Tottenham Hotspur
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Borussia Monchengladbach
VfB Stuttgart
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Sparta Rotterdam
PSV Eindhoven
6:45 PM UTC
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2:00 AM UTC Oct 26, 2016
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Cerro Porteño
Independiente Medellín
12:00 AM UTC Oct 26, 2016
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Marcelo and Isco prosper at Real Madrid under Zinedine Zidane

With Luka Modric describing new boss Zinedine Zidane as his 'idol', ESPN FC's Craig Burley questions whether great players make great managers.

On the 90th minute of Real Madrid's 6-0 thrashing of Espanyol last Sunday, Marcelo touched the ball for one last time, a sideways pass to Cristiano Ronaldo. It was the 114th time that the Brazilian enjoyed possession of the ball in the game, and the 70th he did in the opposition's half.

That would sound like a reasonable number for an offensive midfielder in a home game, but for a left full-back?

One of the few players who, under former coach Rafael Benitez, managed to play more often like an accurate version of himself, Marcelo has indeed taken things up a notch after the arrival of Zinedine Zidane. In all four matches the team has played since the Frenchman took over, the Brazilian has got more touches in the opposition's half than in Real Madrid's.

Zidane, an unforgettable right-footed offensive midfielder in his time as a player, spent six seasons with Real Madrid. Their best performances wearing the white shirt happened under coach Vicente del Bosque. Zidane would start most of his offensive moves on the left hand side, but enjoyed unquestionable freedom to roam around and either get the strikers -- be it Raul Gonzalez, Fernando Morientes or Ronaldo -- involved, or cut inside leaving the full flank free for full-back Roberto Carlos to venture forward.

Marcelo, Roberto Carlos' heir at left-back, is by no means a copycat of his fellow countryman. The former prefers to be in touch with the ball as often as possible, while the latter excelled by charging forward and reaching the line two or three times per match, catching the opposition off guard.

Marcelo's best matches feature him exchanging passes with midfielders and marauding forward at every possible opportunity with an assortment of dribbles and tricks, while Roberto Carlos' would score a cracker and then spoiled a couple of chances from the opposing team with his impressive physical talent. Marcelo is constant threat, Roberto Carlos was surprise.

Therefore, Zidane is hardly trying to replicate his memories of a fantastic Brazilian full-back with another. In fact, he is using Marcelo's passing and dribbling skills to introduce him in the middle of the park when his team recover the ball, a role that Roberto Carlos never played.

Real Madrid's Marcelo
Marcelo has been more involved in Real Madrid's attacking plays under Zidane.

Paradoxically, Marcelo's unconventional position as an additional midfielder allows Zidane to increase the side's balance. With him in such an advanced role, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric always have an extra option to move the ball around and keep possession. Daniel Carvajal has a similar function on the right, but he's nowhere near as skilled as Marcelo, and prefers to surprise once in a while rather than to participate constantly in the buildup of plays.

Most importantly, Marcelo's position and his characteristics mean that Isco Alarcon can move forward and play closer to the forwards, where he feels more comfortable.

Without the statistical impact of other teammates since Zidane's arrival, Isco has been the Frenchman's most determined bet. Having spent Benitez's last month in charge watching the action from the bench or the stands, the diminutive midfielder has now started in all four matches with Zidane, enjoying the kind of continuity he's been looking for since he joined Real Madrid.

Be it with Gareth Bale, Benzema and Ronaldo in a 4-3-3 or only with the latter two after the Welshman's injury, Zidane has shown his trust in Isco, who now spends more time in the areas where the space for through balls and final passes appear. While he suffers in counter-attacking schemes, Isco obviously shows his best game when his team enjoys more of the possession and surrounds him with passing options.

Isco has played and shone in all four games under Zidane.

In these four matches, Isco has been rarely seen tracking back to look for the ball and carry it forward, something that usually generates a slow, predictable transition. Kroos, Modric and Marcelo, with Carvajal also helping out at times, offer the necessary passing options for the centre-backs and allow Isco to stay forward, looking for spaces to exploit in the opposition's half.

And while Marcelo is not exactly performing the same role of Roberto Carlos in Vicente del Bosque's Real Madrid of the early 2000s, seems safe to say that Zidane expects Isco to play in a similar position to his own in that Real Madrid squad.

In this role, Isco starts on the left hand side, cuts inside to build offensive moves in association with Marcelo, and depending on Ronaldo's and Benzema's moves, decides where he should bring his help for the forwards or which space looks more promising to find a midfielder or a full-back coming from behind.

The fact that Isco needs to be closer to the forwards has been underlined quite often since he arrived in Madrid in 2013. All the characteristics of this 23-year-old that make him slightly annoying in the middle of the park -- the time he takes to think, that extra touch of the ball, the dribble while he decides his next move -- become excellent assets in the final third. That extra second to think usually gives time for the forwards to move into space and becomes a killer pass, or a shooting option, while further away from the opposition's goal the same extra second turns into wasted time.

It's hard to say which combination of starters Zidane will choose once Bale recovers, and the Welshman and James Rodriguez are in shape at the same time. But even though any comparison with Zidane is unfair due to the Frenchman's sublime ability as a player, he seems convinced that, with the help of Marcelo, Isco is the most qualified player on the squad to perform his own role in Del Bosque's Real Madrid.

And that may very well be the difference between a very entertaining team and a consistently winning side in this final third of the season.

Eduardo Alvarez covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @alvarez.


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