Two weeks ago, Real Madrid were enjoying a positive moment sitting three points ahead of Barcelona and eagerly anticipating the imminent return of Eden Hazard. Many imagined the Belgian would provide the vital touch that would allow them to clear the awaiting Manchester City and El Clasico sized hurdles. Two weeks later and reality has struck the team with a brutal blow — Hazard, looking his ever influential self (if a little reserved) — is back on the injury table while the club stumbled against Guardiola’s men in the first leg of the Champions League Round of 16. There is a sense of inevitability in terms of what could potentially follow, the eerie similarity to last season’s hell week and how disastrous that unfolded has many despairing for the fate of the team this season.
This is a truly testing moment for the club. Zidane will have to maneuver the challenging waters ahead without one of his most valuable assets in Hazard. Despite everything (injuries and lack of raw production), Hazard is arguably Real Madrid’s most impactful forward and his absence will hinder the team’s offensive capacity going forward. And that was clear against Manchester City where there were struggles to create high quality opportunities at home. With a potential make-or-break match against their rivals on Sunday, the team needs to reflect and reassess their current tactical model to see what changes are required.
Looking back at the season, it is important to go back to the match versus Galatasaray in November. That game seemed to be the major turning point. Los Merengues had fantastically dispatched of their opposition with a remarkable 6-0 scoreline and at the heart of that performance and the seeming key to unlocking the potential of the current roster was Brazilian wonderkid Rodrygo Goes. The composure, clinical finishing, liveliness, and sharpness of the youngster was a sight to behold as he registered what remains the team’s only hattrick this season. The flat 4-3-3 template that led to one of the most dominant displays during the year was expected to pave the path forward.
The answer appeared self-evident. Field a midfield of Casemiro-Valverde-Kroos and at least two traditional wingers - Hazard and Rodrygo specifically at the time. This squad composition provided a balance that had been missing from Real Madrid for a long time. Valverde’s presence in midfield has been a well-documented revelation. The Urugyuan’s box-to-box capabilities are critical in enhancing the team’s verticality in offense without sacrificing any defensive coverage. And while Kroos’ stabilizing distribution and renewed attacking participation made him the best candidate to fill in the third midfield slot (with Casemiro being a lock), Modric is a feasible alternative that has proven to be reliable and competent. So the mdifield rule appeared simple: field Casemiro, Valverde, and one of Kroos or Modric.
The midfield then needed to be supported by a vibrant, creative, and direct attacking trident. Despite his occasional misfiring in certain games, Benzema remains without doubt the best option as the center forward (not to say more time shouldn’t be given to Jovic and Mariano). Hazard, when fit, would occupy the left wing and Rodrygo emerged as the most attractive option for the right wing especially given Bale’s irregularity and Vinicius’ struggles on that side. In Hazard’s absence, Vincius would be the most suitable choice on the left wing. However, it seems despite the stellar results, Zidane has yet to go all-in on this line-up. The manager instead has tried to build the framework around Isco’s control enabling style. The Spaniard has become an integral component of the current primary setup. And there are serious questions as to whether this is in the best interest of the team.
Isco is a polarizing figure and has been for most of his career at the Santiago Bernabeu. His quality isn’t up for debate. What Isco brings to the table is exquisite touch, control, and ball retention — but the question has always been whether these are enough to compensate for the stalling effect he has due to his lack of directness and vision. There isn’t one right answer but there is an alternative that is worth pursuing. Zidane was provided with a formula that has an incredible amount of potential and could be the most effective way of optimizing the roster at hand. Going back to the formation that looked incredibly promising against Galatasaray and other games in that period may be needed. At the very least, it merits further exploration. Rodrygo is not available for the Clasico and Bale has not seen significant minutes recently but this isn’t just a short term measure. Beyond tomorrow’s game, the season may depend on whether or not Real Madrid are willing to revert to what seemed to be working well.
Should Zidane revert to the flat 4-3-3 formation with two traditional wingers such as the one used against Galatasaray?
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