Zinedine Zidane came out this week reading from a different hymn sheet. Gone was the talk of being in the title race and in its place was an honest, fair reflection on Real Madrid’s current woes: “I’m never going to say someone is to blame, we are all to blame.” It was a call to arms as much as it was a staunch defence of what he feels are lies are in the media. A man backed into a corner, defending the same group of individuals which has made his start at Real Madrid so impressive.
It was a different side to Zidane. Usually the Frenchman is calm, cool and collected. It’s hard to tell this is a coach under serious pressure. But this week I wouldn’t say we saw cracks, but a little of the raw version of Zidane. The glossing over of poor results and performances hasn’t had the desired effect. Zidane wants – and needs – things to improve. But what is abundantly clear is the Real Madrid legend is extremely stubborn.
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A club the size of Real Madrid can swallow and spit out anyone with consummate ease. You can be the best in the world, the most popular man in football, but it’s as cutthroat a place as they come. For those who say it’s a poisoned chalice, the reality is that it works. Florentino Perez demands a certain level from his team – and coaches – and if you fall below that threshold, you can’t complain when you receive your marching orders.
You are only as good as your last game
Now there’s currently no genuine talk of Zidane losing his job. In fact, he confirmed his current contract runs until 2020. But from his previous position of being untouchable, there’s a human aspect to his status now. No one believes Zidane will get a free pass because he’s Zidane. Ultimately, as is the case in the modern game, you are only as good as your last game. Zidane’s results and performances in recent weeks haven’t been up to standard.
“It’s hard work which will help us get out of this situation, every one of us needs to improve. You need to do more when things are going badly. When everything goes well, it’s better for all of us. (But) It’s when things are going poorly that you need something extra from everyone.”
And there’s an element of truth to that statement – and more so at Real Madrid. For all the bravado and arrogance, it’s a side which regularly suffers from bouts of low confidence. When everything clicks they are one of the best in the world, no doubt. However when the wheels start to come off, some players begin to switch off. They allow the coach to take the flack and wait for a new face to come through the door before trying to impress again.
This is the problem for any coach at an elite club. The players hold all the power and if they aren’t unhappy, or have issues off the field, it’s easy to down tools and let someone else shoulder the brunt of the criticism. We saw Chelsea do that in Jose Mourinho’s last season at the club. They won the title, then finished 9th, before winning the title again. The players hung Mourinho out to dry. I’m not saying that is exactly what’s happening at Real Madrid but there’s an element of that in play.
Misfiring strikers aren’t blameless, but nor are they the chief culprits
The main focus of the criticism at Real Madrid is their misfiring front line. Karim Benzema is a good striker but is perhaps a rank behind the elite strikers in the game. More than anything, he’s a good fit due to his unselfishness. This is needed due to who usually accompanies him in the forward positions. Yet he’s never been someone who looked like he could drag a team from out of a hole. He’s the perfect sideman but has no leadership abilities. He retreats within himself until the crisis is over.
Alongside him is Cristiano Ronaldo. Trying to understand what is exactly going through the Portuguese superstar’s mind is near impossible. There’s no question that he’s still one of the best players in the world but he needs to show that more often. In a team struggling for goals, he can’t afford to turn into the spoilt brat again.
The stories of his unhappiness at the club, despite it being related to his own legal errors, smacks of ‘pity me’. It’s then used as an excuse whenever he plays poorly or doesn’t score. There’s always someone to blame. He, like Benzema, can do a whole lot better. But neither are true leaders.
Although neither of those two are the chief culprits in this poor opening six months at Real Madrid. Like a lot of players, many of whom were voted into UEFA’s team of the year, there’s very few who can hold their heads up high during this tough period. All of the star men, without exception, are a yard or two off the pace. And when it’s so many people under-performing, there can only be one person responsible: the coach.
Even without the BBC, Zidane didn’t need to touch the system
Zidane’s hands were tied at the beginning of the season with Cristiano suspended. In his talisman’s absence, he switched the system to a variation of a 4-4-2. And while the switch was largely successful, there wasn’t enough proof to make it a permanent change. Zidane saw differently. Like most coaches, he saw this as his moment to show he was more than just a one-trick pony.
The problem is that 4-3-3 was a lot more natural for everyone. It worked for the main team as well as the reserves. Marco Asensio and Isco, while not natural wide players, are capable of causing damage by cutting inside. The structure allowed Casemiro to sit in from of the defence, allowing Toni Kroos and Luka Modric the freedom to weave their magic. Cristiano often moved closer to Benzema but with an established system behind him, it wasn’t a major problem. Everyone knew their role, their place. It made them feared.
The fullbacks were key last year – and now they aren’t
And if you cast your mind back to that Real Madrid side which swept aside everyone in their way, a key element were the fullbacks. Marcelo was at his destructive best down the left, linking up perfectly with Cristiano. A combination which has remained intact since 2009. Their roles altered through that time but the two knew each other’s movement, their intentions. That’s something you can’t teach but which only comes through experience. That’s lost in a 4-4-2.
On the other flank Dani Carvajal is an underrated gem in Real Madrid’s star-studded team. A quiet man, who doesn’t relish the limelight, but is Mr Dependable. A better defender than people give him credit for, he’s also a wonderful crosser of the ball. He built a solid understanding with Gareth Bale, and later Isco, but that too is ignored in the current set-up.
Last season we saw a lot of the biggest teams in world football depend heavily on the input from their fullbacks. Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses were crucial in Chelsea’s Premier League triumph. Tottenham Hotspur pushed them close with a combination of Danny Rose and Kyle Walker. Manchester City, under Pep Guardiola, invested over €130m in overhauling their options at fullback. Barcelona have Jordi Alba on the left but needed to spend €30m to improve their right-back situation.
Fullbacks are vitally important so why did Zidane limit their influence on his proven attack? Marcelo and Carvajal are struggling to find their place in this new formation. In all competitions to date, they have a combined six assists (three each). We’re talking about a fullback combination which was the envy of world football, why would you alter that? Last season Marcelo finished the season with 14 assists and Carvajal with 13. That’s what they are capable of if they are used correctly.
If Isco works in a 4-4-3, why move him?
It’s through no fault of Zidane that he’s been unable to call upon the ‘BBC’ as much as he would’ve hoped this year. But even without Bale for a large chunk of last season, Isco was fantastic on the right of an attacking trio. Would the popular Spaniard prefer to be in his number 10 role? 100%, but he shouldn’t be playing there if the overall team suffers because of it. That falls on Zidane.
Zidane is a wonderful speaker. It’s hard to imagine him having a row with his wife and raising his voice. He’s a calming influence in the current climate where so many of his peers’ press conferences resemble reality TV. There should be more coaches like Zidane but at the same time his stubbornness could be his undoing. “Right now, the danger is there but I’m not going to change.” If change is too difficult a word for him to accept, maybe he should use revert instead.
Zidane, like his predecessors, isn’t safe from the axe
“The pressure from outside doesn’t affect me. I’ve put up a shield, nothing can bother me. I isolate myself because it’s essential, it protects me.” But if you isolate yourself too much from reality, life can come at you fast.
All the pieces to turning the situation around at Real Madrid are staring Zidane right in the face. If Zidane fails at the club this season – and he could easily face the ultimate punishment – then he’ll have no one to blame but himself. When something isn’t broke, don’t try and fix it. Zidane had a good idea, an alternative system, but it doesn’t work. Only his own hardheadedness can stop him from rejuvenating Real Madrid again.
And make no mistake about it, if Zidane doesn’t change then the man above him isn’t afraid of swinging the axe. You’re only as good as your last game and right now, that’s not good enough.