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End-of-season (?) Written Mailbag: Transfers, What-ifs, Odegaard, Historical Mistakes, Tactical Victories

Kiyan Sobhani goes through the bi-annual written mailbag

Borussia Dortmund v Paris Saint-Germain - UEFA Champions League Round of 16: First Leg Photo by Alex Grimm/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 back to my (now) bi-annual written mailbag — the thing that people ask for over podcast mailbags but I can only stomach a couple times a year.

One of my biggest weaknesses with mailbags is spending 1-2k words on the opening question, with like 30 questions remaining. I’m going to keep each response pretty compact this time to hit as many as possible from Twitter / Patreon / FB. I’ve avoided stuff we normally talk about in podcasts. So here we go:

Eto’o’s departure doesn’t sting that much, if we’re being completely logical about this. There was reason to let him move on with his career at the time, and relative to other departures, his exit measures significantly lower on the sting-chart than others. Eto’o joined the youth academy as a raw 17-year-old in 1997. From ‘97 - ‘00 (the range Real Madrid held on to him for), these are the strikers they had in the club that were better than him at the time: Raul, Mijatovic, Morientes, and Suker. Even when they sold Eto’o in 2000 to Mallorca, no one though he was going to be as good as he turned out to be.

There is an easy counter to this: They could’ve kept Eto’o instead of buying Anelka from Arsenal in 2000. Still, no one could foresee Anelka being the bust he was. Eto’o didn’t truly become a clinical striker until the 2002 - 2003 season, when Real Madrid brought in Ronaldo. There just wasn’t much wiggle room. Hindsight bias is an easy trap to fall into. Eto’o became a better striker than all of these aforementioned strikers bar Raul and Ronaldo.

Real Madrid made bigger mistakes in that era, namely: Selling Makelele; throwing Beckham into a tactical mess; keeping Figo’s corpse for far too long instead of simply letting a younger Beckham take his spot on the right wing; selling Cambiasso (the closest thing to a world class DM they had after Makelele left and until Xabi Alonso came along); signing Michael Owen when they already had Raul, Ronaldo, and Morientes; sacking Del Bosque; refusing to build the roster around a sporting identity from 2003 and on, etc. The only reason I didn’t list Redondo here was because the club stumbled into signing Makelele. (Yes, stumbled. I’d barely give credit to them for this because Redondo was sold purely because of club politics, and they had no idea Makelele would turn out as good as he did.) This version of Florentino Perez is far more superior than the one that resigned in 2006.

Further reading / listening: Eduardo and I discussed Sanz’s decision to sign Elvir Baljic for for an incomprehensible amount of money (more than what Real Betis paid for Denilson the year prior which was then a world record) in 1999.

I look at everything. If I’m in the stadium, I’m looking at who’s talking to each other off the ball, who’s barking instructions, the collective and individual shape off the ball during a press or deep block, who’s moving without the ball, where the passing outlets are, which players are hyper-aware of their surroundings (shoulder checks, popping up to dispossess unsuspecting players), what do opponent passing lanes look like, etc. At half time, I check the stats and heat map of every single player. My word document which I use to take notes, is 51 pages this season. And the season ‘ended’ in March. I write down the minutes of things I find interesting so that I can go back and clip them out for columns later.

We should preface this answer by saying: Man, these transfer rumours are going to grind us into a slow death until the pandemic is over.

How much does this Marca cover actually tell us? Nothing new.

Mbappe is the new Hazard — the kid who idolized Zidane and flirts with Real Madrid every day until he finally puts the white shirt on. Haaland is this season’s Jovic — the lethal breakout star you just can’t ignore. We’re going to be told about these two kids in the paper every day, without actually being told much. Everyone will chime in. Everyone will copy each other’s reports and give it a twist.

Now the answer: If Haaland is signed, that’s not great news for Jovic — not unless Benzema is sold, anyway. (And I’ll leave it to you to give me the odds of that happening. I’d imagine you wouldn’t put money on it.) Here’s another question: What happens to Haaland? How much does he play behind Benzema? How much does he play with Benzema? How much of that duo would offset benching a creative winger for? Maybe there’s a deeper question in all of this: What can happen the day Zidane decides to not rely on Benzema as the offensive fulcrum for every single match?

Plenty of stats are democratized! Most of the stuff we use in post-game analysis can be found on: Understat, WhoScored, and Football Reference (this is relatively new, and is great. It’s the football equivalent to Basketball Reference). Some friends who work for StatsBomb (where I also write articles) and Wyscout will sometimes give me deeper analytics if I ask for them, but a lot of the stuff is available for free, which is great for the sport.

I’m digging the positive energy. I’m generally critical of Zidane’s tactics over the course of the league season, but I’ll have a go.

After things hit rock bottom in Paris, Zidane made good adjustments, Some of those adjustments were so good they were actually unprecedented in Real Madrid history. The defensive record, for a stretch, was statistically better than it ever was. This season, Real Madrid’s defending was the best in the league alongside Atleti’s, and it was one of the top defensive barricades in Europe. Let’s run through:

  • The defense was improved with simple tweaks, rather than a regression of the team’s block. The press really hit its peak against PSG and Barcelona, and the team started defending higher up the pitch.
  • Casemiro’s positioning actually started to make sense. Zidane stopped sending him forward to mask his lack of press-resistancy. Even when Casemiro made runs into the box, he was well covered by the central midfielders — something that almost never happened in years’ past where everyone’s positioning resembled pieces of a popped balloon scattered in random places.
  • The emergence of Fede Valverde stabilized the team’s shape. He’s underrated offensively with his blitzing runs in the half-spaces, and he helps Casemiro shield the backline while hounding opponents.
  • We saw signs of Isco’s 16/17 form. The downside of this is that teams in 18/19 readily scouted the diamond from the year prior, and teams this season started to do it too (see: Atleti twice). Isco, in a vacuum though, has been a huge asset in big games — especially with Hazard’s absence.
  • Hazard showed signs of his 18/19 form. We’re all crossing our fingers that both him and Asensio can return and stay healthy. I’m not sure if this actually qualifies as a ‘success’ — I’m just throwing it in.
  • Benzema, one of the most polarizing figures of this generation, was pretty incredible up until January. That counts for something.
  • Kroos and Varane recovered their pre-World Cup form.
  • Courtois has found himself.
  • Ferland Mendy was so good defensively. At times clumsy with the ball, but at least brings some degree of underrated offensive chaos.
  • Managing Madrid started doing live podcasts in Madrid, and our numbers across the board leaped this year in terms of both downloads, and visits to the site.

I think I got them all.

If he signed last summer, assuming you also get so sign Hazard — then you have one of the most terrifying line-breaking duos in Europe. No defensive line is resting easy at the site of those two running at them.

But, I’m just going to copy and paste my answer from a Reddit AMA I did last summer, which still holds true:

“I’m really high on Neymar on a footballing level. I think he’s the type of player that can carry your team’s offense when things aren’t clicking. But, is he a problem solver? No, of course not. And Hazard, who was one of the best players in the Premier League last season, and carried a broken offense, plays in the same position as Neymar. So we weren’t desperate. There are a lot of world class teams that don’t have Neymar, Messi, or Ronaldo — but they have a blueprint to create chances with a fluid offense. That’s what’s missing more than Neymar.”

TL;DR: Neymar is an incredible offensive presence, and is underrated in his off-ball work ethic. He raises your ceiling, and has a transcendent presence that might be the difference between winning a title or not. But, Real Madrid also need to sort out tactical issues with or without him.

Not in its current form. It took a lot of time to prepare each week. I think we’ll return in some capacity, down the road, with a bigger production team and staff.

I don’t see any player turning into Cristiano Ronaldo again in my lifetime. Yes, I’m possibly wrong about this. I would be happy if anyone exposed this take 5-50 years from now to call me out. I didn’t think anyone would break Raul’s goalscoring records when I was younger — yet here I am in awe of just how badly Ronaldo shattered it in much less time. People will emerge we don’t know about yet. (Or people we know about will prove us wrong.)

Out of that list, Sancho has the highest ceiling, and best odds to become the next transcendent superstar. Obviously Kylian Mbappe is a shoe-in bet for the icon that will lead the next generation. Martin Odegaard is a freak, and will be a chance-generating machine for years to come. I think Rashford falls somewhere in a slightly lower tier, but I’ve been really impressed with his line-breaking ability this season.

Can we throw in Asensio as an outside candidate for players that might turn a corner and become one of the best offensive players in the world? I’m still on that island. I’d even understand if you were off it completely — but I’d still be there, with a raft close by just in case.

One of my biggest weaknesses with mailbags is spending 1-2k words on the opening question, with like 30 questions...

Posted by Kiyan Sobhani on Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Odegaard is versatile enough that you could slide him in a midfield three with those two. (That’s one hard-working midfield which would be fun to see.) Or you could just stick him on the right wing and allow Kroos to stay in midfield. I’d go for the latter option. I prefer Odegaard leading a press and in the final third as much as possible.

It’s changed for the better, in every way possible. My understanding of the game wouldn’t have evolved the same way as a casual fan. I enjoy losses now more than ever, because dissecting the loss in an article, or breaking it down in a podcast is the best kind of therapy. It does not feel exhausting at all. You know what’s exhausting, Mahdi? Lying down, doing nothing. That shit sucks the life out of you. I have endless energy when I’m talking about football.

(Find the lesson.)


If you’re interested in mentorship, I’m dedicating more time to my clients now than ever before. Send me a note.

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