Real Madrid earned a hugely hard-fought 3-1 win at Celta Vigo on Saturday, thanks to goals by Karim Benzema (two) and Marco Asensio. Head coach Zinedine Zidane fielded an XI comprised of Courtois; Lucas, Varane, Nacho, Mendy; Casemiro, Kroos, Modric; Valverde, Benzema and Vinicius. Asensio came off the bench in place of Toni Kroos with 20 minutes to go… and, as far as substitutions were concerned, that was it.
Zidane used only one of his five available changes, despite his Madrid side having to battle to the last to protect their lead at Balaídos. Indeed, they only made sure of the three points in stoppage time, courtesy of Asensio’s goal on the break.
Sole substitution at Celta reflects Zidane’s lack of trust in Real Madrid bench
It’s a snapshot of a wider truth: Zidane has scant faith in his substitutes. Despite having precious little time to prepare physically for 2020/21 after last term’s late finish – and being hit by a spate of injuries this season – he isn’t holding any of his regulars back; not even veterans like Luka Modric and Sergio Ramos. He’s picking his first-choice side game in, game out and entrusting them with getting the results Madrid need.
In the 38 games Los Blancos have played this season, Zidane has only used up all five substitutions on five occasions: against Celta (in the sides’ first meeting of the campaign), Alavés, Huesca, Valencia and Cádiz. Madrid lost three of those matches – a sure sign that Zidane ended up shuffling his pack through necessity, not because he was convinced the new faces could change the course of the encounter.
Zidane averaging only marginally more than three substitutions a game
He has made four changes in eight games, three in 20, two in three and one in two, leading to an average substitution rate of 3.29 per match. That’s only slightly more than the maximum of three changes permitted before a further two were added on after the coronavirus-motivated suspension in play in spring 2020. Either Zidane doesn’t see any use in the rule change in general, or he doesn’t see any use in the rule change because of the depth of his squad right now.
In Vigo, Madrid’s bench featured goalkeepers Andriy Lunin and Diego Altube, plus Éder Militao, Marcelo, Isco, Rodrygo Goes, Asensio and Hugo Duro. Only the Mallorcan was brought on; indeed, he was the only substitute who was sent out to warm up. Despite Madrid’s struggles in the second half, Zidane didn’t even consider throwing on the likes of Isco and Rodrygo, who have been turned to as impact subs in other games.
When it comes to substitutions, Zidane is a coach who tends not to favour dramatic changes – they don’t often entail a shift in formation – and who likes to bide his time until at least after the hour mark. On average, his favourite minute for bringing on fresh legs is the 68th, while his preferred time for introducing his first change is the 65th.