“If you have a problem… if no one else can help… and if you can find them, maybe you can hire… The A Team.”
Unless your name is Zinedine Zidane, of course. In which case, you’d be better off hiring the B Team instead. That, at least, is the verdict of the man who was undone by them this week: him and many more besides.
It has become a question of state, a national debate, and there is something in it too, all the more so after Wednesday night when Real Madrid lined up in A Coruna with only one player in the team who could normally be considered a certain starter — full-back Marcelo, who has no replacement in the squad — and still defeated Deportivo. Defeated? Destroyed.
There was no Gareth Bale, no Karim Benzema, no Cristiano Ronaldo, no Sergio Ramos, no Luka Modric, no Toni Kroos and no margin for error as the league comes down to a straight sprint for the finish; there’s no room for mistakes. But there were no problems either. A risk? This was right. At times like this, you should always play your strongest team, they say. Maybe Zinedine Zidane did. A goal up after 53 seconds, Madrid won 6-2 and it would be no exaggeration to say they could have scored twice that. Depor were dreadful, it’s true, but Madrid were wonderful and in a season where, in truth, they mostly haven’t been.
The veteran football writer Santiago Segurola likened them to the “Quinta del Buitre” and there is no higher praise. Flawless and flowing, they were fabulous to watch. Unless you’re a Depor fan, or their manager. Asked about it after the game, Pepe Mel actually started laughing. “I think it might be more ‘screwed’ to beat Real Madrid’s B than their A Team,” he said.
Others couldn’t help but agree. There really is a case, albeit an exaggerated one, to say that Madrid have sometimes looked better with the second string this season. And, yes: cruel though it sounds, there really has been a case to say that injuries have not hurt them and may even have helped them at times. It’s striking that when one of the front three has been missing, Zidane has not only changed personnel: he has changed formation too. The men who has called upon, the “others,” have responded every time.
Wednesday night offered up another example. For the fourth time in the last five away games (the other was against Athletic at San Mames), Zidane made wholesale changes to his side and for the fourth time, they emerged with the victory. For the fourth time, they impressed, too. They were cohesive and coherent, exhibiting a collective identity that has not always been apparent. There was no real loss of creativity, either. Yes, they conceded goals and winning hadn’t always been easy — they had needed a last-minute goal in Gijon, for example — but they have kept on scoring. Results of 6-2, 3-2, 4-4, 4-1. Four games, four wins, 17 goals.
“The support act were a ballet,” rang the headline on the front of the sports newspaper AS. The question is whether the support act were better… and whether they should be the support act at all. For now, they are. Even though they have played a lot of minutes this season, and much as Zidane says, “for me, there aren’t two teams,” when it comes to the really big games, everyone knows what the line-up will be. “Every team has a starting XI, and then the rest,” Isco said, disguising his frustration. After the win at Depor, Zidane admitted: “The bad thing is I might now have to tell them that they’re not playing the next game.”
Does he have to? That is the debate now, especially when it comes to the front three. It is not like there isn’t talent in reserve. It is not like they’re failing to respond, either. It’s not like they are not hammering at the door.
Madrid have played 13 times without Cristiano Ronaldo this season, winning 12 and drawing the other. In those games they have scored 49 goals. Toni Kroos has provided more assists in the league than anyone else (via corners and free kicks) but the next three highest are all players who don’t usually start: James Rodriguez, Lucas Vazquez and Isco, none of whom have started more than half Madrid’s league games. Over the last month, no-one has played like Isco but before the Bayern match, he’d played fewer Champions League minutes than Fabio Coentrao.
Speaking of Bayern Munich, their sporting director recently claimed that someone should build a statue in honour of the man who signed Marco Asensio, who has been superb. In April, in fairness, he has been among the 11 players who has played the most minutes, because of Gareth Bale’s injury.
Alvaro Morata, meanwhile, has scored more goals than anyone else except Cristiano Ronaldo: not including penalties, he has just as many. He has a goal more in the league than Karim Benzema having played a thousand minutes fewer. And when it comes to goals-per-minute, only Lionel Messi is ahead of him in all of Spain.
Asked about Isco, who has 10 goals and seven assists this season, Zidane puffed out his cheeks and replied, “tremendo,” adding: “There are few people who can do what he does.”
Isco is unbeaten in his last 50 games but doesn’t know where his next fifty will come from. “When they play like that, they prove that they deserve to play more,” Zidane conceded. Some have questioned whether true meritocracy has been left aside and the line-ups are entirely fair. Do the B Team deserve more? Do they deserve to play every game and not just these ones? Yet the coach would surely add that Ronaldo, Bale, Benzema, Kroos and Modric all deserve to play too. It’s not like the B Team are usually left out for a bunch of donkeys.
And so the debate goes round.
It’s worth adding a pretty big caveat here: they were impressive against Eibar (where Benzema was included and was the best player on the pitch), Leganes, Sporting and Deportivo… but that was against Eibar, Leganés, Sporting and Deportivo, not, say, Barcelona, Atlético and Sevilla. It wasn’t Munich either, where Madrid won 2-1 and could have won by more although Asensio came on there and shone, as he did in the second leg.
Gareth Bale’s problem has been fitness as much as form (he’s missed 15 league games) and Ronaldo has been held back, protected and looked after, finally convinced of the need for rest. Eight times he has not started in the league and after three or four years when he reached this stage of the season exhausted and injured, for once he looks ready for the final two, vital months.
The B Team has facilitated that; rotations have helped. And maybe that impacts on the B Team too, on how they play. They have helped. But have they been helped as well? “Maybe we play well because we don’t play much,” James said. “And when we have the small opportunities, we do things like we did tonight.” Would they play like this if they always played?
Increasingly, it’s a question that could be usefully tested, at least, and they would probably say yes: they would welcome the chance to face Barcelona or Bayern or Atletico. They would be equal to it, too.
Some of them would be, certainly, and that is the other big caveat to throw in. Is it really about B Team or A Team? Is it not more a case of a change or two in the A Team — Bale’s injury means that there will be one, at least — than a case of swapping one for the other? Maybe it’s not B or A so much as re-defining what B and A are, rethinking who makes them up. Mid-season may not be the time but soon it will be. And that’s before you even start considering about summer arrivals. That time will come too.
The argument that their time will come and that they are getting opportunities — James has started 10 league games, Asensio nine, Isco 16, good numbers for subs — will only convince for so long. Patience is a virtue for which many players don’t have time. Youth is often an excuse not to use players who should be included.
The B Team is a young side (average age: 25) and an energetic one. Of the five games where Madrid have covered the most kilometres this season, three of them have been with the “second string.” And if that sounds like a loaded phrase or an unfair one, Isco described it as “the truth.” They are the second string, however good they are. That’s the truth. But should it be? A young team bodes well for the future but poses the question: should the future be now? And how long will they wait? The answer, and it is a significant one, is: until the end of this season at least. After that, it becomes less clear.
This season, there is acceptance; the conditions are right and there has been a conscious decision from the players not to speak out even as there is frustration. Zidane has given them a lot of minutes, even if they are aware which minutes they are, and insists “what I try to do is show them that they are all important.” They know that, and they’ve proven it too. But they aspire to be more important; they want to matter to him in the games that matter.
It’s unusual for players this good not to be starters and in some cases, it is unsustainable. James, for example, said in January that he was not sure that he would continue. Morata will seek an exit in the summer unless there are changes. “Either I take off or I end up in a position of comfort, playing games occasionally. I’m no longer the youngest. I’m 24, it’s a big moment,” he says. And Isco has yet to renew his contract. His doubts centre precisely on how much he will play. When he plays now, he wins. So do Madrid.
And that, for the moment, is the thing. It may be an exaggeration but if there is a picture that explains why Madrid are favourites to win the league and the Champions League too, it may not be of the pitch but of the bench. The strength in depth. Just look at them sitting there, all that talent in reserve, ready. Every player has played a part. “The Plan B was a Great Plan,” one headline said on Thursday and they do so love it when a plan comes together. The stats show it, and the sensations do too: at no other club have the reserves made such a telling continuation. One example: every outfield player except Fabio Coentrao has scored this season.
“Madrid have the best squad in the world; there are 23 ‘starters,'” Isco said.
Sid Lowe is a Spain-based columnist and journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter at @sidlowe.