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Know Thine Enemigo: Supercopa de España final Q&A with Kiyan Sobhani

The Real Madrid journalist and podcaster offered a few thoughts ahead of the derbi in Jeddah.

Álvaro Morata will go up against his old teammates on Sunday.
Photo by GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP via Getty Images

Aside: check out the Q&A I did for Managing Madrid if that’s your thing.

So! Real Madrid are unbeaten in 15 and joint-top of LaLiga. What’s the mood like around Managing Madrid these days?

People are happy. We’re happy. There’s cautious optimism around here — the team has started its traditional spring-time jolt under Zinedine Zidane a bit early, and the encouraging performances of late (apart from the PSG draw) have all come without Eden Hazard, who is due back soon. Also promising: they played the game against Valencia without Karim Benzema, the inarguable best player the team has had this season. The fact that they played so well offensively without him showed that there is a systemic and tactical plan in place that does not fall apart in the absence of one or two individuals.

Anyway — that’s the feeling for now. Football is volatile. There will be ups and downs. But one thing that’s really encouraging is how good the defense has been — as well as the emergence of Fede Valverde to help balance the midfield.

Atlético Madrid and Real Madrid have conceded 12 goals apiece in LaLiga this season — the lowest total in the division. We know about Atleti’s penchant for clean sheets, but how has Zidane turned around RM’s defense?

What’s been really impressive about Real Madrid’s defense this season is that they’ve done it not just by fixing specific defensive issues, but by controlling games. They haven’t sacrificed their offense the way Atlético have. (Sorry.)

Zidane has been able to limit the chances of the opponents, particularly in bigger games, by putting Isco in the team and giving the team possession and counter-pressing abilities. Real Madrid have done a good job of stopping their opponents high up the pitch — and anytime the press is bypassed, Casemiro, Ramos, and Varane have done well to mop up the mess.

Also, can’t forget Thibaut Courtois, who has put a nice run of games here. (Sorry again.)

Thib-who now?

Anyway, you mentioned Isco, who suffered during last season’s managerial merry-go-round and missed time to start this season. But he scored against Valencia and his minutes have been pretty steady of late. Is he — dare I say it— back?

He’s not all the way back to his ‘16/17 form, but there’s no reason to think he can’t get there soon. He’s 27 — his peak should theoretically be starting now.

Valencia CF v Real Madrid - Supercopa de Espana: Semi Final Photo by Francois Nel/Getty Images

What I like most about his performance against Valencia was how Zidane used him. Isco, in the diamond in 2017-2018, was ineffective. Part of that was because the scouting report was out, and teams knew they could take him out of the game by man-marking him off the ball. Getafe did that last weekend too, and despite losing 3-0 played really well that game. Defensively, Isco’s role also became problematic. His sheer freedom meant that the rest of the midfielders had no idea where he was on any given defensive sequence, and with Casemiro already so out of position (he’d constantly sprint into the attacking third when Kroos and Modric weren’t there to cover), the team’s structure fell apart.

Against Valencia, Zidane’s use of five midfielders meant Isco had less of the burden, and with Casemiro and Kroos sitting deeper, the team’s coverage was fine.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying: No, Isco isn’t back to his best. But he may not be far off, and he looks in great shape.

Luka Jović has just one goal this season, but he figures to be a big part of this team’s future. What positives have you taken from his performances this season, and will he be a fit in the medium-term next to Benzema?

I think he’ll be fine. He’s missing chances that not many strikers would get to, and he’s already proven he’s a cool and composed finisher in front of goal last season. His off-ball movement is exceptional, and his link-up play is underrated.

I’m not sure he fits next to Benzema necessarily, but if you give him enough time, he’ll become a reliable goalscorer.

Do you foresee any transfer business around the Bernabéu this month?

I don’t see any incoming signings. The only activity we may see is a restructuring of the Jesus Vallejo and Andriy Lunin loan deals -- both of which have been disastrous.

Moment of truth: scoreline prediction?

Real Madrid 4 - 1 Atlético Madrid.

Ouch, Kiyan. Traumatizing scoreline.