Interview with Kiyan Sobhani
We are heading towards the end of a long season, and as fans we have experienced many difficult periods ever since Zidane and Cristiano Ronaldo left. When you are disappointed, it always helps to talk to an expert. We sat down with Kiyan Sobhani, who works close to the club, to find some answers to the many questions we have.
First of all, I would like to thank you for joining me for this interview. Let us start by getting to know you better; who is Kiyan Sobhani?
Kiyan Sobhani is the chief editor of SB Nation's Managing Madrid, and podcast host of the Managing Madrid Podcast. He attends Real Madrid games as press, and also writes regularly for FourFourTwo and Statsbomb. (Check out my weekly column, which looks at Real Madrid's tactics, history, and other relevant things!) I'll stop speaking in the third person now. I'm just a guy, like everyone in your Peña, who's in love with Real Madrid. I was born with Madridismo as my father was (and still is) a Madridista. I've followed the team since 1997, and grew up idolizing Raul. Somewhere along the way (2015, to be exact), I got lucky and stumbled into making a career of covering this team and Spanish football for a living.
Could you tell us about your work at Managing Madrid?
We record four podcasts per week: post-game shows, tracking Real Madrid's players on loan, mailbags, and discussing Real Madrid with other journalists. In conjunction to those podcasts, we put out a ton of written and video content. Myself? I analyze things. I don't report news -- we have other great guys who do that. I'm methodical note-taker and like to study a lot of film to analyze the team's tactics and other things. My columns reflect that. And I do that with every game Real Madrid is involved in -- whether it's the A-squad, Castilla, Chelsea (Kovacic), Achraf (Dortmund), etc.
Outside of podcasting and writing, I attend games as press, attend press conferences, training sessions, etc. That's a great perk of this job, I guess.
We have a great squad at MM. I have the pleasure or reading and editing a lot of excellent articles.
You attend most of the games at Bernabéu; do you ever forget to appreciate the stadium and its atmosphere?
Never. I smile internally and externally constantly. But yes -- it's surreal. I try not to get desensitized to it. The first time I sat in a press conference with Zidane, I didn't think about work -- I just stared at him and thought to myself: "I grew up idolizing this guy!" It was hard to focus on the journalism aspect.
When he was with Castilla, I had a nice conversation with Santiago Solari, and he ended up giving me a bro hug. I didn't think about it much until I walked away and remembered that he was one of my favourite players from the Galactico era -- I always wanted Del Bosque to bring him on the field because I believed his dribbling was unstoppable.
Now I just learn to have fun all around. I talk to journalists, watch the games, go to games early to see the fans outside -- I just breath it all in and count my blessings.
Today, you are considered one of the most respected experts on Real Madrid. How has the road been, leading up to this?
I honestly don't know if this is true or not, but I'd like to think it's because I have attention to detail, and I work tirelessly. I'm a volume writer, and I can't stand lazy journalism. I try to put my personality behind every piece, and I try to engage the reader in every paragraph I write -- otherwise I just blend in with the rest of the noise.
It probably helps that I don't care much about gossip, and I don't like reactionary takes -- I stay away from all that stuff and focus on football from a holistic perspective.
I always though that's how journalism aught to be. I'm lucky to have that platform.
How would you rate this season, thus far?
Disappointing. I knew there would be a regression after Cristiano Ronaldo left, but I though Julen Lopetegui was a good choice given the tough market, and I believed in his philosophy (the team needed to mask it's defensive issues and loss of 50 goals by counter-pressing and holding possession, and Julen knew that system well), but it didn't work on the pitch, clearly. The transition defensive still suffered, the team couldn't score (In some games, like away to Alaves, the team just couldn't generate chances; and in other games, the team just couldn't capitalize on what they created), and it became stale by the end of his tenure.
Solari has done better than I thought he would, but I'm not expecting a whole lot at this point. I hope I'm wrong.
Fun things: Marcos Llorente, Vinicius Jr, Reguilon, Dani Ceballos -- these guys have broken through. I'm particularly happy for Marcos, as people who follow me know how much I've rated him since his Alaves days, and he's kind of like my second son.
When Zidane and Cristiano both left last summer, many expected Florentino Pérez to go mad at the transfer market - but they were left disappointed. Do you think it was the lack of signing a world class player that failed us this season or the lack of a better coach?
The lack of a signing didn't help; nor did the lack of a proper tactician and man-manager. The team clearly needed a pure-goalscorer. I do like the return of Mariano, but he needs time, health, and faith. I also don't blame Perez as much as others do. The market was tough. You were going to have to overpay for someone like Rodrigo (who hasn't been good this season), and the ideal candidates like Kane or Icardi just weren't attainable.
I do think the lack of a proper coach has hurt the team, though. This team still has so much talent -- far more than the La Liga sides they've been losing to this season. We also can't forget that with Ronaldo and Zidane, the team went behind 17-points domestically. There is probably some revisionist history with how good this team was last season. It had a ton of tactical holes and motivation issues in the league.
What would you consider the biggest disappointment and the biggest surprise this season?
Biggest disappointment: Bale's passivity and lack of 'alphaness'. Biggest surprise: How quickly Vinicius has developed, and his immediate contribution this season.
Vinícius started the season with Castilla - now he is practically a starter for the first team. We are talking about the first player ever, born after the year 2000, to play for Real Madrid... He is only 18 years old. Many knew what he was capable of when it came to his talent, but few expected him to have such a strong mentality. What are your thoughts on the Brazilian?
Again, just how quickly he's developed. We knew he was going to be good to some capacity -- what we really didn't know was how fast he'd be this good. His decision-making has improved, he's a selfless player, his teammates love playing with him and also love his personality, and to me, the biggest surprise has been his defense. He just doesn't stop. If he's not taking players on (which is almost something he seemingly never stops doing), he's pressing, hounding, winning the ball in midfield, tracking back, or starting counters.
He's won me over completely.
Santiago Solari; is he the right choice for Real Madrid?
While he's had surprisingly good attributes, has improved the team's press, and gotten the best out of youngsters Lopetegui and Zidane never used; I think he's out of his depth, just can't fix the team's press-resistancy issues despite the technical players he has, and if someone like Pochettino is available in the summer, you go for him.
Even though he might not be the type of coach most people expect for a club of our statue, the team has produced some good results. What has been the key factor?
He's found a nice balance of fluidity and rigidity. He likes defined roles in his scheme, sound positioning defensively -- hedging on the side of caution -- and has the team pressing better. The offense was a bit stagnant when he first took over, but the movement of Vinicius, Benzema, and Vazquez between the lines has been encouraging of late.
He's also unearthed the younger players we never saw prior to his arrival.
Why do you think Isco is struggling to collect minutes under the Argentinian coach?
This is a very very loaded question, one that doesn't have one single answer. Can I take the easy way out and plug an article I wrote for Statsbomb to explain the Isco - Solari rift?
It's a combination of tactical fit, physical fitness, attitude and Solari's vision for the team. There isn't one singular factor.
Are there any certain players or coaches you'd like to see arrive or leave the club during the summer marked?
I'd like to see Kovacic return from loan while Fede Valverde goes out on loan. I'm not sure Kovacic coming back is entirely realistic though, and even with Chelsea's struggles and Kova's regression as a ball-carrier, he seems to like it there.
As awkward as a fit he seems to be on paper, I'd also like to see James back. I believe in his versatility and decision making. He's a great player that could immediately help the team's offense without having to splurge for another attacking midfielder. Again, I don't know how likely his return is, given Bayern have a say, and Real might want to make room for Eden Hazard.
Other moves: Bring Odegaard to a La Liga team for next season, and sign an elite goalscorer if possible.
Can we get a Poch + Kane combo? Sign me up if so.
Can I plug something else here? I wrote about the complex (but good) midfield situation moving forward here.
Can Real Madrid still win the league?
No hay Liga -- sorry. We've seen this movie before -- the team sleepwalks half the season, goes on a run while Barca slips and doesn't play well, then the team loses a game it shouldn't lose and finds itself in yet another hole, and in the end, whatever run Real Madrid put together -- it's far too late.
I'm sure the team will cut it five points again, give you hope, only to lose to Rayo at home in April.
Which key players have to step up in the finale stage of the season?
You've already seen a lot of them step up (who weren't prior): Modric, Kroos, Casemiro, Ramos, Varane, Benzema. They need to sustain their form for the remainder of the season. It would be very, very helpful if Asensio and Mariano can join the mix (Asensio has look good since his return). If Solari gets the best version of Marcelo and Isco to add some security and much needed depth / personality, the team can make a good run to close the season.
Finally; who is your favorite player and who is the most under-appreciated player in your opinion?
My favourite player of all time is Raul. My current favourite player is Luka Modric. Most under-appreciated to me is Toni Kroos -- I still see too many people on social media not fully understanding what he brings to the table. In the last few years, he and Marcelo have been the most important creators in the team.
Thank you for doing this interview and the best of luck to you, Kiyan!