A couple of years ago, Real Madrid were being hailed for a shrewd and long-sighted transfer policy.
The Bernabeu club had swept up the cream of young Spanish talent, with promising starlets Dani Ceballos, Theo Hernandez, Marcos Llorente and Jesus Vallejo being snapped up to complement – and eventually replace – the faithful old guard who had just swooped for an impressively-gained Liga and Champions League double.
It appeared that president Florentino Perez had abandoned his Galáctico approach in favour of a more sustainable method, and the rest of Europe could only wonder with concern how they could keep pace with a well-balanced squad boasting the best of Spain’s emerging talent in support of a batch of experienced world-class stars.
Fast forward two summers, though, and that new policy – if it ever was a policy at all – has been abandoned. None of the youngsters signed back then are still at the club, with all of them moving on after barely receiving any chances to develop and grow.
Instead, Zinedine Zidane is presiding over a lop-sided squad containing an abundance of wingers, a new batch of costly imports from overseas and hardly any midfielders.
What is going on? It’s very difficult to make much sense of the ins and outs at the Bernabeu over the past six months. Back in March, remember, Zidane returned to the club and sternly announced that many changes would take place. The long-serving veterans, everyone assumed, were on their way out, with the likes of Isco, Marcelo, Luka Modric, Gareth Bale and James Rodriguez heading for the exit door to be replaced by a new group led by Zidane’s personal pick Paul Pogba and, if he could be lured away from Paris Saint-Germain, Kylian Mbappe.
Somehow, though, the players who were supposed to have departed are still there and the players who were supposed to have joined stayed away, with the exception of Eden Hazard after a long chase finally came to fruition.
This has left Zidane with more or less the same bunch of players who underperformed so badly in the last couple of seasons, with the lack of evolution experienced by the group evident from the fact that Bale – who had supposedly been at the front of the departures queue – rescued the team with two goals to secure a 2-2 draw at Villarreal on Sunday night.
The lack of recruitment in midfield is especially puzzling. The departures of Ceballos, Llorente and Mateo Kovacic over the last couple of years has left Zidane with just four players to patrol the centre of the field: Luka Modric (who turns 34 next week), Toni Kroos, Casemiro and young Uruguayan Fede Valverde.
All four of those players were used during Sunday’s game at Villarreal – Kroos and Casemiro from the start; Modric and Valverde from the bench – which begs the question of what would Zidane have done if one of them had been unavailable? The only answer is that his tactical approach would have been compromised by a simple lack of personnel, which is surely a crazy situation for one of the most powerful sporting organisations in the world.
And it will happen. Modric is too old to play every week, Valverde too inexperienced, and Casemiro is a walking suspension. So Kroos will have to start something like 50 games with others fitting around him, perhaps including more attacking players such as Isco and James and maybe even a return to the occasional (and generally disastrous) experiment of playing Sergio Ramos as a defensive midfielder (and if that sounds outlandish, just try to think of anyone else who could play in that role when Casemiro is absent).
Of course, Zidane’s situation is far from disastrous and there is still plenty of talent at his disposal. The starting eleven, without doubt, possesses sufficient quality to overcome any opposition.
But from a wider perspective, this feels like a Real Madrid squad that has been thrown together rather than planned, leaving eight wide players/attacking midfielders to compete for two or three places in the starting eleven (Hazard, Bale, James, Isco, Vinicius, Lucas Vazquez, Rodrygo and Brahim Diaz) while four are expected to cover the middle of the pitch for the whole season.
Quite how Zidane intends to manage the situation is anyone’s guess, but it’s tempting to conclude he never intended his squad to look anything like this at all.
This month’s international break should contain moments of real consequence for a selection of football’s brightest stars.
With Europe’s best continuing a new cycle in Euro 2020 qualification and South America’s contingent refreshing options now the 2019 Copa America is out the way, managers across the globe are open to new options.
Real Madrid teenager Vinicius Junior is free of the bothersome ankle injury that cost him continental glory this summer, while Leicester City playmaker James Maddison’s burgeoning reputation can no longer be ignored by England’s Gareth Southgate. These are just two names that could begin stand-out international careers from September 2-10:
Fixtures: Colombia (N), Peru (N)
Club: Real Madrid
2019/20 record: Three appearances, zero goals/assists
Vinicius has been destined to don the famous ‘Canarinho’ shirt since being a school boy.
This summer’s Copa on home soil seemed the natural starting point for a historic career. That was before, cruel, injury struck.
Preparation at Madrid has not been ideal since for the €46 million teenager. He’s been in and out of the XI in spite of an injury crisis and is yet to deliver any tangible returns from 2019/20.
Now, comes his international chance. With Neymar undercooked because of the abortive Barcelona/Real Madrid transfer sagas, he should get minutes.
Instantly forgettable friendlies in the United States could, nevertheless, feature a pivotal moment for Brazil’s future.
Fixtures: Bulgaria (H), Kosovo (H)
Club: Leicester City
2019/20 record: Five appearances, one goal, two assists
Maddison exudes the confidence of a celebrated 50-cap veteran.
Ignore the brash social media profile, the 22-year-old boasts the numbers to prevent lapsing into hubris. His debut Premier League campaign in 2018/19 saw him become the only player to create 100 goalscoring chances, in the process becoming the first Englishman to reach three figures since Everton left-back Leighton Baines in 2012/13.
In this term’s nascent competition, only the peerless Manchester City’s pair of Kevin De Bruyne (four) and David Silva (three) have notched more than his two assists.
With Manchester United’s Jesse Lingard in wretched form and Tottenham Hotspur’s Dele Alli scrambling for fitness, Maddison should get a chance to stake his claim as the Three Lions’ latest creative hub.
Fixtures: Germany (A), Estonia (A)
Club: PSV Eindhoven
Position: Centre forward
2019/20 record: 11 appearances, four goals, four assists
Arsenal’s loss has been PSV’s gain.
Malen made the bold choice to break away from the Gunners’ youth set-up in August 2017, despite then manager Arsene Wenger labelling him as showing “interesting qualities”. This defection has proven adroit.
A clearer path to first-team football opened up under Mark van Bommel. Now at 20-years old, Malen is the No9 for one of the Netherlands’ leading clubs after the summer exit of Luuk de Jong to Sevilla.
The Ajax youth product is not a prolific scorer. Yet a refined football intelligence – honed as a youth under Denis Bergkamp at Ajax and Thierry Henry at Arsenal – and startling turn of pace shines through.
It is these facets that made Oranje boss Ronald Koeman issue a debut call-up, ostensibly as under study to PSV alumnus Memphis Depay. Malen has the ability to make this the first of many.
Fixtures: Chile (N), Mexico (N)
Club: San Lorenzo
Position: Centre forward
2019/20 record: One appearance, zero goals/assists
The spine of Argentina’s side has come under intense scrutiny.
Centre-backs not fit for purpose, an invisible midfield and failure from centre forwards to mirror club performances at international level have sparked serious doubts. Optimism about a brighter future, however, was restored during July’s semi-final defeat at the Copa to Brazil.
This positivity could increase further this month if prolific junior international scorer Gaich can replicate this form at senior level.
The imposing, 6 ft 3 in colt was a standout at both the U-20 World Cup and Pan American Games. Only three goals in 16 first-team run-outs, however, for San Lorenzo have been registered.
La Albiceleste tactician Lionel Scaloni will hope this friendly experiment has not come too soon.
Fixtures: Netherlands (H), Northern Ireland (A)
Position: Centre forward
2019/20 record: Four appearances, three goals, zero assists
Waldschmidt represents a striking prospect who is coming to the boil.
A leading seven goals in six appearances upon Germany’s charge to runners-up at the 2019 European Under-21 Championship showed genuine promise. This has been reflected in a strong start to the 2019/20 Bundesliga, with two goals coming in three games for Freiburg.
The 23-year-old possesses a thunderous left-footed shot and refined technical skills.
This mixture, obviously, appeals to Die Mannschaft supremo Joachim Low.
RB Leipzig’s Timo Werner is locked in as starter. Uninspired back-up options like Schalke’s Mark Uth and Freiburg team-mate Nils Petersen should be no competition in the long term for the flourishing Waldschmidt.
He is unlikely to be thrust into a competitive qualifier versus the Netherlands. But minutes against Northern Ireland are not out of the question.
Real Madrid grabbed a 2-2 draw with Villarreal in a pulsating game which both teams will feel they could have won at Estadio de Ceramica on Sunday night.
Villarreal were twice in front, leading as late as the 86th minute, before Gareth Bale scored the second of his two equalisers for a Madrid team which was dominant for the majority of the action.
There were plenty of positives and negatives for both teams to extract, but we can only start by hailing another excellent performance from the biggest plus of Madrid’s season so far… that man Bale:
BALE BACK IN BUSINESS
Perhaps the most unexpected storyline of the new La Liga season so far has been the resurgence of Bale, with the flying winger resisting a forceful push out of the Bernabeu exit door to once again become a key protagonist for Madrid.
After a summer which saw head coach Zinedine Zidane do everything possible to rid himself of the Welshman, who nearly ended up moving to the backwaters of China, a long injury list has given the French coach no choice but to hand Bale a starting spot – and he has seized the surprise second chance with both hands.
Bale burst into the new season with an excellent assist for Karim Benzema to spark the opening day victory over Celta Vigo, and he was even more influential on this occasion by rescuing his team with two well-taken equalisers.
More than that he was a strong presence throughout the game, in stark contrast to the subdued figure who meandered through many outings last season.
90+4'| Second yellow card for Gareth Bale. #RMLiga— Real Madrid C.F. 🇬🇧🇺🇸 (@realmadriden) September 1, 2019
He started on the left wing and later moved to the right, but was unfazed by that positional change and provided a steady stream of probing runs and incisive crosses.
Unfortunately his night was spoiled by a dismissal for two stoppage time yellow cards, meaning he will miss the post-international break home game against Levante, but now there can be no doubt that against the odds he still has a big role to play at Real Madrid.
MADRID’S SOFT UNDERBELLY EXPOSED
On the balance of chances this was a game that Madrid should have won with a fair degree of comfort, with home keeper Andres Fernandez far busier than Thibaut Courtois, but from another perspective Zidane’s men were relieved to come away with a point after their defensive frailties saw them twice fall behind.
This, of course, is nothing new. Los Blancos conceded a shocking 46 league goals last season, and their vulnerability at the back was on display again as recently as last weekend when Real Valladolid netted a late equaliser to steal a point from the Bernabeu.
1 - Gareth Bale is one of the two Real Madrid players to score a brace and sent off in the same LaLiga game in the 21st century, after Cristiano Ronaldo against Malaga in January 2010. Critical. pic.twitter.com/BecEeOyseL— OptaJose (@OptaJose) September 1, 2019
Even though they were apparently in complete control for long periods of this game, easily dominating possession, Real never really looked safe at the back. Their inability to defend against fast transitions through the midfield, gifting far too much space in the centre of the pitch, means that any opposition will always fancy themselves to grab a goal.
And until that weakness is truly addressed by Zidane – who now urgently faces the task of proving himself as a tactician – they will surely be unable to gather the consistent results required to mount a serious title challenge.
WILL VILLARREAL EVER WIN?
Villarreal must be wondering if they will ever register their first victory of the season.
Javi Calleja’s team have led on seven occasions during their three games so far in this campaign, but somehow they only have two points.
In their season opener against Granada, the Yellow Submarine were up 1-0, 2-1, 3-2 and 4-2 before being pegged back for a 4-4 draw. Then at Levante they were 1-0 ahead but conceded two penalties to lose 2-1, and now in this game Villarreal were leading 1-0 and 2-1 but again had to settle for just a point.
#VillarrealRealMadrid | 2-1 🚨 72' | GOALLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL! GOALLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL! Moi Gómez fires home an @javiontiveros39 ball across the box. 💪💛 pic.twitter.com/r8GOLEAF8b— Villarreal CF English (@Eng_Villarreal) September 1, 2019
Some of their approach play is outstanding and the squad is gifted with great technicians, but like Madrid they are bugged by a defensive frailty which has condemned them to a tally of far fewer points than they really should have claimed.
It was a similar story last season, when 52 goals conceded saw them in serious relegation trouble before a late burst of victories, and Calleja’s men must add greater game management skills if they want to fulfil their huge potential over the next few months.