Julen Lopetegui will know exactly how Zinedine Zidane feels when his La Liga leaders Sevilla host Real Madrid on Sunday, but the French boss won’t expect any sympathy from his counterpart.
Lopetegui is busy resurrecting his managerial career after a disastrous four-month spell in charge of Los Blancos last season, and his arc dissects a point which sees Zidane’s own reputation beginning to nosedive.
Madrid’s disjointed start to the league campaign segued into a brutal Champions League opening defeat at the hands of Paris Saint-Germain on Wednesday.
The team’s failure to register a single shot on target in the 3-0 reverse, the first time Real recorded such a statistic in the Champions League since Opta kept track in 2003, was reminiscent of the anemic displays under Lopetegui in 2018/19.
But aside from Barcelona, a Lopetegui-led Sevilla is arguably the last side Zidane would want to face next up with his tactical acumen under serious examination. Tactics form the first part of our key talking points for Sunday’s contest at the Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan Stadium.
CHANGE OF SHAPE, CHANGE OF FORTUNE?
James Rodriguez and Toni Kroos spent most of their time in Paris looking at each other like unprepared students during an exam.
Neither knew where or when to press with Rodriguez, a dynamic No10, crowbarred awkwardly into a deeper midfield slot, while Kroos was caught walking as Angel Di Maria sprinted past him for the opener and then failed to follow Thomas Meunier for PSG’s third.
The disorganisation in midfield was absolutely galling, but entirely predictable considering the limited resources invested into that department over the summer. Indeed, only Madrid could spend over €300 million in one transfer window and yet still lack depth.
The trio of Kroos, Casemiro and Luka Modric has long papered over Zidane’s tactical inadequacies, but with no fresh faces arriving, Modric’s physical decline and Kroos’ indifferent form has left Casemiro trying to blanket a forest fire with a flannel.
There’s no Modric or Isco and potentially Federico Valverde as well on Sunday and following the disintegration of their shapeless 4-2-3-1 against PSG, Zidane needs a rethink.
There are two options. Either a three-man defence which he used in the final two pre-season games or a 4-4-2.
Real don’t have the defenders for three at the back, but the set-up does mean Zidane can pack the midfield with wing-backs.
The 4-4-2 pairs Casemiro and Kroos together in middle while also freeing up Eden Hazard to operate much closer to Karim Benzema. What Madrid need above everything else is clarity, and that ultimately comes from Zidane.
HAZARD LIGHTS FLASHING
“I’m not going to complain about the squad I have. If that was the case then I’d need to look for a new job.”
Zidane might not be complaining publicly just yet, but behind the scenes rumours are rife that the acquisitions he desired were not brought to the Bernabeu.
And he might be searching for a new job…
One glaring omission is of course Paul Pogba and while a game of who signed who has played out over the responsibility for the other signings, one player Zidane certainly wanted and got is Hazard.
Zidane’s tactical deficiencies are nothing new but his ability to cajole star talents is undeniable. Signing the best individuals on the planet was therefore always going to shape his transfer plot rather than buying component parts to fit into a wider philosophy.
Hazard fit that remit, the former Chelsea man long dazzling English football as one of the most effective attackers in Europe.
However, Hazard is already in serious danger of following Philippe Coutinho in flopping after a mega-money move from the Premier League. Injury is a mitigating factor which has blighted his start to life at Real, but even taking into account his fitness and unfamiliarity with the team, the Belgian’s anonymous display against PSG points to the mentality of a player who at times has been marginal.
Hazard’s whimsical nature was often one of his biggest criticisms at Chelsea, but at Real a hard-edged winning mentality must emerge to see him successful. He is the only one of their summer buys who is undoubtedly world class and that reputation brings immense expectation.
He has to start performing, and quickly, for the sake of himself and the man who brought him to Madrid.
LOPETEGUI STARTS WELL… AGAIN
The first few weeks of Lopetegui’s reign as Real boss actually pointed to some promise. In La Liga, Los Blancos were unbeaten through the first five games, winning four and earning a very credible point away at Athletic Bilbao.
Then they travelled to Sevilla and were hammered 3-0. There’s a curious symmetry here with that defeat highlighting Real’s problems; no Cristiano Ronaldo, the waning influence of their midfield and a creaking defence.
All three problems remain and Zidane now takes his side to their familiar bogey ground with Sevilla in great form. Lopetegui, though, will be hyper-aware things can change fast after his Real stint, even despite the fact that Sevilla are surprisingly top having taken 10 points through the first four fixtures.
“We had a good start, the team was playing well but then we had three very bad weeks,” Lopetegui recalled this week.
The former Spain boss will be desperate to get a result on Sunday, not only to exact revenge on his past employers, but to maintain a very promising start.
Defensively, Sevilla are markedly improved, conceding just once all season with Celta Vigo’s sole goal in a 1-1 draw arriving having only managed two shots at goal. One of the reasons for their early success is another man who will want to impress on Sunday, Sergio Reguilon.
Cast aside by Zidane, the on-loan left-back has been one of their best performers so far and will be dangerous against a very weak Real Madrid right side.
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