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International Break Mailbag

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Kiyan Sobhani answers questions on the depth chart next season, and more

Real Madrid CF v RC Celta de Vigo - La Liga 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.


Quick one — a short mailbag to tide you over during the international break. This one checks in at under 1500 words; but Sam Sharpe and I will make up for it on tonight’s mailbag / Castilla podcast.

Let’s go:

Apart from the obvious, ‘Holy Book of Madridismo: the Real Madrid fan manifesto’, by Kiyan Sobhani, yet to be released (and you are off the hook as pre-order opportunities haven’t been announced yet); you have to read: ‘The Real Madrid Way’ by Steven Mandis — a great overview of the club’s financial competence and values, and a must for anyone who has trouble understanding what Florentino Perez has done for the club. Others, which fill a niche: ‘Fear and Loathing in La Liga’ by Sid Lowe, ‘Di Stefano’ by Ian Hawkey (Hawkey is a low-key figure who doesn’t have a social media presence, but a great writer), ‘Behind The Curtain: Travels in Eastern European Football’ by Jonathan Wilson (not Real Madrid specific, but some great stuff about Ferenc Puskas in there, and Wilson is helping me with my book); and ‘White Storm’ by Phil Ball. There are others that I can’t vouch for, but I’ve heard they’re great (and I can’t wait to get my hands on them): ‘El Macca’, co-written by Steve McManaman himself about his time at Real Madrid; and ‘When Beckham went to Spain’ by Jimmy Burns.

I’ve written before about how Valladolid should just be a grooming place for Real Madrid’s talented young, fringe players. Here’s my quick TL;DR on why this would be mutually beneficial.

I’m on board with sending loanees there. Sending Vinicius there, though, seems like a step backwards. He just needs to be playing at the highest, highest level possible — and there is no bar higher than Real Madrid where the pressure pops, and the team (usually) makes deep runs into the Champions League against the most elite opponents, on the biggest stage. Remember: Sending Vinicius to Valladolid is not the same as sending Rodrygo Goes there. One has gone through an accelerated developmental curve and was an important starter against Barcelona and Atletico Madrid; the other — while exciting — has yet to show us something on the European level. (Although, I have little doubt that he will.)

Put Odegaard and Rodrygo there (or somewhere in La Liga), though. Those guys haven’t really tasted the team ethos yet. Odegaard has experienced it by being in Castilla and getting rare call-ups with the A-team (plus being previously coached by Zinedine Zidane) — but Vinicius is an important part of the team’s culture already. He’s a figure off the pitch as much as he is on it. He’s integrated. His character vertebrates through the locker-room. We just accept that he’s part of the team now. No more loans for him — he’s an important squad player.

Is he a bonafide starter under Zidane? Maybe not. But that doesn’t mean he’s cast aside all of a sudden. You may see him shut down for the majority of this season given his injury, but I’d imagine he’ll be an important piece of the rotational puzzle — whether he’s a 12th man in a Champions League knockout game, bringing energy and flair against tired defenders; or a sporadic starter and future lock on the wing.

You will have to send out players on loan, to be sure. A recurring question in this mailbag was “what will happen to Rodrygo, Odegaard, Asensio, Vinicius, Brahim, etc when ‘X player’ arrives?”. I don’t like dealing with such unknowable questions, but let’s do the exercise anyway:

  • Right now, fighting for two positions, Real Madrid has, under the books: Rodrygo Goes, Brahim Diaz, Martin Odegaard, Vinicius Jr, Marco Asensio, Gareth Bale, and Lucas Vazquez. That’s not including Isco, who you assume is a central midfielder — but realistically he’s versatile enough to play multiple positions. I’m also not interested in stretching this list to midfielders like Oscar Rodriguez, who are good, but feasibly in the conversation. And look, there’s more nuance to this. Benzema can play on the left; Bale or Vinicius can play as a forward in a 4-4-2, etc. Many see Odegaard as a central midfielder — I don’t. You’ll see a significant drop-off in the team’s midfield control if you put Odegaard in a Modric role. Odegaard is just not a box-to-box player, and his strengths are not defensive. He is better served as an outlet and surgical passer and dribbler. He is a poor-man’s Messi (and that’s not meant to be a knock).
  • That list does not include James Rodriguez who you assume is out of the picture; or anyone Real Madrid sign. Presumably one of those signings is Eden Hazard. That means you’ll have eight players who can play that position — nine if you include Isco.
  • Then you have to start gutting. Maybe funny to some — but I only see one real ‘lock’, and that’s Lucas Vazquez. Zidane loves him, and for good reason. Asensio and Vinicius are probably in as a lock too. Let’s say you bring Hazard, then that’s four players: Asensio, Vinicius, Vazquez, and Hazard. You’ll have Isco hover between AM and CM. That’s five players.
  • From there, you’d probably (and this isn’t my choice, but I’m just trying to hack into Zidane’s thought-process, which is like throwing a dart at the wall in pitch black, towards a moving target, 25 light years away, without hands to throw the dart, or a dart to throw — so this means nothing): Sell Bale, loan Odegaard and Rodrygo, stash Brahim somewhere before Zidane comes in and says “who is this guy and why did you sign him? I leave for a few months and you throw away money like this? Tell him to pack his bags.”
  • My personal four for that position would be: Bale, Vinicius, Asensio, Hazard.

Fondly, very fondly. Their names won’t necessarily stand out 50 years from now since they lived in a star-stacked era; but they will be well-respected. Every team needs characters like those two.

French Vanilla Black Magic. On the surface, this is just a creamy french vanilla — OG, fresh, simple. When you lick away at it, the inner-flavours get revealed to show its diverse profile: chunks of chocolate, pecans; swirls of caramel and butterscotch. Each layer represents a tactical surprise that you’re not expecting. It is unpredictable. After you’re done eating it, you have inexplicable powers: You stumble through job interviews and come out as the chosen candidate, you get outshot 35-1 in FIFA by your friend and still win, you get to the airport gate one-hour late but your flight was delayed — then when you get on the 10-hour flight, your whole row is empty, your flight attendant is the girl of your dreams, and they have extra hot meals for you. When you get off the flight, you find 100 Euros.

Claude Makelele. The summer that Real Madrid lost Fernando Redondo, and there were protests in the streets of Madrid because of it, no fan looked around the transfer window and said, “you know what, that Makelele we signed from Celta can definitely replace the greatest defensive midfielder of all time and of the biggest club legends ever”. Makelele never really became a club legend, in relative terms, but he won over our hearts pretty quick. He was a complete wall in midfield and revolutionized that role as an impassable destroyer who shielded an embarrassing defensive scheme.

Two honorary mentions who exceeded my expectations: Marcelo and Angel Di Maria.

This is a great question that very subtly raises a different question: Just how deep are this team’s problems? Would the greatness of Cristiano Ronaldo mask it? Did Ronaldo not, in some way, along with the brilliance of others, mask deeper problems? I think Ronaldo increases your chances of winning trophies this season, without question. Juventus is currently in the Champions League quarter-finals, and Ronaldo put the team on his back again in a big game. Juventus with Ronaldo is not a better team on paper than Real Madrid’s current team if they had Ronaldo. My inclination is: Real Madrid is a favourite to win every trophy they compete for if Ronaldo is still around.

Raul. He was my idol — a timeless figure in my life.