Why Zinedine Zidane's departure is exactly what Real Madrid needed
Disclaimer: Views published are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of Sportskeeda
When Zidane first arrived at the Bernabéu, Real Madrid was in a period of turmoil. Despite a trophyless season, the Madrid squad didn’t expect the departure of Carlo Ancelotti and Rafa Benítez failed to reignite the squad into the powerhouse that stormed through Europe and won La Décima.
In comes Zinedine Zidane on January 4, 2016, with the responsibility to fix what seemed to be inevitably, another horrible season. With a poor La Liga run combined with disqualification from the Copa Del Rey after fielding an illegible Denis Cheryshev, Madrid had one hope, the Champions League.
Despite being out of the running for the other titles, Zidane’s Madrid made gains on league leaders FC Barcelona eventually pushing all the way to just a 1-point difference despite losing out to the Catalan rivals. The Champions League proved trickier than what was probably expected. Real stormed through the group with 16 points and the round of 16 beating AS Roma 4-0 on aggregate.
However, their quarterfinal opponents, Wolfsburg, proved to be a stump in the middle of the road, eventually getting past them along with Man City and Atlético Madrid. Zidane’s first season is where all the troubles began in 2016-2017.
Tactical issues began to appear starting '16-'17
With BBC not available together for the first time due to injury, Zidane experimented with various players and systems to get things back on track. He didn’t maintain the usual identity of Madrid during this period, which is fast-paced counterattacking football but more possession-based football. His passion for this newfound style turned out to be his downfall.
Even though at times Madrid seemed just easily superior to other sides they encountered on the ball, it was off the ball that issues seemed to arise. With high attacking full-backs and midfielders such as Isco, who wish to keep the ball at their feet and assigned free roles made Madrid very weak defensively, especially against counter-attacking sides. With Marcelo and Carvajal high up front, there were usually only 2 CBs at the back and the CDM Casemiro wasn’t being used by Zidane properly to stay put in the attack and cover Madrid’s defensive issues when losing the ball. Isco/Asensio’s free role when playing CAM in a 4-1-2-1-2 also affected Madrid’s midfield shape as Kroos or Modrić constantly focused to reorganize the team instead of being in constant positions looking for perfect passes.
Despite this fact, Zidane had players at his disposal that could keep the same shape of the BBC which allows Madrid to transition from 4-1-2-3 in attack to 4-1-4-1 in defense, giving coverage for the areas left by the full backs going up front. This transition also allowed the full-backs to give the ball to the wingers (Ronaldo at LW and Bale at RW), giving them time to get back and play deeper giving Madrid more solidarity. Such players that could the positions of the BBC are Asensio at LW, Lucas at RW, Borja at CF, and James who could play both wings.
If Zidane used these players, this would have made Madrid an even much stronger side, playing the same identity of football instilled by Mourinho and Ancelotti. With plenty of experience with this style, the players themselves would’ve been comfortable and performed better under Zidane’s reign.
Fortune played a huge part in Madrid's success
Madrid won the 16-17 La Liga championship but taking a closer look at it, Madrid wasn’t truly a La Liga champion that others feared. Late winners and equalizers in games vs Valencia, Las Palmas, Betis, Deportivo, and Barcelona gave Real the trophy and only with 3 points at the top. Any slip-up in those games would’ve costed them dearly. Late goals are celebrated as they show the “heart of a champion” but in all seriousness, we must examine the fact that it’s poor. Dependent on late crosses and corners doesn’t reveal anything masterful about Zidane’s tactics, in fact, it shows it’s frailties.
The 16-17 Champions League doesn’t avoid scrutiny either. Two offside goals scored in the quarterfinals past Bayern Munich made all the difference in the CL campaign for Madrid combined with dodgy decisions from the refs such as the Vidal red card, Muller’s offside miscall and Casemiro’s failure to get red after a challenge from Ribéry delivered Madrid the Duodécima.
The 17-18 season is one of the worst by yet. Real Madrid ended La Liga with 76 points, the worst in a decade despite having stars such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Sergio Ramos, Marcelo, Kroos, Modrić, and Carvajal. In addition, Madrid had an early Copa del Rey exit vs local rivals Leganés by losing 2-1 at the Bernabéu. Los Blancos acquired the 3rd champions league in a row but once again there was nothing masterful about it. Two mistakes from Karius and Salah’s injury in the final, combined with a missed penalty decision for Bayern Munich as well as poor performances vs the German giants, almost capitulating to Juventus at home and Neymar’s injury for PSG was a fairy tale come true for Real. The pieces seemed to fall in place for Zidane perfectly to pick up the title but Madrid wasn’t convincing on the pitch especially vs Juventus 2nd leg and in the Bayern tie.
Zinedine Zidane accomplished at Madrid what most managers who start out their career can’t even imagine. It was a love tale but one marred with stains underneath that began to surface little by little during his 3-year tenure.
Zidane’s change to possession football, an excess of boring crossing football, failure to compensate defensively for attacking full-backs, and Madrid’s inability to create shots on target despite having at times twice the amount of possession spelt the end for his reign. Massive props to Zidane for stepping down on his own as he himself may have realized that soon there wouldn’t enough paper to cover the cracks in this Madrid side.