Until some major departures are confirmed, Los Blancos could well enter the new season with at least three goalkeepers, 10 defenders, nine midfielders and eight forwards.
There’s no need for a maths teacher to see these figures don’t quite fit into 11.
Zidane is not your atypical instructor either as his previous Real reign was based more on psychology as opposed to philosophy.
But the squad total doesn’t even take into account the probable arrival of another midfielder (we’re thinking Paul Pogba) or any of the players loaned out last season being retained.
Now of course there’s plenty of time for desired (Dani Ceballos, Lucas Vazquez, Mariano Diaz and Keylor Navas) and undesired (Gareth Bale and Isco) outcasts to leave.
But just how Zidane formulates a playbook which can be clearly instructed to his charges remains to be seen.
To assist, we’ve examined three different possible set-ups with two XIs for each.
FORMATION ONE: 4-3-3
Zidane is not exactly a system manager. Unlike his modern managerial contemporaries, the Frenchman hasn’t taken up any tactical religion, but what the Frenchman has mastered, is the individual.
That’s not to say he’s tactically flawed, far from it. However, Zidane’s managerial career has largely been built by the power of his personality.
It’s not a surprise therefore that that 47-year-old has demanded superstar individuals to work with as these polished products won’t require too much schooling.
And so perhaps the best way to cram these new Galacticos into his side is by employing a 4-3-3.
Thibaut Courtois; Dani Carvajal, Sergio Ramos, Raphael Varane; Ferland Mendy; Toni Kroos, Casemiro, Paul Pogba; Vinicius Junior, Karim Benzema, Eden Hazard
Two things immediately jump out; Benzema in, €65-million signing Jovic out and Vinicius Junior deployed on the right.
The reasoning is simple, a Benzema-Hazard axis can draw the best from both. Indeed, the Belgian is an expert of maneuvering in tight spaces and his goals often arrive when he wiggles in between the lines to play quickfire one-twos with a No9.
There are few better facilitators than Benzema for this ploy. On the right, Vinicius must adapt to a new position but his disruptive pace and frantic trickery provides an added dimension, providing he can adjust to not cutting outside onto his right foot, as opposed to inside.
The back end of last season afforded Zidane the opportunity to see just how unbalanced the midfield was.
There was little structure and by extension, creation – Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, Isco, Casemiro and Dani Ceballos managed just 12 assists in La Liga between them.
Pogba might be considered poison by some sections of Manchester United’s support, but he’s the antidote for Zidane.
Free to pick locks from his favoured left-side role, Casemiro as the single pivot provides Pogba’s liberation through his destructive screening, while Kroos can act as the link between defence and the Frenchman and he also possesses the added set-piece threat.
These clearly-defined roles encourage dynamism going forward with a solid structure, two of Real’s biggest issues previously.
Defensively, Real were wretched last season.
Varane and Ramos remain as the first-choice centre-back pairing here, although the former endured an awkward campaign while the skipper showed signs of decline. Both could be challenged by Eder Militao.
Mendy’s appearance at left-back does address their imbalance though, as Real were too often left unsteady by Marcelo’s positional negligence. The new signing from Lyon is an excellent all-round addition and crucially brings energy in both directions, a vital component in this system which requires width from overlapping full-backs.
Thibaut Courtois; Alvaro Odriozola, Sergio Ramos, Eder Militao; Marcelo; Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, Isco, Marco Asensio, Luka Jovic, Eden Hazard
There are other faces Zidane could potentially use with this shape. As mentioned Militao is a strong option at centre-back.
The 21-year-old is excellent on the ball and his long-range passing gives Zidane a different look from defence. He’s not a physical unit like Varane, but the Brazilian is super quick and snaps for possession.
Elsewhere, Odriozola’s freakish pace is a fresh alternative to Carvajal and if he can sharpen his delivery, the young Spaniard is definitely an asset to consider.
Marcelo’s inclusion is based on his experience with what is a youthful backline and that’s the thinking in midfield, too.
Either age or Real’s instability siphoned the quality from Modric’s feet last season. But in games that Los Blancos dominate possession, his cute passing can be utilised with Kroos sitting deeper.
Isco as the centrepiece is a risk-reward scenario. Zidane always inspired the best from the Spaniard and his telepathic understanding with Asensio – who will need to be re-energised to battle Vinicius for the right-wing slot – could hallmark this set-up.
Finally, the other change is the predatory Jovic. The Serbian doesn’t yet provide the same expansive game of Benzema, but his runs off the shoulder would give Real a better penalty box presence.
OPTION A SUITABILITY – 8/10
OPTION B SUITABILITY – 6/10
FORMATION TWO: 4-4-2 Diamond
It’s unlikely Zidane will ever revert to the three-man defence he tentatively attempted at the beginning of his first reign so don’t expect to see anything but a flat-back four in this analysis.
One variant with that shape which Zidane is well versed in is the 4-4-2 Diamond. The tactical trend has very much moved away from this set-up but it’s one the Frenchman does trust and he has the parts to make it run smooth.
Indeed, one position in particular he has deep stock in is at No10 and so investing in a formation which relies heavily on that role could pay dividends.
Thibaut Courtois; Dani Carvajal, Sergio Ramos, Raphael Varane; Ferland Mendy; Casemiro, Toni Kroosm Paul Pogba, Eden Hazard; Luka Jovic, Karim Benzema
Arguably the most compelling case for the 4-4-2 is that enables Zidane to partner Jovic and Benzema.
It’s a logical step for two reasons; the first is that the Serbian thrived with another forward alongside him at Eintracht Frankfurt, and the second is that he can concentrate on attacking the box while Benzema drops in to connect midfield and attack.
That is where Hazard comes into play at the tip of the diamond, too. Pushed into a central role in behind the frontmen, the Belgian is creatively unlocked in a role he’s illuminated in the past.
Take last season for example, in six outings as a No10 Hazard contributed to five goals (three scored, two assisted). The position can free him of a direct battle with the right-back, to pursue pockets of space which can lead to options on his left and right.
The big concern is behind the front trio. Casemiro’s positional awareness is not the sharpest and he can arrive late to dangerous situations.
The system dictates a vast amount of responsibility from him and he would unlikely receive much help from either of the midfielders ahead of him.
Pogba did thrive as the shuttler at Juventus, but that’s not been the case with United. Real’s midfield was often headlocked by team’s employing a high-press so it’s easy to see this flimsy core being exposed and choked out.
A midfield overrun is then compounded by space to exploit in behind the full-backs.
The only source of natural width with this system is provided by the full-backs and naturally, if Mendy and Carvajal are caught out high up the pitch, there’s a lot of room for the opposition to move into.
Real often suffered in the 4-4-2 Diamond because there was no clear pressing ploy and that confusion rocked the foundations in midfield with the tremors felt further back.
Thibaut Courtois; Alvaro Odriozola, Sergio Ramos, Eder Militao; Marcelo; Casemiro, Federico Valverde, Luka Modric, Isco; Eden Hazard, Luka Jovic
If an ultra-fluid attack is Zidane’s approach then he has other options for consideration here.
There’s Isco, Ceballos, Hazard and potentially Pogba who can fulfill the No10 designation and although Ceballos has his fair share of admirers – especially after his recent performances for the Spanish Under-21s – Zidane is not one of them.
A player he does love is Isco and in 2017 the playmaker seduced plenty of enchanted onlookers when he sauntered through opposition blocks as if on a Paris catwalk from this very position.
Indeed, that year is held up as a billboard of what he can produce when a team is built for and around him. Isco had this brave brilliance about him with his exquisite vision to spot and exploit space, flair on the ball, hounding work rate and crucial goals plus assists making for his best season to date.
Given a chance to find his rhythm to drive counter-attacks again, the Spaniard is the type of player who can drown out the reverberating Bernabeu boos of last season through his brand of sweet jazz.
Zidane should be all ears. Dropping out Kroos for Fderico Valverde solves a massive hole in midfield because the Uruguayan is a dynamic box-to-box midfielder.
Valverde’s engine is ludicrous and although he’s not the pristine passer in the Kroos/Modric mould, he’s very good in counter-attacking transitions.
All positives, but there’s a major drawback because to get Hazard into the team he would have to be awkwardly shunted into an advanced role alongside Jovic.
OPTION A SUITABILITY – 6/10
OPTION B SUITABILITY – 7/10
FORMATION THREE: 4-2-3-1
Finally, there’s a third option and it’s one Zidane used throughout his time in charge of the Castilla.
Now obviously personnel dictates certain formations but in the early part of his ascension to the senior job, Zidane did oscillate between a 4-3-3 and 4-3-2-1.
The squad at his disposal allows a potential return to it and it’s counter-attacking possibilities are intriguing.
Thibaut Courtois; Dani Carvajal, Sergio Ramos, Raphael Varane; Ferland Mendy; Casemiro, Toni Kroos; Vinicius Junior, Paul Pogba; Eden Hazard; Luka Jovic
The first thing to say is that the front four is pure heavy metal. Vinicius, Pogba, Hazard and Jovic form a quartet capable of topping all attacking charts.
Just imagine the opposition trying to get a grip of them. In effect, Hazard and Vinicius would grab a defence’s right and left arms while Pogba as the central playmaker has a clear shot to deliver the telling punch, either with a goal or by assisting Jovic.
It’s practically bullying unleashing an attack like this. The skill-set variety makes this blend so enticing because there is Hazard on the left weaving past players, Vinicius’ piercing pace on the opposite flank, Pogba high up the pitch without defensive responsibility to create and the lethal Jovic to finish.
Move the ball quick in transition and these four could be unstoppable.
The party is over when reaching this point. All that attacking power comes at a price because there’s a tremendous load on the two occupying the double pivot.
Kroos and Casemiro emerge as the prime options, the Brazilian for his defensive steel and the German for his silky passing.
Casemiro has to be an intimidating dominator and allow Kroos to quickly move the ball in transition to the team’s attackers, who can link up quick to catch the opposition unprepared.
There’s not a lot of cover for the backline otherwise and the galloping full-backs mean Real themselves are left very vulnerable.
Madrid just don’t have the defence to cope with surrendering possession in the manner this formation requires to be effective.
Ramos does still invoke a fearless disposition, but it’s through his personality rather than physicality.
After all, the captain is 33-years old and it says a lot about his mindset that he did consider a lucrative move to China at the beginning of the summer.
There’s worry Real would operate poorly with this unbalanced set-up and it could well lead to the defence being overloaded.
Thibaut Courtois; Alvaro Odriozola, Raphael Varane, Eder Militao; Marcelo; Federico Valverde, Paul Pogba; Marco Asensio, Dani Ceballos, Eden Hazard; Karim Benzema
One mechanism to solve the concerns over the legs in the midfield screen is to deploy Valverde and Pogba together.
Now, the Frenchman has not been at his best in a double pivot for United but that’s alongside a Nemanja Matic who no longer has the energy to get around the pitch like Valverde.
In transition, Pogba’s range of passing can be a key weapon and once the ball is won back, he’s one of the best at springing attacks.
Ahead of him, Ceballos is a good option for the No10 role because he’s shown before his spectacular finishing prowess and passing flair.
If given a consistent run of games, the 22 year old has the perfect personality for this position and can show exactly why he’s considered Spain’s best prospect.
Solving the defensive concerns is a little more tricky. Varane and Militao represents a very raw partnership but between them is speed of thought and feet.
However, there’s a lot of unknowns with this proposition.
OPTION A SUITABILITY – 6/10
OPTION B SUITABILITY – 6/10
PLAYERS NOT USED
Keylor Navas, Andriy Lunin, Luca Zidane, Jesus Vallejo, Nacho, Theo Hernandez, Sergio Reguilon, Brahim Diaz, Mariano Diaz, Martin Odegaard, James Rodriguez, Lucas Vazquez, Rodrygo, Gareth Bale, Borja Mayoral
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