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Summer Mailbag: Getting Ready for Preseason

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Gareth Bale, attacking lineups, and meeting UEFA’s homegrown quota. Kiyan Sobhani goes through all of your questions, and answers them in a written mailbag.

Real Madrid Pre-Season Training Camp Photo by TF-Images/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.


Welcome to a long overdue written mailbag, where I go through questions from Patrons and social media followers. For this edition, I kept the answers brief so that I could squeeze in as many as possible. Here we go:

I’m not entirely sure how recoverable Gareth Bale’s form is. I mean, would we see the odd string of games where he slings 40-yarders into the top corner, or a blitz of pace down the left flank for a far-post finish? Sure. I’d suspect those goals would be accompanied with one of his underrated, perfectly whipped in crosses to Luka Jovic who licks his lips after he catches a defender napping at the near post with a header. But, I’d worry about how consistently we’d get that version of Bale.

There were too many extremes with him last season. He started the campaign on a tear, then sulked around the pitch for a few months, popped up brilliantly against Celta Vigo in Zidane’s return, then regressed again into his state of inertia. Having said that, I was one of the ones who went against the grain and predicted he’d stay — relatively unbothered that he didn’t get to say a ‘goodbye’ in his last match of the season against Real Betis. If he stays, he’s going to have to show us he wants to fight for his place, rather than be content with Madrid lifestyle and money (and irrelevancy). I’d back him, but he’s no longer a de facto top-two attacker in the team, and is on the wrong side of an exciting era where the club has plenty of options in bloodthirsty talented young wingers who want to snatch at his place.

Remember: I’ve been defending Bale for years. These past few months he really pushed me away, though. He had a chance to seize the attack, only to shy away on the pitch. Long distance shots and torpedo runs turned into backward passes — even when he was invited to attack defenders who had no proper cover.

Regarding the Pogba swap: Zidane loves Marco Asensio, even despite his slump last season. Not many have Asensio high up the depth chart, but Zidane still believes in him. I don’t think Asensio would be included in any deal that sees him leave on a permanent basis — not in the immediate future, anyway.

I just witnessed Kawhi Leonard put up Michael Jordan numbers in the playoffs, and play some of the best lock-down defense since Jordan and Pippen in the 90s. He’s the best player in the league right now. It would be irresponsible of me not to answer this with “The Clippers” given that Steve Ballmer surrounded The Klaw with Paul George, and an already deep team that can defend multiple positions.

In the 1999-2000 season, when Raul Gonzalez was leading the Champions League in scoring, rounding Santiago Canizares in that ever-so-perfect black Teka jersey in Paris to give Real Madrid it’s eighth European title, I was 13. Raul was a hero to me. I celebrated every single one of his goals like I had scored them myself. I worshipped this guy so much. My love for him went beyond the printed photos of him and posters in my room. I did everything to copy him. I kissed my imaginary ring when I scored goals in grade 7, I downloaded every one of his goals from ‘Kazaa’ while all my friends downloaded porn instead — only real ones know the grind of downloading videos on dial-up internet — and my junior high jersey had ‘Kiyan, 7’ on the back. (Had to go with first name only, obviously.) I then mapped it out: If I could get to Real Madrid’s squad by the age of 17, I’d still get to play alongside a 26-year-old Raul, and we’d form a devastating strike-partnership for years.

In short: My dream is to become a Real Madrid player. I’m 31 now, and I haven’t given up yet. If I don’t make it within the next decade or so, I’ll move on to plan B.

But hey, I’m having a lot of fun right now. This journalism thing is filled with perks: I get to travel a lot, go to games at the Bernabeu regularly, and form connections within the club and with other great journalists. None of this ever feels like work, and that’s probably the reason why I find it so easy to be a volume writer and record near-daily podcasts. It’s dope. I’ll also be expanding my journalism mentorship program soon, and taking on more clients given my inbox is filled with a lot of questions about journalism advice. So if you’re into that stuff, or want to know more, just go here.

My ideal job at this point would be a sporting director role, though. I think squad construction and scouting players is one of the most interesting and fun elements of an administrative role.

You have to break this down and separate Luka Jovic from this list — mainly because he’s at at an entirely different position than the other three.

If you asked me this question last summer, I would’ve said Rodrygo Goes has the higher ceiling between him and Vinicius Jr. What Vinicius did this season was incredible, though, and given we have a sample size of him at a European level, I’d give him the edge over Rodrygo for now. But here’s what Rodrygo has going for him: He’s a better finisher (for now, anyway, although he did go through a bit of a goalscoring drought after initially starting well last summer), and like Vinicius, has a really good head on his shoulders and is really confident. Brahim, by the way, swooned me big time, and I wrote about his two-way ability recently here. I’d go: 1) Vinicius; 2) Rodrygo; 3) Brahim. Impossible to say for sure, though, and football is unpredictable.

Luka Jovic’s ceiling is really high. As a worst-case scenario, I don’t see his career going too sideways because of his ability to move off the ball at an elite level, and his absurdly cool finishing in tight spaces. Ceiling: Ruud. Floor: Pippo.

Karim Benzema will be 32 next summer, and 33 in 2021, when Kylian Mbappe is more likely to join — one year away from his contract ending in 2022. Benzema won’t be a cornerstone in two years the way he’s been for the past decade, and in 2021, we’ll have an additional two-year sample size of performances from Jovic, Vinicius, Rodrygo, and Odegaard to be able to make a calculated decision on which ones should stay, and which ones are a cut below the standards of this club.

Anshuman does bring up a good question though. “How much talent is too much?” should have an easy answer, but it doesn’t. The usual response would be ‘these are good problems to have’; and the more nuanced response is a bit longer: Deep depth charts, once you stockpile past a reasonable threshold, create issues. No team in sports can keep everyone happy from A-Z. It might work for one season, but once bench players realize their capacity is beyond being a role player, they’ll simply move. But hey — who cares? You need those problems. If, let’s say (and I’m in no way predicting this will happen), in two years, Vinicius and Odegaard become the two best players of the bunch, and go on to form the nucleus of the attack with Mbappe and Hazard, creating a domino effect of Jovic, Brahim, Asensio and Rodrygo leaving and succeeding in other big teams, then we should be happy for their success elsewhere. At some point we can’t have all of the best players. We might even keep the wrong ones. But I’d much rather have this wide pool to choose from. I’ve seen too many dark years in the past 20 years where the club was thin and famished with a desolate midfield.

I don’t think this system will necessarily dissuade other young players from joining. Great players will always want to prove themselves and be at the best level possible.

They’d rather die then play for us because they’re not good enough to play for us.

I know you want a written answer, but I’d much prefer referring you to this episode of the Managing Madrid Podcast, where my father Eduardo Alvarez and I talked about the sporting director role thoroughly.

Interesting.

  1. Zidane needs to find a way to play Eden Hazard and Vinicius together. This probably takes shape in the form of a Hazard free role, where he can roam and connect the dots offensively. It may also sacrifice Benzema or Jovic in the process. As I wrote about extensively here, Hazard provides line-breaking ability that only Vinicius really administered on a consistent basis last season. Having both in the line-up would make Real Madrid really hard to defend.
  2. Slight deviation: But I want Raul to get Castilla to Segunda. I think the club needs to prioritize having Castilla there every season. It would make player development so much better, and just having our youth team play against better players every week would have them more ready for the big stage. Next season we may see Kubo and Rodrygo a lot at Castilla — but how much better would it be if they were playing in Segunda? The step up from Segunda B is big.
  3. Process. As Michael Caley and I discussed on an analytics-focused podcast last summer, there is a certain chaos that Zidane’s crossing scheme brings to the table — but far too often was the attack stagnant and predictable, making it easy for opposing defenses to pick off incoming crosses, and cut through Real Madrid on the counter with just a single pass. That’s not a good look for an elite side like this. On the flipside, defensively: I’d like to see a scheme less reliant on spectacular tackles in transition from Ramos and Varane defending on their own, or Modric plugging holes, and something more dependent on controlling games and counter-pressing.

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LET’S GO

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Ruthwij knows I already answered this question on the Churros y Tácticas Podcast on Monday, but I’m putting this out there for everyone to see / tune into — we got into how Del Bosque fielded Zidane, Figo, Raul, and Ronaldo together:

Going to do a written mailbag for Managing Madrid. Send me the usual stuff: Questions about Real Madrid / football / life / journalism / whatever you want

Posted by Kiyan Sobhani on Friday, July 12, 2019

This is a good point that is often overlooked when we’re talking about transfers, and one that I was reminded of last week when our Patron Zoran brought it up on Twitter. A minimum eight homegrown players must be included in the 25-man Champions League squad for the season. UEFA defines ‘homegrown’ as follows:

Players as those who, regardless of their nationality, have been trained by their club or by another club in the same national association for at least three years between the age of 15 and 21. Up to half of the locally-trained players must be from the club itself, with the others being either from the club itself or from other clubs in the same association.

So, a minimum four of the eight have to be from Castilla. There are currently six: Nacho, Lucas Vazquez, Dani Carvajal, Fede Valverde, Mariano Diaz, Borja Mayoral (Jesus Vallejo and Casemiro narrowly miss out on the criteria). Two of those players technically don’t have to be in the squad. The remaining slots of homegrown players who were developed at other clubs get filled pretty easily.


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