Real Madrid: Is Marcelo bad or just out of form?

MADRID, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 09: Marcelo of Real Madrid looks on prior to the La Liga match between Club Atletico de Madrid and Real Madrid CF at Wanda Metropolitano on February 09, 2019 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)
MADRID, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 09: Marcelo of Real Madrid looks on prior to the La Liga match between Club Atletico de Madrid and Real Madrid CF at Wanda Metropolitano on February 09, 2019 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Quality Sport Images/Getty Images) /

Once regarded as the far and away best fullback on the planet, Marcelo cannot seem to get out of his own way. With a string of bad performances coinciding with bad results for Real Madrid and his place under fire by youngster Sergio Reguillon, is it all over for the club legend?

Tell me if you have seen this before this season, Real Madrid turn the ball over in the attacking third, the ball gets out down our right flank on a counter, a cross goes to the back post and an absolutely unmarked player puts a blistering shot on whichever poor goalkeeper we happen to be playing that day. Against Girona when this happened, Marcelo utterly missed the man he was supposed to pick up. In other games this season when that goal has happened he has not even been in the frame.

Combine that with the fact that Marcelo has no La Liga assists this season and many folks are ready to declare the 30 year old as done on a Real Madrid level. While I absolutely agree that Marcelo’s form has been bad, I think the distinct ways in which he has been bad are directly connected to two specific changes in the team around him. It is not that Marcelo can no longer play, it is that he does not have the ideal situation around him that allowed him to become the dominant attacking force we all know and love.

In Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid, the left side was a dominant portion to our attack. The interplay between Marcelo and Cristiano Ronaldo (more on him in a minute) was crucial to that, but an underrated part of that system was Casemiro. Whenever Marcelo bombed forward to work magic with CR7, it was the Brazilian’s job to cover that left flank should a counter attack ensued. Crucial interventions both on the left flank and clearly crosses to the back post from the right were standard fare from our defensive midfielder.

By contrast, look at his heat map vs Girona:

Casemiro’s ability to cover this much ground is really impressive. He had seven defensive actions, completed 82% percent of his passes, and scored a goal. This all speaks to his willingness to develop himself over the last four years. However, to do this he spent a significant amount of time in the attacking half, all across central areas that you would expect from what is supposed to be your deepest lying midfielder. That area on the left in the attacking half is a key heat area for Kroos and Ceballos from this game as well, and not too far from where Asensio had most of his activity.

This participation in attack is not unique to this game, it has become his habit and it works really well when Sergio Reguillon is on the pitch, because the young fullback does not press forward nearly as much as Marcelo does, but when Marcelo is on the pitch and and Casemiro is active in attack there is no one to cover the left flank defensively and the result has been devastating.

Obviously, this is not necessarily Marcelo’s fault. He and Casemiro need to get on the same page, but given the fact that Santiago Solari seems to like Casemiro involved in attack, it is easy to see why Reguillon has been preferred of late in the starting lineup. Look how much more expansive Reguillon is on the pitch, comparing Marcelo’s heat map vs Barcelona to Reguillon’s against Atletico.

Reguillon can participate in attack, but his work rate allows him to cover much more ground defensively than Marcelo does against similar quality competition. In a world where there’s no Casemiro to help defend on that side, this is what the left fullback needs to be doing.

The other aspect of Marcelo’s nightmare season is missing Cristiano Ronaldo. I hate it when it feels like everything comes back to players who have left but the reality is that Marcelo and Ronaldo shared a flank for the better part of a decade, love playing together, and absolutely understood one another. With Ronaldo gone, Marcelo’s xA (expected assists) per 90 minutes is basically halved, his key passes per 90 are down from 2.27 to 1.98, and he has no assists this season.

Ronaldo is an all time great and being in proximity to him really helped Marcelo play his absolute best. I love Vinicius, but Vinicius wants to dribble, and he has not yet mastered getting himself into positions to take good shots like Ronaldo had, so with Vinicius becoming the top selection at left wing Marcelo’s build up has become more about feeding a dribbler instead of feeding a scorer, and his output has suffered along with it.

From an attacking perspective, Marcelo’s predictive outputs are still well above average. However, they do not justify his inclusion in the squad in a system where there is no defensive help in behind him (which might explain why Solari has experimented with Reguillon and Marcelo playing together with Marcelo as a winger). In the space of a year, Marcelo went from being the perfect tactical fit for Real Madrid to being an absolutely terrible one, and while the player still has loads of quality, it is really difficult to include him in the side given the way things currently are.

Marcelo has been a great player for years. He is still a great player. He is decidedly not a good fit in the side right now, and unfortunately that may lead to his time at Real Madrid coming to an end. If he finds himself in a new shirt next year I absolutely expect him to do very well, and he certainly deserves better than people thinking he’s absolutely lost the plot as a player.

Next. Player Ratings from Real Madrid vs Girona. dark