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Breaking News: Real Madrid Have a Zinedine Zidane Conundrum

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Regardless of what happens in Kiev this Saturday, Real Madrid have a decision to make regarding their manager

Let’s play a game:

Manager A (over the last three seasons): 2 league titles, 1 domestic cup title and £320 million spent in the transfer market.

Manager B (over the last three seasons): 1 league title, 2 Champions League titles, 2 UEFA Super Cups, 2 Club World Cups and £134 million spent in transfer market.

(Stats for the current season are not included)

Manager A is Pep Guardiola and Manager B is Zinedine Zidane. But line both of them up, ask a pool of pundits to choose one of them to lead a team over the next three years and I’ll be surprised if even one of them selects the French manager. And frankly neither would I. In an era where every manager has a philosophical view of football, the idea of rolling the ball out and letting your best players do the work just isn’t romantic enough.

Rafa Benitez was never the right choice to helm the reigns of Real Madrid. An authoritarian manager who rules over his players with an iron fist, he is best suited for a squad of blue-collared players. At Real, he was presiding over the most pampered and flamboyant group of players in the world.

Once the results didn’t go his way, he was promptly booted out of the club. In came the French legend whose only coaching experience was with the Real Madrid Castilla. Under the new regime, the players were liberated to be the best that they can be without the constant nagging, something which was not the case under Benitez.

Benitez had the tendency to pause training sessions so that he could correct the techniques of the players. In one such case, Modric was reprimanded for hitting too many outside of the boot passes. Zidane removed all such unnecessary shackles and in the process discovered that when you have the best players in the world, just allowing them to express themselves on the field will, more often than not, lead to victories.

And it worked. For a season and a half, his team won just because they had the best players. Most of the opponents that Madrid faced, relied on man-to-man marking with Madrid in possession. And when you have the best players in all those micro-battles on the pitch your chances of winning are amplified.

Modric and Kroos are the best at absorbing pressure when on the ball and springing into open spaces with a slight feint. Once into acres of spaces, they had all the time in the world to feed the ball to Benzema, Bale or Ronaldo. This is one more reason why Real, last year, took off when Isco replaced Bale in the starting lineup. It just gave Zidane one more person who could unlock the pressure being applied on the midfield.

The spanking that Barcelona received over the two legs in Spanish Super Cup was supposed to be a foreword to the new era of Real Madrid dominance. Instead they limped out of the gates to start the season with and never regained the magic touch from the previous one. Part of it was an ill-timed suspension of Ronaldo and part of it was the opponents figuring out Zidane’s “tactics”.

Man-marking gave way to zonal defense with Madrid in possession of the ball. The opponents sat back and invited pressure, a tactic which most of the “big” teams like Barcelona, Bayern and City face. But unlike those teams, due to a lack of coherent offensive structure the Men in White found it harder to break down the opponent.

With Ronaldo and Benzema/Bale playing more centrally compared to on the wings, it was left to the full backs and the midfielders to provide the width from the wings. Kroos shifts to the left side of the midfield and Modric to the right hand side to support Marcelo and Carvajal respectively.

That leaves only Casemiro and Isco/Asensio to play through the middle. For all his defensive acumen (which is slightly overrated) Casemiro shies away from the ball with Madrid in possession as he has the passing skills of a high school kid, and Isco/Asensio also had the tendency to move towards either wing due to the lack of support through the central midfield.

This resulted in an offensive system where Madrid just cycled possession around a compact system until a cross was whipped into the box. The amazing thing is that this archaic system still worked as they bagged 94 goals in the league (but 12 less than last year’s tally) and put a total of 13 goals past PSG, Juventus and Bayern in six Champions League games.

FC Barcelona v Real Madrid CF - La Liga

But this system reared its ugly head on the defensive side of the game. After an xGA of 37 in last year’s league season, that number bumped up to 46 this year. Marcelo’s complete disinterest in defense is partly responsible for this.

Against Juventus, Bayern and Barcelona, he solely was responsible for four of the goals that Madrid conceded. His desire to rampage forward is only matched by his lack of desire for tracking back when Madrid has lost the ball. But that’s a microcosm of what’s wrong with the team on the defensive end.

When your team is spread out like Madrid is during attack, change in possession leaves it on the center-backs and the defensive midfielder to mop up the mess. And on a lot of occasions Real Madrid couldn’t. Paolo Maldini once said “If I have to make a tackle then I have already made a mistake.”

I hope he’s not watching a lot of Real games, otherwise he would be ripping the hair out of his head. The whole defensive principle of this team relies on the defenders making a last-ditch tackle to prevent the opposing teams from scoring.tally

Here’s the thing, from Helenio Herrera and Matt Busby to Arrigo Sacchi and Ferguson to Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp, every great manager needed great players to succeed. Zidane is no exception.

But it’s his lack of sophistication on either side of the field that has cost him dearly this season, in which his side amassed the lowest points total in over a decade. Some might say that his trophy collection makes this whole conversation pointless. Because if lifting silverware is the prime objective of the any football season then over the last three seasons, nobody has done a better job in world football.

And for all their tactical nuisances, Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti in five combined seasons delivered a La Liga title, a Champions League, a UEFA Super Cup, a Copa Del Rey and a Club World Cup. Zidane surpassed that tally in a season and half.

While the whole world looks for a mastermind manager with a story to tell through his tactics, Real president Florentino Perez looks for someone whose primary task is to masticate the egos in the dressing room.

It has worked out for Zidane and his team far better than anyone imagined in their wildest dreams. But there’s a lingering feeling that all of this will come crashing down like a house of cards and bite this team back at the worst possible moment. As a Real Madrid fan, I hope it’s not on 26th May 2018 in Kiev.

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