The “Panic” in Madrid
The news of Mbappe’s apparent all but confirmed transfer to Paris Saint Germain set off alarm bells in the Spanish capital as the transfer deadline approaches. There is an emerging debate about how important acquiring the services of an attacking cover for Benzema is. Most fans and observers generally agree that the addition of a competent alternative striking option would be very useful. But just how useful? There are suggestions that the failure to recruit a Mbappe, an Aubameyang, or simply a journeyman with an evidenced track record will have severe ramifications for the upcoming season.
The first presumed rebuttal against such a narrative is the young unknown quantity Borja Mayoral. His recent loan struggles in Germany and underwhelming preseason have led many to be pessimistic about his ability to meaningfully contribute in 2017-18. This pessimism is accentuated by the high expectations borne from the luxurious contributions of Morata and James from the bench in 2016-17. If one believes their goals, assists, and all around play was crucial for the La Liga and Champions League triumphs then it is understandable to feel that the gap left by their departures has not been filled and be worried as a result. And it is also reasonable to assume that Mayoral will not replicate James and Morata’s performances.
Zidane’s adaptable system is the answer
However, although it would be unreasonable to dismiss the possibility of Mayoral producing Morata like numbers altogether, it is quite certain that the club’s plan for 2017-18 is not dependent on Mayoral matching the productivity of previous secondary players. One of the revelations of Zidane’s Real Madrid has been the seamless adaptation of the roster and team to deal with injuries and other challenges as they arise. Under the French manager, we have seen: Casemiro play in central defense; Ronaldo deployed as an out-and-out striker; Vazquez as a fullback; and Isco and Asensio play everywhere in midfield and attack except for striker. The versatility of the players in the squad lends itself to experimentation but there’s a guided aim and deliberate strategy in how they’re used.
One of the main principles of Zidane’s management model is to make the best of the players that are available. This has involved the development of several configurations that have matured to a point where each player can have a role they are comfortable with and can flourish in regardless of the tactical setup selected. Assuming Mayoral doesn’t prove to be a competitive striker this season, there are a host of different ways to deal with a Benzema injury. The obvious option is to play a 4-3-1-2 system in the same manner it was employed against Manchester United with Isco at the tip of the midfield diamond.
Another option is to play a flat 4-4-2 using either Isco or Asensio as a wide midfielder. Others include 4-5-1 or even an unchanged 4-3-3 slotting in Ronaldo or Bale as the striker and having Asensio or Isco, yet again, be the winger. Not to forget second and third order players like Vazquez, Ceballos, or Kovačić who can also be tapped into as needed.
The calls for striker are justified but very overstated
There are certainly fair stylistic, qualitative, and historical arguments suggesting that the above formations are suboptimal or compromise the best qualities of the players in certain ways — Ronaldo as a forward being a key example. This isn’t the complete picture though as these assessments are based on very a limited sample of games. Ronaldo’s preference to be on the wing (or at least start there) and have a less zonally defined role shouldn’t be taken to mean that he can’t be effective in such a role. Or more specifically, that he can’t play it in a style that suits him and still allows him to shine. The same applies to Isco as a pure winger or Asensio as a deeper midfielder.
The truth of the matter is that getting a known and dependable striker to cover for or even compete with Benzema would be very welcome but maintaining status quo roster wise is not remotely close to a crisis situation. Working with the realities that Morata was predictably going to seek a move to a club where he felt he would have more prominence and the highly competitive transfer market, it is not a catastrophic failure that a signing to replace him hasn’t been secured. And even beyond that, the team as it stands is very much capable of contending for the biggest trophies come May.