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Zinedine Zidane’s Number One Priority Is Squad Management

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Keeping his team satisfied and rotated trumps even tactical considerations.

Real Madrid v Levante - La Liga Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Type in “Marcelo+Theo” on twitter, and the above are some of the results you get (which can be summed up as general frustration and bewilderment from the fanbase at Zidane’s decision to field two fullbacks on the same wing).

While the criticisms aimed at the manager and the performance of Marcelo and Theo (especially Theo) are a bit harsh, one has to wonder what Zidane was thinking in his pre-match preparations. Perhaps he wanted proper width and decided that two attacking wing-backs would stretch the opposition, or perhaps he thought Theo and Marcelo’s alternating attacks would confuse Levante.

Post-game observations like the video above, note that Zidane certainly tried to make the most of this combo. Real Madrid’s possession play was heavily oriented on the left-wing and numerous attempts were made to release Theo or Marcelo into space to launch crosses into the box. The results were less than stunning.

Theo, the main overlapping player, failed to conjure up a single key pass from his seven crosses (though many were close to resulting in a shot) and the duo were too similar in profile to provide the dynamism we are used to. In most cases when Real play a left-winger ahead of the fullback, the winger either moves into the box to enhance the completion rate of the incoming cross (think Ronaldo) or moves into the half space to occupy defenders and provide an alternate passing direction (think Isco and Asensio). Instead, both fullbacks hung out on the same wing in close to proximity to each other (creating predictability and a lack of diversity in spacing and penetration), and the best crossing chance created actually originated from the right, when Isco swung in a cross that Bale headed marginally wide.

The Isco cross that resulted in a great Bale chance.
understat.com

Again, while Madrid did enough to win the game, one has to wonder, why Zidane went with such a risky tactical selection.

Ironically, the answer lies not in any tactical explanation, but in one based on squad management. Put simply, Zidane experiments (sometimes drastically) every now and then in order to keep his players satisfied and match fit. Many have pointed at how lucky Zizou is to have a wealth of depth, but with that boon comes its own problems.

Lest you think that Zidane’s intense focus on placating his players is foolhardy, know that the Frenchman is right to worry about how best to manage his coffers of talent. Just last season, Isco lightly hinted that he might reconsider his future if his fortunes didn’t change:

I'm calm. What worries me is to have minutes.

A player's career is small. I'm happy here and would stay many more years.

From now until the end of the season, we will make a decision. It is my future at stake.

While Isco received his chance, Morata and James’ didn’t, prompting these game-changing players to move elsewhere.

This season, Zidane has to do enough to placate and stave off the rust of newcomers Theo, Marcos Llorente, and Ceballos, and that was surely at the forefront of his mind when he planned for Levante.

But it’s wrong to assume that Zidane simply rotates players willy nilly without consideration for tactics just because strategy isn’t his first priority. Unlike many coaches, a large portion of his tactical plan is birthed after he decides who he wants out on the pitch. The final third of last season, when Zidane adapted Real’s shape and tactics in the absence of Bale, was a perfect example of this. Instead of going for the more simple and arguably more tactically astute decision of playing Asensio on the right-wing, Zidane made a huge strategical change by shifting Real Madrid to a 4-4-2 diamond. The sole purpose was to give Isco the minutes he craved, which could only be done to the team’s benefit if he played in a role that suited him (which is as a CAM, a position non-existent in the previous 4-3-3). The change proved to be successful, unlike Zidane’s scheme vs. Levante.

On Saturday, the Frenchman decided that he needed to give minutes to Theo and Llorente. Why not Ceballos? Probably because Zidane wanted to balance fresh talent with experienced heads, hence the inclusion of Kroos and Marcelo. The latter personnel selection is the crux of the current frustration, but it’s important for one to remember that playing as a Real Madrid fullback is one of the toughest roles in the world. On most occasions, you have to manage the entire wing yourself, and Zidane probably felt that such a burden was too much too soon for greenhorn Theo. Theoretically, uncle Marcelo could help ease the youngster into the role in real-time; which is, again, a squad management consideration before a tactical one.

This even extends to the inclusion of Asensio in the same game. With Ronaldo out, Zidane wanted to give his red hot diamond as much playing time as possible. It probably wasn’t the best tactical decision on the day, since while Marco certainly isn’t bad at playing as an attacking midfielder and linking up with other players, he struggled to carry out those duties in the context of Madrid’s left-wing isolation scheme. A more seasoned player like Isco could’ve handled it better (as we saw once he came on and nearly changed the game), but, repeat after me, “squad management is Zidane’s number one priority.” Isco, who is now content, could be dropped to the bench with little consequence, which simultaneously would give one of Europe’s best young talents happiness and time to grow.

Once you understand Zidane’s decisions within this context, you see the careful balancing game he has to play. He has to rotate to keep players happy, but also has to keep some first team regulars on (for leadership, or for control, or to ensure the presence of match-winning quality), all the while considering the tactical viability of his plans.

It’s obvious that Zidane got it wrong on Saturday (though not that horribly wrong, as Real’s xG superiority will attest to) and that it might’ve seemed like he had a screw loose in his head or something, but this isn’t the first time we’ve felt that way about our beloved coach. We’ve seen James and Isco play as central midfielders together (yikes), we’ve seen 3-5-2’s and Casemiro as a libero (NOOOOOO), and through all of it we’ve wondered what the fuck was going on inside his shiny bald head. Was he shuffling his rotation around like a pack of cards? Was he drawing player names from a barrel? No. The whole time he was playing a careful three-dimensional balancing act; considering player morale, rustiness, fitness, injuries, form, non-negotiables (*cough BBC cough*), and tactics.

That doesn’t mean Zidane’s decisions are infallible or protected from sharp criticism, but at least now you have an understanding of his thought process and an appreciation of what he has to juggle.