Going into Real Madrid’s first Champions League game, Zinedine Zidane was facing a few difficult decisions to make regarding his attack. Without Karim Benzema and Marco Asensio, Zidane went to a lineup that featured Gareth Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Isco up front.
Benzema’s injury highlighted some of Real’s lack of depth at the striker position. Due to the injury, Real are forced to adapt and experiment with their front line.
In their next matchup in La Liga they’ll be without Benzema and Ronaldo, which presents problems for another discussion. But in their Champions League opener against APOEL, Real displayed what I think is a temporarily an incredibly dynamic and flexible attacking lineup.
Isco, Bale, and Ronaldo were deployed as the front three in the typical 4-3-3 for Zidane. Throughout the first 73 minutes of the game, until Daniel Ceballos came in for Real, they were very effective offensively.
Each of the three players had different levels of effectiveness on the day, as Matt Wiltse pointed out in his player ratings, but what was clear is that in this period without Benzema, switching up the attacking frontmen can be an effective antidote to the injury bug.
What was especially pleasing was that Bale thrived up top with Ronaldo. On the night, Bale was really involved in all three goals. He had an assist to Ronaldo, drew a penalty that led to the second goal, and set up Sergio Ramos for the incredible third goal. Although it has been a worthy discussion whether Isco or Asensio should replace Bale in the starting lineup, without an out and out striker up top, perhaps Zidane can deploy Isco, Bale, and Asensio in interchangeable roles with Ronaldo playing up top.
At the very least having three players to put in two positions makes it easier for Zidane to avoid the inevitable chants to replace Bale after he has one mediocre game. Bale was excellent in setting up Ronaldo, and continuing to use his incredible crossing ability to the success of Ronaldo playing around the middle of the box will prove to be a worthy addition to Real’s attack.
Perhaps using Ronaldo as the replacement for Benzema game after game won’t be something that consistently works. But the performance of this front three against APOEL was enough to convince me that Zidane should deploy this attacking trio and see where it goes. Once Asensio recovers from his ‘injury’, he’ll be another player that Real can throw into that front three instead of Isco or Bale occasionally. A Bale, Asensio, Ronaldo lineup would likely work just as well as today’s lineup.
There are problems that this style creates for Real Madrid, including not allowing Isco to get the freedom that he usually deploys when playing. But, problems can be fixed and adjusted as time goes on and the team gets more used to this style.
Regardless of who plays as the roaming third attacker, the way that Zidane positioned and deployed his attacking lineup today is an excellent short term solution for Real Madrid. It gives us a chance to see Ronaldo play consistently up top as well as watching Asensio and Isco take on a consistently larger role.
Perhaps wanting to see more of this lineup is just me, and no one else thinks it’s as enjoyable to watch or as effective. But I really think that as Zidane tinkers with his lineup in the coming weeks, this attacking style can be an effective one.