On April 15, Real Madrid took the field against Sporting Gijon in a league game at El Molinon, the oldest stadium in La Liga, perched in the north-west corner of Spain.
The games were coming thick and fast for Zinedine Zidane's team. They had played Bayern Munich in Germany three days earlier in the Champions League quarter-final. The return leg was scheduled for the coming Tuesday, which would be followed by a visit from eternal rivals Barcelona a few days later in another critical league fixture.
Zidane felt he needed to rest his marquee players and rang the changes. Only his team's central-defence pairing remained untouched, as Sergio Ramos and Nacho, who was deputising for the injured Raphael Varane (hamstring) and Pepe (ribs), started from the XI that nicked a 2-1 win in Munich.
It was a bold move, and part of an unprecedented ploy in the history of La Liga—where a title-chasing team could change practically its entire starting XI from game to game in a championship run-in.
Real Madrid prevailed in Gijon, winning 3-2. After a last-minute defeat to Barcelona in the Clasico by the same scoreline a week later with his gala XI—which meant the Blaugrana climbed back on top of the league table on goal difference—Zidane doubled-down on his bet.
He made nine changes for the ensuing, must-win midweek league fixture against Deportivo La Coruna—including the omission of Cristiano Ronaldo—against a team that had beaten Barca 2-1 in March. Again, Zidane was vindicated; Real Madrid triumphed 6-2.
Depor coach Pepe Mel—who moonlights as a published thriller writer—was big enough to admit he was enthralled by the spectacle he had witnessed. Even though Real Madrid had fielded a second-string line-up, they had run riot over his team.
"I much prefer this Real Madrid 'B' more than Real Madrid 'A'. It's harder to win against Real Madrid 'B' than Real Madrid 'A'," he said, per El Pais (in Spanish).
Once the second half of the season hit, with one eye on do-or-die Champions League games in the spring, Zidane has been shuffling his deck week-in, week-out.
He has chosen to rest his star players en bloc—pending fitness issues—whenever the team is on the road, particularly against weaker La Liga opposition, such as Eibar or Leganes. Against Granada, for example, nine first-choice players sat out the game—Ramos and Casemiro were his only front-line players who started. Real Madrid won 4-0.
Whether Zidane picks his "A" or "B" team, performances haven't dipped, which has prompted the Spanish press to run online polls such as Marca's "Would Real Madrid's 'B' team beat the starters?"
Real Madrid's "B" team is stocked with players with a point to prove, and Zidane is giving them a stage to prove it.
Alvaro Morata, for instance, has scored six more league goals in fewer games than his rival for the No. 9 shirt, Karim Benzema.
As James Rodriguez, who is strongly rumoured to be on his way to Manchester United, per Marca (in Spanish), said after the 6-2 Deportivo win: "Maybe we play well because we don't play much. And when we have the small opportunities, we do things like we did tonight."
It must be noted, though, that the "B" team have been playing easier ties.
Zidane has, of course, an embarrassment of riches. His "B" team is made up of 11 players—Kiko Casilla, Fabio Coentrao, Nacho, Varane, Danilo, Mateo Kovacic, James, Isco, Marco Asensio, Lucas Vazquez and Morata—who have all been capped at senior international level. The market value of those 11 players is €255.5 million, according to Transfermarkt.com.
On Wednesday, Zidane's Real Madrid play away to Celta Vigo, whose starting XI against Manchester United in last week's Europa League tie at Old Trafford have a combined market value of €75.5 million, per Transfermarkt, which is less than the €80 million transfer fee Real Madrid paid for James in 2014.
It's not unusual for Europe's superclubs to stockpile players. What Zidane is doing differently is spreading playing time among his squad. Twenty Real Madrid players have played more than 1,000 minutes in the league so far this season.
In England, Antonio Conte's championship-winning Chelsea only have 13 players who have kicked a ball for more than 1,000 minutes in the Premier League. In the Bundesliga, Bayern Munich have used 16 players over the 1,000-minute mark, while champions-elect AS Monaco and Juventus have used 14 and 17 players beyond that level of playing-time in France and Italy, respectively.
In La Liga, it is significant that 19 of Real Madrid's players have scored this season in the league, per Soccerbase. This compares with 15 of Barca's squad, which is heavily reliant on the free-scoring habits of its celebrated front three, Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez.
Luis Enrique boasted pre-season that he had his best squad yet as Barca coach, per Diario AS (in Spanish), but of his six summer signings, arguably only regal French defender Samuel Umtiti can qualify as a success.
Enrique tried heavy rotation during his first season at Barca when his tinkering resulted in 29 different lineups for his first 29 games in charge until he hit on a settled side—just at the moment mutiny was setting in (including a brief falling-out with Messi), per Diario Sport (in Spanish).
With a consistent starting XI for the second half of the season, unless injury or suspension intervened, Enrique's side waltzed to a treble.
Enrique was using a tried template—depending on a trusted cohort to see out a season. Bayern Munich won the 1968-69 Bundesliga title by deploying 13 players for the whole campaign. Or, as former Liverpool manager Bill Shankly used to tell his players when asked what the team was: "The same as last season."
As for La Liga, and specifically Real Madrid's successful run of 32 league titles as a benchmark, it's interesting to look at how Zidane is bucking this historical trend.
From his squad, Vazquez—ostensibly one of his back-up players—is the only squad member to have featured in more than 30 league games this season (with two league games left to play).
When Real Madrid last won a league title, five years ago under Jose Mourinho, the club fielded eight players in 30-plus games. The previous time they won La Liga—under Bernd Schuster in 2007-08, nine players appeared in more than 30 league games. When "La Quinta del Buitre" won the last of five league titles on the bounce in 1990, 10 of Real Madrid's squad turned out in more than 30 league games.
And when Real Madrid last won a European Cup and league title double in 1958—a feat Zidane is trying to emulate—10 of the squad played in 20 or more games in what was then a 16-team first division. That figure would have been 11 if first-choice goalkeeper Rogelio Dominguez hadn't been injured midseason. Only the indefatigable Alfredo Di Stefano was an ever-present that season.
Zidane's great glory this season is that he has managed to keep his players on an even keel with all his rotation. There has been little grumbling in public.
"This is the greatness of a club like Madrid; there are 23 starters," Isco said a few weeks ago in a burst of collectivist emotion, per Goal (in Spanish). He is a player who might feel maligned at having had to play second fiddle for most of the season until injury struck Gareth Bale.
As part of this strategy, Zidane has achieved the notable feat of persuading Ronaldo to sit out games. The Portugal international hasn't travelled for five of Real Madrid's last six away games in the league, during which Los Blancos have scored 21 goals.
It used to be that only injury stopped Ronaldo from playing. He has prospered from the downtime, netting eight goals in the quarter-final and semi-final stages of the Champions League, which compares favourably to his nemesis, Messi, who has one goal to his credit in the knockout stages—a penalty against Paris Saint-Germain.
Ronaldo has travelled to Galicia for Wednesday's match—a sure sign he will play. Zidane can play a strong hand. His side's run of games is easing up and the finishing line is within sight.
Four points from two games will secure the league title. And with a possible back-to-back Champions League crown in the offing, too, Zidane is showing there is another way of winning—playing "A" teams, "B" teams and hybrid XIs, more out of design than necessity.
It points at an evolution rather than an isolated occurrence, heralding a new, extravagant management technique. One, though, that is the plaything of Europe's elite clubs such as Zidane's Real Madrid.
All quotes and information obtained firsthand unless otherwise indicated.
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