This season was never going to be as glossy as previous ones for Real Madrid.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure was always going to hit hard, while the appointment of Julen Lopetegui was questioned from the beginning – questions which were justified by a poor start and his subsequent sacking in October.
But one thing no one expected was the dreadful form of Marcelo, the most consistent and outstanding left-back of the last decade.
Last September, the Brazilian was named in the FIFPro World XI for the fourth successive year. It was his fifth appearance in total. Only six players have featured in the best XI more times – two of whom are Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
Indeed, it hasn’t been long since Brazil legend Roberto Carlos called his compatriot the best in the world, admitting to Marca that “technically” the 30-year-old is better than he was.
It’s hard to believe, then, that he was talking about the same Marcelo that we have seen this season.
Statistically, per 90 minutes, his tackles, crosses, interceptions and dribbles are all down compared to previous years, while errors have increased.
The reasons behind his struggles are varied, stemming from injury problems and weight gain to a potential loss of motivation.
“In every squad there are three or four players who have problems keeping their weight down,” former Real Madrid manager Bernd Schuster explained to AS.
“Some players are built that way and I know that Marcelo is one of them; he puts on weight with ease and so he needs to be very careful – especially if he gets injured.
“He needs to stay on top of it otherwise he’ll continue having the same kinds of problems he’s having now.”
Santiago Solari too was quick to stress the significance of the Brazilian being available, telling the club’s official website: “It’s important that he doesn’t pick up any more injuries because he’s a key player for the club and this team and we have to look after him.”
But niggling injuries have continued, losing weight remains a problem and the introduction of Sergio Reguilon to the first team has relegated Marcelo to the bench.
While it seemed the four-time Champions League winner would eventually regain his form and place, the results without him have kept him benched.
Reguilon is not necessarily a better player than his teammate, but he provides Madrid with more defensive security than a man who is more of an attacking full-back.
Naturally, Marcelo’s stats per 90 minutes are better than the 22-year-old in offensive areas, but Reguilon has won more tackles and made more interceptions in a run of error-free performances.
Real Madrid have also won all but one of the 10 La Liga games that Reguilon has started, the one anomaly coming against Barcelona at the weekend. In stark contrast, Los Blancos have failed to win in any of Marcelo’s last nine starts.
His form has been so out of character that when Girona shocked Los Blancos at the Bernabeu in a 2-1 win, visiting coach Eusebio Sacristan was asked if he had deliberately targeted the Brazilian as a weak link.
He denied doing so, but his tactics suggested otherwise. In the second half, Portu was switched from the left wing to the right and went on to score the winning goal for his side.
In the aftermath, Marcelo apologised to fans for his performance, just one month after he had reportedly said sorry to the squad for his poor form.
It’s an unfamiliar situation for a man who is competing for his place as a Real Madrid player for the first time since joining the club in January 2007.
Solari has stressed the positives of this, saying: “Competition within the squad is an essential part of football. Everyone must feel they have an opportunity and can lose their place [if they don’t do well].”
But it is yet to prove the catalyst for Marcelo to return to form and has instead led to speculation over his future, with constant links to Juventus adding to his already precarious situation.
It’s no secret that Marcelo and Ronaldo are close friends, but there is also great respect for the 30-year-old from the man who moved to Turin.
“I see you write about James [Rodriguez], [Gareth] Bale, [Marco] Asensio but if I’m honest, Juventus do not need other players,” Ronaldo said about transfer rumours recently, before seemingly issuing his former teammate an invitation to the Old Lady, by adding: “We open the doors to good players and Marcelo is one of them.”
The Real Madrid man has played down the links – “I’d say if there was an agreement or negotiations had taken place” – but Los Blancos seem to already be preparing for his departure sometime soon, having scouted Real Betis’ Junior Firpo in recent months.
Marcelo insists that he still has the drive to fight for his place, saying: “I’m as hungry as when I was 18 years old,” before adding that he will be at the Bernabeu “until the end.”
But at such a demanding club, if he cannot rediscover the form that has put him head and shoulders above every other left-back for the last 10 years, the rest of his time at Real Madrid may be in a supporting role.