Zinedine Zidane is making me eat my words from day one (alright guys, bring out the screenshots of my previous article you’ve been hiding). He came out to the touchline looking assured and his reactions towards all of Madrid’s goals were very controlled.
The Santiago Bernabeu were the exact opposite, as they embraced the moment and broke out into song. With the fans behind them, Madrid played attractive attacking football that resulted in a 5-0 win versus a strong Deportivo side. Here’s exactly how that sly dog Zidane got such a performance out of this team.
Zidane demonstrated the strength of personal motivation
As Gabe Lezra and the lads mentioned in an earlier podcast, there is a difference between personal motivation and professional motivation. It is wrong to question the motives of any player in the starting eleven when they take to the pitch. Every player in the white shirt loves his football and plays to win. However, putting in that extra 110% and playing with unbridled passion requires a manager that the players are ready to die for. It is clear that Benitez was unable to muster that sort of respect from his players (though the reports claiming that the players were performing badly to get Benitez sacked are wrong) and was part of the reason he lost his job. Zidane has started off on the right foot by getting the dressing room behind him. Such an Ancelotti-esque approach was evident in the way he gave Isco and James minutes, whilst also finding time for Jese to make a cameo.
Beyond the substitutions, Zidane’s motivational capacities were evident in the way Los Blancos’ played with supreme confidence and desire. Ronaldo particularly showed a marked change from some of his previous performances by being extremely involved in build-up (especially in the first half), by moving across the pitch to link with teammates, by showing a willingness to take players on, and by attempting to create shots for himself from range and in the box (which he did with aplomb). He ended the match with 2 assists and only a goal was missing to cap off a fine all-round performance.
Beyond the Portuguese superstar, Modric and Kroos seemed to have their old gleam back in their eye, and Bale was simply sublime in his finishing and willingness to track back (what about that sliding challenge eh?!). Just in general the whole squad seemed motivated and ready to do their manager’s bidding, and this made Zidane’s tactics a whole lot more effective.
Zidane is implementing his dream strategy that failed at Castilla
When Zidane first came to Castilla, his plan was to play a possession-based game that centered around short and quick passing from the back before the ball was passed into the net. This style of play was clearly influenced by Guardiola (Zidane had attended personal sessions with the Spanish coach), but it simply didn’t work. Castilla didn’t have the personnel, so Zidane switched to a more practical 4-2-3-1 that produced mediocre results and clearly didn’t align with Zidane’s philosophy and limited managerial knowledge.
But now Zidane has his a dream job and has the ability to implement his favorite 4-3-3. It fits the personnel of Madrid very well and Los Merengues have no problem playing out from the back and pushing players forward. Tellingly in the 3rd minute, with Deportivo applying insanely high pressure, Madrid passed the ball back from Carvajal, to Pepe, to Ramos, and then to Marcelo, before being released to the midfield which resulted in a counter and a chance for Madrid. The play was extremely risky and something Benitez would have been biting his nails over. I personally would have preferred a nice "boot up the park" in a situation like this, but it is clear Zidane is going to stick with his philosophy and probably die by it. You wanted entertaining football Madrid fans? Well you have it.
Beyond this little observation, Zidane played classic possession football. The ball may have been passed short and from the back, but it zipped along the pitch at a proper tempo. Kroos and Modric had control of proceedings, with the former being exemplary in his ball distribution and his playmaking efforts from his deep lying position. The German ended the night with a 96.4% pass accuracy (the best on the team) with 80 completed passes (of which 12 were long balls completed with 100% accuracy) while his partner in crime Luka Modric, had a similarly good 91% pass accuracy with 71 completed passes. I would have liked Isco to be more involved, as he got the roaming playmaker role to dip in between the lines and cause havoc, but it is clear he is still trying to find his form. However he by no means had a bad game.
Aside from the midfield, the fullbacks were instructed to push up liberally at all costs, and such a gung-ho strategy worked to great effect. Carvajal and Marcelo combined for 7 key passes, 6 crosses, 1 dribble, and 1 assist, as they consistently stretched the width of the pitch, arrived late to create overloads, and generally caused mayhem in the final third.
BBC’s fluidity was done right
BBC benefitted greatly from this, as the marauding runs of the fullbacks consistently created positional doubts in the opposing defenders’ minds. To add to the confusion for Deportivo, BBC would not stand still. Within the first 8 minutes of the match, Ronaldo had moved from his left-wing position to the No. 9 spot, causing Benzema to react to this by going left. This was until Ronaldo moved to the right, causing Bale to sprint over to the left, and therefore allowing Benzema to assume his normal striker position.
All very confusing I know, but it worked to devastating effect. In the first 45 minutes, Ronaldo (especially), Bale, and Benzema were easily slipping into the box, firing shots from all over the place, and attempting to take players on. The fact that each player seemed to have more personal desire than under Rafa Benitez also helped immeasurably.
Interestingly enough, this was something Rafa had tried to do in his short-lived stint, but he instead ended up making BBC a chaotic mess. He gave his star attackers total freedom and Real Madrid lost their connection between midfield and attack.
While it might seem like Zidane did the same thing, there was a more methodical approach to Madrid’s attacking fluidity. Ronaldo shifted from left, to center, to right, in primarily that order, with high intensity in movement in the first 10 minutes of the match (every 2 minutes Ronaldo was completing that routine). Like I said before, Benzema and Bale reacted to this and suddenly a loose structure (but a structure nonetheless) appeared that the midfield could understand. It wasn’t so complex that Madrid’s own players were confused, but it wasn’t too simple that Deportivo could figure out what the heck was going on.
The defense was poor (surprise, surprise...)
Despite all the positives, the defense was too shaky. Seemingly every cross split the two center backs of both the Pepe-Ramos and Varane-Ramos duo, and there were too many occasions where a Deportivo player could canter into or near the box for some intricate play. Lucas Perez was also a huge problem that was never dealt with properly. He missed one chance thanks to Navas’s brilliance and had a tap-in opportunity denied by his own botched footwork and the linesman's flag, but that is only touching the surface. For the majority of the match, he twisted away from the attentions of Pepe, Ramos, and Varane, with ease to loose potshots at goal and in general create havoc in Madrid's back line.
While the defenders were culpable, the midfield (who otherwise were good in defense) were also suspect for allowing Lucas to find gaps between the midfield and defensive line so easily. Thus, it is clear that while Zidane may have his basic attacking philosophy sorted out, he still has a lot of work to do when it comes to implementing his ideas in terms of defensive organization.
Last Note: temper your expectations and be patient
I know this was an absolute dream start to the Zidane era, but fans must keep their feet on the ground (as hard as it is). The team's performance was highly encouraging but it must be noted that Madrid’s players were on a high. This was essentially a new start for them and they played with the sort of intensity that you wouldn’t expect to last (at least at that level) throughout the whole season. Zidane’s tactics benefitted from player morale and we haven’t had the time yet to analyze the cracks in his system.
Another thing that always worries me with every Madrid manager is whether such a gung-ho approach can be used against the Barcelonas and Bayerns of world football. It worked against a strong team in Deportivo, but surely MSN and Lewandowski will make short work of the chances Deportivo received in this match.
Deportivo also played straight into Madrid’s hands. They sat back and tried to counter, whilst also attempting to push their fullbacks up when the had the ball. This created vast spaces for Madrid to exploit in wide areas and the lack of a true pressing plan allowed Madrid to knock the ball around with ease. While Zidane passed his first test, the next step for him is to beat a well-organized press designed at breaking down possession-oriented teams.