An in-depth look into the decline of Real Madrid and their subsequent salvation under Zinedine Zidane

In Spain, much like in many other Western countries, the 6th of January is an Epiphany holiday, a Christian feast day locally known as El Día de los Reyes Magos or The Three Kings Day. 

On the 4th of January 2016, Zinedine Zidane, a future king of Madrid in his own right, was appointed as Real Madrid’s new manager following the sacking of Rafa Benítez. A former player and already a club legend would go on to win a remarkable 9 trophies in 29 months and in the process, achieving a historic triumph: back-to-back-to-back Champions League titles. 

End of an era

Shortly after winning the Decimotercera, Zidane decided it was time to call it quits. Strongly alleged rumours that Ronaldo has set his mind to leave Madrid was apparently a decisive factor. And just like that, one of the most hottest managerial seats in world football became available again.

Just over a month after Zidane left, Cristiano Ronaldo, the club’s all-time leading top-scorer indeed headed off to seek pastures new at Juventus. A new era would dawn upon Real Madrid as two of the most significant figures were departing the Bernabéu in one summer. A blow that has soon proved to be too much to handle.

With Cristiano it always felt like he was a well-recruited mercenary (albeit an extremely professional one) rather than someone who loved the club for what it is. The Portuguese never publicly expressed his love for Real Madrid, although he’d argue that the contribution he’s made on the pitch is what counts. In the end, he *wanted* to leave at all costs. With Zizou however, it seemed that he only left because Cristiano did and had the Portuguese continued to ply his trade to Real, the Frenchman would have also stayed put. 

It wasn’t long after that ZZ had returned. Fast-forward 9 months and the Marseille-born was back at the helm of Los Merengues. Whilst it may have seemed like a short-term absence, he walked back into a dressing room that is almost completely unrecognisable. He left a group of winners, a team that was unmatched in Europe for several years – to inherit a regressing, ageing squad that has been badly mismanaged. 

In the space of just nine months in-between Zidane’s first and second stint, two managers have been appointed and relieved of their duties.

Julen Lopetegui: a manager out of his depth

First to be was the controversial appointment of Julen Lopetegui. The former manager of Spain’s national team tried to bring a possession based style with a high number of passes to wear out the opposition. Los Blancos kept the ball in large spells but with little effect. Players were controlling the tempo of games but came unstuck against solid defensive blocks and were unable to comprehensively break them down. One of Lopetegui’s main ideologies was to press the opposition high up the pitch when out of possession. The first loss of the season in La Liga came away at Sevilla. Real’s forward line and midfield played the pressing game which resulted in huge pockets of space being created behind them. The alienated defence was left to tread water as the five-time Europa League winners comfortably beat Madrid’s disorganised press and went on to net three goals under the roaring faithful of Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán. 

In the end, Lopetegui was sacked following a 4-1 drubbing by Barcelona at the Camp Nou which was to be the final nail in the coffin for the former Porto manager. To say that the numbers looked bleak would be an underestimation, just 3 wins in his last 10 and the worst goalless drought in the club’s entire existence which span across five matches. That simply isn’t allowed to happen at Real Madrid and so the club president, Florentino Pérez, was left with no other decision but to show the door. Overall, the 53-year old’s tenure with the 13-time European Champions was brief and one to forget.

Santiago Solari: more defeats, further embarrassment 

In stepped Santiago Solari. Results seemed to have somewhat picked up with comfortable wins against Roma, Sevilla and Valencia. However, as the season entered the traditionally crucial period of February-March, Solari and his team crumbled. In the space of just over two weeks, the all-whites were out of all major competitions. Los Vikingos lost at home to Girona in the league and twice to Barca both in the league and in the cup in the space of four days with a combined score of 0-4. It looked as though it couldn’t possibly get worse yet it did. Next, Ajax was in town to smash four past a rather hopeless Thibault Courtois to dump Real Madrid out of its holy grail – the Champions League. Such poor run of form resulted in the inevitable – Solari’s contract was prematurely terminated. In player development terms, the Argentinian’s only real upsides were the revelations of Sergio Reguilón and Vinícius Júnior. The two youngsters broke through under his guidance and brought a much needed freshness to Madrid’s stale left flank. 

Mis-management by the board of directors

Madrid’s frailties approaching the post Zidane-Ronaldo era didn’t lie just with the coaches. The management within the higher echelons of the club’s structure was partly to blame. Understandably, it was always going to be an uphill task to replace Cristiano. Still, the club’s decision to sign a talented, yet a totally inexperienced 18-year old Vinícius Jr to fill up the void left by the Portuguese didn’t exactly help. After all, CR7 averaged a jaw-dropping 50 goals a season for almost a decade. It’s not rocket science to realise that the team was crying out for a proven goal-scorer. Yet, all Madrid managed was to bring back an ex-canterano, Mariano Díaz from Olympique Lyonnais. Although the Dominican forward enjoyed a more than respectable campaign in Lyon scoring 21 goals in 45 matches, he was never going fill in the shoes of the club’s greatest ever goal-scorer. 

The attacking line wasn’t the only front in dire need of fresh blood. In Zidane’s final season it became apparent that the team’s domination cycle was slowly coming to its natural end. Although Ronaldo’s Champions League heroics masked over that fact, finishing 17 points behind Blaugrana in La Liga made it clear. 

The problem of a jaded, possibly complacent squad transferred onto the new season which ultimately was the biggest mistake Pérez could have made. New signings across several positions were much needed to pump oxygen back into the dying lungs of the team. Yet, apart from the aforementioned Vinícius and Mariano, one of the world’s most richest clubs only signed a right-back and a goalkeeper. It was evident that the board of directors underestimated the magnitude of the problem which cost the club dearly.

Poor performances, worser results

Over the course of the season, the players looked a shadow of their former selves. Toni Kroos endured his worst ever season in a Madrid shirt since joining in 2014. Luka Modric’s performances have also dropped dramatically post World Cup 2018. Up front, Gareth Bale and Marco Asensio failed to take on the responsibility of replacing Cristiano Ronaldo. Marcelo was continuously exposed in defence. Of the senior players, arguably only Karim Benzema stepped up his game and took on the mantle of a leader. The Frenchman enjoyed a great season by his own standards as he scored 30 goals but even that proved to be nowhere near enough. 

And so the best club of the 20th century, as elected by FIFA, ended what was one of their worst seasons in recent history. They finished 3rd in the league, got trumped at the first knock-out hurdle in Europe, were eliminated in the semi-final of the Copa del Rey by arch nemesis Barcelona and lost the European Super Cup to city rivals Atletico. The only silverware lifted was the FIFA Club World Cup which for a team of Real Madrid’s stature is not satisfactory to say the least. Zidane took charge with two months left of the season but the team still managed to be victorious in only half of their remaining 12 games in the Primera Division. The great Frenchman knew it was bound to be a tricky task to bring the team back to its former glorious self. 

New season, new players, shaky start

In the prelude to the new season during the summer transfer window the team roster has undergone a much-needed, recognisable facelift. A number of high-profile signings including the likes of Eden Hazard, Luka Jović, Ferland Mendy, Rodrygo Goes and Éder Militão were acquired for a combined total fee of over €300m. 

The season has started with awkward blips drawing two out of the opening three domestic league games and failing to record a win in the first two group stage games in the Champions League including a 3-0 humbling at the hands of Paris Saint-Germain. The Parisians looked much more potent in attack whilst Madrid couldn’t really muster anything meaningful with an alarming total of zero shots on target. The second game was against Club Brugge at home and all looked poised for Zidane’s men to rehabilitate and kickstart their European campaign, yet they didn’t. The kings of Europe as their fans have proclaimed themselves were 0-2 down at half time. They battled to take a point in the end but it was far from a royal display as they looked disjointed, indisciplined and wide open at the back. 

Mixed results in crunch time

In December the club drew three consecutive league matches against notoriously challenging opponents: Valencia, Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao. The most difficult period of the 2019/20 campaign fell on the crucial February-March time when the team experienced an up-and-down spell. Firstly, to many people’s surprise, the 19-time Copa del Rey winners were comfortably knocked out by Real Sociedad. After routinely beating Osasuna, Madrid dropped points in a 2-2 home draw with Celta Vigo. Two consecutive losses followed, first away at Levante, then at home to Manchester City in the Champions League. Against City it was particularly noticeable how lacklustre the team are in attack when compared to the agile and pacy opponents. 

After such a disappointing loss, you can’t think of many better ways to bounce back than a home El Clásico. Whilst Barça weren’t at their sweltering best, the home side certainly took the game to the visitors after emerging a team much revived in the second half. Thanks to the goals from Vinicius and Mariano Los Blancos took the bragging rights with a 2-0 win. It was exactly the type of performance that was absent in the previous season. Speed, dynamism and flair were the kind of game aspects that Madrid lacked in the post-Ronaldo era.

The highlight of this period of instability came straight after when the team succumbed to Real Betis at the Estadio Benito Villamarín to lose 2-1 after some poor play by two of the most consistent players in Benzema and Casemiro. 

Quarantine, reflection and an amazing comeback  

When the world was brought to a halt by the COVID-19 pandemic, Real have so far had a rather mixed campaign. An almost déjà vu of last season was noticeable as in the very period a year ago three competitions kissed goodbye to the team from the Spanish capital. This year round similarly Madrid were out of the domestic cup, were behind 1-2 on aggregate in Europe and most importantly two points behind the league leaders Barcelona. 

Perhaps the break came in at the perfect time for Zidane and his management staff as their players were on a turbulent run of spell. The three or so months they had off provided them the time to reflect and correct the mistakes. Real Madrid emerged from lockdown like an angered lion and went on to win 10 consecutive matches to win their 34th league title in an unprecedented fashion. Of course, like most champions they were aided by lady luck as Quique Setién and his Azulgrana stumbled in the title run-in. 

Although Madrid won 10 out of 11 possible, they weren’t exactly sweeping teams aside. Zidane realised early that Ronaldo’s goals simply will not be recreated and so he targeted defensive improvements as a way to balance the deficit. Compared to Ronaldo’s last season in the team, Madrid scored a staggering 49 goals less having played only 12 games less. Even in the 2018/19 season the team scored 108 goals compared to the 99 they scored this campaign. But the most important difference is that Madrid totalled 87 points this time compared to a mere 68 the previous campaign. That is all down to the team becoming much more solid defensively. They conceded just 43 goals. When you contrast that with the 71 and 69 conceded in the prior two seasons, it goes to show just how much graft the ex-France captain and his men put on the training field. 

Out of the 10 wins post lockdown, 6 were with a one-goal margin and 3 with a two-goal margin. In all the 10 games played they conceded just 4 times with no more than one goal in any one game. Out of the 38 domestic league match days, they conceded one goal or less on 32 occasions and never conceded more than two. In the years gone by many brilliant footballing aspects would have been associated with Real Madrid’s teams of the past, but a tight defence probably isn’t one of them. Over the years it worked out well given the accolades they were winning and because they were led by a man who was scoring goals almost every time he walked out onto the pitch. 

Tactics, youth brilliance and a gradual transition

Structurally, the squad has also undergone a recognisable revamp. In Zidane’s first spell in charge, Modrić and Marcelo were guaranteed starters week in week out. Apart from being influential figures in the dressing room, they were key players on the pitch. Now however, the latter isn’t the case anymore. Both of them are being slowly but surely fizzled out of the starting 11 by the much younger and fresher Valverde and Mendy. Zidane has often been criticised for sticking by the old guard and lacking decisiveness to make way for new, exciting talent. Throughout the season he has demonstrated on countless occasions that he isn’t afraid to do so. 

Valverde in particular has been a crucial player having played 2714 minutes across 44 matches. The Uruguayan international impressed with his tenacity, pace and bursting attacking runs. Against opposition who played a high line, Zidane used him as a runner into space in-behind the defence to create dangerous attacking scenarios. He has played in a no. 8-10 hybrid role at times transitioning into a false winger on the right flank providing the much needed balance to the team’s shape. When the 22-year old midfielder was named in the match day squad, only three occasions saw him not feature therefore highlighting his importance to Zidane. 

On the other hand when the opposition defended with deep-lying blocks of players, Zidane still tended to prefer Modrić which made sense given the ex-Tottenham man’s ability to unpick even the tightest of spaces. The 2018 Ballon D’Or winner played in a free-roam mode on the right side of the midfield, a role which the fans have been so accustomed to seeing him in. He was able to drift in little pockets of space and cross or pick a final pass. Although this season saw the 35 year-old have considerably less game-time than in all of his 8 seasons bar one at Madrid, he possesses certain qualities which Fede Valverde simply doesn’t, meaning there is still a vital role for the Croatian maestro to play.

The starting line of defence has normally consisted of familiar faces with the exception to the left-back position. Marcelo has struggled with injuries and loss of form in the last two seasons which led to Zidane handing Mendy a decent amount of game-time. The 25-year old took to the challenge like fish to water and has been a revelation. He’s both footed, incredibly quick and most importantly as good in offence as he’s in defence. The latter has been an achilles heel for many a year for Los Blancos and as much as Marcelo is fantastic going forward, he has always been unreliable defensively when the team is out of possession. With Ferland Mendy the recruitment team has found a suitable long-term replacement for Marcelo.

Ambiguous football and an unconvincing attack

Today’s Real Madrid is a team in transition. After huge success in Zidane’s first two-and-a-half seasons it was inevitable that the cycle would eventually come to an end and that selective tweaks were a must. On that front, the manager deserves credit for carrying out a momentous job. From introducing new players to creating a rigid, winning system, Zidane has absolutely improved the team and helped them re-discover their mojo. 

However, it must be stressed that this a work-in-progress and is by no means the finished article. Real’s most recent result only proves this as Manchester City easily rolled past them after two calamitous mistakes from Raphael Varane. The experienced midfield triumvirate of Casemiro-Kroos-Modrić looked like they have never played a game together before. Casemiro and Modrić in particular looking surprisingly nervous and deficient. The collective play of transitioning the ball up the pitch was shockingly sub-par for the quality of the players. They were unable to deal with the constant high press of the Citizens which resulted in easily losing possession and subsequently getting punished by the opposition attackers who are footballers of the highest standard. 

As for the attack, it still remains the most problematic front, two years on after Ronaldo’s transfer to Juventus. Eden Hazard alone was acquired for more than £100m to bolster the attack yet managed to score just one goal in 22 matches. A miserable statistic albeit he struggled with injuries and loss of form. The latter however is arguably down to the Belgian himself as he started the pre-season apparently overweight showing his lack of professionalism. The 29-year-old stated himself that it was the worst season in his career on a personal level and that he is ought to improve dramatically to repay the trust of the manager and the club. On the other hand Zidane isn’t immune from criticism either for blindly playing Hazard even though it was evident that Eden is playing in an underwhelming fashion. 

Karim Benzema has netted 27 goals throughout the campaign, a great return even for a world class striker. The team’s second highest goalscorer is Sergio Ramos, a defender with 13 goals most of which came from the spot-kick. Apart from that there isn’t a single player who’s on double figures for goals which would be concerning for Zidane and his management staff. Although the summer of 2019 saw an influx of new faces, the attack is yet to really have a recognisable look. It remains a somewhat of a problematic aspect and the reverse fixture against Manchester City has only acted as proof. Both Vinicius and Rodrygo have contributed in important moments and scored their fair share of goals but they are still relatively young and are only learning their trade. 

Man-management and a bright future

Questions remain with regards to Zidane’s treatment of some alienated players like  Bale, Jović, James, Mariano and Brahim. The latter four played a combined total of just 1824 minutes. It looks especially dubious given that Hazard was favoured even though he was struggling for fitness and form. Furthermore, Isco has featured more than James, Brahim and Jović combined. Yet his output of just 3 goals fails to justify such favouritism by Zidane.

Madrid used to be over-reliant on Ronaldo and now it looks like they are depending too much on Benzema which isn’t particularly a great look. Little flexibility was tried by Zidane in terms of playing with two forwards or any sort of radical change of formation. The Frenchman seems to simply have a consistent group of players he prefers and others that he doesn’t. Of course, he can answer his critics in the best manner by pointing to La Liga and the Supercopa trophies but it remains to be seen how Zizou is going to integrate all of his attacking options in the coming season.

Overall, if viewed in the context of various adversities, it has been a sound season for the club under Zidane. He has come into a dressing room badly void of confidence and managed to overturn the fortunes. His man-management is specifically worth noticing as his qualities earned him an undying level of respect from the players. Furthermore, he was able to launch the process of rebuilding yet still managing to deliver silverware which few managers can brag about. The balance of introducing young players and sticking by the senior stalwarts is what allowed the team to have a consistent run of wins which in the end delivered the much-coveted domestic league title. Looking at both the quality and the quantity of Real’s promising young talent, the club looks destined for glory in the future. While question marks continue to stand over the attacking fluidity, Zinedine Zidane has most definitely salvaged Real Madrid and is moving them in the right direction.

 

About the author

23, London, Football Agent at Next Level Sports Group.
BSc (Hons) Accounting & Finance at The University of Birmingham.
Aspiring football writer.

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