Football is unlike any sport in the world. For one, there is no playoff system in place (apart from the MLS); it’s the only sport that has a limit on the amount of substitutions you can make; and the lastly, each team competes in multiple competitions throughout the season. The competitions Real Madrid compete for are La Liga, the Champions League, and the Copa del Rey. With all of the competitions coming together in a nine-month span, there is one aspect that can separate one team from the rest, and that is proper rotation.
Rotation is key for a club such as Real Madrid to have a successful campaign because of the multitude of fronts they compete in. There is a hierarchy to these competitions and though each club’s hierarchy differs, it is well known Madrid’s number one priority is Champions League (though Zidane might disagree publicly), with La Liga taking a back seat for Madrid and many coaches using the Copa del Rey to rotate the squad. Madrid fans across the world have their hearts set on this team eventually achieving the treble, as Barcelona has in the past and their fans will let you know. This is something Madrid has never achieved.
There are three key aspects that come into play for achieving this illustrious goal of a treble. Squad depth is the first. You need to make sure you have reliable back ups at every position. When a player realizes their starting position could be taken from them, they are more likely to perform better. It is well known by Madridistas everywhere the likes of Dani Carvajal and Casemiro both play better when teammates are pushing for their positions.
The second is trust from the manager to the player. This is something that Madrid haven’t always had with their managers. Maybe it’s because Florentino is always breathing down the managers’ necks to turn results, so they only trust certain players. You must trust the squad as a whole. For example, Zidane did not trust Llorente or Ceballos in the 2017-18 season. Both players proved him wrong this season with consistent performances across the multitude of games they played. They both have the potential to play important minutes at big clubs and should be trusted when needed.
The third aspect is rotation. The squad needs to be rotated so they can stay fresh, especially the older players who are going to help you with in big games. Zidane did a fantastic job rotating Cristiano Ronaldo during his first tenure at the club, but now Zidane will need to do this again with more key players that are old.
All three of these aspects are tied together. The squad depth is determined by the coach’s belief in players and the players are in place to provide depth — but it is up to the manager whether to use these players or not. Like the example used before with Llorente and Ceballos, they were in the squad, but they didn’t provide depth because Zidane did not trust them. He used them when his hand was forced but used them sparingly. Ceballos only had four starts under Zidane, in comparison to his 13 starts to date this season. And Ceballos’s good performances have been rewarded with his first national team call up under Luis Enrique this season.
There are two ways to rotate the squad and both have been deployed by different managers over the past decade. The first way, which is the preferred method, needs total trust in your squad. It is the way Diego Simeone rotates his squad at Atletico Madrid. This method was deployed under Carlo Ancelotti during the 2013-14 season. This rotation strategy is difficult to use if you have a ton of injuries like Ancelotti did in his second year in charge of Madrid. You do not have to have total squad trust or depth, but you must look in advance at the schedule and decide who to rest and when.
With this method you need to rotate one or two players out of the lineup per match. At each position you have two or three players rotating through as Ancelotti did with Pepe, Varane, and Ramos at the center back position. The issue with this sort of rotation is if one or both get hurt, now you are at a deficit at the position. This method of rotation should be preferred because the manager is able to keep his players happy because everybody is afforded the opportunity to play important minutes in big games. When going back to Ancelotti’s second season with Madrid, Sergio Ramos was deployed in a holding midfield role against Juventus (albeit mostly out of necessity than rotation).
The second way of rotating the squad is such as Zidane did in the 2016-17 season. The newspapers were raving about the “Real Madrid’s B Team.” This squad consisted of world class players who all thrive at top clubs with the likes of James, Nacho, Morata, and Vazquez. This team was the deepest Madrid squad we had seen in years, even if the players accepted their roles that year and they may have been unhappy, which resulted in them leaving. The depth that season was a huge reason why Madrid won the League and UCL double.
One of the issues with Madrid right now is the fact there is a forever revolving door of managers at the club. When you compare Spain’s two big clubs, Madrid and Barcelona, there is one humongous difference in certain aspects. Barcelona use a style of play that translates throughout the youth ranks and first team. This makes it easier for the squad to naturally have depth because of their style of play, “juego de posicion.” It makes it easier for the likes of Pique, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, and Messi to come into the first team and fit naturally. Madrid should get this type of continuity under Zidane in the next three seasons. The revolving door of managers should stop with Zidane at the helm and this should allow him to get the players in the positions he wants, without the board interfering and bringing in their own players.
The question on many Madridista’s minds is: Did lack of rotation cost this team trophies?
When Solari took over the job permanently, the squad was riddled with injuries, leading to a front-three of Vinicius, Benzema, and Vazquez. These three then became Solari’s preferred front three, but the issue was that it rarely every changed. The team became predictable and were reliant on Benzema’s scoring. In his career, Karim has been hot and cold in his form, particularly with his finishing.
The team went through a stretch of playing eight games in 28 days, playing Atletico Madrid once, Ajax twice, and Barcelona thrice. Not one time did Benzema get a rest in this time period and neither did Ramos. Benzema was in amazing form before this run of games. The squad proved tired and Madrid did not make it out of the gauntlet of these games. In the second Barcelona game, signs started to show of the front-three looking fatigued and run down — particularly Benzema.
Next season, Zidane must do better than past managers with his rotations. He needs to make sure he gets the players he needs to be successful if he’s at the helm long-term. The players in place must give him the squad depth he needs to compete on all three fronts. The fans dream of a treble for the club, and to be successful, Zidane will have to rotate the squad to get the best out of the players. When looking back at the so called “B team”, Zidane got the best out of these players to help the squad compete on all fronts. But when the preferred 11 didn’t perform, the bench did.
There were multiple points won by the likes of James, Vazquez, Morata, and even the through the defensive efforts of Nacho. Zidane gave these players chances and they responded with good performances off the bench in important moments. This team isn’t much-removed from winning three Champions Leagues in a row. They can be back on top sooner than expected with the right depth and rotation.