Zinedine Zidane again opted for a 3-5-2 formation in El Sadar and once again the blueprint failed to work effectively. The Real Madrid coach has tried the formation on three occasions since the turn of the year and each time it has worked against his side.
Against Sevilla in the league, where it perhaps showed its best version, Madrid lost the game 2-1 after 70 minutes of defensive solidity but after committing several errors late on.
In Vigo against Celta in the Copa, the experiment ended Real’s participation in the domestic cup competition in a 2-2 draw in Balaídos. And on Saturday night in Pamplona, Zidane was forced to change his set-up with the scores at 1-1 after Danilo was taken off with an injury. Given his side’s disjointed performance up to that point and Zidane’s words after the match, the three central defenders pan may have to be shelved again and only dusted off in case of emergency.
Zidane: "We had more balance with four defenders"
“We had more balance with four defenders,” Zidane said in his post-match press conference. “I’ll have to watch the game again to see what happened. Sometimes we lack concentration. But at the end of the day it worked out for us and that’s the important thing.”
The first time Zidane rolled out his new formation it was with the security of a decent lead in LaLiga and having gone 40 games unbeaten in all competitions. Moreover, it was designed to protect the side. Madrid were playing title-challengers Sevilla in the Sánchez Pizjuán and Zidane sought to nullify the home side’s power in midfield with a five-man central line of his own. Sampaoli had used the same system a few days earlier in the cup game between the sides and Zidane assumed he would repeat it, but the Chilean is famous for his tactical flexibility and caught Zidane out. Dani Carvajal and Marcelo were pinned back in what essentially became a 5-3-2 at times but the formation was a sensible choice, with Nacho, Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane forming the back three. Madrid looked solid and well-organised for much of the game and took the lead through Cristiano Ronaldo but Ramos later put through his own net and Stefan Jovetic sealed the win for the home side late on.
Despite the defeat, Zidane was suitable impressed enough with the formation that he used it again 10 days later after losing in the Copa at home against Celta and looking far from spectacular at home against Málaga with four at the back.
Balaídos injury issues
In Balaídos for the second leg, Madrid lined up with three at the back, this time as the foundation for a more attacking set-up. The issue was that both Marcelo and Carvajal were injured and Zidane was forced to apply too many patches to his side. Casemiro slotted into the back three and was given a torrid time. Danilo and Marco Asensio filled the wing back roles. Madrid could have scored a hatful or been on the receiving end, evidence that the desired balance was lacking. The game ended 2-2 and Madrid exited the cup on aggregate.
It seemed then that Zidane would revert to a more standard formation but in Pamplona, where Madrid had dropped points in five of their last six visits, he persisted. The idea was to reinforce the midfield and give Danilo and Marcelo licence to roam forward while Nacho, Ramos and Varane kept an eye on Osasuna’s forwards. The system’s shortcomings were laid bare in the second half when Zidane reverted to a back four at 1-1 with Sergio León running amok. Danilo’s injury precipitated the switch to a 4-4-2. We will never know if Zidane would have persisted with the 3-5-2 had the Brazilian, in whom he retains a blind faith, had been able to continue.
Zidane was critical of his own decision after the game while the players preferred to offer flat platitudes of the benefits of playing with three at the back. Against Napoli next Wednesday, it remains to be seen if Zidane will keep faith in his 3-5-2 or go back a more traditional 4-3-3 or 4-4-2.