Real Madrid: Who should start at forward against Atletico?

Real Madrid, Rodrygo Goes (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)
Real Madrid, Rodrygo Goes (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images) /

Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane will have a tough task this Sunday. Not only will he have to beat the league leaders, Atletico Madrid, but he must go up against one of Europe’s best defenses without a true striker.

Karim Benzema is highly doubtful for the weekend fixture, as he’s missed the last few matches with an injury. And now his backup, Mariano Diaz, is out for potentially two to three weeks with a muscular injury.

Zidane must now get creative when it comes to setting up his forward line. On Monday night, Real Madrid dropped points to Real Sociedad in La Liga, needing a late goal from Vinicius Junior to salvage a point at home. And in that match, without Benzema, Zidane seemed to build the attack around the next top scorer, Casemiro. Who is a defensive midfielder. Whose goals mostly come from headers on set pieces by Toni Kroos.

That clearly won’t be a solution against Atletico Madrid, who have shown this season that they are more than capable of winning the title. Of course, Real Madrid are the defending champions and defeated Atleti 2-0 at home earlier this season, so Madridistas are not wrong to respect a result at the Wanda this weekend.

Rodrygo Goes is the key man for Real Madrid’s attack now

There were three forwards who performed well against Real Sociedad, and they are the only three forwards Zidane can realistically trust: Isco, Rodrygo Goes, and Vinicius Junior. Isco can be mercurial, but when he gets consistent minutes, he can excel. We saw the good version of Isco in the first half vs. La Real, and Zidane should not be worried about counting on him. The same goes for Rodrgyo, whose return from injury off the bench on Monday was a successful one.

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Rodrygo is a must-start, as he is the most productive of those three players. Where he starts becomes the real question. Real Madrid have never tried him out in the middle, and it would be a risk to do so against the caliber of competition of Atleti. But the risk could be worth the reward in lieu of any real alternatives, aside from playing a 4-4-2 diamond or Isco as a false nine (the latter is not recommended at Atleti).

We know Rodrygo is at his best on the left, but the same can be said for Vini. And the drop-off between Rodrygo on the right is not as great as the drop-off if Vini were to try to play at any other position other than the left side of the attack.

Against Atleti, Zidane could use a 4-4-2 with Rodrygo and Isco up top, slotting fellow injury returnee Fede Valverde in behind them.

Then, Casemiro sits behind Toni Kroos and Luka Modric on either side of the midfield. Fede could also swap with Modric so that the Croatian is higher up the pitch, or he could even do the same swap with Kroos.

There are a lot of options available for Zidane, and I like the idea of having four midfielders. But if Isco and Rodrygo start up top, is that attack grounded enough? Would Asensio provide more of a direct threat, even out of form, than Isco? And if Asensio were to start, would Isco be best served in that attacking midfield spot?

Without a true forward, aside from Hugo Duro who is plainly not ready to start in El Derbi, Real Madrid will have to gamble and just let their best players go out there and produce. That means Rodrygo needs to be on the pitch, and then Isco and Vini, if they do not start, need to be called upon off the bench if the situation requires.

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Zidane must make use of all his available resources, but I very much like the idea of experimenting with Rodrygo up top, either as part of a two-man setup with Isco or Asensio or spearheading a 4-3-3 with Vini and Isco on either side of him.