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A hole in the back four

Zidane needs to leave personal preferences aside and evaluate Marcelo on his current performance

Real Madrid CF v FC Barcelona - La Liga Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Just as my summer vacation started yesterday, I decided to spend the best part of my morning reading sports newspapers. Not that it’s much different during the working season, but at least now I can do it with no remorse. As I was flicking through the gossip-filled pages of Marca – it’s amazing that Marca, As, Sport et al. can put together full football-centric newspapers in August with no football, but now you understand why there’s so much BS regarding signings and firings coming from Spain --, one of the main stories, probably written by an intern, managed to catch my attention.

The piece isn’t complex: it’s the straightforward analysis of Real Madrid’s minutes played by each squad member so far, and the ensuing starting line-up if Zidane chose their starters from the players who have spent more time on the pitch in this preseason. The formation would read: Navas; Marcelo, Ramos, Nacho, Carvajal; Lucas Vazquez, Kroos, Modric, Isco; Adele Hazard and Benzema.

Of course, this does not take into consideration injuries, poor form, tactical preferences on Zidane’s side, etc. The ultimate line-up, if there is such a thing in the French manager’s mind, can’t be that, or at least that’s what I tell myself while I throw my seven-month old into the swimming pool with careless abandon. Can you guess the main reason why that line-up mortifies me?

Real Madrid v Club Atletico de Madrid - UEFA Champions League Final
Hard to keep up with so much promise
Photo by Stuart Franklin - UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images

No, it’s not Lucas Vazquez. Yes, I know, he looks worse and worse every season. His peak with Real Madrid, that superconfident penalty he took in Milan after having juggled with the ball on his way to the fatal spot, happened three years ago. His performance last season was simply appalling, but I like to think that Zidane wants him as one of the starters of his second unit, and I’m fine with that.

Navas on goal does not bother me either, although it’s hard to think of a less productive signing than Thibaut Courtois, now injured. The Kroos – Modric midfield will have to be supported by a real defensive midfielder, and Zidane knows that. Hazard can only get better. And we know that Benz will start with Zidane even if he goes for a full month without a shot on goal.

What indeed concerns me is the left full back spot, or rather, Marcelo starting on the left fullback position. At age 31, this will be his 14th season with Real Madrid, and even though he’s not exactly durable in terms of playing every single match every year – the most La Liga matches he’s played, 35, happened in the 2009-10 season – I believe he’s probably the second field player I’ve seen play the most times at the Bernabeu, right after Raul (I missed a good part of Sanchis’ career, unfortunately).

It feels like a miracle that Marcelo has lasted this long in Madrid. For a long while it seemed as though he would leave in any give summer, as he allegedly missed Brazil and his wife, Clarice Alves, kept harbouring the dream of an acting career in their home country. However, Marcelo’s contract has been extended time and again – not as often as Messi’s, but you get my point – and the couple and their kids, Enzo Gattuso and Liam, look happy in Madrid.

Real Madrid v Celta de Vigo - La Liga Santander
Where have you sent Reguilon, coach?
Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images

That said, can Zidane get Marcelo back into his shape of yore? The gut feeling of this ageing socio is that he won’t be able to. If you think that Lucas’ stats have deteriorated, you should take a look at Marcelo’s.

Not only his matches and minutes have gone down every year since the 2014/15 season, but especially his defensive numbers look simply awful for a fullback. Yes, Marcelo was never there because of his defending, but for the unpredictability he brought to the offense, always giving an extra player with the element of surprise who could break open any well-positioned defence.

Now he’s become such a liability defensively that he can’t be hidden by his midfielder -- Modric, usually – or covered up by his left centre-back – Ramos. You may think that Solari was harsh with the Brazilian legend, but if you had been paying attention, having Marcelo on the pitch was, in some cases, indeed detrimental for the team and, in others, almost suicidal. Any team with a decent right winger would create us plenty of issues and, to add insult to injury, we saw some mediocre forwards make their names against Marcelo right before Solari took over.

It’s well known that Zidane tried to recover the Brazilian fullback as soon as he took over. Marcelo played nine consecutive full matches, something he hadn’t done in over three seasons, and even though that should have suffice for him to get his own preseason at the end of the season, the Marcelo we saw in the last two matches / losses against Real Sociedad and Betis was very similar to the one who struggled last September.

Real Madrid v Paris Saint-Germain - UEFA Champions League Round of 16: First Leg
Yes, this one is from the 2017/18 season...
Photo by Denis Doyle - UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images

Marcelo, never a prodigy of durability, has spent thirteen seasons at the top level and played over 500 competitive matches. His position is one in which speed and quickness of reaction can cover for tactical mistakes, as Roberto Carlos surely taught him. But when wingers start beating you to the ball more often than not, as it is also the case with Jordi Alba, either you reinvent yourself as a midfielder or a centreback, or you can’t keep playing fullback at the top level.

I’ve seen Marcelo come back from holidays thirteen times already. It always took him a while to get back into match shape and this season hasn’t been any different. But I feel pessimistic now. I’ll be the happiest socio if he finishes the season strong, a reinforced skipper and a sure legend in the club, but it’s hard to see him succeed over an aching body with plenty of matches and muscular injuries in its odometer.

Zidane announced changes when he took over, and changes there will be. With the huge respect that Marcelo deserves, I believe that the left fullback position should be the starting point.

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