The rules of the Nationalist Challenge are simple – take any team, any team you like, and only sign players of the same nationality as the side that you are managing. In the end, you will have a squad that is entirely homegrown – how will they perform? Does having a set of players all speaking the same language make any difference, or is the current state of affairs where changing rooms are multi-national all the better for the mix of influences…?
For this challenge, I’m taking on a club that to many people represent the evil empire itself – Real Madrid. I’ve never managed this lot, principally because I tend to think negatively of them, their throwing around of reckless amounts of money, their insatiable and arguably unethical drive to be the best of the best… At the moment I’m reading The Barcelona Legacy by Jonathan Wilson. The book’s principal subject is the rivalry between Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho, what it describes as the battle for football’s soul. Right now I’m up to the period when Pep was at Barca and Jose running Real, when it really did feel as though the latter were the bad guys in their running battle for hegemony. Negative play, press conference spats, pokes in the eye for one of the coaches and an effort to alienate his best players, the Special One really did a job at the Santiago Bernabeu, didn’t he?
It’s reading this account that intrigues me about Real. What are they like really? Does their ambition beat any other concerns e.g. fair play, or are they misunderstood? Can they achieve the level of Seniorito the club aspires to? How will they handle an English manager in his first job? Most of all, what will they make of a transfer policy that not only ditches the rest of the world for Spanish players, but also steadily whittles down the overseas influences that are already at the club?
Let’s find out. I will be playing this game at a much quicker pace than Derby County and updates left here (around once per week) are going to be at several points in the season rather than the match-by-match commentary being undertaken at Pride Park. It’s a break from the Rams, hopefully a happy joyride through the season rather than the nerve jangler that is each league game I manage with my main team…
You might be thinking ‘Real Madrid? Pah how easy!‘ and that’s understandable, but allow me to remind you of the two salient points of this challenge (i) we can only sign Spaniards (ii) the board still demands success, more or less from the opening kick-off. Failure won’t be tolerated. They might just about understand a very close runners-up finish in the league, but I drop any bollocks here at my own risk. Real aren’t patient with their managers. The 233 matches in charge that Vicente Del Bosque achieved from 1999 to 2003 is a rare instance of a lengthy tenure. If I look like failing they will drop me quicker than you can say ‘Santa Maria’, so the pressure is always on.
Los Blancos start with a decent smattering of Spanish talent. There are no obvious gaps, but a couple of additions to the squad will help. At the start of the game their home nationality contingent is made up of:
Marco Asensio – 23 year old left winger who until recently was considered to be among the up and coming stars of the Spanish scene. More recently he hasn’t progressed as well as Real hoped, and he starts the game carrying a ten-month cruciate ligaments injury, so we will be robbed of his services for practically the entire season.
Dani Carvajal – homegrown right-back, almost continually a Real player apart a year spent in Germany. The default starter in his position and sometimes for the national team also. At 27 he’s in his peak years as a player. Personally I think he’s about the best we could possibly have in his position, which makes this a rare instance of a role we won’t have to tinker with very much. Real have sent Alvaro Odriozola out on loan to Bayern for the season, so the future here looks bright.
Isco – flair-riddled midfielder who can often be found at the heart of Spanish efforts, Tiki-Taka’ing with the best of them and constantly busy. Not quite the second coming of Iniesta that he’d like to think he is and a little out of favour with the club before I start, he’s nevertheless a star player albeit one who’s being asked to drop back into central midfield. Hell, it worked for Paqueta at Milan…
Mariano – third choice striker, slowly progressing in importance within the squad and for anyone else he’d be a star. A great finisher and he can head the ball beautifully also; at 25, he isn’t quite at the top of his game yet. Centre-forward isn’t a position that is blessed with immense practitioners within Spain, so there’s every chance that Mazzerwill still be around in the long term.
Nacho – one-club man, now 29 and more of a back-up right-back than an automatic starter. He loves Real Madrid and would lay his life on the line for our cause, but hopefully playing with concentration will be enough. Carvajal and Odriozola will almost certainly carry this position into the future, so Nacho’s status is uncertain, however it says here that he can fill in anywhere across defence and that flexibility could prove to be his saving grace.
Sergio Ramos – Mr Real Madrid, one of football’s most notorious figures with his combination of superb skill in central defence and often brutal levels of gamesmanship. I can’t see Mo Salah thinking too kindly of him, ditto the population of Liverpool’s red half. He’s 33 so the end for him is in sight, but for now there’s little doubting his high standards, his ruthless determination levels and his enduring affinity with the supporters.
Lucas Vazquez – 28 year old right winger, developed in-house and a willing worker. He’s no Gareth Bale, the player who currently owns his position, but a blend of availability and the Welshman’s
love of golf endless injury worries should offer him plenty of game time. How long he lasts here is anyone’s guess right now. By our standards he looks very average – will he survive as the likes of Angel Correa and Inaki Williams are checked out as solutions for his position?
Elsewhere Real are a world class squad of household names. The level of quality is so high that there seems little point in running through each position. You know who plays for them and how good they are. The summer addition of Eden Hazard demonstrates a continuing commitment to signing the very best talent out there, and even before I arrive they’ve spunked the best part of £300 million on new players. Eder Militao is an important acquisition for their defence, while Ferland Mendy has been picked up to challenge Marcelo at left-back. Luka Jovic is added to suggest a future beyond what feels like the eternal Karim Benzema.
There’s age here also, and contracts that are about to finish. James Rodriguez is already listed when I start and I see no harm in letting him go. Spurs are willing to pay his wages for the season, which is probably about as good as the situation will get for the last thrust of a disappointing time with us. More importantly, Luka Modric is in the last twelve months of his contract and has no interest in renewing. The Croatian 2018 Ballon d’Or winner has been critical for us, and while his £400,000 weekly wage can be put to good use there’s little doubt that he will be missed.
With a budget of £52 million there’s no chance of me going out to get the very best Spain has to offer, however we do have squad places to fill. Real are slimmest in central defence, where there’s nothing beyond Ramos, Varane and Militao, and the latter isn’t even a natural centre-back. I spend £27 million on Diego Llorente from Real San Sebastian, a rather shrewd signing as he started life as a player from this set-up (if I’m honest, I didn’t even know this about him until he was already with us). He isn’t demanding Galactico wages and is happy to accept a career of squad rotation. Overall as the squad becomes more Spanish we will need a bunch of foot soldiers like Diego.
We could also use another defensive midfielder. Casemiro is more natural in central midfield, where he will share time with Kroos, Modric and Isco in a star-studded group, and that leaves Federico Valverde, the young Uruguayan on whose shoulders it would simply be unfair to load such a responsibility. Bayern are willing to let Javi Martinez go for around £25 million, and that seems too good to be true in filling the hole. At 30, Javi is older than the usual player I’d like to bring in, but he’s a good professional, an internationally recognised name, and he brings no dip in quality to the line-up.
Pre-Season and Early Meetings
The mood in the camp shows what the scale of this challenge will be. When I go in to the dressing room to give my team talk there’s a palpably awkward silence despite the overall decent mood, and the players are clearly disinterested. And little wonder. Who am I to be telling them what to do? Clearly where the players are concerned the sight of this low ranking English Meester is a big step down after they’re used to being led by Zinedine Zidane, so I have a lot to prove. The best way to get them onside will be through winning matches, a lot, all the time even, yet pre-season is a functional exercise rather than inspirational. We nearly always win, but it never feels as though the side are busting anything like a gut, and when we scrape a draw away to Aves of the Portuguese league I start to get really worried about my ability to drag anything out of this lot.
All the same, I use pre-season to improve match fitness so it’s rare that the best eleven Real players are on the pitch at the same time. When I do field my prime line-up, in the season opener against Sevilla, we romp home with a 4-0 victory. Eden Hazard scores an errant hat-trick because when it comes down to it he’s a superstar so of course he does. I’ve only ever managed Hazard once before, and that was back in Football Manager 2010 when I plucked him from Lille as a callow 18 year old for Manchester City and watched him transform into pretty much the behemoth he has turned out to be in real life. He’s exciting. Gareth Bale plays a good game also, and I feel a pang of regret as I realise I should enjoy them both while I can.
Like any squad of world class ballers Real is an international set-up. The line-up that takes on Sevilla contains just two Spaniards – Carvajal and Ramos – with the rest made up of two Belgians, one Brazilian, two Frenchmen, a Uruguayan, a German, a Croatian and a Welshman. In some positions, there are very good Spanish players out there who will not shame the badge – for instance, we already have the scouts courting Alex Grimaldo at Benfica, to try and draft him before his queue of suitors gets too long. He would be a fine replacement for Marcelo. Elsewhere, we will almost certainly be swapping out overseas diamonds for homegrown cubic zircons. Hazard and Vinicius Jr are superb players on the left wing. Spain has nothing like as good to put in their place. However we resolve this position we will be slightly weaker for the ethnic cleansing exercise we are about to instigate, no doubt about it.
But that’s an issue for the future. For now I get to steamroll the opposition. Real Madrid are like the Incredible Hulk piling through a crowd of terrified citizens. For me, used now to cautiously weaving through top flight fixtures with Derby it’s an exercise in outright glee, to expect to win things and do precisely that.
The winter update. The Whites aim to scale the heights of La Liga and keep Atletico and Barca at arm’s length. Who are we looking at to fill the ranks? Is it possible to sign players from our biggest rivals? Will Marco Asensio ever return from injury and meet his enormous potential…?