Yes, it’s back! The Managing Madrid round table discussion where we each answer a select group of questions ahead of the new season. The perfect reading ahead of Sunday’s La Liga opener against Getafe:
What will be Julen Lopetegui’s biggest challenge this season?
Kiyan Sobhani: I’ll start with some honorable mentions: 1) pressure; 2) fixing the transition defending; and 3) dealing with thin depth at the center-back position. Other minor stuff, like getting players to buy in to a new scheme of positional play, will find its way
His real problem is finding goals. Keep in mind even Zidane, who had Cristiano Ronaldo, had a hard time believing Real Madrid’s lack of scoring last season. A lot of that was bad luck (underperforming xG by a country mile, Benzema having his worst season in front of goal, and Bale missing time), but now that Ronaldo isn’t around, you’re asking for things you may or may not get: Increased scoring output from Benzema and Asensio, plus a healthy Bale. If the team needs a goal and Lopetegui needs to change things from the bench, the options aren’t great, unless Real Madrid can sign another goal scorer before the window closes. It doesn’t have to be a superstar, but just someone reliable who can rotate in at a high level. Maybe that’s Werner, and maybe Real Madrid will have to overpay for him, but that’s something you have to do, at this point.
Lucas Navarrete: Compete with Zidane’s legacy all while losing depth (Kovacic) and the team’s leading scorer (Ronaldo). It will be hard for him to keep his players hungry and fully focused all season long. Real Madrid should probably think about La Liga this year but it’s pretty obvious that it might not appeal the roster as much as the Champions League. Lopetegui will also have to build a solid possession-oriented system without becoming predictable and easy to defend.
Matt Wiltse: Finding consistency. The club has only won two La Liga titles in the past 9 years—simply not good enough for a club of this stature. Without Cristiano Ronaldo, Lopetegui has the opportunity to build a system that reinforces the collective rather than catering to the strength of one individual. If Lopetegui can impose his style of football quickly and effectively his chances for success grow exponentially.
C-Trick: The biggest challenge will be sustaining the momentum and incredible success that was achieved in the last three years. Three Champions Leagues in a row is a history defining feat and has unfortunately become a reference point for the team. Navigating and dealing with the added pressure of succeeding perhaps the most successful coaching stint in recent Real Madrid history will not be easy.
Nate Bauer: Dealing with the pressure from fans and press to deliver trophies. I think that if left alone, Julen has the capacity to transition this team into something pretty exciting, ala what he did with Spain NT, but I could see the pressure to win trumping his desire to groom the youngsters and instill a solid philosophy and we end up with the once de gala every match again like Ancelotti era.
Jess Houwen: Probably the fan base. I’ve had a few conversations with fans who are upset about him and don’t think we’re going to win anything at all.
Rob Husby: Lopetegui’s biggest challenge will be living up to the immense expectations that Zidane has left behind. Julen will be held to the highest standard and heavily criticized should Real Madrid not win La Liga, the Champions League, or even the Copa Del Rey. And he will be expected to succeed without Cristiano Ronaldo and no major signings, at least for the time being.
Who do you expect to take on the leadership role in the attack following Cristiano’s departure and why?
Kiyan Sobhani: Has to be Gareth. We call him Alpha Bale for a reason -- because Alpha Bale is an infinitely better (among the best at his position) than passive Bale. No excuses now. He has to score a ton and create a ton -- and at this point he needs less defensive responsibility despite being very good as a two-way winger. The midfield is still packed, Lopetegui will have to let others do work deep while letting Bale roam and play as an outlet while occasionally carrying the ball from midfield. I can’t see a successful season if Bale doesn’t turn into beast mode.
*Knocks on every single piece of wood in his house*
Lucas Navarrete: It has to be Bale, there’s no other way around it. He’s the team’s highest-paid player and the most expensive signing in club history. He was comfortable being Cristiano Ronaldo’s “deputy” but it’s now time for him to prove that he can carry the offense. Benzema is not a pure scorer but he will also have to improve his numbers, and the same happens with Asensio and Isco. But no question, the one player who has to stay healthy and show he is a leader is Gareth Bale. It might be his last chance to do so in the Spanish capital. So far, so good. His performance against Atletico was very good although he will need to be more of a finisher later in the season.
Matt Wiltse: Gareth Bale has to be the go-to guy, but the elephant in the room are his fitness concerns. We saw it after the 85th minute and onwards in the Uefa Super Cup, Bale is not the guy you want to rely on in extra time—his body just breaks down and he can hardly move. The same happened in Milan and Lisbon. Fortunately for Bale, in Lisbon he was able to score the winner, but his overall performance on the day and especially in extra time was below par. So who to turn to? If Isco can consistently churn out performances like those in the spring of 2017 and those in the World Cup, he could take the mantle. It will be interesting to see if Lopetegui can get the best out of him like he has throughout his career. Isco is a game-changer, not with goals, but with subtle touches, flicks, or passes that break lines and unlock a defense.
C-Trick: I believe the leadership role will be shared between Bale and Benzema. Bale is going to be expected to become the team’s calling card and trailblazer but Benzema is one of the longest standing members of the team who understands and breathes Madridismo football. Bale will have enormous responsibility to be the spark and inspire the offense but the Frenchman will remain the cognitive engine that strongly influences the team’s forward unit.
Nate Bauer: Bale is the obvious choice. If he can stay healthy he’s going to be an absolute beast and top 3 player and even ballon d’or candidate. But less obvious is the roles that i think Kroos and Modric are going to play. While maestros already, not “having” to funnel all attack through Ronaldo this year is going to be fun to watch as I think their playmaking stats are going to go through the roof.
Jess Houwen: Most likely seems to be Bale. When he was healthy, he was a more consistent Bale.
Rob Husby: With Ronaldo gone, Gareth Bale will be the one who will have to assume the leadership role for the attack. He is clearly the most talented attacker on the team, and one Real signed a record fee for when they got him from Tottenham in 2013. There will be tons of pressure on him to fill the void that Ronaldo has left, though I think he will do better with Cristiano not here anymore. There’s always the health concerns, but he should be able to contribute the most of the attackers when he is in full form.
Name one game on the calendar that you think will be much trickier than most people think:
Kiyan Sobhani: Assuming I can’t list obvious ones, like away to Benito Villamarin, Ceramica, Mestalla, Camp Nou, Wanda, etc; I’m gonna go with Bilbao away. I think the Berizzo project is exciting, and they have a lot of fun talent, plus a healthy Iker Muniain. They should be way better than last season.
Lucas Navarrete: Visit to Betis. They have a quality team and Real Madrid will need to be consistently good on the road if they want to compete for the title with Barça AND Atletico de Madrid.
Matt Wiltse: 2nd week of the season away to Girona. Yes, this is a side that is no longer managed by Pablo Machin, but Girona was able to retain key players like Portu and Alex Granell. The Catalan influence only adds further fire to what was a first contest last season. With it being only the second week of La Liga and Madrid under a new manager away from home—it could prove very difficult.
C-Trick: As always, it is the next game. Following the Supercup loss, Lopetegui and the team will be feeling some degree of heat which will only increase the material and psychological importance of securing all three points in the first match day.
Nate Bauer: I don’t have one. I think most folks know the top competition as well as the lower-table teams that traditionally provide us difficulty. Can’t pin a specific one down - all of them!
Jess Houwen: I feel like the trickiest game is going to be one that none of us see coming, against someone like Levante or Girona.
Rob Husby: Real Madrid vs. Valencia on December 2nd will be a tricky match in my opinion. Valencia finished 4th last season and have added some good players, namely: Denis Cheryshev, Michy Batshuayi, and Kevin Gameiro. They’ve improved their squad and should be better this season even though they already finished in the top 4 last season.
What is your “hot take” for the season?
Kiyan Sobhani: Dani Ceballos has such a great season that Real Madrid will not be desperate to bring Kovacic back.
(I can already hear the angry tweets. It’s a hot take, not a desire.)
Lucas Navarrete: After finding the back of the net just 12 times last year, Benzema will be the team’s leading scorer in La Liga by the end of the season. Yes, you read that one correctly.
Matt Wiltse: Karim Benzema will score 25+ goals in all competitions.
Nate Bauer: Navas keeps Courtois on the bench for all but CdR games :-) Vinicius Jr. lights up the stage in the first couple of months, but then inexperience and ego relegate him to the bench and a loan move next year.
Jess Houwen: Lopetegui is perfectly flawless. (Does that count? I’ve never really set out to intentionally write a hot take before.)
Rob Husby: My hot take for the season is that Courtois should be the number one in net, no questions asked. They spent 35 million on him for a reason and he’s not just going to ride the bench. While Navas is great, Courtois in my opinion is younger and a bit better than Navas is. Courtois’ height should also help him make saves that Navas can’t. I also think Navas still has some inconsistencies to his game (i.e. the Juventus 2nd leg) that will always prevent him from being a top 5 keeper.
Give us your predictions for:
A) Unsung hero of the season
B) MIP (most improved)
A) Unsung hero of the season: Dani Ceballos
B) MIP (most improved): Marco Asensio
C) MVP: Gareth Bale (if Bale had some more help in attack, the answer is Modric. But Bale’s contributions up front will be season-defining.)
A) Unsung hero of the season: Courtois
B) MIP (most improved): Ceballos
C) MVP: Marcelo
A) Unsung Hero: Toni Kroos
B) MIP: Fede Valverde and Sergio Reguilón *if promoted
C) MVP: Luka Modric
A) Unsung hero of the season - Varane
B) MIP (most improved) - Isco (this is a long-shot, but I would love for Mr. Disco to step up huge and develop way beyond his current bandy-legged beauty to a true game-changer with passing vision, link up and decisive play.)
C) MVP - The Welsh Dragon with 35+ goals and 10+ assists this season all comps
A) Unsung hero - Borja Mayoral with some clutch second half goals
B) MIP - Marcos Llorente
C) MVP - Bale or Varane
A) Unsung hero: Kroos
B) Most improved: Asensio
C) MVP: Bale
-Give us your final season predictions: Standings in La Liga, Copa, and UCL.
La Liga: Winners
La Liga: Champions
Copa del Rey: Champions
La Liga: 1st
My prediction is always the same at the beginning of the season. La Liga Champions, Copa del Rey Champions, and Champions League Champions.
Liga - 3rd
Copa - Semis
UCL - Semis
I say these with the disclaimer that we have the talent available to us to win out. It’s a matter of getting everyone on the same page.
A) La Liga - higher than last season. I think we’ll have a tough first half, but really start pull it together before the winter break.
B) Copa - win - but it won’t be a breeze.
C) UCL - quarters. I would love to add another to the trophy case, but I think we sit out this year and take it next year.
La Liga: 3rd