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Mailbag: Next Season’s Roster, Ferland Mendy, La Liga vs UCL

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Kiyan Sobhani’s latest (written) Real Madrid mailbag is here

Rayo Vallecano de Madrid v Real Madrid CF - 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.


Had to cut this one short and still finished at a cool 4500 words. I did get through most of the Patron questions, at the very least. Let’s get into it:

This rumour came out of nowhere, and as will presumably be the case from now until next season, we’ll see a lot of out-of-nowhere French players linked with Real Madrid. Ferland Mendy’s link is curious, because he doesn’t fit a positional need. Ditto Paul Pogba, whose reported potential signing wouldn’t address the biggest need in the team. Then again, given the team’s entirely underwhelming corpse dying a painful death this season, you could argue those positions we once considered the deepest may not be riddled with the quality needed, and could use an upgrade regardless.

That’s harsh, and can’t be entirely true for every player that Real Madrid has in this squad. There were players this season who showcased their potential to be a star: Marcos Llorente, Sergio Reguilon, Vinicius Jr, Brahim Diaz, Alvaro Odriozola. You could even stretch this to Dani Ceballos who looked really good under Julen Lopetegui. But what Zidane might see is promise rather than sure-things who could lead the team now. In Zidane’s eyes, Reguilon could be a nice rotational piece that may or may not pan out. What he might be looking for is a game-changing talent that Marcelo provided us with for so long.

Mendy is a really exciting left back. Some of his touches can be rough, but there’s no denying his obsession with getting involved in attack, looking for players in between the lines, shooting when given space, and dribbling to the byline for a dangerous cut-back or cross. No, he’s not Marcelo — and likely no one in our lifetime will get to Marcelo-level of offensive curation from that position — but he does have Marcelo-esque traits, which might be what Zidane wants. (If Zidane really wanted that, he could look at what Achraf did for Dortmund this season as the Moroccan annihilated the left flank with pass-and-move sequences and lightning-quick overloads — though admittedly, Achraf isn’t remotely close to Marcelo’s dribbling abilities.) It wouldn’t be my cup of tea to bring in Mendy when the team already has Reguilon and Achraf to choose from, but it’s not inconceivable that five years from now Madridistas would be glad Mendy was signed.

Let’s put things into context, though, to ease everyone’s mind about this rumour: While many fans would rather it be Marcelo that leaves if Mendy is signed; Reguilon would be loaned, so he’d still likely come back as a Real Madrid player. Mendy then gets one year alongside the best offensive left-back of all time before Marcelo is phased out. That’s not the worst scenario out there.

Mendy can create, and we all know how much Zidane loves offensive creation from his full-backs.

Good theory. The short answer is: Real Madrid would’ve been bad with or without that awards ceremony.

Longer answer:

Everyone in the Balon D’or ceremony should be allowed to celebrate their successes. Real Madrid concluded an historic era last season with the unthinkable three-peat. If you can’t celebrate after five years of unparalleled (literally only matched / surpassed by the Di Stefano and Puskas era) winning on a continental level, then when can you? (To be sure: Messi had no real reason to attend the ceremony, given he wasn’t in the top-five; and Ronaldo would’ve been there had he won the award.)

And Real Madrid’s problems started far before that ceremony, which was held in early December (I’m just extending this to the Balon D’or ceremony, not the FIFA awards). A week prior, they were played off the pitch in Ipurua by Eibar, in a game where Eibar pressed high up the pitch and completely prevented any sense of competent build up from Real. Up until that point, the question Real Madrid had to answer was “how do we break down low blocks with all of our possession?”; but that day the question was “how do we get out of our own half?”. Ceballos played as a defensive midfielder in Casemiro’s absence and was hung alive in transition while Llorente wasn’t trusted to be on the pitch. It took just two passes to break Real Madrid that day. Three if we’re being generous. Solari made zero adjustments, and the team kept falling down a dark pit.

Less than a month before that, Real Madrid lost to a Messi-less Barcelona (a team, by the way, which is dependant on Messi now more than ever) 5 - 1 . Did you need to me to remind you that apart from a short spell in the second half, every player in a white shirt looked like they wanted to be at home in their pyjamas rather than fight on the pitch; or that Lopetegui played a counter-attacking scheme which had no players in position to actually counter; or that despite playing a ‘defensive’ blueprint, the team allowed Alba all the space he wanted in-behind Nacho while no one picked up their central markers? Here’s one more: In a game that needed desperate control of the ball, Modric, Kroos, Isco, and Marcelo turned into complete ghosts. Oh, I just reminded you. Sorry.

22 days prior, Real Madrid lost to Alaves in Mendizorroza, in a game that, even by their standards of low chance curation, hit rock bottom — managing a measly .49xG. That was their fourth consecutive match without scoring. There was zero movement between the lines, and Alaves clogged the flanks without having to worry about any central presence.

Four days prior, a loss in Moscow with the same problems. Little offensive movement or fluidity, and the team was out of ideas on how to break CSKA’s two banks of four.

Nearly a fortnight before that, Real Madrid were blown away by Sevilla in a game where they couldn’t get control of the steering wheel. The half-space between Ramos and Marcelo was just an extension of the black hole that NASA found, and the high line was exploited over and over again by Machin’s men. Benzema and Asensio were completely isolated as Kroos was unable to pick out any outlets.

11 days before that, a ‘less-worse’ version of the Sevilla game — this one in Bilbao against a team in terrible form. Asensio and Marcelo tested Bilbao on occasion with their dribbling, but the Basques tamed Lopetegui’s men for the most part, and took Modric out of the game completely by denying the passing lanes to him and swarming him. Bale had a great assist, but this was his first real drop in form for the season, as his shooting and passing were way off.

This is all November and prior — not including anything in December and beyond. You get the point. This team’s problems started early, and continued (forever). You could take the problems back all the way to last season, when some fans didn’t appreciate us analyzing all the team’s tactical flaws which saw them go down 17 points in the league. Take Ronaldo out of the picture, and replace Marcelo and Modric with two players presumably not actually them, and you get an implosion.

All of these problems make the initial successful start to the season more perplexing. Dominant wins over Getafe, Leganes, Girona, and Roma looked good; and Bale and Kroos both started the season in really good form. Alas, that wasn’t the proper sample size, and the opponents that Real Madrid faced weren’t great. Everything regresses to the mean eventually.

None of the above problems got solved as the season wore on, under three managers in total. The offense still looks stale, there has been no real or sustained revival of the legends who lost their form, the defensive line is still a mess, and teams have fun pressing this team and laughing away as they thieve the ball in dangerous areas. The line-up shuffling doesn’t help either, and once Vinicius left injured against Ajax, any excitement in the team’s offense left with him. It is a telling sign that in March, the only real thing Real Madrid had to play for other than pride and auditions was — and continues to be — getting Castilla to the Segunda playoffs. (By the way, here’s to hoping the team sends Vinicius back down to Castilla for those playoffs, as he’s eligible, and Castilla could really use the promotion as they could just keep players in the team for developmental purposes rather than loaning them out to Segunda teams.)

Messi. Consistency. Efficiency. Merciless.

This is an interesting question, because it’s actually different from changes of personnel I’d make — and asks to dig deeper about what the problem actually is. Would Eden Hazard help the team generate chances when the rest of the team is stuck in mud? Sure. Would Luka Jovic be clinical in front of goal, and thus, help Real Madrid score more? Sure. Would Eder Militao help eliminate the drop-off from the starters that we saw when a severely out-of-form Nacho took the field? Likely. Are these players needed to avoid losses to Eibar, Rayo, CSKA, Girona, and Alaves? No. They might give you a better chance of bailing you out of if your scheme is out of whack — but it shouldn’t come to that.

There is an astronomical amount of talent at Real Madrid. Talent that, even when you get to the bottom of the depth chart, is really solid. Tell me which of these players Rayo Vallecano — the team that beat Real Madrid without Raul de Tomas, the player they rely so heavily on — wouldn’t take on their roster? From 1-25, they’d take every single one (bar maybe Luca Zidane). If you want, you can chalk up the losses from March and on to ‘lack of motivation amid a finished season’ as an excuse over the tactical mess — but then you have to find a new narrative for everything prior to March.

And at this point in the season, after plenty of podcasts and tactical analysis of Real Madrid’s issues under Lopetegui, Solari, and Zidane, it would be overkill to mention them again here. But in order to fix some of this (again, without going into the tactical stuff), you do need a couple things: 1) Fresh blood, which we’ve already seen with hungry young players in Vinicius, Marcos, Reguilon, and others that can replace the fat that’s about to be cut; and 2) Patience in implementing an identity. Zidane is here now, with full control (allegedly). Things are not going to be smooth next season. Real Madrid will look different, and it may not all click right away, or possibly at all. When that happens, will fans be patient and understand the process? Will Florentino understand the need for patience, and look at this as a long-term project that may only come into fruition two seasons from now (or more)? Having a short fuse with your managers means you’ll start from scratch yet again if things don’t go the club’s way next season. Ride the wave. It’s not easy, but you have to let Zidane implement his long-term vision while he juggles the need for winning now. Some great things can come out of continuity.

I always liked the Sergio Busquets comp for Marcos Llorente. It’s the same one I made back in 2016. They are not identical, stylistically, but my premonition at the time was that one day opposing teams would mark Llorente the same way they do Busquets in order to disrupt the possession-funnel that comes from the back. With Alaves, Llorente was the engine that would read passing lanes, dispossess players all over the pitch, and kickstart attacks. This year he even added to those attributes under Solari. He improved his vertical passing and also acted as a ball-carrier while being very comfortable in tight spaces. Even I, the Godfather of Llorenteism, was caught off-guard with how good he was given the lack of playing time he received over the past two seasons.

Is Llorente a better player than Casemiro? It really depends on the scheme. Casemiro was a fulcrum of three straight Champions League titles. He is measurably one of the best ball-winners in Europe over the past few seasons. In a team that’s been vulnerable defending in transition, his inclusion made it possible to attack a certain way while covering gaps defensively. But, Llorente has proven he can play that role too, and was terrific being in multiple positions when the team lost its shape in some games under Solari.

Now let’s bring this to a bigger question: Why play a scheme that requires a destroyer when you can opt to control tempo with an additional technically-sound midfielder who can also do the dirty work defensively? The reality with Casemiro is, that even as a defensive midfielder, Zidane would send him higher up the pitch (often even ahead of Kroos and Modric) to hide him from teams trying to press him deep. And at that position, he wasn’t able to help defend counter attacks anyway, and he wasn’t leading any kind of counter-press — so the purpose was defeated.

There is an intriguing option moving forward that could make Real Madrid more exciting in midfield if they move on from Casemiro (or at least depend less on him). I’m not sure Zidane sees it that way. There’s also an entirely realistic scenario that Zidane uses neither Casmeiro nor Llorente next season.

That’s entirely subjective, and depends on what your view on lust and love is.

But I want to lay down some points since this is such a hot topic tight now, and since so many Cules are rating the Champions League higher now given they’re so close to winning it:

  • If I’ve won the Champions League 99 times and La Liga zero times, I’m still choosing the Champions League on try #100 (if I only had to chose just one).
  • To me (emphasis ‘to me’ — just to indicate how I personally measure the greatness of players), the Champions League is the biggest stage. It’s the ultimate litmus test of where we rank players historically. If I’m choosing an all-time XI, the question is always “Gun to my head, my family’s blood line on the line, who do I choose in a Champions League final to win this game for me?” and not “Who do I choose to win a domestic title?”
  • To me (again, emphasis), La Liga is the regular season, and the Champions League is the playoffs. You can win the regular season and put up a division banner in your stadium, but while doing so, you seed yourself accordingly to get into a knockout tournament and beat the best teams in your continent and call yourself the best team in Europe. I’d argue it’s much more impressive to beat PSG, Juventus, Bayern, and Liverpool over the course seven games than it is to beat a bunch of La Liga teams that are a fraction of your size multiple times (albeit with the odd Clasico and Derby squeezed in). If Barcelona conquer Europe this season, it’s also really impressive — more than the things they’ve achieved in the league this season.
  • This idea of choosing one title or the other is silly, anyway. When I say I prefer to win the Champions League, it doesn’t mean I don’t also try to win the league. When fans say “Real Madrid doesn’t care about the league” — well, that’s just not true. They clearly care, and they clearly try to win it. Do you think they want to see Barcelona dominating the league? On the flipside, when Zidane says the most important objective next season is to win the league, do you think that means he won’t try to win the Champions League, or that he’ll rest key players in a knockout tie against Manchester City? Sometimes we tend to overcomplicate what it means to prioritize one trophy or the other.
  • Real Madrid has never not tried to win the league. Yes, they’ve made plenty of mistakes in their history. They’ve sold the wrong players, and kept the wrong ones. They’ve flipped coaches needlessly and have had a lack of patience plenty of times. Guess who else gets it wrong often? Virtually every team in football. Guess who’s won the most trophies ever? Real Madrid. Guess which team has won more La Liga trophies than anyone? Real Madrid. Yes, it’s been a disastrous season on many levels, but I’d argue the team is allowed to be bad given its track record, because that’s the natural course of a football cycle.
  • None of this is to excuse Real Madrid’s league form over the past decade. Some of the domestic seasons have been embarrassing, and it needs to improve dramatically.

This is a lot. I was actually going to dedicate an entire hour + podcast to just this question after the season ends (I don’t get high off of transfer rumours as some of my friends do, and I’d much rather just analyze what’s happening on the pitch), as post-season is generally the only time I like to dive into transfers and roster-construction. But this season is over, even with games left to play, so I’ll set up the podcast with some quick thoughts here.

Off the top of my head (and with some help from Twitter), the players Real Madrid have been linked to: David de Gea, Ferland Mendy, Paul Pogba, Christian Eriksen, Eden Hazard, Luka Jovic, Mauro Icardi, Sadio Mane, Tanguy Ndombélé, Jadon Sancho, Joao Felix, Marcus Rashford, Adrien Rabiot, Mario Hermoso, Junior Firpo, Giovani lo Celso, and many others. (It becomes pointless to list more when you start expanding the circle this wide.)

Note: Neymar and Mbappe could be there too, in theory — but those names probably only become attainable as their contracts run their course, even if the Qataris pull their funding as was reported today.

Players on loan: Andrii Lunin, Theo Hernandez, Achraf Hakimi, Mateo Kovacic, Lucas Silva, James Rodriguez, Martin Odegaard, Raul de Tomas, Borja Mayoral

Players that Real Madrid own (that have either not yet arrived, play for Castilla, or are out on loan from Castilla, and could theoretically be in play): Alvaro Tejero, Aleix Febas, Javi Sanchez, Cristo, Rodrygo Goes.

There are others, but even this list is a stretch.

And with that said, in a rare moment of Kiyan Sobhani playing Football Manager, here’s my 23-man squad for next season:

GK: De Gea, Navas, Zidane

RB: Carvajal, Odriozola

LB: Reguilon, Achraf (This is not going to go down well with some, but that’s fine. History tells us it’s better to move on from legends a year or two early rather than a year or two late. This is true of any sport, and Marcelo’s regression this season was clear both under the eye test and by the metrics.)

CB: Militao, Ramos, Varane, Vallejo

DM / CM: Llorente, Ndombélé, Pogba, Kroos, Eriksen, Ceballos (I’m not huge on Paul Pogba overall. He’s not a natural leader, and has disappeared in big games while losing his head. But in the right scheme, where he has a world-class defensive midfielder behind him, and capable creators around him, he can be one of the most incisive players in the world. See: France, Juventus. Ndombélé and Llorente would provide that structure, and Ndombélé in particular could do the heavy lifting we saw over and over again from Modric which contributed greatly to the three-peat. That version of Modric wasn’t sustained this season. Some people are down on Eriksen after his mistake against Manchester City in the Champions League, along with his no-show against Ajax. That’s fair — but if you’ve been tracking him long enough you know he’s a special creator. Ceballos is there as a versatile midfielder who can fill in and do multiple things. It’s time to move on from Casemiro and morph that role into what modern football wants — essentially the Ndombélé-type player who can help in transition both ways.

AM: Vinicius Jr, Hazard, James, Asensio

FW: Jovic, Benzema (I’m tempted to put Felix over Benzema, but I’m not sure there is anything concrete enough to suggest he’ll be a Real Madrid player, and Benzema at the very least, is coming off a good season. Zidane might want to play Benzema and Jovic together.)

Loaned: Lunin, Valverde, Kovacic, Brahim, Rodrygo, Odegaard, Mariano, RDT, Javi Sanchez

Sold: Courtois, Theo, Marcelo, Nacho, Casemiro, Modric, Isco, Bale, Vazquez, Mayoral

This is a lot of turnover, and while there will be changes this summer, no one (literally nobody, no matter how well-connected to the club) knows exactly what those changes will be, or if they’ll even be that dramatic. (They likely won’t.)

Zidane will not see it the way I do, and there’s a good chance we’ll see James sold, while Rordrgyo comes into the team. I’m sure there are many other views he has which will conflict with these changes: mainly what happens to Nacho, Vazquez, Marcelo, Llorente, Courtois, and possibly Isco.

Did I sell your favourite player? My heart goes out to you. Please send all your anger to: OmArvind@ThisPersonIsFromIndia.com; or to: SamSharpe@ILoveSolari.com; or to: Cule@NoMessi?.com; or to: DiegoLorijn@CruyffDNAOrgasm.com. Alternatively, if you wish, you may donate to a very important cause I’m starting this summer: The Marcos Llorente is going to Sevilla to knock us out of Copa del Rey support group. #LucasVazquezTitular.

For good reason, the topic of Real Madrid’s ‘midfield’ — used loosely, because, it has not been structured, stable, compact, or incisive this season — has been hot lately. It should be. For years, it defined an unforgettable era. And Real’s dominance in the middle of the park was long overdue. As I’ve written about in the past, Real Madrid have rarely had the best central midfielders in the world on their team, and they had just begun to climb out of Barcelona’s shadow of Xavi, Iniesta, and Busquets when Modric and Kroos came along to control games and define the team’s build-up. Now that’s gone. Physically, the same midfielders are still around — but mentally, spiritually, and technically, they are back to the shadows and unable to tread water against even small La Liga teams.

When diagnosing Real Madrid’s problems, fans and media are quick to point to the obvious flaw: Ronaldo’s goals are gone. But Modric and Kroos just not showing up this season is an underrated part of Real Madrid’s implosion. Ronaldo’s presence changes things drastically — and just having him on the pitch suddenly makes you deadly on the perpetually-slung crosses, and shifts the defense’s attention to free up space for others. But Kroos and Modric were a huge part of Real Madrid’s build-up from the back which Ronaldo wasn’t directly involved in. They could dictate tempo, and Modric in particular lifted so many weights defensively. Not having that version of Modric around hurt the team just about as anything else did.

Modric is a master of reading passing lanes. This season marked his worst year in terms of interceptions — stopping a pass just once per 90 minutes in La Liga, the lowest of his career. His completed dribbles are down from last season. From a statistical measure, he’s given the ball away more this season in La Liga than he ever has in his career per 90. There is a lot of nuance to this — the effort from him is still there, and he still puts in strong challenges, but his legs may not be the same. It took him a long time to recover from the World Cup, and it wasn’t until a home game against Valencia in December where we finally saw Modric look like Modric again, but he’s tailed off again since March. We hoped the team would find its feet and peak in the spring as it’s done in the past few seasons; but they just kept hibernating instead.

Kroos’s poor form is less statistical and more obvious with the eye test. He’s had games this season where you’re reminded of how good he is, and others where you wonder if Mr. Swackhammer visited his locker before the game. Everything is connected. In year’s past, Kroos had peak Marcelo to team-up with on the left and burn through anyone who dared to press them. That didn’t exist this season. That duo also was always frail defensively — but they were masked by Casemiro interventions, Modric pulling a disproportionate amount of defensive weight, Mateo Kovacic filling in and providing rest or covering well when needed, and Isco helping funnel possession on the left side while working hard off the ball. None of that was around this year. Kovacic was gone, Marcelo regressed, Modric regressed, and Isco wasn’t on the pitch.

It’s clear that whatever is happening now on the field can’t continue into next season. What’s unclear is what exactly those changes will be. Some theories will tell you the changes will be wholesale and dramatic, others who are well connected believe the changes will be mere tweaks. No one knows, and it’s entirely conceivable Zidane hasn’t mapped it out yet completely — and even if he has, there is no guarantee he can get what he wants entirely in this ridiculous market.

One of the many possible changes — or a change as part of the holistic overhaul — is a tactical one, which may come regardless of who is sold and who is purchased, as Zidane is not married to the 4-3-3 as he once was. He hasn’t been for a while now, to be sure, as he’s proved versatile with his scheme, and has been creative when losing Gareth Bale or one of Kroos / Modric in the past. Going the Manchester City route is an intriguing option. I’ve always been a proponent of packing the midfield to gain control of the ball and having a legion of creative engines in midfield. Having multiple central and attacking midfielders allows you to squeeze in your best attacking players into one team, and prevents isolation of your forwards as the transition is more seamless.

You don’t need a crystal ball to know that I do like Marcos Llorente as an anchor of any team (although, having a quartet of Llorente, Pogba, Ceballos, and Valverde doesn’t sound like it’s going to dominate Europe or turn this team around) — but as of now, there’s no real indication of Zidane seeing it that way. That’s concerning, given that Real Madrid haven’t yet been (that strongly) linked with anyone in that role, and Casemiro still struggles against any team that decides to press Real Madrid high up the pitch (and the number of teams who do this increase every year, as they’ve learned it’s more effective than sitting in deep blocks — it’s part of the reason that Real Madrid have an unfathomable amount of losses and laboured, narrow wins this season). Fede Valverde is still raw, as good as he’s looked, and if Zidane chooses him as the team’s anchor ahead of a much more polished and developed Marcos, it would be bizarre. But all of this could point to a schematic change. If Paul Pogba arrives, maybe Zidane moves away from having a traditional defensive midfielder, and slides in multiple players in midfield to make room for him.

All of this is just theory.


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