Zinedine Zidane should use La Liga to groom, rebuild the confidence of 'Real Madrid B'
Zinedine Zidane's tinkering with his team started and ended with a 1-1 draw with Levante back in September. It was just the third game in La Liga, and Zidane quickly discovered that his "B team" of this year was inferior to that of last year's. Zidane made six changes to his starting side that day, with Kiko Casilla, Nacho Fernandez, Theo Hernandez, Marcos Llorente, Lucas Vazquez and Marco Asensio being rotated into the side as second-string options.
"I'm not going to change," Zidane said after that draw regarding those changes. "I make decisions and that won't change just because of one bad game. I believe in what I'm doing."
So quickly did Zidane and Real Madrid fall behind Barcelona, Valencia and Atletico Madrid, however, that he was forced to change. And he could no longer afford to deviate from his gala XI, given the high stakes and relative poor form of those replacements. Every game became a final, and finals are no place for experimentation.
But it's time now for Zidane to embrace the chaos that comes with the injuries to Marcelo, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric and return to a rotation-based approach.
It might sound absurd to suggest that Zidane has been lucky this year, as his Real Madrid side sit 17 points behind Barcelona, are out of the Copa del Rey and are fighting for their lives and the legacy of the all-conquering side that they were for the past two years in Europe. Despite all that, Zidane has not been forced into overly uncomfortable situations due to injuries, and there has never been anything close to an epidemic -- until now.
As we saw against Real Betis, the mayhem that came with the forced changes that saw Casemiro, Lucas Vazquez and Mateo Kovacic make up a three-man midfield, along with the tactical toying that saw Asensio start ahead of Karim Benzema resulted in a no-holds-barred approach with valuable minutes for squad players and three points, to boot -- even if it wasn't always entirely convincing.
Given how successful Real Madrid were in the previous two seasons, their remit this season was to extend their legacy, if possible, but maintain it at the very least. They've already messed up their La Liga title defense and have themselves in a comfortable position against Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League. In a way -- especially in La Liga -- Zidane has nothing left to lose.
Depending on how you want to read Zidane's comments about being exhausted as the manager of Real Madrid, you could argue that his exit strategy is thought through and already in motion.
"Of course, a moment can come when there are changes," he said when asked about his future, "but for all of us, not just the coach. Not yet, but it will happen for sure."
And with their potential conscious uncoupling on the horizon and with injuries to key players, Zidane might have to revert back to the rotation-heavy policy that served him so well last season. It's with that same, albeit this time forced, style that has led Asensio to catch fire at a vital juncture of the season.
Real Madrid have been inspired by Asensio twice in less than a week on the field. Against PSG, his two late crosses produced two goals and helped them to a 3-1 win when the game seemed destined for a stalemate. Against Real Betis, his brace and general brilliance was evident, and while he is inspiring his side with the magic in his boots, it also can be about what his changing fortunes represent. Football is a delicate creature and can change in an instant -- and a players' confidence even more so.
What Zidane must do is welcome the kind of brilliance that Asensio's turnaround represents and use the league as a launchpad for form in the coming weeks for the likes of Theo, Vazquez, Dani Ceballos and Kovacic. This would allow the club to assess their value to the side moving into next year too -- regardless of who is at the helm as manager.
After all, it was only when Zidane's dogmatic stance on Benzema as a starter changed that Asensio had the chance to shine. The same could happen for one of the other replacements in the coming weeks too, if they are afforded the chance.
The "B" unit might end up getting Real Madrid nowhere and push Zidane closer to the door, but there's a high chance that it improves confidence, increases unpredictability and occasionally, as we have seen in Asensio's case, gives a player a chance at a time when he is ready to take it.
Robbie is based in Madrid and is one of ESPN FC's Real Madrid bloggers. Twitter: @robbiejdunne