Which Real Madrid Player Has Been Most Criminally Underused This Season?

Karl Matchett@@karlmatchettFeatured ColumnistSeptember 28, 2017

MADRID, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 09:  Marcos Llorente of Real Madrid reacts during the La Liga match between Real Madrid and Levante at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on September 9, 2017 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images)
Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images

While 2016/17 was about as good as it could get for Real Madrid, the start of the new campaign has been somewhat trickier for Zinedine Zidane and his team.

Just half-a-dozen games in, they sit seven points behind leaders Barcelona, sixth in the table after winning only half their opening matches. It's hardly an unsalvageable operation, but a seven-point gap in La Liga can quickly get tricky to close and puts added pressure to get a result in El Clasico.

Injuries in one or two areas haven't helped matters, particularly up front where Karim Benzema's absence leaves Los Blancos without an experienced and natural No. 9, but that's down to the summer where Madrid sold both Alvaro Morata and Mariano Diaz and didn't replace them.

Elsewhere, the squad looks deeptwo players for almost every positionand Zidane has been keen to rotate where possible to give minutes to all those in his senior group. Only the injured Jesus Vallejo and 18-year-old right-back Achraf Hakimi, have not got on the pitch so far this term.

But which player has been most underutilized? Who either deserves more time on the pitch or should be given the chance to bed in for when they will be needed later on?

We've looked at the numbers and spoken to fans and journalists alike to see who Real Madrid have been underplaying so far in 2017/18.

                    

Bulk

Including Spanish Super Cup games, Real have played 11 competitive matches this season—that's 990 minutes. Only Dani Carvajal has played every one of those, but 10 players have featured in 600 minutes or more, and 12 have played over 500—it's a clear group that makes up the first-choice lineup.

(L-R) Casemiro of Real Madrid, Gareth Bale of Real Madrid, Daniel Carvajal of Real Madrid, Luka Modric of Real Madrid, Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid, Sergio Ramos of Real Madrid, Nacho of Real Madrid, Toni Kroos of Real Madrid during the UEFA Champions
VI-Images/Getty Images

Neither Benzema nor Cristiano Ronaldo is in that dozen, as injury or suspension has forced them to watch on, but they would be included in normal circumstances.

But the rest have been either injured, left on the bench or not yet called upon to take any meaningful part in Madrid's fixture list.

Some are understandable: Kiko Casilla, the back-up goalkeeper, isn't going to feature heavily. Neither are the call-ups from Castilla—the likes of Luca Zidane, Alvaro Tejero and Franchu. A spot on the bench is a reward for them, not an expectation.

Still, some others should be being given exposure and opportunity, starting with Borja Mayoral.

                        

Striking fear

While the chase for Kylian Mbappe ending in failure isn't damaging in isolation, Madrid should have been clear that they would need an alternative.

The front three of the "BBC" attack—Benzema, Gareth Bale, Ronaldo—haven't played together as a regular unit for some time, given the Welshman's injury last term and the No. 7's suspension at the start of this year. Now it's Benzema's turn, and his absence is more problematic, even though he's not on the same level as his two team-mates overall.

MADRID, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 09: Karim Benzema of Real Madrid CF gets ready to come off injured during the La Liga match between Real Madrid and Levante at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on September 9, 2017 in Madrid, . (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
Denis Doyle/Getty Images

So, when no striker was brought in to support the trio, Mayoral should have been given more chances to be involved.

His time on the pitch so far amounts to just 107 minutes, and 15 of those have been for irrelevant, cameo roles off the bench in the dying embers of matches when he had next to no time or opportunity to impact.

One start—which yielded a goal, and a win for the team at Real Sociedad—is all Mayoral has been entrusted with thus far, while Zidane also turned to him for around 20 minutes as Madrid chased an equaliser at Real Betis.

It isn't much, considering he's the only true No. 9 available to Zidane after Benzema. Even with Ronaldo's switch to the role, a team of Real's staturewith their expectations and number of games they playneed another.

If Mayoral is the option for the manager, he needs to be used more often.

                  

Midfield choice

There are alternative candidates, though.

Midfield is perhaps the area of the pitch with most competition for places at the Santiago Bernabeu, although given Zidane's preference of fielding Casemiro, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric whenever possible, perhaps "competition" is not the right term.

There are back-ups, rotation possibilities and players battling for minutes. Isco has just about won himself a regular role, but he's had to become one of the most effective players in Europe over several months to do so. Marco Asensio is attempting likewise, while Mateo Kovacic has done superbly whenever called upon.

For La Liga journalist Andrew Gaffney, there's another who needs to be given more options: Marcos Llorente.

MADRID, SPAIN - AUGUST 23: Marcos Llorente of Real Madrid in action during the Santiago Bernabeu Trophy 2017 match between Real Madrid and ACF Fiorentina at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium on 23 August 2017 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Power Sport Images/Get
Power Sport Images/Getty Images

"Everyone knows Madrid has a mass of midfield options but Llorente is the only natural replacement for Casemiro," Gaffney told Bleacher Report.

"If the Brazilian gets injured or suspended, it's important Llorente is ready to step in and cover that role—or look for a move elsewhere in January."

There are two edges to that sword: Llorente should be playing somewhere at least after a stellar 2016/17 campaign. He has shown he's capable of dominating in La Liga, and getting reduced game time isn't going to aid his progress much.

But Real need cover, too. As Gaffney pointed out, there will come a time when Casemiro is unavailable, and protecting the shaky Madrid back line is a job that needs concentration and rhythm, something difficult to find after being sat on the bench unused for weeks on end.

Social media account @UltraSuristic_, a popular and vocal Real Madrid fan presence online, is of the same mind:

"After 21 starters already used by Zidane in the opening games in the new season, the obvious one is  Llorente. That's especially important when you consider injuries to Kovacic and one-game absences for Kroos and Modric, but that is probably down to adaptation.

"His time will come, especially when the Copa del Rey starts."

Finally, video journalist Carlo Valladares is looking at another area of midfield—and a player who might just have suggested recently he should be getting more chances.

"Real Madrid are just unlucky, and perhaps slightly complacent right now, but as we were shown at the weekend Dani Ceballos should start more in Zidane's side," he said.

"He can offer a bit of unpredictability in a 4-3-3 and Real Madrid need that right now."

Ceballos, who scored a match-winning brace against Alaves on Saturday, has only been at the club for a few months after a summer switch. But he is another player looking at minimal game time thus far, barely breaking the 100-minute barrier including that first start in Madrid's most recent La Liga game.

Creativity, aggression, a threat in the final third—usually Zidane would look to Kovacic off the bench to supply this through the centre, but Ceballos might be next in line with the Croatian out injured.

Mayoral, Llorente, Ceballos: It's no coincidence they are three promising Spanish players, all aged 20 to 22. That's the direction the club are trying to take, with Zidane willing to incorporate those youngsters.

However, he might need to include one or two of them a little more frequently to ensure they are ready for when they are needed this season.

            

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