Zidane's decision-making causing concern at Real Madrid
Some of the choices the coach made at the Etihad, such as playing an off-form Hazard instead of Vinicius has generated some concern at the club.
Friday's defeat in Manchester came as a massive blow to Real Madrid. It was a real comedown after all of the euphoria surrounding the team after winning LaLiga in July. Now, in August, doubts have emerged about the club's project for the future. Even Zidane was asked four times to confirm whether he would be continuing as coach next season. Adding to the uncertainty, several senior members of the squad, Sergio Ramos, Marcelo, Kroos, Modric and Benzema - all of whom are over 30, are hoping to renew their contracts. Two mistakes by Varane runied Zidane's plans at the Etihad, but some of the coach's decisions didn't help and that is worrying for the top brass at the Bernabéu.
Hazard's uninspiring season
In retrospect, it was obvious that it was a bad idea to play the Belgian from the start. His sole contribution was a low shot which fizzed past the post and a one-two with Benzema which created a decent chance on goal. But that was all. We didn't see him getting past City's defence, or showing any glimpses of quality. At the end of the game he was seen with an ice pack strapped to his ankle - the same one he has had operated on twice. That is worrying bearing in mind that he has had 22 days to rest since LaLiga was concluded, and hardly played in the final few games because of twinges. While the club still has hopes to sign Mbappé, Hazard remains Madrid's star signing. He is 29, cost 100 million euros and scored just one goal, in all competitions last season...
Madrid lack a finisher
At the Etihad, it became clear that Madrid don't have a trusted finisher. While it's true that Benzema has stepped up since Cristiano's departure (last season he scored 27 goals, the one before that, 30). But it's not enough. The club's technical department had thought that between them, Hazard and Asensio could supply the 50 goals which Cristiano averaged every season. While Hazard finished the campaign with one goal, Asensio ended with three.
He came on as a late sub at the Etihad to perform Vinicius' role out on the left. Aged 22, the Serbian striker is the player Madrid chose to complement Benzema. He cost 60 million euros and between breaking confinement rules, bizarre injuries and struggling to adapt to the way of life in Spain he finished the season with two goals in 27 appearances.
It was evident that Madrid might struggle against City as soon as Sergio Ramos got himself sent off in the first leg. After Cristiano left to join Juve, it became clear that without Ramos on the pitch, Madrid are lost. It's almost as though the team is cursed when Ramos is unavailable in the Champions League. Hit with suspension, the captain has watched four European ties from the stands - the 1-2 defeat to Roma in 2008; the 1-1 draw with Barça in 2011; the 1-4 defeat to Ajax in 2019 and Friday's game against City. On all four occasions, Madrid have ended up being eliminated from the competition.
Along with Kubo, the Brazilian is one of the young, emerging players who Florentino Pérez has great faith in. It must have been frustrating and undermining for the team's most flamboyant winger to not play a single minute on such a big night at the Etihad. “Others played, but when the team loses, people start looking for reasons,” was all Zidane explained after the game. He took a risk by including Rodrygo in his starting XI. He justified his inclusion by setting up Benzema's goal, but didn't do much more. Zidane left decisive players like Isco and Fede Valverde on the bench...
Guardiola outwitted Zidane by wining the midfield battle. Modric and Kroos didn't click with so much space in the centre of the park while Casemiro, bearing the brunt of the workload, looked panic-struck with the ball at his feet. Zidane has used Valverde out wide on the right before, alongside Casmeiro, Modric and Kroos to great effect. He employed that formation in the Clásico (which Madrid won 2-0, with Isco playing instead of Modric), in the first leg against City (with Isco instead of Kroos), and in the group stage game against PSG which ended 2-2.
If just one thing has characterised Zidane's Madrid this season it is the team's direct style of football, reaching the opponents' area with the least amount of touches while keeping it tight at the back. Madrid ended with the best defensive figures in LaLiga, conceding 25 goals in 38 games - the second best defensive record in club history. In 1964-65, the team finished with just 18 goals against in 30 games (an average of 0.6 per game). But the idea of playing out from the back against City was a disaster - the team conceded two and allowed 20 attempts on goal, compared to the nine Madrid had. It wasn't just Varane who committed errors - so did Casemiro, Militao, Carvajal, Courtois...
Panic in defence
Madrid's persistence in playing the ball out from the back against City revealed some stark home truths. Zidane's team had possession of the ball but didn't manage to get into City's half until almost the second minute of the game. The number of passes completed, 246 in total, shows how the team struggled to get the ball forward - Courtois (48 passes), Carvajal (44), Varane (72), Militao (51) and Mendy (31). Casemiro made 38, Hazard just 25 and Benzema with 27...
Maybe the players were subconsciously too relaxed but Madrid committed just three fouls all game, the least fouls in any Champions League game this season and equaling the lowest number of fouls any Madrid side has made in one match during the last 15 years - against Schalke in 13-2014 and against Dortmund in 2017.
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