Is Real Madrid’s squad for the 2017/18 campaign proving to be thinner than last season?
Rotation has been the key ingredient to Zinedine Zidane’s success at the Santiago Bernabeu. Envious managerial eyes will have been cast across both technical areas in Madrid and television screens across the world, as the Frenchman had the luxury of interchanging quality players without any adverse effects on his way to a La Liga and Champions League double last season.
Whenever Cristiano Ronaldo was not there to be called upon due to fitness reasons, the likes of Karim Benzema and Alvaro Morata would pop up as required. Real Madrid’s mentality held a confidence that they had a goal within their ranks. Whether it be from centre-back in Sergio Ramos, some magic from Isco or a corner delivery from Toni Kroos, there were a variety of options - and that made Los Blancos tough to set up against.
This campaign, however, the feeling is a little different. Real Madrid’s record-breaking 73 consecutive games without failing to find the back of the net has gone down in the history books, after being cut short against Real Betis recently. The air of infallibility has waned slightly, with Los Blancos’ summer transfer business easy to point to as an area where they simply could have done better.
The bulk of the personnel remain the same, with the useful additions of Theo Hernandez as a back-up left back and the return of centre-back Jesus Vallejo from a loan deal bolstering key areas. With Pepe taking his leave for Besiktas and Danilo making his way to Manchester City, Zidane is still well stocked in defence, with Achraf Hakimi and Alvaro Tejero willing deputies from Castilla when needed.
In midfield, there was never to be an issue. Dani Ceballos was sourced from Betis for a snip, with Marlos Llorente coming back from a loan spell at Deportivo Alaves to much fanfare and the chance to sign a new long-term contract. Mateo Kovacic has found his feet while in compatriot Luka Modric’s shadow, with Casemiro now having his deputy in the deepest midfield role in Llorente.
Up front where the question marks lie. It required a long-term suspension for Cristiano Ronaldo and an injury to Karim Benzema to reveal what was quietly feared, but Zidane has a rather obvious vacuum in his offensive plans. Alvaro Morata was allowed to go for a tremendous fee to Chelsea in the summer, but with him left a promise of a double-figures LaLiga forward, while James Rodriguez took his leave for Bayern Munich on loan.
Mariano Diaz, too, was desperate to prove himself last season. He was not prolific, nor was he afforded too many opportunities in the league or otherwise, but there was promise there and he turned down loan deals to try and show it. Since being allowed to leave for Ligue 1, the young forward has started to find the back of the net with regularity for Lyon.
Both of these players leaving Real Madrid was never going to help make their 2017/2018 season, but the lack of cover that has become obvious in their wake could break it. Benzema is a key link between midfield and attack, and helps to bring out the best of those around him, but he is unlikely to be able to both play the minutes and bridge a number of goals required to account for the departures of Morata and Mariano.
When Benzema is not available, young Borja Mayoral has been asked to make a huge step up, to the point where it is a little unfair to expect so much from him. A tough loan spell in the Bundesliga with Wolfsburg failed to bring the best out of the young Spaniard, and that disappointment was followed up by an Under-21 European Championship where he was very much behind Sandro Ramirez in coach Albert Celades’ plans.
Mayoral has already popped up with a goal and an assist this season, but there is no true conviction or confidence to his play yet. It may come in time, but in the short term, it is a real gamble. Like Benzema, he likes to come deep and get involved in link-up play, and he has instincts to find the right pockets in and around the box. To be catapulted into the deep end and be asked to swim, however, is a huge ask.
Real Madrid’s failure to ease the burden on him by bringing in another offensive-minded player during the summer could prove costly and is a risky move for a club that appears to now have no qualms in looking to youth rather than a short-term expensive solution. Gareth Bale is struggling to show consistency and stay fit, with Marco Asensio and Isco being relied upon to be very inventive in and around the box.
With the prospect of retaining both LaLiga and Champions League trophies at hand, one brief slice of transfer indulgence could have lifted the pressure on the Real Madrid collective’s shoulders after a 2016/2017 campaign that will be tough to improve upon.