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Preseason Mailbag: Benzema’s Role, Tactics As Roster Is Currently Constructed, The ‘Seven’, And More

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Kiyan dives deep into your questions. Among the topics: A summary of Real Madrid’s track record in replacing great goal-scorers, Lopetegui’s options up front within the current roster, the Hazard vs Asensio debate, and much more.

Manchester United v Real Madrid - International Champions Cup 2018 Photo by Rob Foldy/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.

‘KO’ — by Finn


Welcome to the infamous mailbag! Fun, as always. A reminder: To get your questions into this monthly segment, join our Patreon army, or get at me on Facebook or Twitter.

Let’s go.

Questions from Patrons

History questions. My favourite.

Best strikers (redefined here as elite, way-above-average-goal-scoring-assassins) in Real Madrid history, by era:

Pahiño: 1948 - 1953. The club’s first statistical unicorn, and the man to take the mantle from previous goal-scorers like Aiday, Sañudo, and Olivares, and redefine what it meant to be a scoring alien. Real Madrid signed him in ‘48 after he had already started to score prolifically at Celta. Over the course of five seasons, Pahiño scored 108 goals in just 124 appearances. He could score with his head or either feet, and it’s a shame we never got to see him and Di Stefano play together.

Alfredo Di Stefano: 1953 - 1964. Zero dark years between the Pahiño and Di Stefano eras. We’ll never get the ‘what if’ of having Pahiño and Di Stefano play together (something Di Stefano himself was sad over), but Real Madrid was pretty loaded during that era regardless, and Di Stefano sustained a ridiculous goal-to-game ratio pretty well throughout the entirety of his career before signing for Espanyol — all while doing more across the pitch than just score goals. 216 goals in 282 games. 15 trophies.

Ferenc Puskas: 1958 - 1966. Zero-year transition between Di Stefano and Puskas, given the two overlapped. (That these two actually played together is ridiculous, by all possible measures, and healed the wound of not having Pahiño share the pitch with Di Stefano.) Puskas was a freak. He scored 156 goals in 180 games (all after the age of 31) and had the type of personality that would blow up current-day social media in a fun way. I wrote about him more here, on the day that marked the 10th anniversary of his death.

Santillana: 1974 - 1980 (he actually played for Real Madrid from 1971 - 1988, but his goalscoring peak was about six years). In the years between Puskas and Santillana, Real Madrid just couldn’t find a reliable goalscorer. Amancio filled in here and there, but the team just didn’t have a unicorn during the post-Puskas / ADS era. There were even three seasons in between where the great Pirri, the Nacho of the 70s-80s, as we dubbed him in our all-time XI podcast, led the team in league goals with 10, 13, and 11 goals respectively. Even Santillana himself wasn’t a cold-blooded finisher, and only broke the 20-goal mark twice in his career: 1978 and 1980.

Hugo Sanchez: 1985 - 1991 (I’m shedding his final season with the club in 1992, where he didn’t play as much). There’s a case to be made that Hugo Sanchez is the most underrated player in club history. We rarely mention him when discussing the club’s greatest players ever, but the absurd rate which he was scoring at was unheard of at the time. We didn’t see anyone put up Hugo’s numbers in Madrid until Cristiano Ronaldo came along over a quarter-of-a-century later. Actually, no one apart from Cristiano Ronaldo could score the way Hugo did. The Mexican was the only Real Madrid player not named Cristiano that scored more than 32 goals in one La Liga season. He hit 34 league goals in ‘86-07, then 38 in ‘89-90. From ‘85-90, his annual total goals for the club goes: 29, 43, 35, 37, and 42. He is the best real example we have that extra-terrestrial life walked on earth in the 80s. A controversial figure (which I’ve written about in my upcoming book), but a complete ninja who scored buckets of goals with just a single touch. All in all, we had a five-year gap between Santillana and Hugo.

Emilio Butragueño: 1984 - 1992 (only peak seasons included). El Buitre was never a relentless, prolific, goal-scoring machine — but he didn’t need to be considering the entire Quinte del Buitre reign was led by Hugo Sanchez who was murdering teams. El Buitre still fits the bill of one of the club’s greatest strikers, and few things are more badass then seeing The Vulture freeze in the box and cast a spell on opposing defensive lines. He overlapped with Hugo, and was the charismatic engine of that era.

To bring you up to speed from Butragueño to present day: Bam Bam Zamorano ‘92-96, (peak) Raul ‘96-03, OG Ronaldo ‘02-06, Pichichi Van Gol ‘06-08, Pipita ‘08-13, Cristiano ‘09-18, with Benzema contributing a significant amount of goals from ‘10-17.

All things considered, this club does not have a huge precedence of not being able to replace their elite strikers. The biggest gaps the club ‘suffered’ were eight years between Puskas and Santillana; and five years between Santillana and Hugo Sanchez. Since then, the club has been fine in that department.

(I’m not sure who this year’s goalscorer is.)

My dream job, apart from writing about this club, would be to be the club’s sporting director. I should love transfer windows. Alas, silly season as a journalist is not that appealing. At this point, I’m looking forward to discussing Lopetegui’s schemes.

Benzema is a Lopetegui-type striker. He’s like previous players that Lopetegui has coached — Andre Silva, Rodrigo Moreno, Iago Aspas — who can drop deep to help bind the attack, cause chaos without the ball, and, wait for it, your two favourite words: link up. Lopetegui will press and counter-press. He will ask for a lot of cohesiveness. Benzema is the type of player he loves. I don’t think it’s inconceivable that the majority of Real Madrid’s play will be channelled through the flanks, with constant off-ball movement in the half-spaces creating openings to prevent stagnancy. A lot of goals will come from deep positions. It’s possible that Lopetegui’s plan B is to deploy the false 9 — a system he ruthlessly tore Italy apart with with both Isco and Asensio as key cogs. This season will be about ball retention and control. Packing the midfield without a traditional striker is no doubt something Lopetegui will look at. He’ll ask ball-dominant players like Ceballos, Isco, Modric, and Kroos to provide quick, short outlets to suck in defenders, then release the wingers and full-backs. For Lopetegui, a traditional striker can even get in the way.

I can’t see Benzema having a huge goal-scoring season, but he has the opportunity to win back some fans in a system that will suit him.

he gone

There are four names on earth that would be an upgrade over Keylor Navas when you take into account the eye test and stats: Jan Oblak, Ter Stegen, David De Gea, and Manuel Neuer. Neuer is only there based on previous seasons, for obvious seasons. You’re never getting Oblak or Ter Stegen. De Gea — mistakes and all in the World Cup and a couple in the Champions League — has some unfair recency bias hedged against him. But he saved, far and away, the most clear-cut goalscoring opportunities in the Premier League this season of any other keeper. The xG against him, compared to the goals he conceded, was absurd.

Keylor is among the second tier of goalkeepers. He will make mistakes, just as the aforementioned players (although Oblak is probably the least prone to errors of the top-four), but what he does over the course of the season trumps those mistakes. Upgrading the goalkeeper position is not essential.

From a previous mailbag I wrote back in March of 2017 (the questions of future presidency is recurring in the mailbag):

Nadal is of a very rare mould that could realistically run against Florentino. Putting a timeline on it is difficult, but I think in a world where there is a rule that states you need to, essentially, be lucky enough to be born Spanish, have been a socio for a couple decades, and be unthinkably rich (or provide a bank guarantee of 15% of the club’s annual budget); Nadal could do it.

Eventually, once Florentino does leave (most realistically, it will be on his own terms, when he’s ready to retire), it will be someone out of left field like Nadal. In this world — why not? The margin of error is less with someone respectable like him, than it is with someone like say, Ramon Calderon. I think if Nadal ever ran with Florentino out of the picture, no one else would put up much of a fight given he’s a hero with Real Madrid fans and socios. Maybe Raul is another who would easily be voted in, but the latter has expressed he wouldn’t want to take on a presidential role; while Nadal has.

Part two of the question, regarding academy players, is tough to answer when you take those five names out. But let me remind you that Achraf is still a Real Madrid product, and of the current crop, he may have the best shot given his versatility, pace, defensive IQ, and upside — even with Odriozola in the picture. Assuming I can only pick from players on loan, here are two other interesting names: 1) Aleix Febas who had a starting role with Zaragoza last season and was Castilla’s best player two seasons ago; and Fede Valverde who was ruined at Depor, and then got injured when Seedorf attempted to dust him off the shelf. If I had to pick, I’d go with Valverde as the one with the best upside as a box-to-box presence in midfield. Maybe he can find a spot in the team off the bench behind Kovacic in the future.

Those quotes from Dani Carvajal were overblown. Does he talk about Raul being the best player in club history if Ronaldo is still here? Maybe not. But Carvajal has an attachment to a player like Raul because of the Castilla connection, which is completely fine. Growing up, everyone wanted to be an idol like Raul, especially within Madrid. He was not just a player, he was an icon. Whether you like it or not, there is a real sentiment among Madridistas who were born and raised in Madrid that it was hard to identify with Ronaldo’s character. To make it clear, I’m not saying Ronaldo’s character was bad, or really saying anything about him at all — but that sentiment when you speak to journalists in Madrid, or Madridistas who grew up there, is real. Some fans just never felt emotionally attached to Ronaldo as great as he was.

Here’s the full quote, by the way, in case you wanted to dial-back the overreactions:

“Raul. I identify with him a lot,” Carvajal said.

“He is a squad player, a player who won everything based on work and effort.

“I think it is not the player that you say, “He is the fastest, he is the one who has the best control of the ball, the one who better heads-up”.

“But he did everything right. For the goals he has done, for what he has given Real Madrid, for me - he is the flagship player of Real Madrid.”

Imagine making predictions. I never do that. Never.

There is nothing concrete linking Pulisic to Real Madrid. If he leaves, it’s likely to a Premier League team, but even then, Dortmund are not desperate to sell this season. They want him at the club, which could be a dangerous game to play financially. If they can’t twist his arm into a signing a renewed contract, then they either have to sell him for less than face value, or let him walk in 2020.

Would he be a marketing machine? Sure. Is there an urgent need for him on the pitch? Nah.

Taking into consideration Lopetegui’s tactical philosophy and players at his current disposal, I’d go:

Past-precedence tells us Asensio is built to play the false-9 role — he can roam efficiently, plug gaps defensively, and finish his chances when he pops up. Having Isco there enables control and counter-pressing. Bale can help Modric and Carvajal on the right as well as any other winger on earth can without sacrificing his offensive prowess. Casemiro will need to get better in tight spaces as Juego de Position is about sucking in defenders and inviting a press before breaking them — but there are options off the bench for different looks if needed.

There will be plenty of games this season where one (or both) of Ramos and Varane won’t play for whatever reason — rest, injury, suspension — and Lopetegui will be heading into (presumably) three competitions deep into the campaign. Vallejo will have plenty of minutes this season, but what’s holding him back is not the health of Ramos and Varane — it’s his own. For everyone’s sake, he needs to stay healthy. He’s had injury concerns stemming from his Zaragoza days, and despite being a generational talent who’s mature beyond his age; match rhythm and good form haven’t accumulated because of the lapses in playing continuity. By all means, we expect big things from him. Patience and health are required.

Your starting XI is already above. The rest of the bench fills out as such: Casilla / Lunin, Nacho, Odriozola, Kovacic, Vazquez, Benzema, Ceballos. This assumes Vinicius Jr goes out on loan this season. If he stays, he’s on the bench over Ceballos or Odriozola.

Can we just take a gamble and remove Casilla from the bench? I do this all the time in FIFA and have never had to take my starting goalkeeper off.

(Don’t @ me with your rulebook.)

I think fans are sleeping on RDT. He won’t be the squad’s back-up striker if he stays — most likely third, after the false 9 option — but anyone who sarcastically applauded Florentino for bringing in RDT as an actually option might be pleasantly surprised with this signing. There’s a good chance he stays in the squad — and the club wouldn’t have renewed him until 2023 if they didn’t believe in his value one way or another. He is not a flashy player, and his goals aren’t particularly spectacular (some are just straight lucky, even), but his goalscoring ratio in Segunda was no joke. He just couldn’t stop scoring. I mean, put it this way — he’s at a more proven level than Mariano was at the time of promotion. It’s not inconceivable he gives you five-to-seven goals in limited minutes as a third choice striker of sorts. The track record of talented Segunda players playing well in Primera is actually decent.

Marco Asensio, Marco Asensio, Marco Asensio, Marco Asensio, Marco Asensio.

Only five players have ever worn the seven in club history. One of them was the greatest player in Real Madrid history, another was one of the most iconic and charismatic individuals the sports has ever seen, another that spearheaded an entire era named after him, another whose name we chant in the seventh minute of every match, and another who won four European Cups. It has to go to someone who fans resonate with and will be here long-term.

Yeah, have fun with that pressure, Marco.

The good news is that Real Madrid — the board, and everyone within the organization, from top to bottom — all believe in Mateo Kovacic. They know he’s the long-term stalwart in midfield. They won’t let anything happen to him, despite any protest he might have. Real Madrid won’t lose him — they’ll twist his arm and eventually make him a starter. Will it be this year? Not game-in, game-out; but by the time his contract is up in 2021, he’ll long be a cornerstone. I think his minutes will be closer in range to the 2016 / 2017 season, and will continue to tick north as Modric takes a backseat. I don’t think Lopetegui is one to shy away from: A) Packing the midfield to the point where we’ll see more than three central midfielders in one scheme; and B) Putting Kroos and Modric on the bench to let them recharge.

All will be fine. We’ll laugh about all this Kovacic off-season noise one day.......

*nervously continues mailbag

We’re getting too attached to positions, here. Do Isco, Asensio, and Hazard all bring different things to the table? Of course. But they’d also be competing for the same remaining spots in the lineup, because modern day football is no longer strict and traditional in a positional sense, and Asensio, Isco, and Hazard would all be taking playing time from each other regardless of how different and similar they are. All three would presumably start on the left flank (more or less, with positional flexibility) regardless of their skill sets. You could shoehorn Isco as a CM instead — he’ll play there at times, sin duda — and then complain about Kovacic’s playing time. One of the hardest and most underrated aspect of sustained winning across all major sports is keeping your entire squad happy. Teams win things because of great depth. Once those players realize how good they are, they’ll want to play more. Once they realize they have to leave in order to do that, they’ll leave. There is no shortage of money or willing organizations who’d want to bring in Asensio. Every single team would love to have Isco and Asensio, and we’re sitting here discussing how to upgrade them? It doesn’t sit well with me.

And it’s not like we’re discussing Royston Drenthe here. We’re discussing Marco freakin’ Asensio. One summer ago, he was among the top three most exciting young talents along with Kylian Mbappe and Ousmane Demebele. Last season, he stepped up into a really impressive gear to help carry this team when the rest of the squad was in a domestic coma. He’s a big-game player. He has big balls. He’s a talent you can’t lose.

I don’t see why either Chelsea or Real Madrid would want to do this deal. Chelsea are going to have an impossible time trying to replace Eden, and Real Madrid have no need signing a player who doesn’t fit a positional need while derailing playing time of other elite players.

Let me summarize everything here with a quick FAQ:

  • Does Eden Hazard fit a positional need? No.
  • Is Eden Hazard better than Marco Asensio right now? Yes.
  • Would we support Hazard if we signed him and be happy for him and the team to succeed? Yes.
  • Would signing a marginally better player at the price Chelsea want for him a good use of budget? No.

By the way, I don’t think it matters much, as wingers are interchangeable and Real Madrid likes doing in-game flank swaps; but I’d put Rodrygo on the right and Vinicius on the left in this hypothetical scenario.

This is a good opportunity for him to regain his Alaves form. Not that he was bad last season — he looked more comfortable with time and familiarity — but Alaves Marcos was a top-four DM in Spain (in a league that contains Casemiro and Busquets) at the age of 21. We can safely assume he’ll get more playing time and confidence under Lopetegui given he’ll play the single pivot — his bread and butter — and be a direct back-up to Casemiro. With a midfield trio of Casemiro, Modric, and Kroos; Lopetegui has three direct subs in their respective (and best) positions in Llorente, Kovacic, and Ceballos.

This is a big year for Marcos, yeah.

I think it’s pretty straightforward for him. He signed a new contract shortly before he left, but the club wanted to keep him in Juvenil rather than promote him, and he just wanted to keep improving himself as a manager, and had stated that he wants to eventually become a head coach at a top club. For him, it’s not so much about where he’ll be now, but how he can best develop his skill-set to one day land him a world-class gig. He has familiarity with Besiktas, and going there as an assistant made sense for him.

Questions from non-Patrons (but still family)

I think people who would turn down Rodrigo (in a vacuum) are nuts. He made a terrific leap under Marcelino last season, and that’s the player you’d be signing — not the one in years prior who had trouble taking his chances. Rodrigo off the bench would be a great option. He can throw himself around for 30 minutes, score a bunch of goals as a non-guaranteed starter, and his relentless motor is very difficult to defend. My issue with Rodrigo is not with him as a player — it’s his price tag. If Valencia think they can get 80m for him and Real Madrid budge, then you’re essentially buying him as a starter, and he’d be overvalued at that point.

Rodrigo for let’s say 40-60m to provide really important minutes and score 20 goals though? Yeah, I’d take him quickly. The reaction to this rumour has shown me how underrated he is.

‪Going to be doing a written mailbag for Managing Madrid. Send me questions about literally anything you want.‬

Posted by Kiyan Sobhani on Thursday, July 26, 2018

The Holy Book Of Madridismo - The Real Madrid fan manifesto, is not complete yet. I may do one giveaway, but given I’m grinding a lot of my soul into this behemoth of a book, I can’t promise a giveaway.