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Mailbag: Real Madrid’s Next Coach

Kiyan answers all your questions about Real Madrid’s next manager, and much more.

Jose Maria Guti celebrates the third goal Photo by Alex Livesey/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 thing. All previous editions can be found here.

The annual post-season mailbag is here. As always, if you want priority in having your questions answered, join our Patreon army here.

Let’s go.

Two excellent hipster choices, Chris. What Quique has done at Betis (especially after bringing in Bartra) was remarkable. Pellegrino’s stint with Alaves, also, was highly memorable. We can’t discount Pelle’s hand in the development of Marcos Llorente, who, let’s be clear, was not at this level two years ago at Castilla. Pellegrino turned Marcos into one of the best anchors in La Liga during the 2016 - 2017 season, organized the team defensively, got them into a Copa final where they uppercutted everyone heavier than them, and had a solid counter-attacking system with limited offensive resources.

Neither of them would’ve been a realistic option — particularly Pellegrino, who spent a season at Southampton, getting them to a 17th-place finish (three points above the relegation zone). He’s now been appointed by Leganes. It’ll be exciting to have him back in La Liga, and it’s exciting that Leganes were able to pick up such a tactically astute coach after losing the great Asier Garitano. But if Pellegrino was on the table at all, which is highly doubtful, we’re certain now that he’s already wrapped up by another team.

Setien would’ve been more intriguing. I’m higher on him than some other journalists who think his teams are defensively brittle. They’re not wrong — while his offense flows beautifully with the positional play and numerical superiority he creates in the opponent’s half, he does tend to be a black hole defensively. Here’s the thing: with proper resources he was always going to have the opportunity to be better. Las Palmas were fun to watch last season, as were Betis this season. Both were defensively vulnerable. The fact that Betis could either concede five goals or score five goals every match made them a ‘must-watch’ candidate even when their games fell on the Friday or Monday night end of the schedule. But guess what happens when your team has a competent front-office? Good things.

Betis had the best off-season of any La Liga team last summer. They brought in proven players who are familiar with the league on the cheap. Half-way through the 2017 - 2018 season, and amid their defensive woes, they brought in Marc Bartra, who completely revolutionized the team and navigated a five-man defense that plugged holes in every zone. It is not inconceivable that with a bigger budget like Real Madrid’s, and resources like Ramos, Varane, Vallejo, Nacho, Casemiro (and go down the list), that Setien could achieve some sexy football and results with this team while having a respectable defensive record by controlling the play and keeping possession. I’m not saying I’d hire him, but I’d at least think about it, and out of the ‘hipster choices’, he’s really not a terrible option.

As always, Real Madrid is not going to be about hipster choices. Experience on a European level, at least to some extent, is going to be a prerequisite. The exception to this rule would be a Guti or Xabi Alonso type figure — someone well respected in club circles who would be welcome because of his roots. Florentino has success hiring a manager from the youth team already, so Socios would have a longer leash with candidates like Guti or Xabi. (Xabi, to be sure, is not a serious candidate now, but would be in a couple years, presumably.)

I’d be high on Allegri relative to someone like Antonio Conte or Arsene Wenger, but less high on him than someone like Jurgen Klopp (not available) or Mauricio Pochettino (probably not available). I’m not as high on Maurizio Sarri (available, good tactician, the anti-Zidane in terms of personality and being able to get along with his players, plus Napoli will be a pain to negotiate with) as others, but admire his on-pitch principles. Actually, it’s possible Sarri’s personality is enough to put him beneath Allegri altogether.

I’ll put it this way — Allegri wouldn’t be my first choice, but the reality of the current market is that that we’re in a period of slim pickings. A lot of great coaches already have gigs. The available ones are not that intriguing, which is why I think Guti still has a realistic shot. But Allegri is also underrated. He’s had a good stint at Juventus, and is pretty versatile tactically. Even since last season, he’s added more dimensions to his scheme, and he could have even more variations of his blueprint at Real Madrid. Juventus don’t press as much as other big teams, but they do it strategically quite well (see: Real Madrid 1 - 3 Juventus earlier this season). They also have a famed, defensively stable team (even if Real Madrid have stripped them twice in the span of a year), and there’s no denying that Real Madrid could use a more staunch defensive scheme, along with some added security that would allow them to be more consistent in La Liga.

Allegri really isn’t a bad choice. He may not be a long term option, but would help with the defensive stability and consistency of the team. He’d absolutely have to be considered among the shortlist of candidates.

I’ve seen some weird takes since Zidane walked away, with people labelling great managers like Klopp, Poch, and Allegri as ‘chokers’. I don’t buy it. By this logic, who hasn’t ‘choked’ in the last six years other than Zidane, Lucho, Carlo, and Heynckes? I don’t think this is a real thing. Winning the Champions League is insanely difficult. Klopp and Allegri have come close, and Poch is just getting started. All three would do even better with a squad like Real Madrid’s.

It is the same, impossible process as every year: candidates have to be Spanish, a club member for 20 years, and have a bank guarantee of 15% of the club’s annual budget (we are not talking about a bank loan, here, we’re talking about actual cash the candidate must have). Unfortunately, this rules out yours truly — along with almost every other human on the planet. From there, Socios elect the president, choosing between Florentino Perez, and Florentino Perez. After that, Florentino Perez gets elected.

Murmurs of people who may challenge one day: Rafa Nadal and Raul. Though, I think that day is far away, yet.

If you’re interested in looking at the chronological process of the elections, this is what the club released last summer.

This is what scares me about Sarri. Real Madrid has a really deep squad, and even under Zidane — a master man-manager and heavy rotational wizard — there were great players who just didn’t play in big moments, or at all. I’m not sure how well Sarri would mesh with the team, especially the fringe players. If you thought Ancelotti was extreme with his lack of desire to rotate — Sarri is no better. I won’t address the transfers in a hypothetical Sarri appointment — we’ll cross that bridge when we get there. For further insight on this, I reached out to our friend Adam Digby (Italian football writer for BeIn and others).

Adam: I think his reluctance to rotate absolutely causes problems. He was smashing teams by six or seven in October, but he could’ve played with other players instead and won by three or four.

Then, in January, Napoli chased another winger to add depth, but they were all turned down. Simone Verdi of Bologna spoke out about it at the time.

I’m not sure how thrilled Napoli fans will be with Carlo if they’re expecting more rotations, but at least they’re getting a really great human being, so there’s that.

(FYI, the longer I go through this mailbag, the more I talk myself out of Sarri. I’m Sarri, but he’s not my first choice.)

I do think losing a top two player of all time is a big deal, yes. Though, losing him now at 33 is not as big a blow as losing him at the age of 27, or even at the age of 31. I have no idea what happens to Bale, though I’m optimistic he’s bought some kind of alpha-male status with his freak performance in Kiev (as well as the good performances leading up to it). The bottom line is this: the team needs goals. If Ronaldo is not around next year (he’s not going anywhere, by the way — I’m not sure how we talk ourselves into believing that he’s leaving every year), the team needs to replace him with a prolific assassin. Bale can be your 20-30 goals / year threat; but you’ll need someone else to replace the remainder of Ronaldo’s goals. Maybe Asensio becomes an even bigger scoring threat, but it’s hard to picture this team not bringing in a proven goalscorer if Ronaldo leaves (which he won’t).

I just watched it for the first time with my wife, just to answer this question. I.... I can’t take it seriously. I spent the whole time laughing every time Ramos came on the screen.

I indirectly answered this already, but I’ll take an official stance on it. Assuming the realistic targets are Poch (I know this might not fall entirely under the realistic category, but let me have this, as I’m a Poch guy, and believe in what he’s doing), Sarri, Guti, Allegri, Conte, and Arsene; I’d go:

  1. Poch
  2. Guti
  3. Allegri
  4. Sarri
  5. Conte

Said this on the podcast with Phil Kitro (after Phil left) on Sunday: the idea of bringing in Guti has grown on me. A) I like that he plays direct attacking football; B) Teaches the Juvenil players to implement a counter-press and retain possession high up the pitch; C) Has Real Madrid DNA; and D) Has invested emotional and long-term interest in developing the kids and incorporating them into the squad, ensuring Zidane’s vision of continuity over the years.

It will be interesting to see how much ZIdane’s success after being promoted from Castilla coaxes Florentino into getting swooned by the idea of Guti. Not that Zidane’s precedence should be the deciding factor either way — but there’s no question it plays a part in trusting someone like THE HAZ.

Man, imagine Poch and Harry coming over together in a package deal. Flo, get the briefcase out. I know you have that itch to scratch. Complete the Spurs’ fans’ long awaited ‘what if’ trifecta of Modric - Bale - Kane. They are yearning for it. Give it to them Papa Flo.

Thanks Amin. There’s a lot here.

I’m going to try to hit these rapid fire.

  1. I agree with the timing of Zidane’s departure. Said it in my heartfelt ‘Until Soon’ piece the day he made the surprise announcement, and I spoke about it again on the pod — this is the most ideal way to go:

And at that point, to do what he did — turn the team around, ignite the players into buying into his ideas, and just win trophies — really was dramatic. He took a pickaxe and chipped away at the inherited 10-point La Liga deficit half way through the season, and three of those points came from a brilliant narrow scheme at the Camp Nou. Not only could Florentino not sack him, but just over two years later, he’s gutted at the fact Zidane has left. The Frenchman has left on his own. For the millions of Zidane Stans around the world, this is the ideal situation. He’s on top, and no one has asked him to leave. He will be sought out for other head-coaching positions should he choose to pursue them in the future, and will be welcome back if the club needs him in the future too. This isn’t over. Zidane and Real Madrid will never be over. It would not be surprising to see him return years from now.

The man-management side of things is huge. It’s just as important as the tactical side of things. Those two aspects of coaching are like two wings of a bird. Flight will not be possible if you don’t have both traits. The three most successful Real Madrid managers on a European scale since the turn of the century have all possessed a beloved and well-respected character: Zidane, Ancelotti, and Del Bosque. That stuff matters. It’s real. Players need to buy in to who you are — not just buy in to your tactical drawings on a chalkboard.

Also underrated: superstars, galacticos, etc. Del Bosque had Raul, Redondo, and Roberto Carlos (all three of whom went to a ridiculous gear from the quarter-finals and on) for El Octavo; and had Raul, Zidane, Figo, Makelele, and Roberto Carlos for La Novena. Ancelotti and Zidane both had Cristiano Ronaldo as well as the entire core of legends we all know too well about. You can’t really win without these players (there are anomalies, to be sure, but generally speaking, you need game-changing players) — hence why you should be giving Klopp and others a leash for losing against great teams like Real Madrid and Bayern Munich. And hence, why you need to bring a top 3-5 player once Ronaldo leaves.

RE: Guti’s temperament. It’s overblown. He had a hot head as a player but it was due to his passion for the game, and it was also always in defense of his team. I don’t think his character would be a detriment as a head coach. But one thing that does worry me is when he went on national tv to slander Gareth Bale back in December. He was an employee of the club at the time -- he can’t be doing stuff like that. I have no idea how Bale would fit into his scheme knowing how Guti feels (or felt) about him. Maybe it’s nothing, but it’s an observation.

2. I think Neymar has an eventual path to Real Madrid. I’m not sure it’s this season, and I don’t think it happens without someone leaving. I’ll leave it there. (In other words, I have no idea. No one does.)

I would love to see Ceballos get an increased role off the bench, Marcos Llorente sent out on loan, and for the club to sign a better back-up goalkeeper.

How about how much I loved him as a player?! He’s quite possibly the most aesthetically perfect footballer that ever lived. He was Zidane before Zidane. I don’t know if there’s anyone I enjoyed more stylistically. I only wish his Real Madrid career was longer than a blink.

I don’t think he’s an elite coach. Real Madrid can do better there.

I’ve had the pleasure of recording pods with both Ray and Gerry, and they’re both just fantastic human beings. They’re both special, in my heart, given I grew up listening to both of them call games. I don’t know Rob or Phil, but enjoy their commentary — particularly Rob’s. I always feel bad for Phil getting awkward silences in responses to the questions he asks Ray. I’ll be honest, every time I’m critical of any commentary, I try to remind myself that I could never be a commentator. It takes a very specific art to navigate the way these guys do as broadcast journalists. Phil Kitro is another one that just has a great presence and voice.

One name you didn’t mention, who is currently my favourite: Stuart Holden. Dude just knows how to analyze the game while being respectful and objective. And for those of you in Canada (or otherwise, really), Kristian Jack is great. He’s another who provided great insight on one of my podcasts.

RE: Del Bosque — I love him, but I’m not sure that ship is still available. In a weird way, as much as Del Bosque remains my second-favourite coach of all-time, Jupp Heynckes would be a better choice now, if there ever was an option to choose between the two.

I didn’t understand the Mané report. Great player, tons of fun — but does he do anything that Asensio already doesn’t?

  1. Klopp would provide good transition post-ZIdane and string some continuity. He has a lot of experience using a 4-3-3 efficiently with pacy wingers and an intelligent forward who does a lot of great work without the ball. I don’t think he would struggle with possession at Real Madrid given the brainiacs that exist here in Modric, Kroos, Isco, Asensio, etc.

I think you’re missing the entire point of a counter-press —- it allows you to keep possession over and over again. We didn’t see much of a counter-press under Zidane, but with Klopp, he’d allow you to blast waves and waves of attacks with second and third chance opportunities without really relinquishing possession or letting the opponent’s defensive line breathe. It’s exhausting to play against.

On that note, Klopp’s strength is also his weaknesses. He’s a big game coach, but struggles to get his team to grind out results against smaller opponents in the the league. Pick your poison, etc.

2. I really like the idea of Lopetegui. I’m in love with the way he’s revamped this Spain squad after Del Bosque left. He really has them playing at a gear I’m not sure anyone other than Germany can match in this tournament. I think he’d have to say goodbye to Spain after the World Cup rather than juggling both. Either way, I don’t think he’s a candidate.

3. Del Bosque and Florentino did not end on good terms 15 years ago. Maybe time has healed the wound, but I don’t think Florentino plays the VDB card here.

I’ve always been in the ‘too bad, so sad, suck it up and play the position we’re asking you to. You’re just better here. Just listen and do your job’ camp. Ronaldo doesn’t like playing as a striker — tough. It allows us to slide in an extra creator in midfield to feed him the ball. Bale doesn’t like playing deeper (I’m not sure he’s even said this, anyway, although he did mention he likes playing as a ‘10’, which he did well under Rafa) — tough. His stats offensively are dramatically better from the flanks because he can make runs from deep and shoot from distance, and he provides instant relief defensively with his three lungs.

Putting Bale higher up the pitch has never been a way for him to score more, by the way, as I wrote about here.

I don’t think anyone was ‘only hanging around because of ZZ’. I do think James coming back isn’t inconceivable. The ball is still in Bayern’s court, but James still has his heart here, if you ask me. He just needs to push a little behind the scenes.


Spain vs Belgium in the final. Spain wins. James carries Colombia out of the group stages and returns to Real Madrid after Belgium knocks them out. Belgium also knocks out Brazil, and Neymar returns from Russia to see Florentino sitting in his living room with a briefcase.

Also, Iceland makes the round-of-16.

How Raul Became One Of The Most Iconic Figures In Spanish Football History

Starting the written mailbag tomorrow. Your last chance to get questions in. Ask me anything you want below, and I'll try to answer in my mailbag for Managing Madrid going up tomorrowish.

Posted by Kiyan Sobhani on Monday, June 4, 2018

Wow, someone used the ‘gun to your head’ on me.

Keylor, Nacho, Carvajal, Ramos, Marcelo, Varane, Kovacic, Modric, Kroos, Isco, Asensio, Bale, Ronaldo, Casemiro, Ceballos, Llorente.

Starting the written mailbag tomorrow. Your last chance to get questions in. Ask me anything you want below, and I'll try to answer in my mailbag for Managing Madrid going up tomorrowish.

Posted by Kiyan Sobhani on Monday, June 4, 2018

In the stands, where you get to be ‘unchained’. Although, I love my job, and it’s not like sitting press row with your laptop sucks, or anything. (Sarri, not Sarri.)

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