La Liga 2016-17: Is Zinedine Zidane's honeymoon period at Real Madrid ending?
With six gameweeks gone by, Zinedine Zidane’ s Real Madrid are leading the La Liga table, tied first in their Champions League group, and have won the UEFA Super Cup in a dramatic final. On top of all of this, they have been unbeaten in all competitions this season, and have been so for nearly six months now – their last defeat was at the hands of Wolfsburg in the Champions League on 6 April.
They had a 16-game winning streak broken when Villarreal held them for a 1-1 draw at the El Madrigal. Since then, Real have drawn two more games 2-2 in contrasting situations – one, a draw against Las Palmas in La Liga, while the other was away at the Signal Iduna Park against Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League.
While three draws in three games is not always to be considered a bad result, it does beg one question to be asked – is Real’s defence up to the challenge this year, or will it falter at crucial moments?
A problematic defence?
Yes, it really is a very premature thing to ask, because till now, the season was just in kickoff mode. But with Real conceding two really silly goals due to defensive errors against Dortmund away – in the biggest game of the season – and with the significant sample space of other games in which many more similar errors were committed, concerns about the Real defence hold valid grounds.
This season, Real has not had the chance to try out a best, settled XI. Their winning streak continued till the time Casemiro was a regular feature of the playing XI. With his injury, Real’s defence lines have been exposed to a greater number of attacks by each team. In the presence of Casemiro, Real were able to cut out at least 5-6 attacking movements of their opponents more than they are able to, without him.
Playing Toni Kroos in the pivot role has increased Real’s attacking thrust, but they are not knocking in more goals every game because of this switch. Yes, in the initial game against Espanyol, it did not affect their attacking rhythm. But having drawn all three games and conceding five goals in the process, it is clear that Real are affording extra leash to their opponents at this point in the season.
Midfield problems come to light for Real
In the game against Dortmund, Real’s all-too-familiar midfield problems rose to the fore as Dortmund were able to create a number of moves through Real’s centre. Julian Weigl was able to easily bypass James’ high press on too many occasions. Luka Modric and Kroos were left to fend for a centre in which Gonzalo Castro, Mario Gotze and Raphael Guerreiro popped up in the empty spaces.
Casemiro’s ankle problems may well rule him out for over six weeks, as preliminary scans have revealed damage to his fibula bone. In the intervening period, Real will be facing Eibar, Real Betis, Legia Warsaw (twice), Bilbao, Alaves and Leganes. Barring the Bilbao fixture, all of these are eminently winnable games.
Should Real not be able to seal all of those matches, further questions will be raised about Zidane, and by now the long leash afforded to new managers will have worn off among the Real faithful as well as the club hierarchy. Failure would reflect a regression from two years back, when with virtually the same first XI, Carlo Ancelotti was able to power Real on a 22-game winning streak.
A change on the cards in the XI?
What remains to be seen is whether the tactical problem that Zidane has faced against Dortmund will make him rejig Real’s setup a bit. With the presence of Isco, Mateo Kovacic, Kroos and James Rodriguez, all of whom are capable of playing in the no. 10 role, there have been calls from some quarters for the Frenchman to take Real back to the 4-2-3-1 formation from the Jose Mourinho era.
In the absence of Casemiro, this new setup would mean that Modric would have to operate alongside a more lightweight midfielder in the deeper playmaking role. Should Kroos be able to replicate the metronomic accuracy of Xabi Alonso, which he has the technical wherewithal to achieve, this formation could theoretically work wonders for Real.
Zidane has done an exemplary job as the manager for over nine months now, and there is no concrete evidence so far that Real’s current problems are any more than momentary blips. All of the players have proven credentials and will definitely be able to bounce back from these setbacks, sooner rather than later.
Verdict: Zidane might be thinking this is a small issue for the side, for now, he shouldn't worry, but being a Real Madrid manager, things can turn nasty really quickly. The Frenchman has to be careful with how he progresses and hopefully he should come out unscathed.
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