Real Madrid’s 2018/19 season was one to forget with the early round of sixteen exit from the Champions League, El Clásico humiliation under the management of Julen Lopetegui, and domestic league being already lost midway through the season. This disappointing campaign that marked the post-Ronaldo era only confirmed that immediate changes were necessary for Real Madrid to assure their return to European domination and improvement in La Liga’s results.
Zidane’s comeback was a welcome change among many Madridistas desperate to see the revival of the team that once gave them so much joy. The Frenchman gained full control over the club’s transfers in an attempt to rebuild the squad and put together a team capable of competing on domestic and international stages.
“We’re going to change things” said Zidane and the club promptly shelled out over 300 million euros to facilitate his “revolution”. Based on the results of the previous season several key areas of necessary improvement became evident:
- Strengthen defense and address the issue of full-backs
- Add creativity to the midfield
- Improve the attacking potential and finishing of the chances created
The following players were selected by the club in hope of addressing problems of the past season: Eden Hazard (Chelsea), Luka Jovic (Eintracht), Ferland Mendy (Lyon), Rodrygo (Santos), Eder Militao (Porto), James Rodriguez (Bayern, return from loan), Kubo (loaned), Alphonse Areola (PSG).
Time will show whether the above-mentioned players will be successfully integrated into the team. In the meanwhile, with the summer transfer window officially closed as of September 2nd we can only try to analyze how the new signings can help Real Madrid progress toward becoming a better team.
Strengthening defense and solving the issue of full-backs
With Zidane at the wheel, Madrid used to be one of the most dangerous teams in the world largely due to its full-backs. Marcelo is a unique footballer with hardly any weaknesses in the attacking stage. Carvajal has always been good at decision making, reading the game and has a wonderful passing technique.
During the first part of Zidane’s tenure, the full-backs were responsible for the width of the attack, while wingers were given some freedom of movement. Without the proper level of skill and understanding of the game by Marcelo and Carvajal, Madrid would not have been so dangerous on the flanks.
However, during the past season, full-backs became the Achilles heel of the team and at times a liability. Even less skilled opponents were able to find spaces behind wide attacking defenders caught too far up the pitch and capitalize on the counter. The more evident this issue was becoming, the bigger grew Casemiro’s role in the starting line-up. The Brazilian provided necessary cover for both full-backs by dropping back deeper to allow central-backs to drift and fill gaps left by the free-spirited left and right-backs.
This structural flaw has become a systematic problem which required a completely new approach by a coach capable of instilling discipline among defenders. Despite their previous achievements, Madrid’s defensive players simply began lacking the work rate and self-discipline necessary to get back into their positions or cover for each other if needed.
In this regard, many greatly underestimate the signing of Ferland Mendy.
The 24-year-old was recognized twice as the best left-back of Ligue 1 and cost the club almost 50 million euros. The amount paid for the defender should not be considered outrageous, as in modern football the role of full-backs is significant. It is a fair price if the Frenchman becomes a long-term replacement for Marcelo.
Let’s take a look at the examples of the two strongest Premier League teams of the past two seasons – Manchester City and Liverpool.
When it comes to the former, attacking wide defenders act as the so-called false full-backs, which become additional central midfielders during the build-up play by occupying positions on the same line with the holding defensive midfielder and play as compactly next to him as possible, allowing central midfielders to push forward.
Thanks to this technique, Pep Guardiola managed to find a more or less effective antidote against rivals’ counterattacks. It is the full-backs in Pep’s line-ups that provide the balance to the structure.
Jürgen Klopp went even further with Trent-Alexander Arnold and Andrew Robertson becoming the team’s playmakers. Together they had more than 20 assists in the Premier League last season, and it is they and not the central midfielders, who are responsible for delivering the ball to the final third during attacks. Of course, depending on the context of the match, this structure may change, but most of the time Liverpool tries to attack through the wide defenders.
Zidane’s Madrid had a similar system, but Carvajal and Marcelo were not responsible for dispersing the attacks (Modric and Kroos did this), displaying attacking activity directly near the box.
In the end, the purchase of Mendy might end up being one of the most important deals of this summer for Los Blancos, because the significance of full-backs in Zidane’s team is obvious. Ideally, the arrival of the Frenchman will inspire Marcelo to return to his best form, while Ferland can share the minutes, playing often, but not constantly.
But Mendy himself is not just an average footballer. He is fast, a great dribbler and a good passer. This can be backed up by his statistics in the league and the Champions League.
Shots p90 (League + CL)
Interceptions p90 (League + CL)
The Frenchman’s attacking statistics are even more impressive:
Key passes p90 (League + CL)
Successful dribbles p90 (League + CL):
Mendy: League (1.72) / CL (0.89)
Alba: League (0.48) / CL (0.64)
Robertson: League (0.78 / 0.62)
These figures are at the level of the best European full-backs of the past season. Mendy’s tackle numbers are slightly less notable:
Successful tackles p90 (League + CL)
The newly signed from Lyon defender has a steady control of his weak foot. It is perhaps the best among all the full-backs of the top 5 leagues. Mendy does not hesitate to pass and shoot with his right foot. Among all new signings of the summer bar Hazard, it is Mendy who has the highest chance to win a place in the starting line-up of the upcoming season.
The Brazilian has become the first acquisition of Zidane’s second spell as Real Madrid’s manager. Porto’s defender was transferred for another 50 million euros. Although the club had been working on this deal for a relatively long time, without the approval of the Frenchman, the deal would not have taken place. Militao’s role is quite obvious – to become a back-up to Ramos and Varane, taking advantage of any given chances and hopefully progress making it to the starting XI in a couple of years.
For a 21-year-old, Militao has a lot of strengths: he is very good at aerial duels, can push the ball forward and has a good first touch. His statistics for tackles and interceptions are impressive: an average of more than two per match. Given all this data plus his physical strength, due to which he is a tough defender to beat, 50 million euros paid for the Brazilian start making more sense.
Like most players Militao, however, is not without flaws. The main of them being frequent fouls resulting from poor initial positioning. But with some experience, this drawback can be eliminated and is not a big problem, given the age of the player.
The presence of Militao on the team roster will allow Zidane to experiment with a three-defender backline. In Porto, for the last six months, he often found himself in the role of a full-back, again thanks to his ability to carry the ball forward and great physicality.
Although the signing of the back-up goalkeeper from PSG on loan does not directly impact the improvement of the team’s defense and was merely a way of dealing with the departure of Real Madrid’s number 1 goalkeeper Keylor Navas, it does have an indirect influence on reshaping the team’s profile. Assuming the team’s main goalkeeper Courtois doesn’t receive major injuries during the season, Areola’s workload will be kept at minimum. If, however, Areola does have to make an appearance in crucial La Liga and Champions League matches the absence of such a seasoned goalkeeper as the beloved Costa Rican will be felt by the squad. Not only was Navas an experienced and proven in important matches player, he also represented the team’s fighting spirit, winning in big games mentality, undying Madridismo, and overall was a great guy to have in the dressing room.
Coming next: Improving the attacking potential and finishing of the chances created