Real Madrid's midfield needs revamping in trip to Levante
If one had to judge Real Madrid's current state of affairs by what the Madrid media have said since their home defeat to Atletico Madrid last Saturday, you might well think that the season is already over for the Madridistas.
Engaged in endless discussions over Cristiano Ronaldo's postmatch statements, the various newspapers and radio stations which cover Real Madrid have spent a couple of days overanalyzing the quality of the squad, the dressing room mutiny against Dr. Jesus Olmo, known as "Dr. Stretch," the exhausting and questionable preseason tour and president Florentino Perez's personnel decisions.
However, it's early March, and there's still a season to be salvaged. Even though there's only one trophy left to be conquered, it happens to be Real Madrid's favourite, the Champions League; on top of that, it's not as though the Madridistas can afford to take the next three months off in La Liga. Only two points behind, Villarreal are closing in on the third position, and a fourth-place finish would seriously hinder Real Madrid's planning for the next term's preseason. A handful of players, having performed terribly so far, also have their own reputation at stake, and need a decent sequence of matches to recover their deteriorated stock.
So instead of giving up on the season to start daydreaming of a summer of big spending, coach Zinedine Zidane must focus on building a competitive squad for their Champions League title challenge, while making sure that they do not drop points in La Liga.
Zidane's short-term rebuilding process should start in Valencia on Wednesday evening. The calendar has given the Frenchman a decent break; the team won't have to face the probable antipathy and huge pressure of the Santiago Bernabeu, but rather bottom of the table Levante at their own stadium.
Little is left of the tough, hard-fighting Levante of yore. The team which only a few years ago could physically intimidate most squads in Spain, a side famous for their fierce defending, have now become an easy prey for any competitor with minimal offensive skills.
Levante have lost 16 of 26 matches, the most number of defeats in La Liga; they have won 15 of a possible 39 points at the Ciudad de Valencia stadium, the third-worst record; and have scored 24 times so far, also the third-worst performance in the tournament.
However, the few sparks of life that could lead Levante to salvation have appeared at their own stadium. Spanish midfielder Jose Luis Morales, Italian forward Giuseppe Rossi and the unpredictable Brazilian striker Deyverson Silva enjoy playing in front of their own public, and at times they even entertain the Levante faithful.
In their last four matches at home, they have won three. Levante only lost to leaders Barcelona, in a match that saw Morales do so many tricks on Dani Alves that the Brazilian had to be replaced by coach Luis Enrique in the second half and left the pitch incensed after his poor performance.
Even though Zidane will gladly accept this chance to leave the Bernabeu, it's hardly a good moment for an away match against a struggler with a couple of talented players. The Frenchman will miss up to six theoretical starters, as Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale, Pepe and Marcelo are injured, and Dani Carvajal and Sergio Ramos are suspended.
Reminiscent of the first months of the season, during which a long injury plague led previous manager Rafael Benitez to configure and trust a second unit, it's now Zidane's time to make his picks from the several options off the bench, precisely those substitutes whom Ronaldo supposedly does not really believe in.
If we can take only one conclusion from the top-level matches which the Madridistas have lost this season (Barcelona and Atletico Madrid at home come to mind, and even the home victory against Paris Saint-Germain followed a similar pattern), is is that their lack of control in midfield is probably the factor that made them vulnerable.
When they did not have possession, as was the case for long stretches of the match against Barcelona or PSG, their midfield could not close the gaps or keep the Azulgrana out of dangerous zones. When they retained it, as it happened against Atletico, they could do very little in terms of threatening the opposition's goal.
In the most important or demanding matches of the season, Real Madrid's midfield offered the frustrating feeling that they could not create chances when it mattered, but could not control the opposition's offensive moves either. If the latter could probably have been anticipated given the usual choice of midfielders, the former, shockingly obvious, was completely unexpected.
Levante seems like a great place for Zidane to start building his new midfield. In fact, all of Real Madrid absentees are either defenders or forwards, so the Frenchman can start from scratch choosing from all the available options.
Fielding another instance of Toni Kroos, Luka Modric, Isco Alarcon and James Rodriguez would indeed be disappointing. Quoting a witticism usually attributed to Albert Einstein, insanity is doing something over and over again and expecting a different result, so it's time for Zidane to move on and try a new midfield approach that hopefully generates different and better results for Real Madrid in what remains of this season.
Eduardo Alvarez covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @alvarez.