With a game in hand (woop!), Real Madrid are some 16 points (argh!) behind Barcelona in the battle for this season’s Liga title.
It feels reasonably fair to suggest that Los Blancos haven’t been too bothered about their shoddy domestic record over recent years (just the one title in seven seasons, now); not while they’ve been stacking Champions League titles like a shiny Leaning Tower.
But when they don’t land Ol’ Big Ears, things get hairy. An ignominious last-16 exit to Ajax paved the way for Zinedine Zidane’s return, and now the Frenchman has a huge task – presumably, with a budget to match – in restoring glory at the Bernabeu. Starting with...
Find a way to wreak havoc with Hazard and Vinicius
Vinicius Jr was arguably the most important asterisk of Real Madrid’s season. He kick-started his career ahead of schedule amid a season of turmoil, and became his team’s most potent attacking weapon alongside Karim Benzema until rupturing his knee ligament against Ajax and suffering a premature end to his season.
The Brazilian has a bright future, but even at the age of 18 he looks impossible for back-pedalling defenders to cope with as they try to guess which way he’ll dip his shoulder before burning their souls. Vinicius is yet to find his scoring touch, but as long as he can contribute a healthy amount of goals while creating chances at a similarly prolific rate, he’ll be an indispensable asset.
But the much-anticipated arrival of Eden Hazard at the Bernabeu poses a question: how will Vinicius and the Belgian fit together? Positionally, they both thrive from the same spot – cutting in from the left. Zidane will have to shift one of them centrally (Hazard can, at the very least, play there) or have Vinicius come off the bench – which may not be the ideal scenario.
Beef up Madrid’s build-up
One of Real Madrid’s biggest tactical issues this season has been their inability to deal with high-pressing systems. It was a problem under Julen Lopetegui, Santiago Solari, and still is under Zidane.
The Frenchman has coped with these challenges in the past, when he had elite technical players like Marcelo, Toni Kroos, Isco, and others in form – but the team is a shadow of its former self now. Zidane will have to unearth his build-up from years gone by.
And it’s not just against the great Ajax that Real Madrid have struggled this season. Los Blancos have been unnerved by Eibar, Huesca, Sevilla, Athletic Bilbao, Rayo Vallecano and plenty of other teams that have opted to press high.
Zidane will need to conjure some fresh and creative attacking ideas. He still likes his teams to cross – a perfectly fine option if Cristiano Ronaldo was still around. But too often opposition teams have licked their lips packing the box and clearing crosses they know are coming, all while it’s Lucas Vazquez they’re marking. Not ideal.
Firm up Marcelo’s form
Even by Marcelo’s standards, his defending has taken a huge hit this season. There was a clear drop-off in Real Madrid’s stability on the left side when Marcelo took over Sergio Reguilon’s spot at left-back. In years past, Marcelo’s offensive prowess from that position trumped his defensive liability, but the Brazilian hasn’t looked as incisive or creative as normal.
Since returning, Zidane has been on record to say that Marcelo is his first-choice left-back. If he’s to hold that spot next season, his French coach needs to recover the Brazilian’s dominant form of old.
Give youth a chance
Santiago Solari’s reign at the club was short-lived, and will not be fondly remembered. But he went down with one legacy: he was the man who built his attack around Vincius Jr; the man who displaced the legendary Marcelo for a Castilla left-back; and the man who started Marcos Llorente in a big Champions League away fixture in Rome. All three of those gambles in Vinicius, Reguilon and Llorente paid off. They have been among the bright spots of an otherwise-dim season.
Vinicius was an offensive fireball in a season where the club desperately needed help in attack, Reguilon had been a solid two-way wing-back, and Llorente showed himself to be a press-resistant and technically-gifted anchor who solved a lot of Madrid’s build-up issues. All three have bright futures.
But it’s unclear what happens for these players now. It’s reported that Llorente could be off to Sevilla, and Reguilon has taken a back seat now that Zidane has arrived. It would be unfathomable for Vinicius to lose playing time given how well he’s impressed – but Zidane has also expressed interest about bringing in Rodrygo Goes this summer to play an active role in the squad.
Losing a player like Llorente could come back to haunt Real Madrid,and getting the personnel selection right in a busy summer is crucial. Real Madrid’s problems are many, and Zidane will have ample things to fix – both tactically and in the transfer window.
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