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Managing Madrid Roundtable: 2020/2021 Season Preview

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Annual predictions from the crew are here

FBL-ESP-LIGA-REAL MADRID-VALENCIA Photo by JAVIER SORIANO/AFP via Getty Images

It’s that time of year — the annual Managing Madrid roundtable season preview has returned! Most of our writers have come together to share their thoughts and predictions on the upcoming 2019/2020 season:


What does Zinedine Zidane need to improve on heading into the new season?

Kiyan Sobhani: 1. The lack of press-resistancy has knocked Real Madrid out of the Champions League for two consecutive seasons now. Some of that is down to personnel (Ramos missing both second legs, and he is the best passing center-back the team has; and Marcelo and Isco sitting out at the Etihad), and the rest is down to wonky, disjointed off-ball movement and bad design. Casemiro remains uncomfortable in those situations.

2. The offense needs to be less predictable. I suspect a healthy Hazard and Asensio would help with the team’s ingenuity. If you’re going to play a crossing-scheme, maybe stop pretending Cristiano Ronaldo is still in the team, and that crossing to Sergio Ramos (sprinting into the box amid a slow build-up) is your next best offensive set.

Robert Husby: I think he needs to value the younger talent and incorporate them a bit more. I’d like to see more of Vinicius and Rodrygo, who are only developing more every season. Fede Valverde has proven he has the talent to become much more involved or even a starter. Zidane is still loyal to older veterans like Marcelo or Modric, which is fine because they do perform well and are important leaders, but I’d love to see Valverde or even Jovic more this season. Jovic has to be mature himself to gain that trust and take minutes from Benzema, but certainly needs way more time on the pitch this season. #FreeJovic2020

José Pérez: To summarize it in a single sentence: Zidane must create a richer and more diverse offensive structure that does not depend so heavily on Ramos and Benzema. At this point in their careers, we should work under the assumption that the performance of these two will only decrease, and so the team cannot depend so much on them.e

As things stand right now, an injury to Benzema would be catastrophic. 40% of Real’s goals are scored or assisted by him, and there is practically no collective offensive structure without him. The team doesn’t know how to operate on the offense without Benzema as the focal spot.

Meanwhile, the last two years of Champions League knockout games have already shown what happens when Ramos is missing, not just in terms of defending the box but also how the team builds up. In the absence of Ramos, Casemiro must shoulder responsibilities in the buildup phase that he simply is not prepared for.

So I agree with Om that key names for this season are Militão and Jović, as they are the ones who must step up and start taking the baton from Ramos and Benzema. However, it’s not just their responsibility; Zidane must also make an effort to build around them too. Ramos and Benzema should be rested more often than in previous years to conserve their energy for the big games, which would give Militão and Jovic more minutes to integrate into the team’s structure.

Kristofer McCormack: I said last season that he needed to learn to hand the car keys for this team over to younger players and, heading into the new campaign, I feel that’s something he must improve on. Zidane was certainly vindicated with his trust of the veterans last year alongside a sparing sprinkle of young talent such as Fede Valverde. Nonetheless, a reckoning is coming very soon where the likes of Sergio Ramos, Luka Modric and Karim Benzema won’t be available/the best option for this team and their backups are players Zidane has made minimal effort to integrate so far.

I’m hoping this season that Zizou becomes a little more adventurous with his team selection.

Emily Wilson: I’ve never really understood (or even really agreed with) Zidane’s substitution timing. When the team is down in a match, it’s usually pretty easy to pin-point which players will be taken off and which ones will come on. For the most part, ZZ makes the right decisions but in many cases, he waits until there really isn’t enough time on the clock for any changes to make a difference. Right decisions, wrong timing. With the new five substitutions rule, I’d like to see him make some of his substitutions earlier on in the game when the team really needs it, not after the 80 minute mark. Give the players enough time to actually be the difference.

Lucas Navarrete: It’s clear that Madrid now need to produce more offensively. That will likely mean that the team’s defensive numbers won’t be as great given that both the wingers and the central midfielders will be taking more chances on offense, but it just needs to happen. I expect the wingers to play with an attacking mindset instead of helping the midfield as much as they did last season. As Om mentions below, it would also be very interesting to give more minutes to young players and make more rotations, given that Madrid have the quality and the depth to do so. Jovic and Militao in particular are the two players who should be more involved now that Benzema and Ramos are a year older, but Odegaard is also one player who should get consistent playing time now that the team decided to bring him back.

Om Arvind: Like Matt says, Zidane needs to create a more diverse offensive scheme. As I outlined in painstaking detail in this piece, Real Madrid scored the majority of last season’s goals from counter-attacks and dead ball situations because we were inefficient in possession play — not just because we were incisive after winning the ball back and skilled at drawing penalties. Achieving that is easier said than done, as it involves restructuring the midfield shape so that Real Madrid can facilitate semi-transition against set defenses. Ødegaard could make this possible and that is reason enough for Zidane to try to incorporate the Norwegian in a manner that highlights his strengths. It is probably his toughest task yet, but I wouldn’t bet against him given how he transformed Madrid’s defense in late 2019.

Zidane also needs to integrate Jović and slowly give Militão more time on the field. The former issue is a more immediate concern, as Benzema shouldered an obscene goal scoring load from open play and would’ve been run into the ground if not for lockdown. The latter project is a more long-term concern that is slowly becoming more of a present one, as Ramos creeps towards his post-peak self.

Matt Wiltse: Creating a more diverse offensive tactical scheme with new shapes and different patterns. Zidane has always been malleable and open to changing his formation or system depending on the players involved, but I think there needs to clear principles of play in the final third to get the best out of what could occasionally be a stuttering attack. This change would likely bring out the best in a guy like Jovic. Benzema will be 33-years-old next season and Zidane will need to trust other players to lead the line and brings goals, even if that means Hazard or Asensio have to play as a false nine occasionally.

Euan McTear: He needs to stop calling every single one of Real Madrid’s 50+ fixtures in a season “a final.” Seriously, Zizou. Stop it.

But being seriously serious, I think Zidane doesn’t need to improve on much. One area I’d mention is the five substitutions rule. Five subs are staying for the 2020/21 season and Zidane only used all five of the subs available in six of the 12 post-lockdown matches towards the end of last season. I think he needs to work out exactly how and when to use these options from the bench if this rule sticks around because in-game rotation is going to be huge this season.

How do you feel about Bale going back to Tottenham?

Kiyan Sobhani: There are few situations, if any, that can unlock a previous version of Gareth Bale. If there’s any situation that might get him to rediscover his verve for the game, it might be at a Tottenham homecoming, in a situation where he plays in a counter-attacking scheme, under a manager who truly believes in him but doesn’t tolerate apathy. Having said that, he’s already going to miss the first month of football due to injury, and that variable will always hinder his ability to get back to a high level.

What do I feel? Grateful for his signing back in 2013, and grateful for the unforgettable memories he gave us. He genuinely morphed into one of my favourite footballers from 2013 - 2017. But I also feel sad about how things ended, and I feel disappointed (and let down as a fan) by how he didn’t seem to care during his time on the field in the past two seasons.

Robert Husby: It’s bittersweet, honestly. Bale has consistently been my favorite player on the squad since he arrived in 2013. He was the first Madrid jersey I bought as an adult, so I’m sure I will cry into it many times. The connection he had with the appropriately-named ‘BBC’ between himself, Benzema and Cristiano was a thrill to watch at its best.

It seems like just yesterday he was burning Marc Bartra in the Copa del Rey Final and clinching two Champions League Finals with big goals, one goal being one of the best overhead goals I’ve ever seen on an even bigger stage. While perhaps not a legend in everyone’s minds, I would personally say he will live in Real Madrid history fondly for the contributions he’s made in championship moments.

It seems like a tale of two careers with Bale at Real Madrid, though. He was phenomenal his first several seasons before the injuries started to pile on, something he really couldn’t control. And it seems like since the goal against Liverpool it has really been rock bottom for him. It hurts to see what has transpired between player, club and even the Spanish media. It’s become a toxic relationship that isn’t healthy for neither Real nor Bale to continue on another season.

With that being said, it will be interesting to see him back at the club that made him one of the best players in both England and Europe. He has history with Spurs so it’s a good chance for him to hopefully find some form again. His competition is Erik Lamela... I much prefer to see him there than wasting what’s left of his talents in the MLS or the Chinese Super League. He will be missed at least from me; it’s a bitter pill to finally swallow and accept.

Diolch, Gareth.

José Pérez: I’m not going to think about whether this is a good deal for Tottenham or not because that’s a completely separate article. But I do think it’s the right way to go both for Real Madrid and Bale, who at this point couldn’t be further apart.

In my mind, Bale’s time at Real Madrid was up after the 18/19 season. That had to be HIS year, when the departure of Ronaldo would allow him to take the spotlight, but it never happened. 18/19 was a terrible year for everyone, but what hurt the most in the case of Bale is that he didn’t even try to take initiative and the leadership. The Bernabeu can forgive mistakes but it never forgives one who stops trying.

Bale should have left after last season, the club didn’t allow it, and 19/20 essentially became a lost year for him and Real Madrid, who still had to pay his humongous salary. His departure was overdue, and it’s a relief that it finally gets to happen.

Kristofer McCormack: I've enjoyed the Bale experience, even the meme he became last season with his hand binoculars. Nonetheless, another season of it wouldn't have been that funny and provided this Spurs deal draws a line in the sand for his Madrid career, Im happy to see the back of him.

In terms of how he might perform in Tottenham, Im willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. I think Bale and his agent dug their own graves alot of the time, however, its perfectably understandable how booing fans, a bitter media campaign and a manager who doesnt trust you could lead to what Bale became. He has plenty of work to do, but Id back him to make some sort of comeback post-Madrid

Emily Wilson: I don’t mind it. Since the beginning of this saga I’ve always thought a return to Tottenham would be one of the better options for Bale. And honestly, the most realistic. I still have a soft spot for the Welshman so if it happens, I’m happy he will have the chance to play for a club where he actually wants to be involved. If it doesn’t, then things will stay just as they’ve been for the last few seasons and I’m fine with that too.

Lucas Navarrete: It’s the right scenario for him, where he will have a chance to show that he can still play elite football. Real Madrid could’ve probably got rid of his entire contract two years ago and now they’ll be paying around 50% of his salary when he’s defending someone else’s shirt, but it’s happened in the past and it’s just the way it goes. Bale was just not going to contribute for Madrid.

Om Arvind: I think it’s a remarkably good deal for Real Madrid and Bale. But for Tottenham? There’s a lot of uncertainty in my mind as to where Bale is now as a footballer. He’s been clearly disinterested in playing for Madrid for at least a season, so that undoubtedly affected his quality, but he also wasn’t very good for most of 2018/19. Having said that, pretty much no one was good in 2018/19. I do believe he still has some decent football in him when motivated, but with his age and injury history, I’m not sure Spurs are going to receive the value they are hoping for.

From a more personal perspective, I feel relieved. Bale was fantastic in his prime and gave us so many great moments, but this has ended in such a drawn-out, exhausting way, with a lot of ugliness in-between. Most of the fanbase has turned against him, Zidane couldn’t get rid of him sooner, and Bale has seemed to have lost much of the admiration he held for the club, which is what motivated him to so aggressively push for a move to the Bernabéu. I’ve been tired of this saga since the beginning of the season and I feel really sad that my overwhelming emotion is one of relief in response to his departure.

Matt Wiltse: When fit, in form, and focused Gareth Bale can be one of the best players in the world. The problem? He rarely is all three of those things. As his Real Madrid career has declined, so has his attitude. I can see Gareth starting out his Tottenham career on fire — boosted by the fans + Jose Mourinho’s belief, but I think he will ultimately fall injured multiple times throughout the season and his form will tail off, making for a so-so season.

Jess Houwen: While I can appreciate what he has done for us, I think he was past due to move on to another club. He really seemed to enjoy himself more when he was playing under Solari and Lopetegui than this past season under Zidane. His facial expressions, body language, and attitude while on the bench really betrayed how he actually felt about the team. When fit, he is absolutely dangerous and capable of so much. Unfortunately, his fitness has been consistently questionable. Maybe a move will renew him in some way because he really is fun to watch when he’s running at 100%. I really hope he stays fit and excels in the EPL.

Euan McTear:

Relieved. Zidane’s press conferences have become twice-weekly sessions in dodging questions about Bale and I don’t think anybody’s sanity would have been helped by another year of this. It’s a shame to see Bale depart since he has produced so many special moments, but it was clear there were no more special moments left in him, at least not for Real Madrid. So, good luck back at Spurs, Gareth.

What is your hot take for this season?

Kiyan Sobhani: Gareth Bale will scored 15 goals at Tottenham this season, but we will be happy for him and forget about it, because Marco Asensio will resume his form from 2017, and Martin Odegaard will amplify the team’s attacking creativity and output.

Robert Husby: Ferland Mendy takes over the starting job. Maybe its not the hottest of hot takes as Mendy started a good amount this past season, but the club still clearly loves Marcelo as a starter. It’s going to be a duel between the two to log minutes, but I think Mendy will ultimately get the majority of the minutes based on how great he was this past year.

And why not throw in an additional spicy take free of charge: Mbappe joins Real Madrid in Summer 2021.

José Pérez: Stuck between injuries and Zidane not knowing what to do with his right midfield and winger options, Martin Ødegaard will not have an important role in the team this year. And if you know how much I like Ødegaard, you can imagine how much I want this to be wrong.

Kristofer McCormack: The digital audiences of all Spanish stadiums will become sentient and take over the country, banishing their flesh and blood creators to found the First Digital Republic of Spain. Their national national anthem will be the Windows XP start up music and, through advanced 3D printers and Google Images, the new nation will produce modern clones of Spain’s greatest sportsmen, thinkers and politicians.

By January, the digital republic will have cured the coronavirus and will give this cure to the rest of Europe on the condition that they allow touchscreen devices to choose whether they want keyboards or not. I also think Karim Benzema will score a bucket load of goals again.

Emily Wilson: Attacking players will finally find the back of the net consistently. Top scorers will include Benzema alongside multiple attackers rather than Benzema plus some midfielders and defenders like we’ve seen. I also strongly agree with Om’s take below.

Lucas Navarrete: Everyone is expecting big things from Odegaard as soon as this season but his minutes will be similar to the ones Brahim Diaz had last campaign.

Om Arvind: Eden Hazard will never return to the previous level he displayed at Chelsea.

Matt Wiltse: Readers, it’s important that you remember my “hot take”. Why? Well just look at my predictions for the last two years:

2019/2020:

2018/2019:

Alright, enough tooting my own horn! Here is my latest hot take: One of Sergio Arribas, Antonio Blanco, or Miguel Guttierrez will not only debut with the first team, but will play around 7-10 matches by the end of the season.

Jess Houwen: rubs hands together We win it all! And we steamroll Barcelona and their sorority-looking jerseys every time we meet up! Also, we manage to somehow convince Mbappe to finally come aboard.

Euan McTear:

Ok, let’s get hot in here. Let’s make Nelly proud. I’ll be outrageous here and say that Lucas Vázquez plays more minutes, scores more goals and provides more assists than Eden Hazard. Something really isn’t right with Hazard’s ankle, sadly. I can see this being a similarly injury-hit season for the Belgian and he’ll be out-statted by the likes of Marco Asensio, Rodrygo, Vinícius and even Lucas Vázquez.

Give us your predictions for:

A) Unsung hero of the season

B) MIP (most improved)

C) MVP

Kiyan Sobhani:

A) Unsung hero: Dani Carvajal

B) MIP: Eden Hazard

C) MVP: Karim Benzema

Robert Husby:

A) Courtois: The man does not get nearly enough love after the bounceback season he just had. He was a big reason Real conceded the least goals in La Liga and winning the Zamora Trophy. I expect him to be stellar again this season while flying somewhat under the radar.

B) Hazard: After a forgettable debut season plagued with injury and inconsistency, it really can only go up for Hazard. If he can stay healthy, he will establish himself as the player they bought him for (hopefully).

C) Benzema: Arguably the best player the last two seasons for Real. There’s no reason I can’t see why Karim won’t be scoring the majority of the goals again in 2020-21.

José Pérez:

A) Hazard. I don’t think he will return to his Chelsea goal and assist levels, and will understandably get criticized for it. However, in that process many will also overlook his contributions to ball progression and disordering defenses that will make it easier for teammates to score and assist. Even if he doesn’t score or assist as much, I still think Hazard will be vital in improving Zidane’s offensive setup this year.

B) Jović, if only because it’s hard to have a more anonymous season than the last one.

C) Benzema, mostly because if he’s not MVP his team will be in big trouble.

Kristofer McCormack:

A) Lucas Vazquez

B) Marcelo

C) Benzema

Emily Wilson:

A) Courtois

B) Rodrygo

C) Benzema

Lucas Navarrete:

A) Rodrygo

B) Jovic

C) Benzema

Om Arvind:

A) Carvajal: I think his good 19/20 season flew under the radar and I’m betting on him to replicate those performances again. Pretty much every other player got roughly the due praise they deserved last campaign.

B) This is really hard. My heart says Vinícius or Rodrygo, but I ultimately feel like they’re still one year away from that big leap. I also want to say Asensio, but he’s always been very good and I think 20/21 will be more about him recovering his old form. So, I have to land on Odriozola. Though he didn’t get much time at Madrid and got even less at Bayern, he’s a very talented player that has shown overlooked flashes of strong underlying production. His physical tools are immense and I think he has what it takes to bother Carvajal for the right back spot.

C) Karim Benzema: I’m most skeptical of Zidane’s incorporation of Jović and, thus, if Madrid are to have a successful season, a high-performing Benzema will once again be the most valuable player in the team.

I also think that Ødegaard has an outside shot at this title because of how he can revitalize the attack if he plays in the right environment, gets good playing time, and manages his injury well.

Matt Wiltse:

A) Toni Kroos: We have become immune to how consistently good the German cyborg is and his insane performances will continue to fall under the radar

B) Rodrygo Goes: I think this is the year Rodrygo goes up another level. He is capable of getting double figures in both goals and assists.

C) Karim Benzema: He’s arguably been the MVP the past two seasons in a row, who is to say that he can’t repeat that feat for a third time?

Jess Houwen:

A) Unsung: Casemiro

B) MIP: Asensio

C) MVP: Marcelo

Euan McTear:

A) As I revealed to Kiyan in a recent episode of the podcast, I’m picking Éder Militão for unsung hero. Raphaël Varane missed just one game due to injury last season – the Athletic Club away game, after the restart – and that is so unlikely to happen again, considering how much he has been made of glass in previous seasons. So, Éder Militão will surely have to come in for Varane on a few occasions this season and I’m backing him to do well. He was quietly very good when he played in 2019/20. He’ll play a lot more this year and he’ll play well.

B) I’m going for Fede Valverde for most improved. There’s a great case to be made for him being last season’s most improved player and I think he can also make another big jump this year. It’s about consistency for Valverde this term. He was great at points last year and now needs to keep that level up for longer. I think he can.

C) It’s got to be Karim Benzema. Not only is there a great chance that he’ll be the best player of the year for Real Madrid, but he is also extra valuable since there is such a dropoff to his backups. Benzema’s value to this Real Madrid squad is immeasurable.

Give us your final season predictions: Standings in La Liga, Copa, and UCL.

Kiyan Sobhani:

La Liga: Champions

Copa: Champions

UCL: Champions

Robert Husby:

La Liga: Champions

Copa: Champions

UCL: Quarter-Finals

José Pérez: I’d be surprised if this team wins more than one trophy, I just can’t see it having that degree of consistency.

La Liga: Champions. The sporting and institutional crisis at Barcelona looks like it will get worse, not better, and that’s a prime opportunity for Real to get back-to-back league titles.

Copa: Quarterfinals. Good place to do some squad experiments and rest people, I have no expectations here.

UCL: Quarterfinals. The team is not ready yet to win this one again unless Hazard somehow gets back to Chelsea final year level.

Kristofer McCormack: I like C-Trick’s energy for his season predictions so I’m going to follow his example — Real Madrid are going to win it all this year.

Emily Wilson:

LaLiga: Champions

Copa del Rey: Semi finals

UCL: Quarter finals

Lucas Navarrete:

LaLiga: Champions

Copa del Rey: Champions

Champions League: Quarterfinals

Om Arvind:

La Liga: Champions

Copa del Rey: Quarter-Finals

Champions League: Quarter-Finals

Matt Wiltse:

La Liga: Winners

Copa: Winners

UCL: Quarter-Finals

Jess Houwen:

La Liga: Champions

Copa: Champions

UCL: Hopefully champions, but semis at the very least

Euan McTear:

1st in LaLiga. Quarter-finals in the Copa del Rey. Champions of Europe for a 14th time.

Real Madrid haven’t won back-to-back league titles since 2006/07 and 2007/08, but I think they do it this time given the mess at Barcelona and the fact that Atlético Madrid draw every second match. Real Madrid will, I reckon, once again have a random off night in the Copa del Rey, but I think they can go deeper into Europe than they have done in the past couple of years. If I’m predicting a Champions League winner at this early stage, Real Madrid perhaps do look the best-placed of Europe’s super clubs.