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How Real Madrid Castilla became play-off contenders

Plus some first team thoughts on Arribas and Park

Let’s begin this month edition of written Castilla Corner (last month here) by time travelling to two months ago, immediately following a 2-2 draw with Internacional de Madrid. Castilla, after initially going down a goal, had charged into a 2-1 lead thanks to Hugo Duro and Carlos Dotor. Looking assured to add to their lead at halftime, Castilla failed to make their first half dominance count and eventually let their lead slip in added time. It was the third game in a row in which Castilla had taken a lead and failed to secure all three points. This particular collapse looked the mostly costly of the three.

As pointed out in the reaction piece that night, all four of Castilla’s then relegation rivals had a game in hand. Castilla’s faith looked out of their hands and things had the potential to get worse had they lost the derby against Atleti. Hosted at a ground where Castilla have won twice since the turn of the century, Raul’s side were able to conjure an encouraging victory away.

Returning to the present day, Real Madrid Castilla’s season has taken a complete U-turn. A rare run of two wins over Las Rozas and Real Navalcarnero has left the reserves comfortably clear of relegation and two points off the final play-off spot with a game in hand.

The turnaround has been a welcome surprise and, with five games left, comes a great time for Castilla. So, how’d they do it?

Real Navalcarnero

From the get-go, this Segunda B season promised to be weird and intense and it hasn’t disappointed. Last season’s group champions (Atletico Madrid B) are five points away from simply staying in the third tier while the runaway leaders, San Sebastian de los Reyes, were the runaway losers of Group 1 last season, needing a global pandemic to prevent relegation. The flipped nature of the table, with sides predicted to be relegated heading for promotion and vice a versa, made Castilla’s troubles all the more disappointing and they’ve been fortunate that things have normalized recently (except Atleti, who might actually get relegated).

Things as they stand

As much as Castilla have improved in the New Year, this promotion charge would be nothing without third place Navalcarnero’s collapse. Promoted from the fourth division, Navalcarnero were putting together a fairytale run of their own until they visited Castilla at the beginning of November. Preceding that game, they were unbeaten and top of the league with three wins in four games. After becoming the victims of a really encouraging Castilla performance, in which the hosts came back from 1-0 down to win 3-1, Navalcarnero have played 10 games and not won a single one. It’s a dire run of results that Raul’s men have taken full advantage of in 2021.

Hugo Duro

Castilla, in the last decade, have always required star power to challenge for promotion. In 2011/12, a talented core of young players pushed the reserves into the Spanish second division. The same could largely be said of the 2018/19 side, though they fell well short of repeating the feat of 2012 in the end.

With a historic UEFA Youth League title in the bag preceding this season, it would be easy to say that a similarly talented core has once again pushed Castilla into promotion contention. Even in light of recent improvements (we’ll get to that), I don’t think that’s a fair reflection of Castilla’s promotion push. If anyone were to take the credit for where the club is now, its Hugo Duro

Duro is the culmination of alot of soul searching from Raul. Since taking over at head coach, the former Spanish forward has preferred a physical, target man profile as his striker. Preceding a long term injury, that player seemed to be Pedro Ruiz. During the UEFA Youth League, it looked liked Juan Latasa, however, the signing of Duro from Getafe settled any debate in regards Castilla’s starting forward.

The 21-year-old is certainly the most refined and promising option that Raul has so far had at his disposal. Naturally with eight goals in 12 games so far this season, it is easy to say this, however, Duro’s potential has been known nationwide for a lot longer than this season.

Prior to joining Castilla, Duro had already made his LaLiga and European debut with the Getafe first team, scoring his first goal for the club against Villarreal. He’s been capped at U-21 level, scoring from the spot during Spain’s recent European qualifying campaign. “We’ve been keeping a close eye on him since he was at under-17s level,” a Real club figure told AS following the announcement that Duro would be joining Madrid on loan.

Credit must go to the board room for making Duro possible. Manu Fernandez was, supposedly, critical in turning Madrid’s interest in the young striker into something concrete having worked with Duro at Getafe B and was key in convincing the striker to take a step backwards and join Castilla. Activating the purchase option in Duro contract seems like a surity for Madrid and should he pan out -be it with Castilla, the first team or profit in the bank- Duro’s signing will join the UEFA Youth League victory in the highlight reel of a great first season for Fernandez’s administrative team. One might argue, based on performances so far, that Duro has already proven to be a massive steal for Real.

The young forward has approached this division with a confidence similar to how Reinier Jesus did in his brief stint last year. One of my favorite attributes in a forward is chasing down lost causes and Duro has done that all campaign, albeit for no reward just yet. If he were to have one weakness, it would be that he offers little outside of his target man role, however, one could argue that this is more to do with what Raul’s asking him to do up front than Duro not having the skills to play as a more complete forward.

His selection to the senior squad is richly deserved and one would be hard pushed to believe he won't make the most of it

The MIPs

I was initially under the impression that picking some standout individual improvements would be easy, however, after re-watching recent matches, its actually quite difficult to single out a player. There has been a significant improvement across the board with the side looking much more confident and composed.

With uptick like this, you have to give credit to the coach. Raul has certainly improved some weaknesses we saw in Castilla at the start of the season and has been brave in his selection decisions. Faced with an injury crisis early on, Castilla’s coach didn’t hesitate giving the likes of Peter Federico, Alberto Retuerta and Alvaro Carillo, promising and new talents in the U-19s, a chance to shine. The latter two have been rip roaring successes and would arguably be considered starters in a fully fit Castilla side now while Carillo has gone on to have a great season with Juvenil A.

Blooding the next generation has been paired with patience with the current side, Sergio Santos would certainly be the poster boy in this respect. No one has struggled to find form this season as much as he has, looking unsteady at best of times and a liability at the worst. The flexible full back hit rock bottom in the 2-2 draw against Internacional de Madrid, repeatedly getting turned and stretched to a point, where taking him seemed liked the merciful thing to do.

Raul had, by the Inter game, every excuse to drop Santos, however, he obviously trusted the 20-year-old to come good and started him once again the following week against Atletico Madrid B. Like so many of his teammates, Santos finally found some confidence in his performance against Atleti and he’s been building off it ever since. He no longer looks frail defensively and has added a wicked cross to his arsenal, creating two goals in his last three games.

Honorable mentions have to go out to Mario Gila, Hugo Vallejo and Cesar Gelabert, particularly the latter two. Both came into this season with a lot of expectation, Gelabert had a disappointing 2019/20, and after being linked to some big clubs in Europe, came into 20/21 expected to prove he was worthy of the interest. Vallejo, meanwhile, was the latest weird signing Real Madrid have made, joining from Malaga last year. Having played so much in the second tier, one would have expected him to dominant in Segunda B but he’s really struggled, losing his starting spot to Marvin and Peter early on.

Both players have thankfully recovered their form with Gelabert being a mainstay in the team since the 3-1 win over Navalcarnero while Vallejo has started showing signs of life and bagged his first goal against Las Rozas last week.

The upcoming schedule and permutations

Putting the pieces together couldn’t have come at a better time for this side. The first phase of the Segunda B season is almost over and the final five games are, on paper at least, a real early challenge to this side’s title credentials. Poblense at home this coming Sunday is the last “easy” fixture Real have on their schedule. Following that game, they travel to play the team above them, Internacional de Madrid and then host Atletico Madrid B. Their last game of the is against the current league leaders and between those four fixtures, they have a game in hand to play against second place Rayo Majadahonda.

Castilla collected eight points from the 15 available in the reverse fixtures so, despite now favorites for that last play-off spot, its far from a done deal. Even if they fail to go all the way, finishing in the play-off spots would ensure Castilla of a place in next season’s Segunda B whereas anything outside that would mean they will have to fight for it. Big stakes are on the line, watch this space.

First team watch: Marvin Park and Sergio Arribas.

Success is always two sided with the B-team. Naturally, challenging in the third tier is brilliant, however, one would argue that Castilla’s real barometer for success is how many of its graduates get first team minutes. Last season was miserable for the reserves, that this season, one where Zidane has been rightfully criticized for his handling of the youth project, we’d see a complete U-turn in fortunes is as surprising as it is ironic.

Three Castilla players have already made their first team debuts this year, Park and Arribas comfortably the most successful so far. Anyone who has watched Marvin play will automatically know why Zidane likes him so much. Though lacking his senior counterparts consistent end product, Marvin is born out of the Lucas Vazquez mould. A hard working and tireless winger, he’s still finding his stride in the first team. The wingback role he found himself in against Getafe was interesting, Marvin has a good defensive workrate, however, no manager he has worked under so far has seen him as a full back. I felt he didn’t take too many risks and was helped by Getafe not pressing him too intensely, nonetheless, it was a solid showing from the winger and just win him Zidane’s trust in the long term.

Arribas journey to the first team hasn’t been quite as obvious as Marvin’s has, despite being earmarked as one of the more talented players of this generation

Truth be told, the diminutive Arribas has taken some time to find his feet in professional football. He’s found himself muscled out of his favoured areas, hovering between the lines and just outside the box. Raul’s emphasis on width also left little room for a player like Arribas early on. His turn in form practically came in the space of a week where he made his European debut and saved Castilla’s blushes in the derby with a big cojones penalty in the 95th minute. The latter game, Raul decided to deploy Arribas as a winger and he’s hasn’t looked back since.

The way he glides off markers with the ball at his feet was peak Arribas last season and its a welcome sight to see him back to his best.

Wisely, Raul hasn’t restricted Arribas to the wing (a trademark of Solari’s wingers) giving Arribas license to roam. This below is my favorite example of Arribas utilizing that freedom, look at Blanco’s options at the start and keep a constant eye at number 22.

The dribbling hasn’t quite followed Arribas into the first team just yet and like Marvin, he’s still figuring things out. Nonetheless, he managed to pop up in the right places and was inches away from a goal against Getafe, playing the pre-assist to Marcelo on the Mendy goal.

What all these debuts mean in the long run is anyone guess. So far, Zidane has had little choice but to involve the Castilla squad, there is very little to suggest that once he has his preferred options back, Zidane will continue giving the likes of Arribas minutes. From a player perspective, especially someone like Park who might be considering a move in the summer, any games with the first team is a valuable asset to his young playing CV.

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