Injuries to Luka Modric and Federico Valverde, along with Casemiro’s fatigue, have left Zidane short of options.
"When I looked at the bench, that was all there was," said Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane. "We have to adapt with what we have."
Zidane was speaking in the Bernabeu press room, after being asked to explain what happened to his team’s midfield as they almost blew a 3-0 lead at home to Levante in Saturday’s La Liga lunchtime kick-off.
"It was due to the circumstances," Zidane added. "You saw it. It is true it was a bit difficult. Toni [ Kroos] had to play deeper than he likes. Lucas [ Vazquez] always wants to go forward. We cannot be happy with our play in the second half."
The circumstances to which Zidane was referring were injuries picked up during the international break by veteran Luka Modric and young cover Federico Valverde, and then tiredness from Br azil duty which saw Casemiro substituted with half an hour remaining.
That left Kroos playing deepest of Madrid’s midfield three, and Zidane’s side ending the game defending desperately with an exhausted James Rodriguez and confused Lucas Vazquez unable to stop Levante regularly breaking straight through the centre of the park.
Madrid had looked home and dry at half-time, as a sublime Karim Benzema double strike and Casemiro close range effort had them 3-0 ahead. But a familiar lack of organisation and focus throughout the team saw Levante get one back soon after the restart through Borja Mayoral, and then really get the Bernabeu worried when Gonzalo Melero made it 3-2 with a quarter hour remaining.
Zidane’s side played with no discernible tactical shape through six frantic minutes of added time. Only a point blank save in added time from goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois stopped Madrid letting slip a three goal advantage for the first time ever in La Liga history.
Half an hour afterwards, the Frenchman was keen to claim that his team had actually put in a performance on which they could build for the rest of the season.
"The second half was a bit more difficult for us, as the game changes when a team scores after three minutes," he said. "But the feelings are positive as we got the three points, and played phenomenal in the first half, with goals, quality, commitment. We need to play like that for 90 minutes. We know we must improve, and we are going to improve. We must play better, for longer periods in the game, score more goals and concede fewer. And that is what will happen."
Hanging over the situation, left unsaid, was how Madrid’s strange summer transfer window is now conditioning Zidane’s selection decisions. The former galactico’s single-minded pursuit of Paul Pogba was unsuccessful, because Blancos president Florentino Perez was never convinced that Pogba was worth Manchester United’s £150 million plus asking price.
There was also contact between Madrid’s hierarchy and people around Tottenham playmaker Christian Eriksen and Ajax’s dynamic Donnie van der Beek. But Zidane apparently did not want either to arrive and block any move for Pogba. Meanwhile other potentially useful midfield options Marcos Llorente, Dani Ceballos, Martin Odegaard and Mateo Kovacic were moved on. So the transfer window closed with just four specialist midfielders in the squad, even though their coach’s preferred shape is a 4-3-3.
The squad make-up was a talking point both before and after Saturday’s game, when there were familiar whistles from a Bernabeu crowd not convinced by the team’s start to the season. Eight points from four games has Zidane’s side third in the early standings, two behind surprise leaders Sevilla, and sandwiched between presumed title rivals Atletico and Barcelona. But apart from an impressive 3-1 win at Celta Vigo on opening day, the performances have not been convincing in draws with Valladolid and Villarreal and almost slip against Levante.
The summer’s transfer dealings were also a major theme of Madrid’s club AGM on Sunday, and directly addressed by Perez in his prepared marks to selected socios.
"This summer, Real Madrid has made a real effort in something very difficult, which is improving a winning squad made up of extraordinary players which are already part of our club’s history," said the construction magnate. "This club has undertaken great financial efforts to renew and strengthen our wonderful squad, one of the most valuable in the world. We’ve brought in six new players, reinforcing every element of the team. Among them, Eden Hazard, one of the best players in the world who has brought hope to madridismo. Alongside him Luka Jovic, Ferland Mendy, Eder Militao, James and Rodrygo have come in, as well as goalkeeper Alphonse Areola, who arrived to replace our dear Keylor Navas."
Perez’s speech also pointed out that "Madrid are still the Club World Champions, as we have been since 18 December 2016, that’s, 1,001 successive days". As always he talked a lot about the importance of values and unity. And he proudly pointed out that "Real Madrid is the most valuable sports club in the world according to Forbes". In response to a question from the floor.
At a behind closed doors meeting with senior club socios last week Perez was somewhat more open. He claimed to have tried to sign Pogba last summer but “some players are just not for sale”. Asked why Madrid does not have a specific sporting director role, the construction magnate confirmed that director general Jose Angel Sanchez [a marketing professional who previously worked at Sega] headed the club’s transfer department.
Zidane himself has made a concerted public effort to state he is content with the squad he has, even claiming to be delighted to still have previously discarded Gareth Bale and James available to choose from. "If I was not happy with these players I should look for another job," he said when the transfer window shut. "My players are always the best for me". But his views on the summer’s transfer dealings can be surmised from how his XI on Saturday was again made up completely of players at the club last year.
A positive for Madrid was Hazard finally making his official debut, after recovering from a thigh muscle injury picked up pre-season. The €100 million signing from Chelsea entered from the bench with the score at 3-1, and almost immediately got his first goal with a driving run and shot from 20 yards which was well saved by Levante keeper Aitor Fernandez. But he was also then one of the players looking unsure of his role when the team was all at sea during the closing stages.
Even with defenders Sergio Ramos and Nacho Fernandez both suspended for Wednesday’s Champions League Group A opener at Paris Saint Germain, Zidane will be unable to stiffen his midfield. Neither Modric nor Valverde will be available, meaning a shift to 4-2-3-1 is likely with Kroos and Casemiro paired together, and Bale, Hazard and Lucas in a line behind Benzema.
Any further midfield injuries or suspensions would really hurt as Madrid begin what already looks a key phase of their season. Levante on Saturday was the first of seven games in 21 days before the next international break – including very dangerous away La Liga games at Sevilla [next Sunday] and neighbours Atletico.
Zidane is not a coach used to having to deal with such “circumstances”. It is a moot point whether he or Perez is most responsible for the team’s lack of midfield resources. But the next few weeks will test how he and his squad can “adapt” to the situation.