Zinedine Zidane lost to Shakhtar Donetsk in Kiev on matchday 5 of the UEFA Champions League. They lost 2-0 to Shakhtar in a striking display of counter-attacking football. Even though Shakhtar was injury-hit, they defeated the might titans with much ease to be put bluntly. They even defeated Real Madrid at Alfredo De Stefano in the first game by 2-3. They were also 10 first-team players during that game. Now as things stand in the CL Group, anyone can qualify for the knockout stages. But much to Real Madrid’s relief that they have their fate in their own hand. A win against Borussia Monchengladbach will secure them a place in RO16.
They made the situation complicated for themselves. They performed well in the first half against Shakhtar. But in the 2nd half, Shakhtar found where they can hit Real Madrid. The high pressing Real Madrid felt the absence of Casemiro and Sergio Ramos in the back and conceded two in counter-attack. Luis Castro, the Shakhtar boss was delighted to beat Real Madrid in both legs. On the other, the Blancos boss is walking thin lines. Zinedine Zidane who took the ruins of Santiago Solari in 2019, march and won the La Liga (2019-20) title and Super Copa (2020) in his 2nd managerial profile at Madrid. He boasts an unmatched record at Madrid in such a short span of time. But right now things look grim for his time at Madrid. A defeat to Monchengladbach could end up them being in the Europa League or even worse out of Europa League. The pressure is mounting on Zidane as they approach La Liga also. They sit 7 points behind the league leaders Real Sociedad with a game in hand. But they lost to Alaves, Cadiz and Valencia in unforgiving manners. They had their share of bad luck but they couldn’t even say “we played good football”. It’s not just COVID, lack of preseason, injuries, or VAR driven penalties. It’s just a pure case of lack of structure, idea , and strange approach to some games.
There are reports coming out from the Spanish capital on the sacking of Zinedine Zidane. Real Madrid is an unforgiving club. The faithful of Bernabéu demands success at any cost. They don’t just settle for mediocrity. They are even ready to overhaul if things go south. If Real Madrid loses on matchday 6, I'm sure even the French coach himself would understand the decision, because he would be responsible for one of the biggest failures in the history of Los Blancos. He is on a tightrope. But how much is Zidane to blame?
We will discuss what went wrong with Zidane and how.
What Zidane couldn't control?
Real Madrid suffered in front of goal without their front tier talisman Cristiano Ronaldo, who served in the ranks for 9 years. But is it Zidane's fault that Cristiano Ronaldo's replacements have been Mariano Diaz and Luka Jovic? Madrid has had a serious problem in the goals department since Ronaldo left, a problem that Julen Lopetegui and Santiago Solari suffered before him and that has been getting worse because Madrid, due to circumstances, has not been able to sign a world-class goalscorer. Mariano Diaz is hungry, passionate, and hard-working. But Zinedine Zidane has shown little faith in him. Diaz is good but not technically as efficient as someone Real would hope for. But Jovic? He was proven and performed at the biggest stage with his former club. He was supposed to be the solution for Madrid in front of the Goal. But lack of trust in him and, instances of lack of professionalism and desire sidelined him. To make matters worse, after his bright international trip, he suffered from COVID and still hasn’t returned from that hit.
Is it Zidane's fault that his players can't score from easy chances? The first half against Shakhtar is the best example. Los Blancos had four clear chances and none ended in a goal. Madrid created the chances but failed with all. Asensio even hit the post. Zidane got his technique right but he continued the same for the 2nd half and Shakhtar caught them in lapse.
Is it Zidane's fault that no signings have come in this season? Madrid's need for an overhaul was obvious to everyone, but the pandemic prevented it. The economic situation forced him to continue with the same squad and Zidane accepted it willingly, a lacking squad that Zizou made league champions just three months ago. He even brought back Martin Odegaard and Alvaro Odriozola to put them directly in the first preference. But Odriozola is still in recovery and Odegaard is just hanging in there. Fede Valverde was the brightest prospect of Real Madrid last season and this season also. He brings the firepower Real needed going upfront and also controlling the press. He was basically the utility engine that kept things glued. But Real lost him to injury. He won’t be returning for 4 months.
Is it Zidane's fault that Hazard is always injured? The Belgian should be the star of the team but can hardly play due to injuries. He has already missed 37 games since he joined and certainly more to come. He was supposed to be the solution to Real Madrid’s problem. But he became the problem. Real Madrid fans mocked Gareth Bale for his fitness and injuries. Hazard is plagued with injuries now. It would be interesting to see how the Spanish capital reacts to him.
Is it Zidane's fault that Ramos got injured with the national team? Injuries are weighing Madrid down this season. Until Tuesday, when Karim Benzema returned, Madrid had three games in a row without their spine: Ramos, Fede Valverde, Hazard, and Benzema, one starter in each line out due to injuries. The loss of Ramos is the most dramatic: without him, they've lost eight of the last ten Champions League games played.
The biggest flaw in Real Madrid that Zidane couldn’t control is the unavailability of a natural right. No matter how hard Lucas Vasquez tries, he couldn’t full fill the potential of Dani Carvajal. Dani Carvajal is irreplaceable. Without him Real’s right-wing is vulnerable. To cover for Lucas in the RB position Zidane had to use Asensio in a deeper and more defensive approach. That cost him the attacking options from Asensio. Asensio returned from an ACL injury. He is hard-working but with games coming thick and fast Zidane had to rest him to prevent any relapse.
Is it Zidane's fault that Vinícius and Rodrygo still haven’t made an impact on the opportunities they got? Madrid spent 100 million euros on two Brazilians who look good, but are not yet world stars. But also we are talking about two youngsters who are still developing, and not ready to carry a team. But also there is this argument of other teenagers who are shining like diamonds and making the world stand up on their feet with their performances. You could take the example of Ansu Fati and Jao Felix. Both of them are a delight to the eyes. They have their set of limits like Vini or Rodryogo. But with are developing in a system. Especially the case of Felix. Under Simione he is proving to be one of the most influential characters at Atletico. Is there some reason to blame Zidane for that?
Yes, there is.
What Zidane can control?
Zidane isn't the best tactical manager out there but it doesn't mean he has no tactics at all. It's a foolish thing to say especially after him winning the league last season with a thin squad after a pandemic break. But major credit to that campaign would clearly indicate it was the fitness of the players, sheer determination, and especially Barcelona dropping points. But Zidane is tremendous at man-management. He proved that again and again. He kept his faith in utility players like Lucas Vasques, Nacho. They grinded out some important win in this season. He managed to keep the players motivated.
Zidane was awarded 0 signings due to Covid but Zidane requested to bring back Odegaard so he could implement a new style of play. Whenever Martin Odegaard was available Zidane implemented him. He tried to build a system around him. You could say it worked. Against Inter Milan Odegaard performed brilliantly. He is energetic, press resistant, and easily gives a passing option on the field. He is everywhere on the pitch. But whenever Benzema played in that system with it backfired. Benzema is a player who drops to the midfield and makes things happen. He likes to drop deep, collect the balls and circulate in the middle or in the wings. He sets up in behind runs for the attack. This is precisely the role Martin had in Sociedad. This is similar to Odegaard’s role in the field. He makes things happen. He likes to play the anchor role. With Benzema in the system, Odegaard’s options are limited. With Odegaard Real tried the diamond formation. But when he got injured their system resumed to 4-3-3 again.
Zidane also tried his old formation with Jovic and Benzema up top which still has never ever worked. Zidane can't even switch back to his defensive approach of last season to get better results in crucial matches as Ramos and Carvajal are too important for that defensive structure to work. Both of them won’t available soon enough. But he could have tried some academy prospect in that position considering the stretch of Carvajal's injury.
But Real Madrid’s problem lies deeper than that. Even with the injured players out Real has a pretty good squad. Also, their academy has some great aspects like Victor Chust, Hugo Duro, Sergio Arribas. Why doesn’t Does Real Madrid use them? Do they have less faith in them? Does Zidane have no faith in them?
No it’s more to that. Whenever Zidane tried to experiment more, it backfired. His preferred players who could implement his style of play are very less in the team. But to say a “system” is also quite complicated. Zidane lacks a clear structure and approach to some games, especially to weaker sides. They lack the structure to approach to a game. Some days Zidane gets his tactics right and someday everything just blows haywire. When a team lacks in tactics in some game, their structure saves them. Their blocks of the structure save them. But with real it’s complicated. Like with their match against Barcelona, they got their tactics and structure on point. They were not fluid in the formation. They didn’t run on passion. They had a clear idea of what to do and what not to. Their approach to every phase of the game was spot on. But when you look at the matches against Valencia, Cadiz, or Shakhtar, they are just simply clueless. They don’t have any clear penetrative approach to the game. They circulate the ball well, change wings and press hard. In some matches it looked like they were trying to even hold a lead of 1-0.
Real looks absolutely vulnerable in counter-attack. Real plays highly pressing football. That’s why players like Carvajal, Valverde, Casemiro, Kross and Benzema are so important to the structure. They are absolutely press resistant and can press for 90 minutes straight. When they don’t play, their structure of play betrays them. They couldn’t just adapt to a new system without them. It’s definitely a transition period for Madrid. But their directives are not looking like that. They are still heavily dependent on their veterans. A 35-year-old Modric has to start 6 consecutive games at such a crucial time. It says a lot about the depth of Real Madrid.
Some might say there are other clubs are also suffering from major injures but understand the context. Take Liverpool for example, they are still winning most of their games despite half of their squad injured. It’s because they have a structure of play that’s adaptive, precisely put forward by tactical masterminds. They have a clear idea of what to do. They don’t depend on players much more than their structure. In Madrid's case, Zidane doesn’t have a clear approach. You could invariably see in when they play. They look completely puzzled going forward. They look confused with their roles in stopping a counter-attack.
I, for myself, is not open to changing managers midway abruptly. But as things stand Zidane will be sacked if he fails to qualify for RO16. He needs to step up and earn the faith of both Real Madrid players and the faith of Bernabéu.