“Imagine what this team could achieve if we started a certain French player named Paul Pogba instead of Casemiro”. During most of the match in Villarreal I couldn’t shake off the feeling that Zidane wanted to send that message to Mr Perez & co, just one day before the end of the transfer window.
On Sunday, the coach set up the team in a way that Case found himself time and again with plenty of space to move forward and feed the strikers. When Real Madrid’s passing worked – which wasn’t as often as usual in a quite inaccurate night – the Brazilian midfielder was the first player to get the ball in the final third of the pitch and, of course, that is not a position to get the best of him. Casemiro had a decent match, but any player with slightly more skill and experience in that role would have blown Villarreal to pieces. We don’t need to make a big effort to imagine Pogba with all that room in front of him, although having seen his dismal outing on Saturday with Manchester United, Florentino may be harder to convince than in other cases.
Zidane keeps experimenting with the players at his disposal match after match, for now lacking a clear idea of how to involve the newcomers and get them in synch with the old guard he’s resorted to in this beginning of the season. At least this trip to Villarreal offered a fantastic piece of news: Mendy is an extremely resourceful, hard-working fullback that improves not only Marcelo but also many of his team mates in the defensive line in terms of intensity and ability to dispossess opposing forwards. I hadn’t seen such hunger to recover possession by a Real Madrid defender in a long while, and that should help our team in the toughest matches of the season. Marcelo’s offensive inspiration will also be required, but his injury-proneness means that Mendy will enjoy plenty of chances to prove his worth.
In a short interview after the match, the French manager explained that he wanted to open up the pitch because Villarreal tend to have issues when having to deal with crosses from the sides, which in fact also sounds like an excellent excuse for him to apply his favourite approach: a cross-storm generated from the sides. Including Jovic in the line-up made complete sense in that context, but with the exception of his silky backheel flick in Bale’s first goal, the former Eintracht forward didn’t get enough service in the danger zone to show his talent.
Mendy aside, the only additional piece of good news is that Bale is still healthy, and when he is fit, he is by far the biggest offensive threat this entire squad has. Even if the Welshman got himself sent off for a couple of perfectly avoidable fouls, his double got a point that looked out of reach at some point.
The reasons for concern are still there, though: The team keeps having issues in both boxes, but especially in its own, as exemplified by the fact that Villarreal scored twice out of two offensive situations. Ramos and Varane would do well to inspire themselves in Mendy’s defensive intensity, as the behaviour of the centreback duo in both goals looked lazy, morose, almost uninterested. Offensively, Jovic didn’t even had one look on goal, while Benz’s most threatening move ended up hitting the post.
It sounds contradictory, but even though Zidane is using a base line-up that has played together for at least five seasons, the team goes about its business as though they all had just been signed. Most offensive moves currently depend on players’ inspiration, instead of collective work between them. This does not speak well of Zidane’s management of the training sessions, but he’s building the line-up and the chemistry between players should subsequently grow. How much time does he have? Not much.
Even more concerning is the development of the younger players. Vinicius has completely lost his confidence, and played his worst match in a Real Madrid shirt, as far as I can remember: dribbled when he had to pass and stayed still when he had to move, his decision-making il-advised all evening long. The season is long and there’s plenty of matches ahead, but if Zidane can’t find a way so that the raw talent features more prominently, and to improve the collaborative play both defensively and offensively, it’s difficult to imagine an outcome of the season that’s different to last season’s. And that’d be a tragedy.