Zidane can’t ignore Real Madrid’s lack of balance with tougher times ahead
Real Madrid conceded just two goals in their first 11 official matches in 2014-15. At the same point this campaign, that number has risen to 13, or more than one per game. Not that any Real Madrid fan wants to go back to the Rafa Benitez regime by any stretch of the imagination, but those numbers indeed show that there is something off in the way Zinedine Zidane’s team have defended since the season started.
Some reasons behind the numbers are easy to identify: Sergio Ramos’ poor form has led to a number of amateur mistakes resulting in penalties and/or goals, and Casemiro’s injury has made things more difficult in defence given the lack of alternatives to the Brazilian in the squad.
However, the main instigator of this trend is Zidane himself, and Tuesday’s Champions League match versus Legia Warsaw was an excellent example. Confident of Madrid’s overwhelming superiority over the Polish squad, the manager fielded an extremely attacking lineup that featured not only his preferred front three — Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo — but also two offensive midfielders in James Rodriguez and the young Marco Asensio. The gamble was complete with the addition of Danilo — the team’s less defensively intense full-back.
After just a few minutes, the gap between the front three and midfield looked remarkably big. Zidane believes that intensity should be enough to compensate for certain unbalances in the team, and while this could be true for very specific matches in which players are motivated and focused for all 90 minutes, it should not be the case in a home game against Legia.
Zidane’s starting XI conveyed such a sense of superiority that most starters looked a bit too relaxed once the match kicked off, and thus Legia enjoyed a few surprising minutes of glory before Bale scored the first goal. Once the Welshman broke the deadlock, Madrid were bound to win the game, as theMadridistas’ talent shines and prevails in exchanges of punches against most teams in the world.
The coach himself validated this impression of calculated recklessness at the end of the match: “We took more risks defensively, but that was my choice […] Sunday’s match will be different.”
This was not the first time that Zidane decided to go for a gung-ho approach this campaign, and that is the main reason why Real Madrid’s defensive stats look worse than they did last year. In the absence of his best — and perhaps only — defensive midfielder, Zidane has opted to have fun against inferior opposition instead of reinforcing the midfield line with more talent or numbers. The only alteration worth mentioning is a switch to a 4-2-1-3 formation when Asensio starts, a setup that can hardly assure decent defensive performance when neither player in the duo that sits in front of the back four is a pure defensive midfielder.
Tougher competition is coming: Athletic Bilbao on Sunday and Atletico Madrid in three weeks’ time. Both teams press high, make the most out of steals and have impressive stamina. Neither will let an unbalanced side score at will like Legia or Real Betis did. Zidane’s statements were clear: he won’t roll the dice on Sunday or at Atletico the way he’s done recently.
Three alternatives come to mind for Real Madrid’s upcoming match against Athletic. First, introducing more midfielders and in turn creating that line of four that Zidane does not seem to favour. Second, getting harder workers in the three-man midfield line, like Mateo Kovacic, who has looked good of late and could be particularly influential given his mobility and will to help on defence.
The third alternative, complementary to the second, is a bit more radical: getting some fresh blood in the lineup by using rotations as the perfect excuse. The level of performance of Alvaro Morata and Lucas Vazquez has been so high and their minutes so limited that the Santiago Bernabeu now openly wonders what they must do to start, especially when not even one member of the front three can consistently play two matches in a row.
Average defensive numbers are not terrible per se, as long as Zidane takes risks in a calculated manner. But once the going gets tough, the manager will need a reliable lineup and motivated players both starting and coming off the bench. If he keeps ignoring the lack of balance in his formation and the deserving candidates for starting positions waiting earnestly on the sidelines, the harmony of the side will suffer.
Eduardo Alvarez covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @alvarez.