Zinedine Zidane has a conundrum on his hands at Real Madrid. For years, Marcelo was an indomitable force. Europe’s best left-back, he could defend and attack in equal measure. Bayern Munich, Juventus and Manchester City all came up against him, but simply couldn’t find a way past.
However, like all good things, Marcelo’s time is coming to an end. Where the likes of Toni Kroos and Luka Modrić once bossed the midfield, Father Time is undefeated, while Cristiano Ronaldo has moved on and others have moved past their best. No case is quite as extreme as the decline in Marcelo’s performances, though. It’s a downward spiral which has given an opportunity to a new contender: Ferland Mendy.
Excluded by Santiago Solari as he looked to rebuild a new era for Los Blancos, Sergio Reguilón was given his opportunity and impressed. The return of Zidane gave Marcelo a second chance, reinstated into the team, but even the most loyal of coaches knew that the Brazilian was a shadow of his former self and, after moving Reguilón on, first to Sevilla and later Tottenham, pushed for the signing of compatriot Mendy from Olympique Lyonnais for €48m.
When he joined, Mendy addressed the competition at left-back directly as he told the club’s TV channel, “I will be his successor. He has a lot of time left, but if they’ve brought me here, it’s because they see potential.” Two years later, the first choice on the left of defence is still not perhaps as clear as Zidane would have liked.
At the time of writing, Mendy has started just over half the 11 matches played in La Liga this season, while Marcelo has started the other five. If Zidane has a tendency, it would be towards Mendy, who has started every Champions League fixture and major domestic fixtures against Real Sociedad, Barcelona, Villarreal and Sevilla. But Zidane’s rotations at left-back go beyond rotations elsewhere that reveal a clear first choice.
The frequency with which he chops and changes on the left is perhaps down to his trust in, and experience with, Marcelo. He’s been playing alongside Sergio Ramos and Raphaël Varane for so long that he has become a go-to option, one which should be a reliable fail-safe. Zidane’s loyalty is fierce, as demonstrated following a defeat to Real Sociedad in the Copa del Rey in which Marcelo was at fault for more than one goal. “I think Marcelo gave his all. The knives come out when you lose… He’s been an important player for many years and I’m sure he’s going to continue to be important until the end of the season,” he said. Almost a year later, he’s still playing an important role, though the same question marks remain and are only becoming more prominent.
Marcelo’s record when selected, though it goes beyond just his presence, is simply appalling. In 29 La Liga games since Zidane returned, Real Madrid have won 16 (55%), compared to 10 defeats (34%). In the 30 games without Marcelo in the line-up, Real Madrid have not been beaten once. The Brazilian tends to play against weaker opposition, inviting him to progress further forward where sides can be more suited to attacking on the counter and capitalising on the spaces left in behind. It is perhaps ironic that Zidane only trusts Marcelo against the sides where he is most positionally vulnerable, but it is also condemning that he features in so many of the high-profile defeats against less-threatening rivals.
There can be little questioning the fact that Mendy is a more reliable option defensively. Marcelo is dribbled past once every 107 minutes, compared to Mendy’s once-per-300-minutes record. Equally, Mendy seems to read the game much better. He intercepts a pass every 54 minutes, while Marcelo only does so every 143 minutes. All this evidence points to Mendy being a defender three times better than his senior teammate.
It is offensively where Marcelo adds another dimension and therein lies Mendy’s obstacle to convince his doubters, or at least at first glance. Marcelo’s average position is far higher up the pitch and his link-up play with the likes of Karim Benzema has that extra edge of fluidity that could be expected between players who’ve played together for over a decade. However, certain attacking metrics fail to separate them. Both average 0.8 key passes per 90 minutes player and both averaged 0.12 xA per 90 minutes played last season.
Many also point to the fitness of Eden Hazard as an influential factor. When Hazard has started since joining and when either Marcelo or Mendy have been fit, the former has played just three times, with two of those occasions coming in 2019. With Hazard’s more roaming, attacking approach leaving more defensive vulnerabilities in behind, Mendy offers a more secure supporting act to handle the entire left flank on his own. But Hazard just hasn’t been able to stay fit, and that’s kept the door open for Marcelo.
The reality is that this is an entire change in playing style. Mendy does not match the profile of the marauding offensive left-back that the club has grown accustomed to. Ever since Roberto Carlos joined in 1996, he and Marcelo have been the only two players to dominate the position and both have reflected a similar, offensive-first approach. Mendy is a departure from that. It’s a process of change which will take time to win over fans in the stands and some influential figures in the club.
Zidane’s reluctance to make the change at left-back has been one of the great mysteries of his second reign at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu. Mendy has never struggled with injuries or fitness, and at the age of 25, is clearly a more suitable option long-term than Marcelo, seven years his senior. It is reflective of Real’s struggles overall, failing to move on to a new generation and instead sticking with ageing stars who are no longer what they once were. The transition from Marcelo to Mendy is proving to be a long and winding road, but it’s definitely one that Zidane and Los Blancos are pursuing.