Is Zinedine Zidane the right man to lead Real Madrid in the post-Ronaldo era?
When you've had three managers in a season, it's probably an indicator that things haven't gone to plan. You could maybe have seen it coming with Fulham in the Premier League, but few would have expected it to happen at Real Madrid.
Julen Lopetegui came to Madrid in controversial circumstances, having parted ways with the Spain national team just days before the 2018 World Cup. His campaign started well enough, but by the end of October it seemed like Real Madrid had forgotten how to win, and the head honchos at Real Madrid had seen enough.
In came Santi Solari, who did a fair job, but the Champions League exit to Ajax and Barcelona completing the double over them sealed Solari's fate.
The man who had left at the start of the season, amid rumours that he had demanded certain things of the club and was denied, was back. Zinedine Zidane had, it was presumed, through his drastic action, convinced Florentino Perez that he was right about the rot in the team. He returned to what was assumed a promise of an overhaul, with Zidane at the reins.
The summer and pre-season have not been kind on Zidane's return. It has seen Real Madrid sign Eden Hazard, Luka Jovic, Ferland Mendy, Eder Militao, Rodrygo Goes, and Takefusa Kubo. The constant warning about pre-season is that you shouldn't take the results seriously, but the performances that Real Madrid have put in, are convincing no one.
They've been lacking in quality and work-rate, expectedly in the losses to Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid, and Tottenham, but they've looked below par in wins against Fenerbahce and Arsenal (on penalties) as well. If that's an indication of things to come, this team has a long way to go. Only one way to find out, let's dive in.
In his first spell at Real Madrid as the coach, Zidane inherited a squad where many of the important players were in their prime. Marcelo (27) (Modric (29), Kroos (25), Benzema (27), Bale (26), and Ronaldo, though 30 that year, surely would be considered in his prime. He scored 51 goals in all competition in 2015/16, 16 of those in the Champions League winning campaign.
Add the likes of Isco, Carvajal, Varane, Casemiro, and Navas to that mix and essentially you've put together the unit that under Zidane won the hattrick of Champions Leagues, 1 La Liga, 1 Copa del Rey, 1 Supercopa de Espana, 2 UEFA Supercups, and 2 Club World Cups.
During those three seasons, there were no changes to this winning combination, while the likes of Marcos Llorente, Dani Ceballos, Mateo Kovacic, and Theo Hernandez have come and gone, playing cameo roles in some of the campaigns.
It's reasonable that Zidane remains at least in part faithful to the same XI, or as close to it as possible, with Ronaldo gone. There, we find that Real Madrid have plenty of issues.
Zidane's fractured relationship with Gareth Bale seemed like it was at an end this summer before everything was turned around by a non-transfer. Potential replacements in Hazard, Jovic, and Mendy have to be phased in over a longer period as Jovic and Mendy have injuries and have missed most of pre-season. Hazard, amid rumours of having arrived at Real Madrid for pre-season overweight, has shown little of the flair and magic on the pitch as he did for Chelsea.
Further, some of Zidane's core group either don't look like they can manage the pace of the game anymore or have been figured out by opponents and just aren't effective anymore. It leaves Zizou with the prospect of making either a difficult decision at the start of the season.
The new system
Most of Zidane's football in his previous spell was played in a 4-3-3 formation that saw Casemiro become an almost ever-present in his side as the base of the midfield three. In pre-season, Zidane has largely persisted with a 4-4-2/4-2-3-1 variation with Kroos and Modric at the base of midfield.
The system is fairly straightforward and allows Hazard wide on the left in attack as well as the option to play centrally behind the striker. In defence its two banks of two with Benzema and Hazard with little to do in forward positions.
It hasn't worked so far.
Modric and Kroos in a double pivot don't seem to work, neither showing the legs or initiative to contribute at both ends. Valverde's performance alongside Kroos against Fenerbahce in the 5-3 victory indicated that Casemiro's return may give way to either Modric or Kroos to play alongside him in the double-pivot this season.
When Zidane takes an objective look at this team, he'll probably see the need to phase out Marcelo and Modric short-term. Effective though they may have been for his sides so far, they don't seem to be able to cope with the asks of his new system.
Once Ferland Mendy is back from injury and up to speed, we're likely to see Marcelo being used sparingly. The link to the likes of Ajax's Donny van de Beek, and Sporting's Bruno Fernandes point to the fact that Real are looking to bring in a midfielder who can score goals and Modric and Kroos may share responsibilities in a double pivot alongside Casemiro/Valverde.
Van de Beek and Bruno Fernandes would be a more direct goalscoring option playing behind Benzema who spent so many years playing with Cristiano Ronaldo who fed off the partnership. Even Jovic, who played alongside Haller at Eintracht Frankfurt might find it a more comfortable fit.
Pre-season aside, when you actually look at that squad, you can see the shape Zidane wants it to take. But if he keeps his record of winning every Champions League he's been a part of as manager with this squad in its current state, it'll be his greatest Champions League campaign yet.
Perhaps Zidane's biggest concern with this Real Madrid, as it stands is that they have a glowing past and a promising future, but a treacherous present.