Lucas Vazquez, Borja Mayoral giving Real Madrid a new dynamism
Given how the season has gone for Real Madrid so far, manager Zinedine Zidane's one and obvious goal is to stay alive as long as possible in the Champions League. A place in the semifinals, for instance, would take some of the heat off a disappointing season.
With that objective in mind, Wednesday night's victory at Levante can be considered as a step in the right direction, although it also offered a few reasons for concern.
On the positive side, Zidane can feel happy with most of his modifications in the starting line-up. The Frenchman took advantage of the bookings and suspensions to give several understudies a rare chance to start in Valencia.
Within that group, two remarkable performers were youngsters who had already come off the bench in last Saturday's derby against Atletico Madrid. The duo of striker Borja Mayoral and winger Lucas Vazquez gave Zidane plenty of reasons to feel confident about them as serious options to start in future matches.
The two youngsters share a common characteristic that not many of their teammates offer: offensive mobility. Vazquez occupies the right wing and constantly threatens the opposition's full-back with fast movements towards the goal line, a very different trait when compared to those of Isco and James Rodriguez.
The right-footed Isco playing on the left and the left-footed James playing on the right both tend to cut inside, but even on the rare occasions in which they play on their natural sides, they seldom reach the line. They prefer to leave the flank to their respective full-backs, Marcelo and Dani Carvajal.
Vazquez showed that including a more classic winger in the line-up has its advantages as well. In an eventful match for him, the restless player from Galicia earned a penalty, found Cristiano Ronaldo in the play that led to the third goal and participated often and well in the build-up of plays that were not as predictable as some of the dynamics we've seen with his two competitors for the job, Isco and James. Vazquez's decision-making with the ball is still not 100 percent, but he should improve quickly in that subject.
Mayoral showed bits of class. Similarly to what happened in his 45 minutes against Atletico, one can tell he's only 18 because of the amount of routes he runs, many of them obviously fated to nothing of consequence. But even if with time he learns to pick his battles and his runs, his current level of activity is a serious inconvenience for any defence. The fact that he never gives up when chasing through balls makes centre-backs play with an extra level of concern, and tires them earlier.
The dynamism of Vazquez and Mayoral also becomes a differential element on defence. They track back on every play and very rarely leave their position uncovered. If fans already knew that Vazquez could help the team after his frequent cameos under Rafael Benitez, Mayoral has surprised because of his fresh, intense approach to playing football. He's no Karim Benzema, of course, but the kid already shows the makings of a great player.
In a more central midfield position, Carlos Casemiro reminded many of his forcefulness in the middle of the park. It may be possible that the memories of those two months at the end of 2014, during which the club played fantastic football with Toni Kroos, Luka Modric and James in midfield, have clouded the judgement of many Madridistas. There is still a romantic faction of supporters that dreams of that -- paraphrasing Ruud Gullit -- "sexy" 4-3-3, but the fact is that those eight weeks have not been replicated later on.
In the last 15 months, the best version of Kroos, so important for the offensive flow of Real Madrid, has only been seen when supported by a more physical central midfielder, a squire of sorts that allows the German to focus on ball possession and distribution. Casemiro, forgotten by both Benitez and Zidane in key matches this season, still seems like the only qualified option to give the team that extra bite in the middle of the park for what remains of the term.
Nacho Fernandez's solid performance and Pepe's more than decent comeback also give Zidane reasons to feel more confident in the squad.
However, two elements still left a sour taste to whoever watched the match in Valencia. First, the "Zidane plan" -- a four-week preseason training replacement to get the squad in better shape -- has hardly shown the desired effects. The epidemic of cramps at the end of the match affected youngsters -- Vazquez and Mayoral -- and the more experienced -- Kroos. As a whole, this was the match in which the team ran the most this season, surprising data because it shouldn't have been that demanding. It was evident that the will to run was bigger than the actual stamina to keep up with the demands of the game.
Secondly, and probably related to the cramps, the team still showed huge tactical deficiencies in specific moments of the match. The transition from offense to defence, for instance, left a lot to be desired. The decisions to attack through one flank or change sides were well executed only occasionally. The lack of collective movement meant that the forwards and some midfielders had to carry the ball too often.
All this led the squad to run more than they should in some cases, and in others to leave huge room for the opposition to exploit.
Not only the cramps, but the tactical discussions between players were apparent for long spells of the match. Even if it seems that Zidane has enough weapons on the bench to shake up the team in the upcoming weeks, he still needs to kick the team up a few notches in some basic dimensions so that they run in a wiser way and occupy the space more efficiently.
Those are two huge lines of work, but mandatory ones if the Frenchman wants to salvage this season.
Eduardo Alvarez covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @alvarez.