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Kiyan’s Mailbag: Player selections, Marcelo’s future, Guti’s legacy, and more

February mailbag is here.

Photo by Denis Doyle/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.


I do this monthly — they’re so fun that I could do it daily. February’s mailbag has me just north of 3, 000 words. I forced myself to stop. Let’s dive in:

I’m not a huge fan of making definitive claims, or using words like “always”. “Always” should be reserved for things like “The Dark Knight will always be good”; “Cutting open a fresh Mango on a hot day as it’s just fallen from the tree will always hit the spot”; “Arjen Robben will always cut inside”; and “Marcos Llorente will always be immortal”. Heck — we’re not even sure that the universe we live in will always exist.

Nothing in football is static. Players will come in and out of the lineup. Things change constantly: tactical ideas, formations, player performance, managers, injuries (giving rise to fringe players), off-field relationships, managers. The questions we ask now are not the same as the ones we asked a month ago — furthering the case that we need to be more pragmatic and less reactionary with our takes in general (both as fans and journalists).

You can twist this a different way: If Gareth Bale and Lucas Vazquez are always working hard, always at the top of their games, always taking the game by the scruff of the neck, and always healthy, then who starts? Gareth Bale. He’s the better game-changing player, has great defensive instincts, and creates goals out of nothing while outperforming his xG. His stats as a Real Madrid player, even if the fanbase looks at him as a disappointment given his transfer fee and expectations, are ridiculous. He remains a big game player.

(Random chart which may not be completely fair to any of those four players, but I’m posting it mostly just to illustrate Bale’s stats in a vacuum.)

Bale is not always in that mode, though — so it’s not impossible to understand that both Solari and Zidane have decided to bench him at certain points. (In various circumstances, Zidane opted to play a very in-form Isco; while Solari didn’t look to rush Bale back from his injury with Lucas Vazquez playing as well as he has been.) And here’s the thing: You know what you get from Vazquez every game. Ditto Vinicius who just annihilates wing-backs without fear like some some of alien predator. It’s clock work. With Bale, it’s a guessing game — and managers generally hate when they’re not sure which version of a player they’re going to get.

One of our Patrons on last week’s loan-tracker podcast brought up the fact that Bale’s goal against Atletico only registered .24 on the xG scale. That’s what he brings you — goals from situations (in this particular context, a relatively acute angle) that average players wouldn’t consistently score from. Is Alpha-Bale always available? If so, he starts. If he’s a passenger that’s going through the motions, you at least get other production from someone like Vazquez on that flank.

People aren’t sleeping on that idea completely. Benzema and Vinicius’s form can possibly be mutually exclusive (they likely play well regardless of each other), but they’re also definitely correlated and feeding off of each other’s play. Karim Benzema (and others) have said publicly how much they love playing with Vinicius, and it’s tempting to get nostalgic — especially when you have Vinicius replacing Ronaldo in the famous front-line mafia of Champions League travelling pictures.

Feel free to keep your expectations in check — but Vinicius is an unselfish player (with raw kinks in his game that might make pundits who’ve only watched him a handful of times label him as a selfish winger), and he’s been linking with Benzema really well.

Almost unknowable where a player ends up, so the only way to answer this is to go with my hunch. There’s a good chance he doesn’t retire at Real Madrid. And that has nothing to do with his current situation where he finds himself coming off the bench (which could be a temporary thing anyway) — but more to do with the fact that players don’t always retire at the clubs they built their legacy in.

Zidane retiring at Real Madrid was a rare case. Players will either be sold off before their decline, or leave on their own initiative to either go back to their home-country or cash-in in Asia or the MLS. The club’s two biggest legends since the turn of the century, Raul and Cristiano Ronaldo, didn’t retire here. From the galatico era, Zidane stayed until the end. But Fernando Redondo, Roberto Carlos, OG Ronaldo, Luis Figo, David Beckham, Michel Salgado, Iker Casillas, Fernando Hierro, and Guti didn’t. It’s normal.

Ouf. Tough one. I’ve been going to one-to-two Real Madrid games per month as press for Managing Madrid — but all at the Bernabeu. So I’ve lost count how many times I’ve been there, but believe it or not, it wasn’t until January that I attended my first non-Real Madrid match — a Rayo Vallecano - Real Sociedad (Raul de Tomas vs Theo Hernandez) showdown in Vallecas.

And that was... Phenomenal. The atmosphere was unbelievable. It was better than the Bernabeu. The Bernabeu is filled with tourists, families out for a show, high-ranking ‘important’ people, etc. So unless it’s a big game — Clasico, Champions League knockout game (seriously, on those nights, it’s magical, so don’t get get me wrong. On the right night, the Bernabeu is unparalleled) — then it’s not that loud. But Vallecas was bumping for a regular league game. Every single person in attendance is a fanatic. If you’re in Madrid at the same time as Rayo home game, just go. It’s absolutely worth it.

Top three on the current bucket list: Benito Villamarin (specifically for a Seville derby), Mendizorroza (ideally in a time machine to watch Marcos Llorente play in the 16/17 season), and Old Trafford. I’ve always thought going to a Manchester United home game would be a great experience. Maybe it’s just that Real Madrid have so many good memories there, but I like the stadium-lighting and undeniable support the fans give.

(Bozz is asking about them as players, not coaches, as clarified later.)

And Bozz isn’t going to like the answer, because he believes it’s Guti. He’s wrong, but not wrong enough to think he’s completely insane. Guti’s Real Madrid legacy is huge, but his football legacy will never touch Zidane’s, and he wasn’t the better footballer over the course of his career.

Zinedine Zidane is, wait for it.. Overrated (if you’re exposed to certain circles of Madridistas). There is some revisionist history with him, where fans see him, in hindsight, as a mythical figure who led the team to a dynasty. They claim him to be the best midfielder that ever lived. That’s not true, though, nor does everyone claim it to be that way, and some fans overrated him enough that there was a surge of opposition from the other extreme — the fans who underrated him and claim Guti to be better.

The interesting thing about Zidane’s legacy is that it fluctuates based on how Real Madrid are doing. The dark years ensuing the Galactico era — the fans kept reflecting on the good days when Zidane was around. When Real Madrid started winning again, they didn’t need to think about him as much.

Guti is one of those players you appreciate more when he retires. When you talk about values of Madridismo — particularly the bit about fighting until the end — he fits perfectly. We loved him because not only was he a genius with a unique, aesthetically-breathtaking style of play, but he celebrated everything like it meant the world to him that Real Madrid scored a goal or won a game. Everything about him was sincere — watching him then is the same way we feel now when watching Marcelo celebrate a goal. He’s all of us.

He had the dribbling elegance of Fernando Redondo, but with a certain dynamism and versatility. I don’t need to mention his vision — you all know that it was unparalleled. But one thing that newer fans don’t truly understand about Guti was his insane versatility. He could dictate things as a central midfielder, unlock a defense from anywhere on the pitch, string things as a ‘10’, or play as a striker. One of my fondest memories of him, apart from his game-changing presence, absurd unpredictability with the ball (you’d scream at your TV when he didn’t make an obvious pass, but then he slings something that no one in the stadium sees, and it generates a goal), famous passion, and slick dribbling, was the season where Real Madrid were thin at the striker position and Vicente Del Bosque had to play him up top. That season (2000 - 2001), he scored 18 goals.

This goal against Villarreal was from that campaign:

Guti is a legend. There’s no shame in not having Zidane’s legacy — and don’t let the fact that he wasn’t as good as the Frenchman downplay his greatness.

I included Guti in my all-time Fabrica XI on a recent Churros y Tácticas Podcast. He joined the club at the age of 10, and went on to make 387 appearances for the A-squad over the course of 15 years. That’s incredible longevity.

That’s a ton hype I just threw Guti’s way.

But don’t overrate him.

Zidane was the better player, and just more efficient. In just five seasons at Real Madrid (and 10, 000 less minutes), he came up just nine goals shy of Guti’s record. Zidane may not have been as consistent as some fans remember him, but he was a big game player, had one of the greatest goals in Champions League final history, got to the UCL final thrice (twice with Juve), got to the World Cup final twice (Scoring two goals in the final and winning one of them; with the other ending up in a loss after he carried the French National Team at the age of 34), won a Balon D’or, and a FIFA POTY award. He was unplayable with Real Madrid on his day (and he had a lot of those days. If you weren’t around for that era, I highly recommend you go on YouTube and search ‘all in the touch, Zinedine Zidane’ for a quick crash-course of his brilliant individual performances from various games).

Guti had zero international legacy. He should’ve been called up more than he was, but he never truly broke through as a starter for Spain or Real Madrid (though, later in his Real Madrid career, particularly when Capello arrived, Guti was a key cog). That stuff only puts him further behind Zizou.

Guti wasn’t as good as any of the big names from that initial Galactico era (Raul, Zidane, Figo, Ronaldo), and again, that shouldn’t be a stain on his legacy. He was regarded as an assist demon, but Luis Figo came in and trumped his assist stats in just five years.

Great player, though.

Raul de Tomas is one of the most underrated players in La Liga right now — he’s the only offensive threat keeping his team ‘afloat’ (used incredibly loosely, given Rayo are currently the second-worst team in the league — but they have little talent, have lost a ton of close games, and without RDT as a reference point, their xG drops even further), and is a deadly finisher. He can generate his own shot at a high-rate from nothing (a big asset in Rayo, who don’t create much for him apart from the odd Alex Moreno cross, or moment of magic from Imbula, Trejo, or Comesaña), score goals, dribble through multiple defenders, get on the end of crosses that seem out of reach, and he even drops deep to do defensive work at times while pressing and hounding defenders efficiently.

Rayo Vallecano de Madrid v FC Barcelona - La Liga Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

But his return isn’t entirely (or arguably remotely) related to Rodrygo Goes or Eden Hazard. Raul de Tomas is a traditional striker, for one, so he’s more likely to compete with Mariano. I’m not sure he competes with Karim Benzema or a sure-fire star striker, because I don’t see him as an asset good enough to start for this club game-in, game-out. And I really believe in Mariano — he’s a striker who can offer a lot of goals off the bench if given the time. De Tomas has been vocal about his hesitancy of wanting to come back to Real Madrid because he wants to play every game (get in line, Raul), so I’m not sure how much of a fit there realistically is.

He has a high floor and medium ceiling. I see him at a team like Sevilla at some point.

That’s a really interesting player comp. I see similar attributes between Vinny and Jese — low center of gravity, quick, very combative and tenacious, neither pure strikers nor wingers but both feel comfortable going down the left flank and cutting inside. To some it might seem silly to compare the two in terms of upside, but people might forget how high we were on Jese in 2013 before his injury derailed his career.

But as reasonable of a comparison it is, Vinicius takes the cake easily. His mentality on and off the pitch, selflessness, and proven ‘buy-in to whatever the manager asks of me defensively’ team-play is what trumps it for me.

By the way, I wrote this article about Jese when Real Madrid sold him. Still feels fresh.

It’s actually really unfair to include this question from Eric now, because it came in before Real Madrid’s loss to Girona — so Eric had every right to be optimistic.

Here’s an answer, after years of sample size and experience: No hay Liga. But don’t worry Eric! This team will give you some more hope this season before they lose the league, just enough to rip your heart out. Barca will probably drop points here and there and Real Madrid will make another run. Heck, we may even cut it to six or four points before losing to Rayo in Vallecas in April.

We’ve seen this movie before.

Malaga CF v Real Madrid CF - La Liga
A rare moment of Real Madrid winning La Liga in the 21st century
Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

If you stretch it out to this calendar year, yeah — that’s a safe bet. Still working diligently on it while simultaneously securing a book publisher, juggling four-to-five podcasts per week, writing for three websites (including this one, where I map out the schedule, make sure we’re hitting our post mark, and post La Liga footage so that Javier Tebas can ban us on Facebook), watching virtually every La Liga, Chelsea, Dortmund, and Vitesse game, and spending hours with Luka and my wife. It’s a lot. But I’m not complaining, I wouldn’t live life any other way.

I’ll be updating you sporadically throughout the process, and will be doing a bunch of giveaways and having Real Madrid bookmarks designed to go along with your book orders.

Thanks. And quick shoutout to the rest of the entire crew who’ve done amazing work this season: Lucas Navarette posting team news and lineups quicker than Solari knows about them; Emily Wilson’s breakout year and diverse writing skills — the female Kiyan; Matt Wiltse loan-tracker and tactics extraordinaire — the only writer in the history of this website to get his article mentioned on live international television; Rob Husby never missing a notes & quotes or preview article; C-Trick’s unparalleled tactical reviews; Sofi Serg’s incredibly well-researched historical deep dives and beautiful artistic skills; Jess Houwen’s always entertaining columns, and now rap-battle ghost-writing (can we get her in as an SNL script writer?), Sam Sharpe’s fun-loving personality when it comes to everything except for Santiago Solari; and mrs.madridista (I’m not sure if I’m allowed to use her real name here) running the show in the comments alongside Prakash, Nirvik, and Shubham.

Here’s some random 6lack and J Cole:

Absolute masterpiece.

The Toronto Raptors, wherever Marcos Llorente and Luka Sobhani play, wherever Raul and Fernando Redondo end up coaching, whichever team plays against Barcelona, and any team that plays against any of these players or future coaches: Jordi Alba, Xavi Hernandez, Raul Garcia, Dani Alves.

Thank you for sending this video — it didn’t exist when I wrote my article about Solari (the player, not the coach) last season, but I wish it did. It was incredibly hard to find footage of him — on YouTube anyway — before he became head coach and started getting attention. I ended up going back and watching full matches to reminisce.

Such a fun player to have around. With him, Savio, Guti, and Pedro Munitis (not all at once, but during that time), Real Madrid had really great players off the bench during that era.

Does he love Vinicius because he was fearless like himself? Maybe — it’s a valid question. Solari had a similar mentality in the sense that he could get dispossessed four times, and still take on defenders a fifth time with the same high level of confidence as before. It was hard to shake him.

I remember begging Del Bosque from my TV set to bring on Solari and burn down the left-wing in the second half of every match.

Liverpool 4 - 0 Real Madrid; March 2009. It was a gutless performance. I wasn’t angry, just lying in the fetal position while Gago and Lass looked like nine-year-old boys getting dunked on by prime Shawn Kemp.


Housekeeping:

  • We’re going to start a live podcast tour. If you’re in LA, Bay Area, Miami, or New York — stay tuned for announcements.
  • I’ve said this before, but I want you all to know my e-mails are open if you want to talk about anything: mental health, journalism / life advice, etc. Just click ‘email’ on my Instagram profile — or click directly on the Managing Madrid masthead.
  • I have a public Facebook page you can join here, and I’ll soon be making a private group within it where you can interact with me and other Madridistas.
  • If you haven’t seen me post on Facebook, it’s because La Liga removed a bunch of Managing Madrid content from its page, and, I was the fall-guy for it — banned for three days. Back on tomorrow.

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