Julen Lopetegui has replaced Zinedine Zidane as coach, while Cristiano Ronaldo has left for Juventus, shrouding the Santiago Bernabeu in uncertainty
Real Madrid were stunned by the summer departures of coach Zinedine Zidane and Cristiano Ronaldo, leaving new coach Julen Lopetegui to face the daunting task of maintaining the club’s high standards in a time of disarray.
The 4-2 defeat by city rivals Atletico Madrid in the UEFA Super Cup underlined that Real must improve quickly if they are to avoid a repeat of the slow start that cost them the chance to challenge for the title last season.
Lopetegui, who was unceremoniously sacked by Spain on the eve of the World Cup after agreeing to take charge at the Santiago Bernabeu after the tournament, has not had long to impress his ideas upon the squad, as his international stars returned in dribs and drabs through the summer after extended holidays because of Russia 2018.
So, with their league campaign starting on Sunday against Getafe, Lopetegui will essentially have to tinker with his team as he goes.
Still, while some key figures have departed, Madrid still boast a squad full of stellar talent…
Madrid enter the season with a bloated roster of five goalkeepers, although new signing Thibaut Courtois is expected to claim the No.1 spot from Keylor Navas, having pushed through a move back to the Spanish capital from Chelsea.
The former Atletico ace insists he has not been assured of a starting berth but it would be a huge surprise if he does not take to the field for the Liga opener against Getafe given Keylor Navas shipped four goals against Atleti in midweek, with Costa Rican badly beaten at his near post for Diego Costa’s opener.
Granted, Courtois still needs to gain match fitness after his excellent exploits with Belgium at the World Cup, but it is really a case of when rather than if he usurps Navas as Real’s first-choice shot-stopper.
Elsewhere, Andriy Lunin, 19, has joined from Zorya Luhansk and will provide back up, as former Espanyol goalkeeper Kiko Casilla is likely to find another club before the Spanish transfer window shuts at the end of August.
As for Luca Zidane, the 20-year-old son of former coach Zinedine, he may leave on loan to gain further experience in between the sticks.
Madrid have only added Spain international right-back Alvaro Odriozola from Real Sociedad to a defence which was shaky for much of last season, while young Moroccan defender Achraf Hakimi moving to Borussia Dortmund on loan.
There is no natural reserve for Marcelo at left-back after Theo Hernandez moved to Real Sociedad on loan but the versatile and ever-willing Nacho Fernandez has provided cover there before.
Fabio Coentrao has returned from Sporting Lisbon but Madrid are trying to move him on, while the rest of the defence remains as it was.
Raphael Varane and Sergio Ramos will be backed up by Jesus Vallejo in the middle, while Odriozola will compete with compatriot Dani Carvajal for the right-back berth.
Under Zidane, Madrid’s leaky defence was a problem and although Lopetegui maintained a mean back-line with Spain, the Super Cup shocker underlined that he will need some time to get his rearguard watertight.
Mateo Kovacic joined Chelsea on loan as part of the deal to bring Courtois to the Spanish capital and Madrid have, thus far, ignored Lopetegui’s request for a replacement for the Croatia international.
That hints at an increased role for Marcos Llorente in a midfield which otherwise will look identical to last season now that Florentino Perez has refused to allow Luka Modric to move to Inter.
The Croatian, Germany’s Toni Kroos and Brazilian anchorman Casemiro have been a formidable midfield trio over the past few seasons and they will be Real’s engine room again this term.
Dani Ceballos will provide able back-up, even though the 22-year-old would benefit from regular football after stagnating somewhat since his arrival from Real Betis last summer.
However, Lopetegui will face a question that troubled his predecessor: how do you fit Isco and Bale into the team?
Both started in the Super Cup defeat by Atletico in a 4-3-3 formation, lining up alongside Karim Benzema and Marco Asensio in attack, with Isco taking the place of Modric, who was left on the bench after only recently returning form holiday.
Isco was an essential part of Lopetegui’s Spain side and the coach may choose to deploy him ahead of the Modric-Casemiro-Kroos triumvirate as part of a 4-4-2 formation.
Should Lopetegui opt for that formation, then Bale would be forced into a central attacking role, as a direct replacement for Ronaldo, with Karim Benzema his likely foil.
In a 4-3-3, Bale would play on the right wing, as he did in the Super Cup, with Asensio on the left and Benzema leading the line through the middle.
The 22-year-old Asensio is an exciting prospect and will certainly expect an increased role this season after breaking through well last term.
Lucas Vazquez provides support on the flanks and Borja Mayoral is a centre-forward option but without Ronaldo, Madrid’s front line looks short of a pure goalscorer.
New signing Vinicius Junior is not expected to immediately play a significant role for the first team, having been registered with one of the club’s youth sides, but he has impressed enormously in pre-season and fans are optimistic that he will be seen regularly at the Bernabeu this season.
Lopetegui took a job that several other coaches unsurprisingly turned down. After all, following up Zidane’s three Champions League wins in three years is no easy task, and having to do so without Ronaldo makes it all the more arduous.
Still, while the former Real Madrid B team coach had a tough time at Porto, where he was sacked after failing to win a trophy, his fine work with the Spanish youth teams (and later the national side) was impressive.
However, by just signing Courtois and Odriozola, Perez has sold the new coach short, considering Madrid finished a shocking 17 points behind last season’s Liga champions Barcelona.
Indeed, given the current climate of unease, it will not take long for things to sour for Lopetegui if he can not get Madrid off to a good start.
How Real Madrid could line up
Lopetegui will need to experiment with his squad and the 4-3-3 he lined up with against Atletico could ultimately be ditched for a 4-4-2, so that he can fit Bale and Isco into the same team.
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While players are still gathering match fitness, the coach will have more freedom to leave big names out of the side and settle on his tactics, but should he stick with 4-3-3, he may shoehorn Isco in on the left, by offering him the freedom to roam and create.
The defence and midfield appear set in stone, with the formation and which one of Bale, Isco or Asensio to leave out the only outstanding issues… for now!