Real Madrid and Zidane need new direction after old guard has faltered
Goals from Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen put the European champions to the sword on a sobering night against Tottenham Hotspur
Perception in football is a funny thing; it can shape and distort opinion on a very wide scale. Even though Sergio Ramos is 31 years old, Cristiano Ronaldo is 32 and Luka Modric is 31, there wasn’t an outcry that Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid side were ageing and past its sell-by-date. After winning two Champions League titles and a LaLiga crown in less than 18 months at the Santiago Bernabeu helm, it appeared Zidane had a managerial touch to mirror his technique on the pitch.
There had been a lot of talks, during the rough patches of Jose Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti and Rafa Benitez’s reigns, that Real wanted Zidane to become their Pep Guardiola. That is a coach who had been a legendary player who would come into the club and implement a style and sustained dominance just by his sheer presence, just as Guardiola did at Barcelona.
It seemed like an extremely simplified comparison; Guardiola had rewritten the tactical rulebook with the Blaugrana and he would be a tough act to emulate. But after Los Blancos beat Juventus 4-1 in the Champions League final in May, he looked like he had actually pulled it off.
“Zidane has got a job for life,” Real’s unforgiving and ruthless President, Florentino Perez, said after their twelfth European crown was confirmed in Cardiff. As incredible a feat as it was to do what the rookie coach had done in such a short space of time, with more or less the same players who had been flailing in a sea of discontent and division under Benitez, those words were so astonishing coming from a man who has made his name on making prolonged success almost impossible in Madrid. They were instantly viewed as short-sighted and unrealistic.
Where Guardiola succeeded with preparation and formations, Zidane has in man-management. Dealing with the egos of the world’s best players is a tough task, but not necessarily from someone who was arguably better than all of them in his day.
Being Zidane had its privileges; he was even able to massage the biggest ego of them all- Perez. There has been no sign of a Galactico signing in the last four transfer windows; Real were winning, but they were winning with an ideology. Had there ever been a better marriage? Those questions were being asked.
Like any team in football, but especially at Real Madrid, once the results turn, the focus does too. Eight points behind Barcelona, who were in crisis throughout the entire summer, before their Champions League trip to Wembley to face Tottenham on Wednesday, the pressure was on, but the alarm bells are deafening now.
Spurs, their energetic manager and their exceedingly exciting team were too much, winning 3-1 on the night; they ran further, fought harder and thought more effectively. Suddenly, Real looked older than ever before, even though their average age was already almost 28.
Youth and freshness seemingly go perfectly together, but in reality that comes from ideas and not fearing change. Pochettino has coached a young team into Premier League, and perhaps off the back of this result, Champions League contenders.
What had made Zidane’s early career so refreshing appears to be his downfall now. Six of the starting line up from the game were regulars under Mourinho- who left four years ago. Four of them have been regulars for almost a decade and two more have been on the scene for a long time too.
Zidane resurrected this team’s fortunes, but knowing when things are becoming stale is an art to be mastered in management. Sir Alex Ferguson knew it at Manchester United, it was the key to his success, Guardiola knew it at Barcelona, he wasn’t afraid to sign and sell big stars if things weren’t going well and he resigned after just four years in the job.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, as the old saying goes. But the reason Perez said what he said in May- the reason Zidane has been held in such high esteem is because he has achieved everything the club has wanted for the entire 21st century.
They became the first side to defend the Champions League in it’s current format and finally knocked Barcelona from their perch in the same year. Mission accomplished; the slate was whipped clean and it was time for new targets.
This summer was Zidane’s chance to really make his mark. He didn’t have to revert to signing the best, most marketable figure, but he needed someone to re-energize his squad, to motivate those around him.
Brazil had an unwritten rule that after every World Cup win they would sacrifice at least one big star to keep the cycle going; Zidane didn’t have to sell Ronaldo or Ramos, but the same team had become so comfortable that, now they had won everything, the inner desire may be hard to find.
Much like Guardiola in Catalunya, Zidane had done his learning with the Real Madrid B team, Castilla. Upon taking the reigns in the first team, he gave opportunities to Lucas Vazquez and Jese Rodriguez. Marco Asensio appeared to be the answer and he may still be; Theo Hernandez, a highly rated young defender, was the only major summer signing from Atletico Madrid.
A year earlier, Alvaro Morata returned to the club from Juventus; only to be sold and admit regret at that return for lack of first-team opportunities. Zidane clearly has a long-term vision, but none of those players were or are yet ready to deal with the pressure of the white shirt. The past is starting, the future is on the bench, and there is no middle ground for the present.
Letting Morata go without replacing him was criminal; there is no competition for Karim Benzema up front, a man already criticised for sporadic form and work ethic. The crisis bells are ringing and the bullets are being loaded ready to be fired at Zinedine Zidane’s job, but Florentino Perez says it is for life and he must stick with his man through the transition into a new era even if he’s made mistakes.