Is it time Zinedine Zidane stopped trusting in his old guard?
Real Madrid are in transition. Zinedine Zidane was brought in towards the end of last season to salvage what he could from a horrific season and return Los Blancos to European football's apex.
After winning three Champions Leagues in succession, who better for the job? But so far, Zizou hasn't adapted to changing conditions. While the Merengues are in first place for the moment in La Liga, the Frenchman relies heavily on players who took that memorable two-and-a-half-year ride with him. The new signings mostly watch from the bench.
Zidane’s tactics remain pretty much the same albeit not as effective due to Real poster boy Cristiano Ronaldo's departure and the overall ageing of his squad. When you stand still, however, time passes you by. If the boss doesn't show some faith in his new players, it's difficult to see the Bernabeu mob staying on top.
Even the youngest of his old guard struggles. Raphael Varane has been a ghost of his former self. Imperious at everything, his acceleration to recover against counterattacking forwards, his aerial dominance and composure in possession had some labelling him the world's best defender. Now, the same player loses his man for fun, gets caught ball watching and doesn’t win first balls.
The Les Bleus stalwart allowed Domingos Duarte behind him to score Granada’s second at the Bernabeu. He was bullied by Paris Saint-Germain new boys Mauro Icardi and Pablo Sarabia in the Champions League. Reportedly looking for a new challenge in the summer, Zidane convinced Varane to stay. Was it a mistake? Maybe. The 26-year-old appears in dire need of a break.
Zizou has Eder Militao waiting in the wings. The Brazilian was exceptional at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan against Sevilla. He definitely warrants further starts given Varane’s poor form.
Dani Carvajal's place should be questioned too. The Spaniard has been subpar for 18 months, often caught out of position. His vacated channel is where opposing attacks originate. Carvajal does not justify his lack of awareness and failure to trackback by putting up elite attacking numbers as Marcelo did. Seven goal contributions since the 2018/19 season began don't compensate. The Spaniard has lost the cutting edge he once had in the final third.
Like Militao, Alvaro Odriozola put in some solid performances in the preseason. He picked up an assist against Granada on the weekend as well. Achraf Hakimi is putting in stellar shifts for Borussia Dortmund. Zidane has two excellent alternatives to Carvajal.
If Carvajal is past his peak, Marcelo is walking around with a fork in his back. He's done. The flamboyant Brazilian has all the tricks in the locker but is caught out far more than the Spaniard and isn't creating nearly as many chances as years gone by. Ferland Mendy ranks among the most promising full-backs in the world and is better defensively. His time is now.
Those three changes would build a stronger foundation at the back, allowing Casemiro and Toni Kroos to be more enterprising in attack. Both have been in fine form this season, among the few from the old guard who should continue in the first team. The same can't be said for Luka Modric. The Croatian emptied his tank in his unexpected 2017/18 Ballon d'Or campaign.
Modric can serve as a rotation player and impact sub but Zizou must manage his minutes to ensure maximum efficiency. Minutes must be found for Federico Valverde. The Uruguayan brings the dearly missed intensity in the middle of the park. He is more than ready to be playing more games for Real Madrid.
To be fair to Zidane, James Rodriguez has featured as part of a three-man midfield, showing promise and the willingness to get dirty. The Colombian is a more creative and dynamic alternative to Modric. James has done more than enough to deny Isco a free pass into the starting XI. The Spaniard endured a tough season in 18/19 and began this term on the trainer's table.
Gareth Bale has also shown enough to be in and around the starting XI but Zidane must stop showing blind faith in Lucas Vasquez who simply does not have the end product to be starting for Real Madrid when they are aiming to win titles. He is a fine squad player whose work rate and adaptability will come in handy in parts of the season, but just not as a starter. Eden Hazard will grow into his role at the Bernabeu.
Up top, Karim Benzema is ageing like fine wine. The Frenchman cannot stop scoring, making life tough for Luka Jovic. At 31, Benzema is probably the best performer among Zizou’s disciples.
But the exceptions don't make the rule. Overall, Zidane must adapt. He may have been reluctant to make wholesale changes but he must begin integrating his new players at a measured pace between now and the holidays. The veterans simply aren't validating Zidane's faith.