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Takeaways From The Early Stages Of The Season

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Kiyan Sobhani column: Things worth pointing out.

Real Madrid v Real Valladolid - La Liga Santander Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/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.


After a good three weekends of football, here are some takeaways, predictions, and other things that popped up on my radar.

Toni Kroos and Martin Odegaard

Real Madrid should be excited to have these two vertical demons on the same team, in the same line-up, together. They were two of the best forward passers in the entire country last season. Odegaard positions himself perfectly between the lines. Kroos can get him the ball. In theory, if Zidane can find a way to pair them together consistently, the team’s build-up should improve.

Early returns are underwhelming, but not terrible. Kroos’s passing has been good, and Odegaard gets himself into the right spots offensively. Give these two time together over the next few months, and by Christmas, you should see a version of Real Madrid’s midfield — supplemented with the work Casemiro and Fede (and Modric) do — that controls games and presses efficiently. Kroos and Odegaard are not elite trackers, but they lead and organize high presses in a coherent and efficient manner.

But that game against Real Betis was good evidence of something Zidane may take note of: Having elite pressers without solid transition defense is a waste of the Kroos - Odegaard pairing. Real Madrid’s defensive shape was caught in two worlds at the Benito Villamarin. That team was designed to control and retain possession high up the pitch. Real Madrid did neither, but they played a vulnerable high line anyway.

Give it time. This is a work in progress. Zidane’s teams often get judged in the spring. (This, to be sure, is part of the reason why the team hasn’t won as many league titles as it should have — leaving it late to figure everything out.) But we have yet to see this current squad’s peak cohesion and chemistry.

Odegaard’s passing as a whole improved against Real Betis, but his creative juices and daring passes took a back seat to more conservative distribution. What he does with the ball, his alpha traits, should come. His positioning when the team builds from the back remains a constant:

Even when he doesn’t get the ball, he’s constantly whizzing, dragging opposing players around with him:

You saw narratives from media and fans start to float after his first two games: Is Odegaard really good enough for Real Madrid? It feels like people were expecting Thor to descend with his hammer on day one. This is a marathon.


Real Madrid vs Barcelona - La Liga Photo by Burak Akbulut/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Tottenham, Reguilón, Bale

It is interesting: Real Madrid gave Tottenham two players — one on loan, and one permanently — but the one that’s going to come back is not the one that’s on loan; and we’re only covering the one on loan on the loan-tracker podcast because we want to track the other one that’s not on loan. Earlier, the loanee’s agent felt that the bridge between parent club and player was only partially burnt to the ground, so he decided to whip out his grenade launcher and shoot out some grenades to make sure that there is no possible path to reunion.

We got it, Jonathan. We know your feelings. Thanks.

Here is what I’ll say: I’m not actually sure Sergio Reguilon will return in two years. No one is. Here are some variables: How good is Miguel Gutierrez in two years? If he’s great, then the club may opt to not trigger Reguilon’s buy-back. If both Reguilon and Gutierrez are great, but Gutierrez is more likely to accept a rotational role with Mendy in two years while Reguilon sees himself as a sure-starter, then the club may bring Reguilon back in order to flip him for a profit. But the buy-back is not dirt-cheap, and it’s difficult to predict the profit Real Madrid could make with a £35m option. What will the market be in two years?

Regarding Bale, I will stand by the idea that if there’s a situation to revive him, it’s in Tottenham. I don’t think he’ll return to his high-flying best, and anyone who looked at Tottenham’s dominant win over Southampton and ‘dreamed’ of Bale dancing in that kind of space has to dial back their optimism. Southampton dissolved. Most Premier League teams won’t allow Spurs to counter-attack in such a ridiculous manner. Also, the ultimate variable: No matter how good Bale is, Spurs fans will have to grapple with his injury concerns. He’s out for a month, already. Yeesh.


Fran Garcia

Don’t sleep on Fran Garcia, quietly making a living in Segunda this year. Garcia is among the crop of promising wing-backs Castilla has produced over the years, and had two assists in his first two games with Rayo Vallecano this season where he resides on loan. He is a solid defender with borderline left-winger tendencies in attack. He has a sharp, accurate cross on him and has the ability to create his own space to get the cross in. He’ll have an outside shot at the left-back slot in a couple years.


The Raul Gonzalez project

This is a good year to watch Castilla, if that’s something you don’t normally do — or generally do so only in passing because it can be so boring to tune in. Castilla games can be stale, but this current crop is the most exciting one in years — possibly since the ‘11/12 season where Alvaro Morata, Jese Rodriguez, Dani Carvajal, Nacho, and Denis Cheryshev resided in the same team.

Two of the players that Raul will have at his disposal, Marvin Park and Sergio Arribas, were awarded by Zidane with an appearance against Real Sociedad on the opening match-day. I don’t see Marvin’s ceiling as a future first team player, but have high hopes for Arribas, who could be a contributor on the Jose Callejon level somewhere. He has everything a winger in modern-day football needs in his toolbox: Unique line-breaking, press-resistancy, and defensive effort. To me, among all the names that Raul has, Arribas has the highest ceiling.

Also keep an eye on: Miguel Gutierrez (a real candidate for the future left-back slot), Antonio Blanco (someone who can develop into a future midfield anchor role), Pedro Ruiz (the child-behemoth up front), Pablo Ramon (a promising central defender), the two Hugo’s (Duro and Vallejo), and Israel Salazar (promising forward who we’ll likely see in the UEFA Youth League as he’s younger) — among others.


AC Milan things

Brahim Diaz’s new team, AC Milan, has shaken things up this summer, and look like they have an outside shot of hitting a Champions League spot. They retained Simon Kjaer and Ante Rebic after their loan spells, and, among other moves, called in Brahim and Sandro Tonali on loan from Real Madrid and Brescia respectively.

Zlatan is still around, and he’s still doing superhuman things. That alone, makes this team fun to watch. It is not uncommon for Zlatan to will his team to a few goals even at the age of 39.

Brahim’s first start, against Crotone on the weekend where he scored a goal, was successful. He slotted in on the left wing, and did a lot of the things we saw him do at Real Madrid: run at defenders, counter-press after losing possession, and take players on. He has a knack for getting in the right shooting positions when crosses and cut-backs come trickling in. He spends a lot of time in the half-space — more than other wingers at Milan from what I’ve seen — and lets the wing-back take the flank on the overload. Theo Hernandez enjoyed that freedom and synergy against Crotone.

Apart from Brahim, I’m excited about watching Tonali play this season (and years beyond). He has that Andrea Pirlo bounce and swag — and I noticed that before finding out that Pirlo is who he’s been compared to. I think he will climb up the European ladder quickly. His composure and distribution will help many teams dictate tempo from midfield.

Brahim Diaz (R) of AC Milan is tackled by Jerdy Schouten of... Photo by Nicolò Campo/LightRocket via Getty Images


Eden Hazard redemption

In this season’s Managing Madrid preseason roundtable, I put Eden Hazard as the team’s ‘most improved player’. How’s that for a prediction? My reasoning is simple: He set the bar too low for himself in his first season to not improve on a near-rock-bottom debut campaign.

That prediction took a baseball bat this week with the announcement that Eden Hazard has suffered a ‘right leg injury’. Am I allowed to be optimistic? I’m not even sure I believe in my own optimism, but I will at least attempt to take a glass half-full approach. Zidane sold us some hope in the Valladolid post-game presser, stating that Hazard’s injury is unrelated to his ankle, and that this too, shall pass. I will take the kool-aid.

Last season some things were out of his control (a devastating tackle from Thomas Meunier just when the Belgian looked like he was at the peak of his powers against PSG). Some things were (showing up to training camp unprofessionally out of shape). No excuses this season. Transcend. Don’t let your legacy slip now. This is your dream club. You’ve waited your whole life for this. Take the reigns. Lead.


Luka Jovic, a different dynamic

I have a rule: Give a player time on the pitch, a good five consecutive games, to see where he lands. Anything less, and you don’t have enough sample size to judge his performances. Players need rhythm. Jovic’s movement contributed to two Real Madrid goals (plus a Real Betis red card) at the Benito Villamarin. Against Valladolid, his movement got him on the end of three chances. His runs create something different, something new for defensive lines to think about. Jovic makes a run to the near post? He either gets it, or drags defenders from Benzema or Ramos at the far post. Does he make a run to the far post? That opens up room for Fede to run into the half-space and make his way to the near post. Alternatively, Jovic, a bonafide tank, can leap in the air and throw defenders around in the box.

This is how momentum works. You don’t ‘arrive’ after one game, or even two games. You slowly wake up, calculate your surroundings, and get into the right flow. Jovic was an alpha dog at Frankfurt. Most players who arrive at Real Madrid were an alpha in a small pound. They won’t stand out the same way at the Bernabeu — not right away anyway — and sometimes the process unfolds slowly over the course of a decade (see: Sergio Ramos, Marcelo). Jovic doesn’t have to be a legend, he just needs momentum, a ball to bounce his way, and one goal to pop open the ketchup.

Zidane said in the post-game presser that “anything can happen” until October 5th. Jovic’s spot in the team may not be safe, still. If Real Madrid don’t find a loan destination for him (and I’m not sure that the three reported teams — Roma, Milan, Inter — are the right landings spots for him), he should continue to get minutes. Real Madrid have something in Jovic.


La Liga’s Top Four

I don’t think the four best teams in Spain change from last season, but I do think that at least two of those teams will pose a threat to Zidane’s title defense. Still, Real Madrid have no excuse not to defend their title (although, that hasn’t stopped them from refusing to defend their title anyway). They should not have anyone leapfrog them from last season so long as they hold themselves accountable. They are technically a better team than last season. Martin Odegaard raises the team’s ceiling, and younger players should continually add to their game — soaking up any remaining minutes that Gareth Bale or James Rodriguez may have half-heartedly gotten.

Many people thought that if Lionel Messi leaves Barcelona this summer, Barcelona get dropped into an abyss — as low as a Europa League spot. I didn’t believe that to be true, but understood it would be really challenging to hold on to the edge of a cliff and prevent a free-fall after losing a man responsible for every possible thing offensively. With Messi getting sucked back into his day job, Barcelona are back to being a title contender.

But this Barcelona side are highly variable. They have a high ceiling and low floor. They are the equivalent of a house needing renovations with an unpredictable architect behind its restoration. Koeman could easily crumble the place down to the ground himself unless he makes the right moves to restructure some of the damaged pillars. Again, highly variable, and we are ignoring the incompetence from higher up that will continue to serve as an off-field distraction.

Koeman’s 4-2-3-1 may be the best way to accommodate multiple players who could play the ‘10’ role: Antoine Griezmann, Lionel Messi, Philippe Coutinho. The double pivot also makes room for the cluster of positionally-similar players in midfield: Frenkie de Jong, Sergio Busquets, Miralem Pjanic. Koeman may even get lucky and have a healthy Ousmane Dembele should the french winger stay at Barcelona.

But do Barcelona fans really trust Koeman to make the right call? Intentionally pushing out Riqui Puig — an intelligent young midfielder who fits exactly the type of player Barcelona need in the post Xavi - Iniesta era — is borderline sadistic. They already lost Thiago. How many more ideal fits will they lose in midfield? If Koeman’s stint is short and fleeting, the long-term consequences of losing Puig would’ve been brutal. They are lucky that Puig is still in the squad somewhere, for now.

(Also on the note of Koeman’s decision-making: Many in Barcelona circles think that selling Nelson Semedo is a good idea. I will zag. He is one of the better defensive right-backs in Europe. Yes, he absolutely melted against Bayern Munich — but so did... Everyone? They will feel his absence. Also, are we going to pretend replacing Luis Suarez’s goals this season will be easy? He is old, but he is not ancient and defective. But hey, sell them all! Thiago, Cucurella, Suarez, Semedo, Puig. They’re all terrible.)

Beyond Barcelona, I find Atletico Madrid really interesting. This is a team that lost an entire cohort of legends all at once two seasons ago, and bounced back by still having the second best defense in the league. That speaks volumes to their system and collective synergy — one that’s likely connected to Diego Simeone’s brain through some special energetic network.

Atletico’s struggles will continue to be the same: Can they speed up their transition offense to anything speedier than slow motion? Can they finish their chances? Since Diego Costa 1.0 (pre-Chelsea), they have not been able to get a high level of production from their striker, and Alvaro Morata was unreliable consistently. Luis Suarez is a great addition. Carrasco’s return, Marcos Llorente’s reinvention, and Joao Felix’s emergence has given their creativity a pulse. Oh my God: Can you imagine the kind of atomic bombs that would go off if Simeone fielded Diego Costa and Luis Suarez together? Now that’s a Derby that would be satisfying to win.

(I would be surprised to see Simeone go that route, but boy would it be at least somewhat entertaining to see what chaos those two conjure together. They’d throw some bodies around in the box and make swirling off-ball runs to meet crosses. But I doubt Simeone will sacrifice one of his midfield cogs to do that consistently. His ultimate quest of fielding 11 central midfielders will suppress any inclination to play two strikers.)

Real Madrid’s main title threat will come from those two aforementioned sides, with plenty of room for other teams in the league to poke points away from them. Sevilla away will always be tough (with or without fans). I do not expect Julen Lopetegui’s men to drop out of the top-four. They will be threatened by teams below them — Real Sociedad, Getafe, Athletic, and a new-look Villarreal — but they always tend to fight off those challenges as the season goes on. For the first time in a long time, this feels like a long-term Sevilla project, rather than a fleeting one that suffers large-scale roster turnover every summer.

Losing Sergio Reguilon and Ever Banega hurts, and they still haven’t found a suitable option to meet the barrage of crosses in large stretches of the season where Luuk de Jong isn’t scoring (basically any game not against Real Madrid). But Ivan Rakitic can play the Banega role (how well, we’ll see), and Oscar Rodriguez is a great addition to that midfield. Marcos Acuña should provide the dynamism and offensive verve needed in a demanding, wing-back heavy scheme.

Sevilla still have a good degree of continuity from last season, and I’m not sure de Jong gets worse in front of goal. That in itself might be a harsh statement. De Jong is incredible at moving off the ball to meet the cross festival that Lopetegui likes to roll with. Some of the chances he misses, most strikers wouldn’t even get to. He went from 30 goals with PSV the year prior, to nine with Sevilla. The only thing he did wrong last season was refuse to finish (a huge sin in football, to be sure) — but even then he somehow outperformed his xG across all competitions. I expect him to regress to the mean this season — somewhere around 15 goals. Sevilla missed that production in ‘19-20.

Of La Liga’s top-four, Real Madrid have the highest ceiling because they have the best systemic balance and depth. Messi can transcend that, but as the years wear on, it’s clear that bad tactics, poor squad planning, and off-field distractions can derail even the Messi train. Whatever happens outside of Real Madrid’s control, I want to see the team treat every game this season with the same sense of urgency as the ‘11 finals’ post-quarantine.

Real Madrid vs Barcelona - La Liga Photo by Burak Akbulut/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images


Isco

In a way, Isco gets lost in the discussion annually. Every year projected lineups come out, and he’s rarely involved. But then you zoom out, and realize how much Zidane actually goes back to one of his favourite formations: Isco in the diamond. Isco’s ceiling in big games is undeniable (which makes his absence against Manchester City in the second leg strange and regrettable, given his clear strength in providing outlets during build-up). He looked good against Real Betis, and his positioning in between the lines was conducive to Real Madrid’s offensive flow in spurts against Valladolid. I think he’ll continue to contribute this season, before people forget about him again next summer.


James Rodriguez’s offensive involvement

How fitting, and completely unintentional, that this article is rounded off with a point about Isco, then one about James — putting a seal on the Isco / James romance (one that was real between the two, but not so real between their fans).

I have not watched much Everton this season — keeping tabs mostly through highlights. One thing that struck me: This dude is involved in every single Everton highlight in some way. So I looked up some quick numbers last night.

It turns out, a good way to build your football team is to hire a manager, and let the manager sign who he wants to play his brand of football. James is not on loan. He is straight up gone. But I wish both him and Carlo Ancelotti the best at Everton.