Zinedine Zidane is right to tinker with Real Madrid's formation
Last Saturday at El Sadar, Real Madrid started their match against Osasuna with three centre-backs, a very rare formation for the club. In a world where, to the chagrin of Jose Mourinho, Antonio Conte's Chelsea has become the latest fashion, it seems as though even Zinedine Zidane (a style icon himself) has succumbed to the charms of its theoretical solidity.
On Saturday, with a central trio of Raphael Varane, Sergio Ramos and Nacho Fernandez, it was Marcelo and Danilo who occupied either flank in more advanced positions than usual. But as soon as the latter got injured after a terrible tackle, the French manager reverted to a more traditional configuration, at least for Real Madrid.
The adjustment made the team look more comfortable, both defensively and offensively, so the talk of the town on Monday morning is whether Zidane should use the three centre-backs again or simply apply a more familiar back four, especially in the defensive side of things, moving forward. It's already clear that most fans and media don't quite enjoy the approach.
The French manager had already applied this formation in previous matches, such as the last-minute La Liga loss in Sevilla or during the final hour of the Club World Cup final against Kashima Antlers. Leaving aside the chaotic end of the former, that line-up did look solid for most of those two experiments, and that is probably why Zidane tested it again at El Sadar.
As a player, Zidane himself enjoyed its benefits while he played for Juventus. Real Madrid can also remember their "year 2000" formation, coached by Vicente del Bosque, with Ivan Campo, Ivan Helguera and Aitor Karanka in the centre of the defence. That team won the Champions League trophy that season.
The reaction to this specific tactical variation seems overblown. Numerous purists say that Real Madrid's way includes a four-man back line, in a tone that is all too reminiscent of the way Barcelona fans would talk about ball possession a couple of seasons ago.
It's good to defend the identity and principles of any club, but some tactical variations don't hurt if they can be employed effectively in the crucial moments of the season. Similar to the way Barcelona benefit from a more direct approach with a different attacking configuration, Real Madrid can add some flexibility and become less predictable if they master this three-man approach at the back.
In fact, Zidane has only tested it in very specific situations so far, always playing away from home in a bid to surprise the opposition. In its best moments (a good 60 minutes in Sevilla) the formation freed Marcelo, who looked as dangerous as ever, and gave Casemiro, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric the confidence to play a few steps forward, which is always good news for strikers. In its worst (half an hour in Pamplona) there seemed to be a traffic jam in the middle, as Modric struggled to find the ball in the right spots. Opponents also play, and Osasuna did a great job of keeping Marcelo busy, so the theoretical advantages of this approach were quickly hidden.
Of course, one can't see the French manager employing this again on Wednesday, in the last-16 round home match against Napoli. The tie demands a certain aggressiveness at home, more presence in the final third and a certain intimidation in terms of the line-up as well as their disposition on the pitch.
But who says Zidane can't use this for the second leg, trying to gain more balance at the back and leave plenty of space up front for the forwards to exploit in more direct counter-attacks? And wouldn't this approach look even better if, as expected, Gareth Bale is back for that second leg, ready to chase those long passes?
Style and pragmatism need to go hand in hand for any team to win titles, and, under the right circumstances, this formation can give Real Madrid an edge they currently don't have. And even if he ends up not using it again, kudos to Zidane for daring to try new things and keep his players out of their comfort zone.
Eduardo is one of ESPN FC's Real Madrid bloggers and has been a socio since 1995. Follow him on Twitter @alvarez.