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Managing Madrid Roundtable: Looking Ahead To Valencia And Barcelona

The crew reflects on the season until now, reviews their pre-season predictions, and looks ahead to the upcoming schedule

Villarreal CF v Real Madrid - LaLiga Santander Photo by Pressin/Icon Sport via Getty Images

No Hazard against Barcelona is a huge bummer. How do you line things up if you’re Zidane?

Lucas Navarrete: I’d play Rodrygo on the left and Bale on the right wing with the possibility of them switching positions all throughout the game. It’s true that Rodrygo hasn’t played much on the left with Madrid just yet, but that’s his natural position and I truly believe that he’d be more comfortable there. Vinicius is a great asset to have on the bench in case he’s needed, especially if Barcelona start taking more risks. It’s a tough call because I think Vinicius would be great at the Camp Nou trying to counterattack, but in the end I think Rodrygo deserves the nod a little bit more.

Kiyan Sobhani: Barcelona are vulnerable defensively, and their high line is there to be exploited. You need a nice mix of control and incisive counter-attacking ability on the flanks. I’d look to start Isco and Bale together with Benzema leading the attack — and assuming Casemiro will be safe for the Camp Nou and not pick up a yellow card beforehand, I’d pack the midfield with Case, Fede, and Kroos. That should give you a nice balance. Part of me wouldn’t be surprised if we see all four of: Casemiro, Fede, Kroos, and Modric together. There’s a nice two-way stability with a presence like that. But to make that work, you need the pace of Bale in attack.

I’d like my flips at Bale playing on the same side as Junior Firpo — but I imagine Ernesto Valverde will just put Semedo on the left and Sergi Roberto on the right. Either way, Bale historically plays well in the Camp Nou, and I can’t wait to see in what fashion his disallowed goal comes this year.

Om Arvind: 4-3-3: Courtois; Carvajal-Varane-Ramos-Mendy; Valverde-Casemiro-Modrić; Vinícius-Benzema-Bale.

There have been rumors that Zinedine Zidane wants Fede Valverde to man-mark Messi in the upcoming Clásico. Regardless of whether that really is the case or not, I think it is important to have Valverde patrolling Barcelona’s right halfspace — Lionel Messi’s primary area of influence — because finding a way to suppress the six-time Ballon d’Or winner is the key to victory. Some of Real Madrid’s best results (14/15 home; 15/16 away) have come from controlling that area of the pitch by congesting it and forcing Messi to dribble into a sea of players (rather than having one man get drawn deep to Messi, which inevitably creates space between the lines). Valverde has the tactical discipline and defensive fundamentals to perform well in this mitigator role (remember, he played on the left vs. Real Sociedad to control Martin Ødegaard) and also possesses the pace and work-rate to recover if caught out.

However, in the past couple of seasons, Messi has developed a counter to those who back off of him — his switch pass to the left fullback or Suárez in the channel. If Benzema comes inside to passively sit on Messi’s left shoulder, this could help mitigate the problem, but he would also need to continuously shuttle back to the defensive midfielder so that Barcelona are not completely free to move things around in midfield. Whether Benzema is capable or willing to do that much defensive work comes down to any discussions between Zidane and his favored striker and the latter’s fitness on the day.

Playing Valverde on the left side also means no Toni Kroos. I don’t think it’s crazy to play the German in right central midfield, but, when you already have Luka Modrić, who is more familiar with that position and offers a better defensive work-rate, I think dropping Kroos is the sensible choice.

Not selecting Rodrygo Goes is probably more controversial, but it comes from Gareth Bale’s recent good form and that extra fire in his belly that leads to Kiyan saying “Alpha Bale” a hundred times. If the Welshman’s form or fitness deteriorates over the next week or so, Rodrygo gets the nod on the right flank. But, assuming that isn’t the case, I prefer what Vinícius can offer on the left over his Brazilian counterpart. As he showed versus Espanyol, Vinícius is lightning in transition and semi-transition, has an underrated work-rate, and can create shots or passes out of virtually nothing. I want that kind of dynamic threat against a Barcelona team that suffers heavily when defending against the counter-attack.

Matt Wiltse: I honestly feel the loss of Hazard is what tips the scales, and places Barcelona as the favorite. That being said, I think Zidane rolls out an XI that would see Isco replace Hazard. What’s not clear, is whether Isco will be given a role similar to the PSG game, in a diamond-like setup, or a role similar to the game he played vs Alaves where he was closer to a like for like switch at the left wing. My preference would be the former, as the Isco’s presence through the middle will help the team find an escape-vale while under Barca’s press and hopefully he can then release Benzema and/or Bale/Rodrygo. I guess that’s the other big question mark in the line-up, but I think Zidane may give the nod to young Rodrygo.

C-Trick: Bale has played quite well this season and offers an experienced source of danger that has proven effective against Barcelona in certain moments in the past. Vinicius is surging back into form compared to his underwhelming displays earlier in the season. Pending Bale’s fitness, Vinicius should get the nod as a like for like replacement. The Brazilian was a standout in the clasico at the Bernabeu last season and provided evidence of the importance of an explosive and skilled dribbler in these types of games.

Robert Husby: Without Hazard, I would expect Zidane to start both Bale and Rodrygo on the wings. Bale can play in Hazard’s spot on the left and Rodrygo on the right. I think this is the best option for Real Madrid on the attack. It’s a lot to put on the shoulders of Rodrygo, especially since it’s El Clasico, but it’s a good chance for him to shine. Zidane has tried Isco on the left wing before, so that’s an option as well.

What is the most difficult thing that Zidane has to juggle in these back-to-back games from hell?

Lucas Navarrete: He has to make sure that his players take the away match against Valencia as seriously as El Clasico. It’s not easy to beat a fully engaged Valencia team at Mestalla and Madrid will need a quality effort to prevent Celades’ team from being a very dangerous threat off counterattacks. If Madrid try to cruise through the game in Valencia they’ll pay. Zidane should obviously try to make sure that Casemiro doesn’t get booked in Mestalla because he just can’t afford to rest him in that game given how valuable his presence will be to stop Valencia’s counters.

Kiyan Sobhani: That game at the Mestalla just can’t get overlooked. It’s one of the most difficult games on the schedule. I’m not expecting Real Madrid to come away with an easy victory, but I’d expect them to grind out something ugly (which I’d be more than fine with). Celades has raised the team’s ceiling. Against Ajax, they weren’t particularly breathtaking (apart from the Ferran Torres assist where he coaxed the entire stadium into thinking he was going to shoot; or some of Dani Parejo’s distribution), but they play feisty and with a chip on their shoulder. Jose Gaya has been one of the most underrated players in La Liga this season. That duel with Dani Carvajal will be interesting.

Two big things to juggle: The left-back slot, and Casemiro’s playing time. Zidane is probably confident using Carvajal as left-back. The Spaniard played well there in a limited sample size against Granada (which I wrote about here). But Zidane is probably less confident about putting Odriozola on the right in a frenzied game like this. That leaves Nacho, who hasn’t played since the Celta game back in October; or Militao in a three-CB scheme that gives more security and cover. Tough to juggle either way.

Casemiro is the other obvious one. Fans feel really strongly that he’ll rest against Valencia. I’m not so sure Zidane sees it that way. I don’t think it’s inconceivable he can play at the Mestalla while avoiding a yellow card, enabling to play in both these upcoming games.

Om Arvind: The rotation. He needs to make sure he keeps his preferred starters sharp enough for the game against Barcelona without fielding a lineup that will make things unnecessarily complicated versus Valencia. That probably means starting some (or a lot of) players who will end up featuring in El Clásico. Deciding who should be those few who rest is no easy task.

Matt Wiltse: Zidane has to take it one game at a time. The players attention cannot drift from the Valencia game. A win at the Mestalla would do wonders for the team’s confidence heading into the Camp Nou. Obviously the elephant in the room is Casemiro’s yellow card count. I think you have to trust him and roll him out as a starter in Valencia.

C-Trick: Finding a way to manage Casemiro’s minutes accumulation and yellow card trouble. The Brazilian hasn’t been afforded much rest in recent games and is one yellow card away from being suspended for a league game which could potentially rule him out of the match against Barcelona. The cautious approach would be to keep Casemiro off the pitch on Sunday but picking up three points against Valencia is vital and the defensive midfielder’s absence would be a challenge for the team.

Robert Husby: The most difficult thing to juggle with the Valencia and Barcelona matches happening just days apart is rest to the lineup. Real have really struggled with injuries and fitness has been a clear issue. Luckily, Zidane was able to rest a good majority of the lineup against Brugge. But, his biggest challenge is coming out with a healthy lineup between both matches and that’s unfortunately not really in his control.

Real Madrid are joint-first, and have had 15 different goal-scorers this season. Karim Benzema is literally on fire. How much of this did you expect at the start of the season?

Lucas Navarrete: I 100% expected Benzema to sustain his good form and be Real Madrid’s leader. I have to admit that I didn’t see Barcelona or Atletico struggling as they have, so I probably expected Madrid to be a few --just a few-- points behind Barça. Still, I think that Benzema will need more help from his teammates if Madrid truly want to compete for the title once Barcelona --Messi, really-- hit their stride and put together one of those winning streaks.

Kiyan Sobhani: I was impressed with Karim last season, but I did not expect him to go up another level like this. He is one of the top-three most in-form strikers in world football. I feel much better about this team now than I did two months ago — which is a good testament to Zidane, who’s injected some life into the old core and gotten the best out of Fede and Rodrygo. The defense has solidified too, and Real Madrid have one of the best defensive shapes in Spain — arguably the best after Atletico’s. The numbers back this up:

I’m still worried about getting Benzema consistent help when it comes to scoring goals. Jovic hasn’t play enough to gain rhythm. Hazard is a 15-20 goal player, but suffered an injury just as he was about to get going. Bale and James are good contributors, but are in and out of the team. I worry about the sustainability of the offense, but on the other hand, am optimistic of the team’s offensive outputs once Hazard comes back. Rodrygo, Fede, Modric, and Kroos scoring helps.

Om Arvind: Considering that Real Madrid are on course for a points total somewhere in the mid-eighties, this isn’t very far off from where I expected them to be. They got a big upgrade over Santiago Solari in Zidane and reinforced with some quality signings, meaning that I expected a good — but not elite — uptick in our points total. What I’m more surprised by is how poor Barcelona have been, even when accounting for their overperformance in the last two seasons. Ernesto Valverde’s stock has never been lower and he has struggled to incorporate Antoine Griezmann (a questionable signing from the beginning), make a profile of controlling midfielders more aggressive with their positioning, design adequate defensive transition, and deal with the declining core’s influence over playing time. But, with Messi now back in the swing of things, Barcelona have started to get going, again, and they should still be considered slight title favorites at this point in time.

Matt Wiltse: To be quite frank, I did not expect us to be in this position. I had hoped for more changes in the off-season. Despite feeling it was a good summer in terms of transfer business done, there was little change to a starting eleven which was depressed and depleted following the previous season. After our wretched preseason and the 7-2 smacking we received from Atletico, I had to mentally prep myself for the potential of another difficult year.

C-Trick: It was fair to have expected that Benzema would continue his scoring productivity in the new post-Ronaldo offense that has shifted the focus to the French man in attack. Similarly, due to Zidane’s collective style, the goals participation of numerous members of the roster isn’t too big of a shock. The one main surprise is Hazard’s subpar raw productivity. Even though it’s not necessarily an issue and does not in any way invalidate how important and influential the Belgian has been, it was expected that he would be one of the main goals/assists men in the team.

Robert Husby: I don’t think it’s a huge surprise that Benzema has been going off like he has. He did score 30 goals last season across competitions. I am surprised by how spread out the scoring is, though. Everyone has really stepped up this year to fix the scoring issues from last season. They’re even getting goals from the midfield that weren’t really there last year. And that’s with Hazard taking time to get accustomed to his new team and now being injured. Fede Valverde has also been a huge factor this season. The strides he has made between last season to this one are incredible. He’s becoming the midfielder of the future Real need when Modric is gone.

Let’s check in on your pre-season roundtable predictions. How are you doing with this, and has anything changed in your mind?

Lucas Navarrete: I got the “Zidane will use a 4-3-3, 3-5-2 preseason formation is not for real” right, but I got “Brahim starts consistently” as my hot take. Ugh. It’s a hot take, so it can be forgiven. My bet for unsung hero was Militao, so far I got that wrong too but there’s still time. My MIP was Courtois, I think that choice can be accepted as accurate and my MVP was Benzema, which just can’t be disputed right now no matter how well Casemiro and Kroos have been playing. Hey, not bad.

Kiyan Sobhani: I’m still on course for my prediction that Real Madrid would win the Champions League. Not doing so good on “Odriozola as the most improved player”. I predicted Ferland Mendy would take the unsung hero award, but Fede might snatch that from him.

Om Arvind: Building off of the third question, I did not expect such production from Karim Benzema. My bold prediction was as follows: “Signing Eden Hazard didn’t help to significantly fill the goal scoring void left by Cristiano Ronaldo. Jović’s transfer did, but he won’t get enough game time. This will be proved when no one on this squad scores more than 15 non-penalty goals in La Liga this season.”

I feel pretty good about my Jović and Hazard prognostications, but Benzema is already on 9 non-penalty goals in 14 games in La Liga, thanks to roughly a 20% increase in his non-penalty expected goals p90 figure and continued good finishing.

My final season predictions were: second in La Liga, Quarter-Finals in the Copa del Rey, and Semi-Finals in the Champions League. I still stand by all of them, though I feel a bit more confident about our chances in the league, now.

For Unsung Hero, MIP, and MVP, I had Lucas Vázquez, Fede Valverde, and Eden Hazard, respectively. Lucas hasn’t gotten enough time to get his usual award, so Dani Carvajal is the leader of those power rankings for the moment. I would also have to say that Benzema is my new pick for MVP, as he’s “literally on fire”. Eden Hazard has been unlucky with injury while also taking his own sweet time to get back to some decent form. I think Valverde is a lock for MIP and I would be surprised if many disagreed.

Matt Wiltse: My “hot take” has aged well, ”Fede Valverde will be a starter by the end of the 2019/2020 season”. I also placed Fede as MIP.

As for our season placement predictions, I had said we’d finish 3rd in La Liga, Semi’s in the Copa, and a Quarter final exit in the UCL. The only one I would change is La Liga, where I think we will be at least 2nd.

C-Trick: Quick fix: integrating Hazard proved to be an important and necessary step in transforming and evolving Real Madrid’s offense.

Zidane’s primary system: predicted that it would primarily be 4-3-3 which it has been.

Still predicting a trophy sweep at the end of the season as a default.

Robert Husby: I had Real Madrid finishing second in the league this season. They’re really making this a race so far and the stakes for El Clasico have never been higher in the last few seasons. Copa Del Rey hasn’t started yet, but that’s a tournament that Real should at least be able to make the semi final as predicted. I predicted quarter final for the UCL. They’re going to have a tough Round of 16 since they finished second in Group A, but they should be able to beat a top team this season.

What are you most worried about in: A) Mestalla; B) Camp Nou?

Lucas Navarrete: Easy call. Mestalla: Valencia’s counterattacks if Madrid can’t be disciplined and somehow decide that a 50% effort is enough to win in Mestalla. Casemiro yellow card in that game is second. Camp Nou: I’m a bit worried about Ramos not keeping Suarez under control. I haven’t been a big fan of Ramos’ performances so far this season and Real Madrid will need a very solid performance from him if they want to succeed against Messi and Suarez.

Kiyan Sobhani: Valencia: Making sure there is coverage on the flanks — especially behind Odriozola or Nacho on the right where Gaya is so good at making overloading runs. Naturally, Valencia will counter. They weren’t too efficient in this regard against Ajax, but can still hurt you. Also, just surviving that game without any injuries.

Barcelona: Again, there will be similar issues, but Barcelona will also play a higher line than Valencia, so the key is escaping their counter-press. Also, somehow just dodging the inevitable: Suarez dark arts, Messi penalty in the 115th minute, Ramos red card, Rakitic turning into Michael Jordan, etc.

Om Arvind: A) Mestalla: defensive transition; B) Camp Nou: defensive transition.

Matt Wiltse: Camp Nou. Barcelona are the better team, the closest rival, and the overall performance can either put the demons of last season behind us or convince the team and fans that they are still not over the hump. (Kiyan’s note: I think Matt misinterpreted the question here.)

C-Trick: Camp Nou. (Kiyan’s note: C-Trick also misinterpreted the question. God bless.)

Robert Husby: Valencia is unbeaten at the Mestalla this season, but they’ve drawn a lot. They’re 7-4-5, so it’s a pretty mediocre record but they’re still a tough team. Only 1 point separates 7th and 4th in the league. Real’s biggest concern at the Mestalla is dropping points because Valencia do play hard at home. Of course, at the Camp Nou, Real have to be concerned with Messi and a club that hasn’t lost at home, either. This is a match that can make or break a season. A draw is fine, but a win for either side helps distance the lead when the race has been tight all season. Messi has been fantastic so far and Real will be stepping in his territory. Los Blancos must be prepared for a battle.

Strengthen in the winter market, or stand pat?

Lucas Navarrete: Look, I’m a big believer in Valverde as a player but I just don’t think he’s the answer for that position long term. Fede will be a very useful player for Real Madrid but I still think that Los Blancos need to sign Pogba to be Modric’s replacement in the future. If that opportunity comes this winter, I think you just have to take it. if Pogba isn’t available, you stay put. Van de Beek, Eriksen or Fabian can wait until the summer.

Kiyan Sobhani: There’s no need to bring anyone in this winter. A back-up to Casemiro, in this particular market, probably doesn’t exist. Zidane likes to shuffle the scheme if Casemiro can’t play, and any signing this season just wouldn’t get minutes. If any business happens this winter, it’s likely just a Militao situation, where you ink someone now for a player that won’t arrive until the summer. Donny Van de Beek might fit this profile.

Om Arvind: I do think we need another central midfielder but I’m also not super sure Donny van de Beek makes the most sense for Madrid. He played what was essentially a shadow striker role last season before operating deeper more often in 2019/20, but he’s still very much about impacting the opposition box. In a sense, that’s what we lack, but I still see him as someone who is much better utilized higher up the pitch than as an interior. He specializes in making an impact through his off-ball movement and by attacking the last line while contributing negligibly to moving the ball upfield. If he and Christian Eriksen are the only available options, I think we might be better off playing Isco in midfield like Ancelotti did. I guess I’m still holding out for the “perfect” solution in Paul Pogba, which may or may not be a pipe dream.

Matt Wiltse: I think we are going to stand pat, but I would like to see us strengthen in the center defensive midfield position in order to give Casemiro some reprieve. In terms of quality, the market is thin and January is a tough month to do business, so again it’s unlikely anything happens.

C-Trick: Depends on which opportunities arise but it will likely make sense to maintain status quo vis-à-vis the roster. The squad is full and adding more players that don’t have clear differentiated or incremental value will simply exacerbate the scarcity of minutes certain players have seen.

Robert Husby: Real should probably stand pat in January. They spent a lot in the summer and might be spending big again with Van de Beek or, dare to hope, Mbappe next summer. They have a lot of forward and midfield options. Fede Valverde has been a revelation. There’s only a replacement worry if James is sold or there’s major injury concerns.

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