Ranking Players Who Are More and Less Important to Real Madrid Than 1 Year Ago

Karl Matchett@@karlmatchettFeatured ColumnistNovember 24, 2017

MADRID, SPAIN - OCTOBER 22: Marco Asensio Willemsen (l) of Real Madrid celebrates with teammate Isco Alarcon for scoring during the La Liga 2017-18 match between Real Madrid and SD Eibar at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on 22 October 2017 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Power Sport Images/Getty Images)
Power Sport Images/Getty Images

Zinedine Zidane hasn't tended to swap around too many members of his squad since taking over as Real Madrid's first-team coach in January 2016.

He's kept faith with those he inherited and added a few youthful prospects along the way, be they signed in from other clubs or recalled from elsewhere.

It means there has been a reasonably settled team as well as squad that the French boss has utilised, with much of his preferred starting XI remaining the same in both 2016/17 and this term.

There have, however, been switches in formation and on how much he relies on different players on a month-to-month basis and in the biggest of fixtures. As a result, a handful of players who have been part of Los Blancos' side across both seasons have either found themselves considered more important to the boss or have fallen by the wayside.

Sometimes it's circumstantial—transfers, injuries and so on—while other times it's the altered tactics that have led to players being considered more or less important to the team.

A year is a long time in football, and players' fortunes can change quickly, particularly at a club like Real Madrid, for whom winning is expected as a minimum and anything less can rapidly lead to changes. So which players have seen their stocks raised considerably in the past 12 months, and which ones have faced the opposite scenario?

Here we are considering only those playing at the Santiago Bernabeu in both campaigns and judging solely on their significance to the team since this time last year.

             

More Important: 4. Raphael Varane

MADRID, SPAIN - NOVEMBER 18:  Raphael Varane of Real Madrid reacts during the La Liga match between Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid at Wanda Metropolitano Stadium on November 18, 2017 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by fotopress/Getty Images)
fotopress/Getty Images

Pepe's summer departure left Real Madrid not exactly light in central defence but more reliant on the senior, established players already in the position.

Sergio Ramos has always been first choice as captain, but Pepe and Raphael Varane largely alternated at being the Spaniard's partner over the past few years, with fitness and form dictating who made the team. Now, though, Jesus Vallejo is the fourth-choice centre-back, untested at the elite level in Spain having spent time on loan at Real Zaragoza in La Liga 2, and Eintracht Frankfurt in the Bundesliga.

While Vallejo performed well at the German side, being a regular for Madrid is a different beast: the defence can be left exposed, mistakes are highlighted tenfold and the pressure to perform with consistency is enormous.

Varane had to step up this year, and he has done. There has been one short spell when he was sidelined, but his form in general has been great, particularly around the start of the campaign.

The centre-back is among one of the finest in Europe thanks to his combination of power, speed and technical ability, but Zidane is relying on him ever more—particularly with injuries at full-back meaning defensive options are stretched across the width of the park this term.

Varane isn't letting Madrid down, and defensive failings this term have largely come from errors elsewhere or a lack of protection from ahead; the France international was already a starting player, but his presence has become even more vital this season.

            

More Important: 3. Marco Asensio

MADRID, SPAIN - NOVEMBER 18:  Marco Asensio of Real Madrid in action during the La Liga match between Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid at Wanda Metropolitano Stadium on November 18, 2017 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by fotopress/Getty Images)
fotopress/Getty Images

Let's consider where Marco Asensio was one year ago.

He had just been recalled to Real Madrid after a successful loan spell at Espanyol, but he was still trying to find a role for himself in the team.

That he was even kept around was a testament to the impact he made in pre-season; another loan was probably on the cards before he shone in the summer for Los Blancos, scoring in the UEFA Super Cup against Sevilla and again on his Liga debut for the club—but he was still only featuring because injuries had hit elsewhere.

The likes of Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo were absent at the start of last term, and Asensio flitted in and out, on the left and through the centre as needed, and he was quickly back on the bench.

Consistency was naturally a little while coming, and between October and November, he only played 50 minutes in La Liga across seven matches.

Fast forward to November 2017, and Asensio has jumped forward enormously in what he brings to the side. His goalscoring potential means he's often one of the first players off the bench when Real Madrid need a goal; with no Alvaro Morata or Mariano Diaz to call on this term, Asensio's ability to strike from range and his seven goals for the campaign mark him out as a go-to option.

He's a regular starter in La Liga more than in Europe, but regardless of his position—right, left or central—he's providing output in the final third and showing what a big future he has in the white shirt.

           

More Important: 2. Nacho

Real Madrid's Spanish defender Nacho celebrates his goal during the UEFA Champions League Group H match between Apoel FC and Real Madrid on November 21, 2017, in the Cypriot capital Nicosia's GSP Stadium.  / AFP PHOTO / Florian CHOBLET        (Photo credi
FLORIAN CHOBLET/Getty Images

A fourth-choice centre-back doesn't typically get too many opportunities at a big club, but Nacho has managed a reasonable appearance haul thanks to the injuries of Varane, Ramos and Pepe down the years.

Last term, he began the campaign in the usual situation: on the bench and filling in when needed. While mostly that was at centre-back, he also played the role of Marcelo's backup on the left in 2016/17, and it was there where his early opportunities came.

Nacho played once in the UEFA Champions League group stage last season and three of the first nine league games—pretty much as expected.

But in the second half of the campaign, he played far more regularly. And his performances were, to put it mildly, superb. He was Real Madrid's best defender for large stretches, and that form has continued over into this season.

Zidane trusts him, regardless of whether he's playing at full-back or in the centre, and as a result he has been rewarded with the defender's strengths of consistency, durability and wholehearted determination.

Nacho has played four of the five group games in Europe, 11 of the 12 matches in La Liga and even captained the team in the Copa del Rey this season.

His best performances come in the middle, but Nacho has grown into a complete defender. He's more than comfortable on the ball when moving down the flanks and a real threat getting into the final third with power and pace. He would be a starter anywhere else, and at Madrid, he's proving he's capable of being held in the same regard there.

            

More Important: 1. Isco

Real Madrid's Spanish midfielder Isco thumbs up during the Spanish league football match Atletico Madrid vs Real Madrid at the Wanda Metropolitan stadium in Madrid on November 18, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU        (Photo credit should read
PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/Getty Images

By the end of November in 2016/17, Isco had played barely over 500 minutes of league action for Real Madrid, featuring for the full 90 just twice, and he had only made one appearance in the Champions League.

He was still a rotational, bit-part player, fighting it out with James Rodriguez, Lucas Vazquez and Asensio for game time in whichever position happened to be up for grabs on any particular day.

The 4-3-3 system had both midfield and attack lines locked down with Zidane's first-choice players, and only injuries and the odd rotation gave the opportunity to impress for others. With his contract dwindling and with Isco looking far from a trusted starter, he appeared a million miles from fulfilling his potential at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Around March, everything changed.

Isco was suddenly the one who drove the team forward, playing with determination and skill, self-confidence and belief. His dribbling had end product. He scored crucial goals to keep the team on the front foot in La Liga, and he won a spot in the Champions League side as a result.

Consistency was key. Could he keep it up? An emphatic yes. Isco ended 2016/17 with a goal in the semi-finals in Europe and three assists in the final two league games to send Madrid toward the double—then he began 2017/18 by tearing apart both Barcelona and Manchester United.

He did have a slight downturn in form around September but has quickly bounced back. His performance level has forced Zidane into fielding a diamond formation to make room for Isco's talents, and the Spaniard has been without doubt one of the most in-form players in Europe throughout the calendar year.

His stock at Real Madrid has never been higher.

            

Less Important: 4. Marcelo

MADRID, SPAIN - NOVEMBER 18:  Marcelo, #12 of Real Madrid  during The La Liga match between Club Atletico Madrid v Real Madrid at Wanda Metropolitano on November 18, 2017 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Sonia Canada/Getty Images)
Sonia Canada/Getty Images

Real Madrid don't tend to have an awful lot of outright unimportant players as a rule; it's an elite squad, full of internationals and players who have won everything in sight. So when it comes to players of less importance compared to one year ago, it's important to accept context.

Last season, as noted, Nacho was the only backup for Marcelo at left-back. The Brazilian is the undisputed starter, a phenomenal player who is part-defender, part-outlet and part-playmaker. And he's not any less talented or trusted now than he was 12 months previous.

The difference in his importance stems from Theo Hernandez's arrival.

Previously, if Marcelo were unavailable—and he does usually suffer an injury or two across each season—then Nacho would be on the left. But with Real's centre-backs similarly succumbing to knocks, there have been times over the past couple of years when it has been a case of whoever is fit simply has to fill in.

Denis Cheryshev played there on one memorable occasion, Gareth Bale spent a few minutes filling in in an emergency and many other defenders have had to fill the void left by Marcelo's absence, including Fabio Coentrao, hapless last term at the Bernabeu.

This season, Theo is around to ensure there are no such problems.

Aside from the unfortunate quirk of fate that left them injured at the same time early in the campaign, Madrid know they have a perfect stand-in, a powerful and direct runner from left-back who is strong in the challenge and forward-thinking in possession.

Theo plays the game in a different way to Marcelo, but he's capable of being every bit as effective.

Marcelo remains the first-choice left-back and one of the world's best at the role, but it's no longer quite as pivotal that he maintains fitness for 90 per cent of his team's matches. Madrid finally have his long-term replacement in hand.

          

Less Important: 3. Gareth Bale

DORTMUND, GERMANY - SEPTEMBER 26: Gareth Bale of Real Madrid looks on during the UEFA Champions League group H match between Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid at Signal Iduna Park on September 26, 2017 in Dortmund, Germany. (Photo by TF-Images/TF-Images v
TF-Images/Getty Images

Then there's Bale, an entirely different case to Marcelo. Bale should be a guaranteed starter, and always was under Zidane, but his ongoing injury issues have derailed his progress, his place in the team and the way fans look at him.

Bale has played just nine times this season; three goals and four assists in that short period highlight his brilliance and effectiveness, but it's largely irrelevant if Madrid can't pick him.

A calf injury has left him sidelined most of this term, and a new thigh problem means he will be waiting to return for some time yet. Per the Observer's James Candy, it's Bale's 19th injury in four years at Madrid (h/t the Guardian). And like it or not, the team goes on without him and players, such as Isco, step into the void to prove their worth when his position becomes available.

But a year ago, and indeed every time he returns from injury-enforced absences, Bale proves why he's worth the £85.3 million they paid for him in 2013.

His pace and power, direct running and willingness to get into dangerous positions always mark him out as a scoring threat and a source of chances for the team, and it doesn't take long for him to get the fans back onside.

Until the next injury.

              

Less Important: 2. Mateo Kovacic

MADRID, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 13: Mateo Kovacic of Real Madrid in action during the UEFA Champions League 2017-18 match between Real Madrid and APOEL FC at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on 13 September 2017 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Power Sport Images/Getty Ima
Power Sport Images/Getty Images

The devastation shown on Mateo Kovacic's face as he departed injured against APOEL early on this season wasn't just down to being injured. It was because he knew his Real Madrid career could take off with a couple of big performances.

It's not outlandish to suggest that his form from last term into this showed that, had he not been injured, he could have been on the other side of these rankings.

Instead, Kovacic has been on the sidelines since leaving that game in September, and the end is not yet in sight. Meanwhile, the four-man midfield goes on without him, and the likes of Asensio, Dani Ceballos and even Marcos Llorente pick up minutes that might have otherwise been the Croatian's.

After a stuttering first campaign, Kovacic was excellent in 2016/17, shining during the first half of the season in particular as Toni Kroos and Casemiro both suffered injuries.

He filled in wherever Zidane needed him. Defensive shield or midfield shuttler, he performed both roles with his usual aggression and style, showing he was capable of being a starter.

Kovacic might not be back to zero when he returns, but he will have to prove himself over again to earn minutes when one of the starters is out—especially if his return coincides with Bale's and a potential return to 4-3-3.

                 

Less Important: 1. Lucas Vazquez

MADRID, SPAIN - OCTOBER 22: Lucas Vazquez of Real Madrid in action during the La Liga 2017-18 match between Real Madrid and SD Eibar at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on 22 October 2017 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Power Sport Images/Getty Images)
Power Sport Images/Getty Images

Speedy winger Lucas Vazquez has been a favourite of Zidane's since taking over, not just because of his pace and ability to stretch play but also because of his tactical relevance. He can help overload the flank to attack or work back ferociously to shore up a tight match.

However, Lucas' role is fixed; he's a sub, a game-changer in whatever way the manager requires, not a starter with any regularity.

In 2016/17, Lucas was the go-to man off the bench for any eventuality. Throughout the campaign, there were only five Liga matches in which Lucas didn't feature, and one of those was through injury. He would often be asked to play 20 or 25 minutes, interspersed with the odd start, and it was a similar story in Europe.

This season, rather than being Zidane's 12th man, he's perhaps his 14th. The sub appearances are still frequent, but he's not playing as pivotal a role. He's not the tactical element he was last term, and his output has been much reduced—partly a consequence of trying to shoehorn Lucas in as the right-sided part of the diamond midfield at times.

In Europe, until the recent 6-0 win over APOEL, his game time in the group stage read zero minutes, four, three and zero. He's played just one 90-minute game in La Liga, against Alaves, and he didn't get off the bench for the recent derby against Atletico Madrid.

Lucas is still perhaps a favourite of Zidane's given the Frenchman continues to give him game time off the bench, but there's far less emphasis on what he brings to the team. His importance as an impact sub is drastically reduced as a result.

         

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