With a 25-man squad already training in Montreal and the International Champions Cup set to kick off soon, Zinedine Zidane will be wasting no time in trying to create an optimum build-up to the UEFA Super Cup match against Sevilla on August 9th. With that being said, the actual span of time Zidane has to prepare his squad for the new season is extremely short. From today (July 19), Zidane only has 33 days to get his side into optimum physical shape and implement new tactics that will shape his opening campaign thrust in La Liga (he has only 21 days to prepare his team for the UEFA Super Cup). With the quoted "10 days" Real Madrid has to work in Montreal, it must be a thankless task trying to prioritize what Real Madrid need and how training should be progressed; so let's give our head coach a hand.
Without a doubt fitness is by far the most important aspect a coach can focus on in pre-season. Setting a carefully calculated fitness regime and assessing the physical state of every player can eliminate chances of receiving a serious injury later on in the season, whilst simultaneously helping players re-energize to hit the ground running.
From what little we know, Zidane seems to be doing a good job of helping his squad physically. He has already hired a supremely experienced fitness coach in Antonio Pintus, who Zidane knows from their time together at Juventus between 1996 and 1998. Aside from an apparent good understanding between the two, Pintus has also worked with Marseille, Monaco, Udinese, West Ham, Chelsea, Sunderland and the Russian national team over his long career. He recently spoke to realmadrid.com about his training methods and what he hopes to accomplish in pre-season.
He quickly outlined that the squad would be working with different muscle groups and would be focusing on mainly aerobic conditioning, with the focus on building a base of aerobic training that would progress in intensity and volume towards the end of the week.
While overseeing all of this can be hectic enough, Zidane has to also consider the fitness of players not currently with him at Montreal. Thankfully, he has done given careful consideration to players who have experienced the demands of the Copa America and the EUROs, with James, Ramos, and Modric set to join the squad only on July 26th, and Bale, Pepe, and Kroos set to join Zidane around August 1st (according to various reports and rumors).
Based on only these slivers of information, it looks like Zidane is organizing his fitness regimen and considering the demands of international football extremely well, though we are unaware of how he is acting to assess possible injuries while making plans to avoid them in the future. Considering the injury records of the likes of Gareth Bale and Fabio Coentrao, this should be a priority for him to ensure success in the coming season.
One of the most over-scrutinized aspects of Real Madrid's pre-season will be the tactics Zidane is or is not implementing. There will be sites across the internet from marca to outsideoftheboot, who will over-analyze team shape and the roles of each player in just a couple friendlies. Thus, it is important to note that pre-season games rarely accurately display the full tactical plans of a coach, and more serve as a way for players to re-acquaint themselves with the chemistry of the team, practice technical skills, and test their fitness. That being said, it doesn't mean that Zidane can't start laying out plans that will come into affect after the first couple of games of the season. There are several obvious tactical holes that can be plugged to improve this already impressive team.
A running theme throughout the 2015/16 campaign was Real Madrid's lack of defensive discipline when possessing the ball. This often left them susceptible to counter-attacks and made it all too easy for teams to find dangerous pockets of space in front of the box. While some of this has to do with the offensive personnel in the squad, it mostly has to do with the overall organization of the team.
The first thing for Zidane to start working on is the issue of horizontal and vertical compactness. With the nature of Real Madrid's fluid attack, Real Madrid's players often freely pursue dangerous offensive positions without considering the defensive ramifications of the space they leave behind. It is ok for Zidane to keep his fluid system, but he needs to drill it into his players to focus on space awareness, especially behind them. In other words, he needs to lay out a plan for basic positional play in this team. The likes of Kroos and Modric need to consistently take up offensive positions that inherently protect Real Madrid's defensive balance. This means achieving proper spacing between each other and Casemiro, as well as achieving positional balance with the back-line. If Zidane can imprint the basics of this strategy in his squad, it will go some way to solving Real Madrid's vertical and horizontal compactness problems.
Achieving proper positional structure in midfield is all well and good, but Real Madrid will still struggle to handle skillfully designed attacks if they do not actively seek to win the ball back. Achieving good horizontal and vertical compactness is the first step to achieving a successful press, as players will naturally be in a better position to win the ball. But Zidane must then decide the intensity of the press and how many players he wants to surround the man with the ball.
Considering that implementing such a system is intensely complicated, it wouldn't hurt to first implement something basic by building on the characteristics of the players he has. Despite the moaning surrounding Cristiano Ronaldo's lack of work-rate, Ronaldo has shown a greater desire to engage in the dirtier side of the game under Zidane, as well as working much harder in the "big matches." Nevertheless, Ronaldo does have the weakest work-rate out of the front three, making him a suitable candidate to be Real Madrid's passive presser. This means he will simply direct where the opposing team passes the ball, by adopting positions that cut off general passing lanes. Benzema should do this in conjunction with Ronaldo, whilst opting a slightly more aggressive desire to win the ball due to his greater work-rate. Bale, being the hardest worker out of the front three, should be allowed to operate as a presser with Ronaldo and Benzema, but should be mostly reserved to pressing the midfield and playing as one of the men actively seeking to win the ball back.
Moving into midfield, Modric and Kroos should act like Bale in the effort to win the ball, whilst also cutting off passing lanes into the halfspaces to either force play out wide or to Casemiro.
Obviously not all of the first team starters described in this process are with Zidane at the moment, but that doesn't mean he can't start formulating a plan on his own, while working with players like Jese, Isco, Kovacic, and Asensio to test his ideas.
Regardless if he actually wants to rigorously use a press with the squad he currently has, this is a very generic plan that would definitely require more fine-tuning and explanation that cannot be accomplished in the short period of time Zidane has anyway. Laying the groundwork for a successful press now, would coincide nicely with the return of Zidane's starters and would set Real Madrid up to actually execute it after the first five or six games of the season.
This might seem like the least of things that Zidane has to worry about, with a squad consisting of Ronaldo, Bale, Benzema, Isco, and James, but there always things that can be improved. In Real Madrid's case, their midfield looked a little flat when attempting to penetrate deep-set defenses last season. This probably had something to do with Zidane's tendency to heap a fair portion of passing and controlling duties on Luka Modric. While the diminutive Croatian is perfectly capable of dictating the tempo of the game, this duty can sometimes restrict Modric's freedom of movement, which has a negative affect when trying to open up the lines of a deep defense. As was carefully outlined in this article, few midfielders of Modric's ilk can impact the final third in the same way he does. Zidane needs to take note of this and free up Modric a little more, which would allow him to dip in between the lines and cause chaos with his dribbling, passing, and off-the-ball movement. This would likely load some more controlling duties onto Kroos' plate, but it wouldn't be anything that the German maestro couldn't handle. Additionally, this little change wouldn't be too difficult to implement, and would provide Real Madrid with some added dynamicity and much-needed penetration in attack.
Real Madrid's Youth
Real Madrid's current 25-man squad consists of a plethora of Castilla players and youth talent: Rubén Yáñez, Álex Craninx, Luca, Lienhart, Tejero, Achraf, Llorente, Asensio, Odegaard, Enzo, Febas, Mayoral, and Mariano. While a lot of this has to do with the fact that there are so many first team players missing, Zidane has to use this opportunity to assess Real Madrid's youth and see if they have a place in Real Madrid's squad or not. Such judgement might be too early for players like Odegaard (for whom Zidane should use this opportunity to assess his progression), but players like Asensio, Mariano, and Marcos Llorente are of the age where they will either make it or break it at Real Madrid.
Marco Asensio is a special question that needs to be monitored extremely closely. If Zidane intends to incorporate him into the first team, it will likely be at the expense of Jesé. If Asensio proves himself to be worth that trade-off based on his performances in pre-season coupled with his loan spell at Espanyol, Zidane needs to be extremely sure about how such a prodigious talent will break into the starting eleven. Asensio will not be willing to sit on the bench for too long, which could lead him to suffer the same fate as Denis Cheryshev or the likely fate of Jesé. Whether this means designing a new formation or having a chat with Cristiano about game-time, Zidane has to ensure that a decision to hold on to Asensio is worth it in the long-run as well as the short run.
Mariano is another player that needs to be monitored closely over the coming weeks. While his extremely successful season with Castilla and his impressive physical qualities make him a likely candidate for first team football, minutes might be in short supply with the return of Alvaro Morata. Zidane needs to decide how good Mariano is, to decide if it's worth it to have him compete with Morata or just use him as a third striker to play cup games and make an impact from the bench.
Finally, you have Marcos Llorente, a player who last season, probably had little idea he might have a legitimate shot at making the first team. While Llorente is decent enough, there is a sizable risk to using him as a regular rotation option for Casemiro. Put simply, he is probably not good enough to play that role, and Zidane needs to take a critical look at Llorente's qualities to see if he really wants to enter the season without a higher quality CDM.
The Players Need To Have Fun
An understated quality of success is team spirit and a harmonious dressing room. With each player re-acquainting themselves with professional life at various speeds and levels, and with some having the uncomfortable position of not knowing their future at Madrid, things could progress a lot smoother and quicker if Zidane could make everyone get along and laugh a lot. But considering Zidane's record as a supremely good man-manager, this is probably one thing he will have no problem in doing.