By winning the Champions League only six months after having taken charge of Real Madrid, Zidane showed that he was capable, at least in the short term, to unify a group around goals while setting up a solid collective foundation. To do that, he had to seduce and convince a squad whose depth and quality is unquestionable. So much so that the French coach actually had all the tools he needed to build a tough and fighting team that was comfortable when defending without needing any extra player.
Indeed, Real Madrid didn’t need to enter the winter transfer market to find elements like Nacho, Casemiro or Lucas Vasquez, who proved to be very valuable. Those players were already available since the summer of 2015. And the wealth of the squad doesn’t stop there. On the night of the UCL final against Atletico Madrid, Zidane used his best starting XI but still had Danilo, Isco, James Rodriguez and Rodriguez and Jésé Rodríguez at his disposal.
In this context, it’s very easy to understand Real Madrid discretion during the transfer market of this summer. By improving the squad primarily put together by Florentino Pérez in 2009 and then balanced by José Mourinho during the following three seasons, the Spanish club has reached a point where there is no doubt about its ability to face any challenge. Real has a squad with at least 17 players who have the quality and the experience to start any football game. So the point is to now improve the squad, with small changes, while keeping it young. To put it simply, it’s not about building the team any more, it’s about getting closer to perfection.
With that in mind, the club at the end of 2015-2016 needed to change the way in which two positions were covered: the left-back and the number 9 positions.
When looking back, it’s clear that Real Madrid took a certain risk by not signing a natural left-back to cover any potential absence of Marcelo. At that time, the squad counted on Alvaro Arbeloa, who has played numerous games at this position, as well as Nacho, a centre-back who came up through the youth ranks and showed a certain versatility since joining the first team. However, neither of them was equipped to perform as a modern left-back, offering width as well as contributing offensively. With Arbeloa’s departure, it was then crucial for Real to not play with fire for a second season.
On paper, the task wasn’t simple though. Marcelo is clearly an unquestionable starter because of his enormous quality, so it’s about recruiting a left-back who is perfectly aware that he will be a replacement, but who is also a valid option to call upon several games, big ones among them. Looking at the market, few players fit those criteria, and the fact that Real decided to trust a recruit from Mourinho’s time is telling. Coentrao, despite playing three seasons with Real, never really settled down or convinced enough. Blocked by Marcelo and not really appreciated by the local press, he still managed to perform in a fair amount of big games for Real, such as the 2014 UCL final against Atletico. So the idea of giving him another shot made sense. The Portuguese left-back knows most of the squad, the club, and la Liga well. The only concerns are about his injury and his state of mind as he goes into a new season as Marcelo’s substitute. If Zidane proves capable of keeping him focused and motivated though, Real will get a backup left-back that would draw blushes out of more than one starting player in the Champions League this season.
In addition to the left-back position, Real Madrid also needed to address the question about Karim Benzema’s back-up. Last season, the club decided to design the squad in a manner that allowed Jésé to be the first option to replace not only Cristiano and Bale, but also Benzema. The facts though showed that the new PSG forward wasn’t capable of assuming such responsibilities. The manner in which he interpreted the N°9 position meant that Real never really had the point of reference that the team needed. In the end, both Benitez and Zidane used different options, notably Ronaldo and Bale, with differing levels of success.
After a season in which Benzema took part in 27 of 38 League games, Real had to find a more rational replacement. Here too, the recruitment wasn’t easy. On the pitch, it needs to be a Number 9 with specific behaviour and clear qualities. Comfortable with his back to goal, capable of working as a target man, inclined to move from inside to outside to open up the central space for Bale and Ronaldo, offering a threat when attacking space and of course, being capable of producing goals. All of that while assuming the role of a backup, with the status that this implies.
Just as in the Coentrao case though, Real Madrid had a great card to play to fill this need: Morata. The player fits very well in terms of profile although there are some legitimate doubts about his ability to contribute enough goals. Then there is the question about the size of the role. After two seasons playing for Juventus during which he exploded and displayed an excellent level in the Champions League, the Spanish forward certainly felt like he was capable of being a starter – and so did plenty of clubs around Europe. There was certainly a dilemma for Morata, torn between the dream of playing for Real Madrid and the desire to play in a place where he would be considered a big player. On that front, Zidane couldn’t really make promises, but the club did sanction a decision that should be perceived as a sign of trust: the sale of Jésé Rodriguez. By turning the page with the former canterano, Real Madrid then allowed Morata to see himself as a backup for Benzema but also a clear option to replace Ronaldo, who at 31, has promised to be more careful with his physical condition. Whether this will be enough for Morata remains to be seen. But it looks like an encouraging move from Real at a point where the player is probably still not sure about his decision.
The absence of Ronaldo coupled with the injury of Benzema (troubled by a hip problem) is certainly why the club also felt that it might be a good idea to keep Mariano Diaz around to complete the Number 9 options. The ex-Castilla striker seems determined to try his luck, at least until the opening of the next transfer market, and his profile is definitely an interesting one. It allows Zidane to count on a real goal-chaser, enormously linked to attacking space and capable of finishing moves with a lot of variety. Mariano, at several levels, reminds one of Chicharito Hernandez, who was a decent joker under Ancelotti two seasons ago.
Against all odds, Real also decided to keep the very young Marcos Asensio this season. The young attacker convinced Zidane, and his unique profile is a good addition to the squad. It’s difficult to make a prediction about what role Asensio will play this season though. He’s clearly an attacking player who participates a lot and is brilliant from an associative point of view but isn’t really good at scoring goals, despite what we’ve seen in the first games of the season. So even if he gives Zidane the option of calling upon another left-footed attacker to complete the forward line, he still remains a player whose ability to impact a result should see him consigned to a secondary role.
Beyond the way Real treated those two priorities though, we can question the decision not to sign a player similar to Casemiro to play in front of the defence. During the preseason, Zidane had the young Marcos Llorente, who came up through Real Madrid Castilla, at his disposal. But the kid finally decided to leave on loan to newly promoted Alaves. Zizou also talked on several occasions about the fact that Real needed to sell before making any additions, so it might be a case of lacking an option because the club isn’t keen on or capable of making certain changes. However the Frenchman also talked about the fact that he has players like Toni Kroos or Mateo Kovacic to perform in front of the defense, and the fact that he doesn’t seem too annoyed by their different profile is interesting. It implies, between other things, that the Real coach doesn’t really want two destructive players to perform that role and his happy with wider options.
In the end, Real approached the transfer window really well, not just from a financial point of view but also because of the quality they’ve brought in. The two positions that needed clear reinforcement have been addressed with excellent options and the club also decided to offer Zidane a couple of additional options to complete the attacking line. In fact, the means of the club and the quality of the planning since Mourinho’s tenure are so good that the European champions didn’t really have to enter the market. Mariano was promoted from Castilla, Asensio and Coentrao came back from their loan spells and Morata was only a clause away from the Real Madrid squad.
The real question actually concerns the way the club decided to balance their group and make room for big players before the end of the transfer window. With the obvious influence of the UEFA sanction that forbids the club from making any new acquisitions during the next two windows (Winter 2016-2017 and Summer 2017), Real opted for a very packed squad, with the potential risks that this implies. Because in the context of Zidane having the entire squad at his disposal, big players could not only be benched but left out of the match sheet altogether. Just imagine it: Zidane starts a similar line-up as the 2015-2016 UCL final and the Real bench comprises Casilla, Danilo, Pepe, Kovacic, Isco, James Rodriguez and Morata. This implies that, if everybody is available, Ruben Yanez, Coentrao, Nacho, Lucas Vázquez, Asensio and Mariano wouldn’t even be able to participate in the game in any capacity. Of course, such scenarios are rare and the Real Madrid calendar will certainly encourage Zidane to rotate, but it remains a possibility. And in this example, the players with the lowest market value were left out, and that isn’t necessarily the case.
This leads us to wonder: Is it feasible and manageable for a coach to handle such a big squad? To keep everybody involved and motivated? Or did Real Madrid, worried by their transfer ban, push the concept of a super-squad too far this time ? We’ll know soon enough. One thing is for certain though: if Zidane fails, it won’t be because he doesn’t have the players to succeed.
Real Madrid squad 2016-2017: