Many of Zinedine Zidane’s unimaginable managerial achievements continue to remain under the shadows. One of the biggest he’s ever had has to be the squad management in the 2016-17 season. Real Madrid had a fairly deep squad during that double-winning season (which could’ve possibly been a treble-winning season if Danilo hadn’t scored an own goal against Celta Vigo in the Copa del Rey).
Zidane basically played an alternate squad whenever an opportunity presented itself based on his squad’s fatigue and assessment of the opponent. While the squad is definitely not the same now as it was in 16-17, there are ample opportunities to deploy the same schematic rotation during Real Madrid’s title defense in La Liga this upcoming season.
Real Madrid won the league title in 2016-17 on matchday 38 in Malaga, and Zidane’s orchestration to the finish line was sublime. Zidane used as many as six formations during that season in La Liga. 20 Real Madrid players played more than 1000 minutes during that La Liga triumph. Comparing to other season, only 15 players played more than 1000 minutes in 2017-18 and 17 players accrued similar playing time in 2019-20. En route to Real Madrid’s demolition of Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid and Juventus in the UEFA Champions League knock-out phase of 2017, the preservation of fitness was vital.
The likes of Luka Modric and Cristiano Ronaldo were rested almost every other week to have them at their best physical condition for the big European nights. The likes of Isco Alarcon, Marco Asensio, James Rodiguez, Mateo Kovacic, Lucas Vazquez and Alvaro Morata would take the mantle in the meantime to rip apart La Liga opponents (specially on the road). Real Madrid also had replacements for almost all the positions in the team barring Casemiro who would often get deputized by Kovacic (in a slightly different role). The left-back position was also a bit thin as Fabio Coentrao remained injured for most of the season. The alternate squads were not placed onto the pitch during the the first half of the season as much as they were during the final stretch of the campaign.
After Real Madrid’s devastating 2 - 3 El Clasico defeat in April 2017 (due to Leo Messi’s winner in stoppage time), Zinedine Zidane was still bold enough to use four different XIs for the next four games. These four games are perfect for explaining the incredible resource management from Zidane during that season. Real Madrid faced Deportivo La Coruna, Valencia, Granada and Sevilla after the Clasico defeat. Their xG (expected goals) numbers were 4.95, 2.42, 4.02, and 1.90 respectively in these games. The B-team started against Deportivo and Granada while the A-team started against Valencia and Sevilla. The incredible depth and rotation made sure that regardless of the XI, Real Madrid would remain prolific. However, they went back to their preferred XI with all the big guns for the last two match-days against Celta Vigo and Malaga.
Old methods, new team
There is a big group of Real Madrid players who are not in Zidane’s plans for the upcoming season. Some of them have returned from loan and some of them were already in the squad. Oscar Rodriguez has already found a new home in Sevilla under Julen Lopetegui. James Rodriguez will now be reunited with Carlo Ancelotti at Everton and Dani Ceballos will be loaned out to Arsenal again. Gareth Bale’s future is still unknown and Sergio Reguilon’s continuity at the Spanish capital is also not guaranteed. Real Madrid do not plan on making any big signings as per Florentino Perez himself but Zidane still has some serious quality to split the Real Madrid roster into a couple of prolific XIs in the upcoming season.
The return of Martin Ødegaard is a multi-dimensional gain for Real Madrid. He alone can be useful in three different tactical schemes. Ødegaard’s creative ceiling is very high. He can be the central attacking midfielder in a 4-4-2 diamond or a right-sided central midfielder in a midfield trident of a 4-3-3. He can also play as a right-winger. Ødegaard generated key passes at a brisk rate in all three positions for La Real in La Liga 2019-20.
Real Madrid can also treat Eden Hazard and Luka Jovic as new signings for the upcoming season. Those two couldn’t make an impact for their new club last season, but they can start with a clean slate when Real Madrid commence their title defense in 2020-21.
Alvaro Morata was Real Madrid’s second-highest goalscorer behind Cristiano Ronaldo in 2016-17. The Spaniard led the attack for the B-team and made significant contributions from the bench as well when the A-team was lacking goals. Luka Jovic fits the bill perfectly for such a role in the upcoming season since Karim Benzema has proved himself to be indispensable as the best forward of the roster. The Serbian cannot be promoted as the main striker of the team all of a sudden. He must earn that. On the other side, Zidane must trust him with more minutes than how he did in 2019-20.
Real Madrid is pleasantly overcrowded on the non-defensive side of their central-midfield with Isco, Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, Fede Valverde, and Ødegaard. Casemiro is once again going to be the sole defensive option in midfield. But the other five options can give a headache to Zidane that he would love to have. The creative ceiling of Modric and Ødegaard, the precision of Toni Kroos, the line-breaking ability of Fede Valverde, the press-resistant traits of Isco — all of these make Real Madrid’s central-midfield one of the most dynamic units in Europe. However, being tactically rigid can go against Zidane like it did against Manchester City over the two legs of the UEFA Champions league round-of-16. But this time, he can choose not to be so rigid. Martin Ødegaard suddenly allows the Frenchman to be much more flexible in terms of tactics.
If Real Madrid are not thinking of a midfield-heavy scheme, they also have an abundance of wingers. Eden Hazard and Marco Asensio are likely to be the preferred options on the two flanks but Vinicius Jr and Rodrygo have also shown how they can raise the team’s attacking game. Cristiano Ronaldo was not at his best goal-scoring form in 2016-17, having scored 25 goals in La Liga. Karim Benzema has been scoring at similar rates since he left. It’s the other forwards who need to step up to successfully execute the A/B-team formula once again.
Real Madrid are also well-covered in their full-back positions with Alvaro Odriozola returning from loan and Ferland Mendy already having his break-out season in 2019-20. Marcelo’s decline was inevitable but he still seems capable of holding the fort while the long-term future of Sergio Reguilon gets decided. Nacho Fernandez has been Real Madrid’s go-to man for many years now and Eder Militao has also shown signs of reliability as a center-back when either Sergio Ramos or Raphael Varane is not available. The balance between youth and experience is also quite similar this season compared to the squad of 2016-17. Only the players who are more or less guaranteed to stay at Real Madrid this season were considered in this graphic.
In a perfect world, Zidane would implement this split-roster blueprint without breaking a sweat, but we do not live in a perfect world. Injuries and suspensions would play their part just like any other season (and hopefully not like the 2019-20 season). If the entire squad is committed to the collective goal and satisfied with the respective roles, pulling off the rotational scheme of 2016-17 is not going to be a difficult task in 2020-21.