At what we may consider the middle point of the season, a shocking 19 of 24 Real Madrid players have already had to miss matches due to injuries. Since the start of 2017 — a little over three weeks ago — Pepe, James Rodriguez, Daniel Carvajal, Luka Modric and Marcelo have suffered different knocks or a variety of muscular issues, which adds to the absence of the team’s most unique offensive weapon, Gareth Bale, out since November.
The Madrid media keep discussing the reasons behind this new injury plague: indeed, some of those injuries are due to hits, rather than muscular problems. Some journalists prefer to talk about the mental stress of the 40-game unbeaten streak. Others mention the fact that, if you field injury-prone players such as Modric and Marcelo every three days for a full 90 minutes, chances are that they will pick up another injury.
Whatever thereasons, so far the deep squad that Zinedine Zidane possesses has been able to cope with this situation quite satisfactorily. For instance, this season the inspirational — and in previous years irreplaceable — Modric has missed 12 matches due to injury, and the different midfield combinations that Zidane employed to cover for him won eight of those matches and drew four. Indeed, Casemiro and Toni Kroos can use the help of Isco Alarcon, Marco Asensio, Lucas Vazquez et al. and put together a competitive line.
however, the most recent surge in injuries has hit hard the most sensitive part in Real Madrid’s line-up: both starting full-backs. Together with the defensive midfield position — only occupied by Casemiro as a natural — the left and right full-backs have no optimal replacement, but a series of combinations that aren’t exactly ideal.
On the left, Marcelo’s replacement is obviously Fabio Coentrao. Despite the overly optimistic assessment by certain pundits at the beginning of the season, it seems like the Fabio of old has departed for good. His rare participation so far have only generated jokes among Real Madrid supporters. On top of that, he’s also fallen victim of the injury plague and, in his case, the club seem reluctant to disclose what’s wrong with him or when he’ll be ready.
Nacho Fernandez on the left, where he’s played quite often over two seasons. While Nacho is a solid defender, he lacks speed, and could suffer against fast opponents, like in the case of Celta’s Iago Aspas in Wednesday’s do-or-die Copa del Rey match, or Real Sociedad’s Carlos Vela in next Sunday’s key La Liga fixture.
On the right, things are even more complicated. Carvajal was probably Real Madrid’s most in-shape player when he picked up his latest injury. He had become a real factor in attack and defence, overwhelming opposing defenders and standing his ground against most wingers.
To say that the Santiago Bernabeu has an issue with his obvious replacement Danilo is an understatement. It’s terrible when the Bernabeu decides to pick on a player, and a great deal of character is required to change that perception. In the case of the young Danilo, he looks out of his depth too often to believe that he can turn this situation around.
Besides the serviceable Nacho, who obviously can’t cover for both full-backs at the same time, Zidane has used Vazquez as an alternative. While this may work for a few minutes in a specific match, the young Galician’s natural habitat is in the final third, and he tends to leave his flank unprotected way too often. Again, obviously not an ideal option when Madrid’s next few matches include fast players that thrive on exploiting space.
Zidane’s squad is indeed deep, but more so in from midfield forward, and much less towards the back. Instead of a straight up substitution, the French manager might try a three-man centre of the defence and two long full-backs, using Vazquez and Asensio on the flanks, for instance.
However, all these options are extremely far from being perfect, and will demand that Real Madrid exert control over the ball possession and reduce the opponents’ time on the ball and space at the back as much as possible.
In Carlo Ancelotti’s last season as Real Madrid coach, January and February killed the team’s hopes in La Liga and saw them eliminated in the Copa del Rey due to, again, an injury plague. Even though Ancelotti failed to rotate his squad as much as Zidane has done this season, the situation at this point is very similar, especially at the back.
If Zidane can find solid alternatives to survive during the next month or so, the comeback of both full-backs and Gareth Bale at the end of February should inject new life in a team that indeed needs so.
Otherwise, the squad runs the risk of repeating history and find themselves in March having to focus on the Champions League, when a treble seemed to be in the cards in December.