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Who should be starting for Real Madrid? Analysis of Zidane’s Selections this season

Amid a difficult season and roughly at the midway point, this is an analysis of squad combinations in Real Madrid and how they have performed by position.

Real Madrid CF v Villarreal CF - La Liga Photo by Diego Souto/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

In a season filled with challenges and setbacks such as the recent news of Eden Hazard’s injury, this article takes a look at how different sets of players have performed in defense, midfield and offense. After starting the season with frequent rotations and varied line-ups, Zinedine Zidane reverted to core players to try and steady the waters. As a result, several players have been pushed even further to the periphery while others have logged heavy minutes so far.

A constant source of debate has been Zidane’s choices and selections and whether they have reflected the actual output and productivity of his players. While this analysis only provides a cursory glimpse into the effectiveness and actual contributions of players, it is an interesting snapshot of which positional combos (introduced here) have excelled compared to those that have struggled. The two key data points utilized are shots on target and goals. To help with sample size issues as much as possible, only combos that had at least 135 minutes of game time were considered (i.e. approximately one match and a half).

The size of the bubbles denote minutes played and the color of the circles represent strength of opposition based on average league standings on the matchday - the spectrum goes from 1 (darkest red) to 20 (darkest green). The analysis captures all official played in the 2020-21 season to date.

In defense, the crown goes to the Carvajal-Mendy-Nacho-Varane combo. They easily have the best record only conceding three shots on target(!) and one goal in nearly three full games. Even when looking at shots in general, they have also conceded the fewest on a per minutes basis.

This wasn’t simply a matter of the teams they faced either as they went up against solid clubs including Villarreal, Inter Milan and Celta Vigo. The closest combo to them was the same back four swapping out Nacho for Ramos — to form the first choice defensive unit. More than anything, this symbolizes Carvajal’s importance to the team and how much he is missed as he is a part of the two best combos.

For the midfield, the shots on target difference and goals difference were used for the time they were on the field together. It’s a little more difficult to split the difference between the midfield combos. From a results oriented view, Casemiro-Modric-Valverde outscore their opponents at the highest rate recording nearly two more goals per 90 minutes. When it comes to shots on target, Kroos-Modric-Ødegaard created the most outpacing their opponents by over four shots on target per 90 minutes.

Deportivo Alavés v Real Madrid - La Liga Santander Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images

The player that truly shines in the midfield combos is Casemiro. The Brazilian has been an enigma of sorts ever since he triumphantly solidified his status in the team. His critics are always eager to point out his deficiencies and his inferior fit for a possession control based style compared to maestros such as Kroos and Modric.

However, one thing that is almost universally accepted at this stage of his career is his irreplaceable impact on defense. The midfield stalwart’s ability to cover spaces combined with his defensive intelligence and skills make him an extremely valuable piece of Zidane era football. Even this season, his effect is clear in the stats as the team concedes approximately 10% less shots on target and 70% (!) less goals when is on the pitch.

When it comes to attack, there are two combos worth highlighting. The first is Asensio-Benzema-Vazquez — they have the best scoring ratio so far averaging a little over two goals a game. The other attacking band that stands out from the rest is Benzema-Rodrygo-Vinicius who are by far the most effective in terms of generating shots on target — at almost eight (!) per ninety minutes. With the news of Hazard’s injury and Rodrygo’s return to training, this could be a solution for Zidane.

Although Asensio-Benzema-Vazquez have the best goals output, they have generally faced lower quality opposition with only one of the five matches they have participated in being against top ten teams (with that one being Alcoyano in the Copa del Rey). Whereas Benzema-Rodrygo-Vinicius have achieved their positive numbers against relatively tougher opponents (with all but one of their six matches coming against top ten opposition).

Overall, however, the real sore spot or eye catching observation is that Hazard is not part of either of the two highest rated offensive combos. While it is not reflective of the player’s ability itself, it speaks to the lack of continuity and consistency that has coloured his time in the Spanish capital.

NB: Major caveats to this analysis are 1) the limited sample size 2) the quality of opposition hasn’t been isolated to normalize the statistics and 3) positional categorizations are based on nominal assignments and may not capture the fluid nature of player roles as they evolve/change during matches and as the year progresses.

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