouldn’t fire him. There are few coaches — if any — who’d survive a disastrous season like this (admittedly, we’re in the dark about what will happen in Europe, but we’re ready to accept the worst), but Zidane could finally be an exception to the rule. In my opinion (I don’t say that phrase much, but in this case, keeping or not keeping Zidane is entirely subjective, and you’re entitled to either opinion and I think you’d be rational in holding your stance), Zidane has earned the right to continue beyond this season even if he goes trophy-less. I believe in continuity, and unless I think the situation is entirely irreversible, I’d lean towards continuity most of the time. I’d like to see if Zidane has recognized certain mistakes and how he’d approach addressing them. I’d like to see him have a chance to sign some players this summer and continue building his vision. I might not speak for everyone when I say this, but I think I speak for a lot of fans when I say: We’d rather see Zidane be a long-term successful coach, and letting him grow through hiccups would be worth it in the long run.

Rapid-fire round

I have no idea how I’ll feel when I listen to Om’s voice on a Yeti microphone for the first time (which should happen this Sunday). That fire alarm thing was nothing. Last week when I was in the middle of addressing an important question, his cell phone started ringing (or something), and it sounded like he couldn’t turn it off so he was slamming it on the table as hard as he could. That reminds me, I forgot to ask him what happened there. I hope our Patrons don’t have to fund a new phone anytime soon.

Yeah, it’s strange. This is why I generally take issue with the criticism these kids receive, and this is why I wrote about Llorente and Achraf here. These kids don’t play, and then come in ice-cold with a bunch of other fringe players who are in the same situation of unfamiliarity. I’m not sure what we’re expecting, or what Zidane is expecting, for that matter. You could get away with it with Danilo, James, Pepe / Varane, Morata who all have experience. When you put Mayoral, Llorente, Ceballos, Theo, and Achraf together, obviously the dynamic is crazy different — and that’s not really the fault of the kids. We’d be insane if we were to evaluate the trajectory of these players based on this season’s circumstances.

I’m good, TY.

(Yes, I think Isco has proven he can play the CM role just fine in the right scheme. His defensive IQ is high, and he’s good at covering for Marcelo if he has a defined role. His problem currently is not him as a player, it’s his undefined role in the scheme. Om and I touched a bit more on the Isco subject on Sunday’s podcast here. Discussion is at 21:55.)

That duel against Odriozola was really good.

To answer your question, yes, he definitely did show signs of rawness technically. He hasn’t learned to cut-back when a cut-back is required, and generally just hits the ball into the box blindfolded. He was always more of a ‘pace-and-power’ type of player. He’s basically a human bowling ball. Tremendous upside still. Be patient with him.

If it ever came down to those two, I’d go with Poch. Better fit stylistically, and Tottenham’s directness is relatable.

I never understood why it had to be one or the other. Both have proven versatile enough throughout their careers that I think they could’ve co-existed. James is one of the best decision-makers in the final third on earth, and Isco’s ability to suck in defenders before searing them could provide an interesting balance. You’d probably only be able to do it in the absence of another key player, though. Kovacic has looked brilliant in a double pivot before without Casemiro, so something like this could work, given that James made a name for himself on the right with Monaco, and is great at cutting in from the right hand side:

_______Kovacic_Modric / Kroos



Forgot to mention: I'll be doing a written mailbag tomorrow for Managing Madrid. If you have questions, please drop 'em below!

Posted by Kiyan Sobhani on Wednesday, January 31, 2018

I disagree.

Having Kiko start in a big game worries me.

Forgot to mention: I'll be doing a written mailbag tomorrow for Managing Madrid. If you have questions, please drop 'em below!

Posted by Kiyan Sobhani on Wednesday, January 31, 2018

He’ll rotate in and still get plenty of playing time. I imagine he’ll provide rest to the current crop of starters before a big European game, or start in matches where any of the front six can’t play -- assuming Zidane doesn’t decide to roll out Kovacic, Asensio, Vazquez, or Mayoral instead (obviously different positions, but you can shuffle things: Kroos gets shifted to DM, Ronaldo gets pushed to ST, etc..).

Is Marcos Llorente beautiful?

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