During yesterday's game against Deportivo, one could not help but feel the sense of renewed vitality under the tutelage of Zinedine Zidane. Players in the starting eleven played with an aura of conviction as they looked to show what they can do in front of their new manager. Resonating from the man between the sticks, all the way to the attacking trident, an ambiance of a fresh-start and determination seemed to be what propelled players to prove what they are capable of. It was expected that under Zidane the players were going to be able to express themselves more freely, but a 5-0 drubbing of a formidable side in Deportivo was the icing on the cake.
While ex-manager Rafa Benitez was head of the team - though statistically his side fared quite well on the surface - on the pitch, players did not play with the passion, heart, or guts that we saw against Deportivo.
For example, re-watch the games against Villarreal and Rayo. When those opponents decided to take the game to Real, Los Blancos appeared unknowing on how to respond. The non-verbal body language of the team seemed confused, frustrated and even constrained. Even during his post-match interview against Villarreal, captain Sergio Ramos said, "When you go out there without being convinced of what it is you want to do, things are going to happen." Whether it was because Rafa did not get his philosophy across, players seemed to have their own interpretation on how to carry out the game plan. Cogs did not look well-oiled, and it looked as if The Royal Whites were to solely rely on individual brilliance to get the job done. With Zidane emphasizing the importance of teamwork and collective efforts in his press conferences, it was nice to see him follow through featuring James, Isco and Jese all in one game.
Also whilst Benitez was in charge, it become evident that he was willing to stick up for certain players, and shun others. Putting his arm around Gareth Bale and pushing Cristiano Ronaldo to the peripheral was one of his errors. Though Ronaldo's immutable starting position draws mixed reactions from football pundits and fanatics, one cannot down-play his x-factor that he brings to the team. Additionally, Rafa's poor man-management skills became further highlighted with his handling of James, and his rapport with the squad was long gone before his tenure really got going. Early substitutions were responded with expressions of disapproval under the Spanish tactician, but under Zidane, the players already were exhibiting signs of respect at departures.
Comparatively, when Rafa initially sought out to re-model this Real Madrid, he wanted to implement a 4-2-3-1, with the team revolving much around Gareth Bale. Despite the Welshman responding well with the freedom, other players suffered in the formation during transitions. Many times, the midfield was outnumbered numerically with Madrid caught in a 4-2-4, due to James hovering in the attacking third. As a result, the back-line of Madrid were put under a lot of pressure on attacks, and relied too many times for comfort on Keylor Navas.
Against Deportivo, this issue was clearly addressed. Predominantly in a 4-3-3 going forward with the B-B-C terrorizing the back-line of Depor in counter attacks, Madrid shifted into a 4-4-2 in defense whenever they lost possession. When the ball was on the right side of the pitch, Bale shifted into the midfield to provide an extra line of defense with Isco, Kroos, and Modric all keeping the team shape. With Bale now playing as an extra midfielder, Ronaldo and Benzema would shift as the team's two strikers up front as options once the ball was won again. Identically, when the ball was on the left side, Ronaldo shifted into the mid-field, and Benzema and Bale became the outlets. This in effect added more fluidity and efficiency in the team's build-up play and execution.
I am trying to keep things in perspective as this was Zizou's first game in charge - and a dream debut I will add - but the signs of a resurgent Real Madrid appear to be on the wake.