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Marcelo or Mendy: Real Madrid’s old versus new debate as Zidane prepares for crucial week

February 25, 2020

ZINEDINE Zidane’s selection at left-back will tell a lot about his current state of mind for both Wednesday’s Champions League last 16 first leg at home to Manchester City, and Sunday’s La Liga Clasico at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu.

For many fans and pundits in and around the Bernabeu it seems a pretty simple decision. Long-serving Marcelo has become too much of a defensive liability, and for such big games the team needs the more positionally aware summer signing Ferland Mendy. Mendy has shown in his first six months since joining for €48 million from Lyon that he is definitely defensively better than the Brazilian, with his aggression in the tackle and speed on the cover a key part of a new found general solidity in the team through the autumn and winter.

But it seems Zidane cannot quite bring himself to completely jettison Marcelo – whose raids forward down the left flank were so important to the three Champions Leagues during his first term as Blancos coach.

Marcelo started 2019/20 in the team, and got an assist in a 3-1 victory at Celta Vigo on opening day. With both players having injury issues, they have rotated in and out, and played broadly the same amount of total minutes so far [Marcelo – 1,346, Mendy 1,517]. From November through to early February, Mendy looked the clear first choice. He started December’s Clasico at the Camp Nou, and against Atletico in both the Supercopa final and La Liga derbi in January – with Madrid keeping clean sheets in all three games.

This was as Madrid went through their best defensive spell in ages – including a run of just two goals conceded in 10 La Liga games which Mendy started. The long-time Achilles heel in their defence – the gap between Marcelo and the also positionally wayward Sergio Ramos – was no longer being so easily and regularly exploited by opposition coaches.

Marcelo’s goose really seemed cooked after the 3-4 Copa del Rey exit at home to Real Sociedad. The Brazilian was badly caught out as Alexander Isak and Martin Odegaard ran riot. Although the club vice-captain showed leadership and attacking quality by scoring to spark an ultimately unsuccessful comeback, he was whistled by a Bernabeu crowd which seemed to have completely lost faith.

Zidane’s reaction has been different though. Marcelo has played Madrid’s two most recent La Liga games – the 2-2 draw at home to Celta Vigo and 0-1 reverse at Levante. The coach has also defended his player, even as reporters pointed out the team have kept only one clean sheet in the nine La Liga games Marcelo has started this season.

“I don’t accept that, he was good defensively,” Zidane responded. “You can bring up stats, but we are happy with all the players, we will keep fighting for everything. Sometimes there are mistakes, but sometimes the opposition does something extraordinary.”

It seems that Zidane feels the Brazilian’s attacking quality is really useful in the team. And the numbers also show that with Marcelo on the field they get a goal every 37 minutes, while without him they need 52 minutes to score. That difference does seem statistically important. It is also true that with Mendy in the team Madrid scored just once in total across their three recent big games against Barca and Atletico twice. And that generally the team are really finding it difficult to turn possession into clear chances and goals.

In Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, Isco and Karim Benzema, Madrid have lots of players who play neat one-twos and keep the ball beautifully. But nobody who runs in behind. And Marcelo, for all his faults, still knows how to get in around the back of an opposition back four. It is only getting back down to the pitch to do his primary job which is the problem.

Eden Hazard’s latest injury must also be factored in – as it most likely means a five man Madrid midfield with the not exactly pacy Isco stationed nominally towards the left. Should Mendy be behind him, then whoever plays right-back for City or Barca might not be too worried.

If Zidane wants to keep things as tight as possible then Mendy should really start on both Wednesday and Sunday. But if he wants to go on the front foot, and cause as many problems as they can to the opposition, then there is an argument for Marcelo. What might have seem to some a simple call is actually Zidane’s biggest selection issue for this week’s two huge games.