Zinedine Zidane has splashed out over €300 million this summer following a disastrous 2018-19 campaign – can the Blancos return to the top again?
They have bolstered their squad with the arrivals of Eden Hazard, Luka Jovic, Ferland Mendy and other stars, shelling out over €300 million (£275m/$333m), but questions remain over Los Blancos after last season’s appalling campaign.
Madrid have been well off the pace in La Liga in the last two seasons, finishing third in both behind champions Barcelona and runners-up Atletico Madrid. They have accumulated a mammoth 36 points less than Barca during that time.
With their Champions League crown stripped last term as well, Madrid have plenty to prove as storm clouds circle the Santiago Bernabeu.
Zidane stressed in April that he would have a clear first-choice goalkeeper this season and that man is set to be Belgian international Thibaut Courtois.
Keylor Navas was given the option to leave with Madrid ready to use Andriy Lunin as backup to Courtois. However, the Costa Rican decided to stay – resulting in the youngster being loaned to Real Valladolid instead.
Since joining from Chelsea last summer, Courtois has not shown his best form at Madrid. But he will be given the chance to do so this time around, knowing he is the unequivocal No 1.
Pre-season did not go well for Courtois, though, as he shipped eight goals in 315 minutes. If the Belgian continues to struggle, then Zidane knows he can call on Navas, whom he backed heavily in his first reign as coach – even turning down the signing of David de Gea because he trusted the ex-Levante shot-stopper.
Madrid’s defence was their weakest department last season, and conceding 18 goals in seven pre-season matches – including seven in a 7-3 drubbing by Atletico – implies the same will be true this year.
Zidane has begun to trial a 3-5-2 system in an attempt to find a structure which offers more solidity at the back, picking Nacho, Raphael Varane and new signing Eder Militao together in a 2-2 draw with Roma, while giving Marcelo and Dani Carvajal starts in the wing back positions.
That at least makes Madrid more solid than when Marcelo is at left-back, while captain Sergio Ramos will likely replace Nacho for the opening game of the season against Celta Vigo after recovering from a minor knock.
Zidane could easily shift to four at the back, though, and pair Ramos with Varane. New signing Mendy will hope to displace Marcelo whatever system Zidane picks, while Carvajal, suspended for the league opener at Celta Vigo, faces a challenge from Alvaro Odriozola.
The midfield is, in theory, a strong point for Madrid, but in practice proved a troubled area last season.
Neither Luka Modric nor Toni Kroos hit their previous heights, while Casemiro was sluggish and young Uruguayan Federico Valverde is still finding his feet.
Isco and James Rodriguez have technical quality in spades but Zidane is unsure about them, with the latter free to leave if he can find a suitable club.
If Madrid don’t manage to bring in another central player, Zidane may be forced to pick a 4-4-2 simply so he can field more players he actually rates.
Should the coach opt for that, Eden Hazard might be used on the left of midfield with Lucas Vazquez on the right flank.
The main question is whether the trio of Casemiro, Kroos and Modric are sufficiently motivated, having won it all with Madrid before. Throwing in a hungry new player would be the perfect way to shake up a midfield which many fear has grown stale.
Karim Benzema finished last season in the form of his life and Hazard is also guaranteed a place on the team sheet.
The two have been paired up front together in pre-season at times, with Hazard playing off Benzema.
But if Madrid go with three forwards, Hazard can play in his favoured position on the left, with Benzema in the middle and Vazquez, Vinicius Junior or Gareth Bale on the right wing.
The Welsh forward is currently not in Zidane’s plans but if he is still at the Bernabeu when the transfer window shuts, he may end up earning a reprieve.
Vinicius had a fine debut season on the left and deserves the chance to keep his starting spot, albeit on the right, although Zidane might choose Vazquez’s work ethic and defensive qualities over the Brazilian in tougher matches.
Marco Asensio was hoping to earn that place in the side but the Spaniard’s serious knee injury will keep him out for most of the season.
Jovic will get matches when Benzema is rested and may play up front alongside the Frenchman in a 4-4-2 on occasion.
Madrid have plenty of options but none of them have emerged as a consistently reliable strategy so far.
Zidane is already feeling the heat after a dismal pre-season campaign that saw Madrid win just two out of seven matches.
The Frenchman has not settled on a formation yet and Madrid could be in for a rocky ride at the start of the season as he continues to experiment with his squad until he comes up with something that works.
We saw from his first reign that sometimes Zidane stumbles upon success with more luck than judgement, so Madrid’s eventual strategy might wind up being something that he hasn’t even trialled in pre-season.
Despite his status as a club legend, if results don’t go his way in the first few months of the campaign it would be no surprise to see Perez wield the axe.
How Real Madrid could line up
It all depends on which formation Zidane picks, having used 4-3-3, 4-4-2 and 3-5-2 in pre-season. There are only a handful of players guaranteed a place – Hazard, Benzema, Ramos and Varane.
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The 3-5-2 system might be used occasionally but the squad isn’t deep enough at centre-back to consistently play it, so one of the other formations seems more likely.
Given Madrid’s familiarity with it, the 4-3-3 seems a better bet to be selected.