The bitter cold of January rippled through the Bernabeu late Saturday afternoon and Zinedine Zidane’s face had said it all. The calming, tranquil demeanor of the Frenchman was replaced with a face that has appeared to have aged years in just the last couple of weeks. Villareal’s historic win meant Madrid suffered back to back defeats at the Bernabeu for the first time since 2008. The previous 18 months of Zidane’s tenure saw everything he touched turn to gold, yet now the Madrid faithful have seemingly been left with rust. The list of issues and problems haunting the team go on and on — from poor summer recruiting to stale and predictable tactics. Zidane has not been a manager for long, but his short history shows he is deviating from what made him great.
“It wasn’t the first time we played with 3-5-2. The players knew how to do it, it is not new for them,” Ziane said last year. Last year, Zidane experimented — sometimes out of necessitation like the 4-2-3-1 in the Calderon which dismantled Atletico and other times to throw off the opposition: “I decided to do it because we knew that playing three games in a row against the same team meant we had to make changes and vary. Sevilla also did that.” The 3-5-2 hasn’t been very successful for this Madrid team, but Zidane wasn’t afraid to take a risk and shake things up. Early in the season, the rotations would be a “mezcla”, a mix, of starters and a few squad players followed by the heavy rotations late in the season. This season, the risks, the tactical shuffles, the mix of players, and the competition in the squad is gone, almost as if it’s been forgotten. Even going into the Champions League Final last May, Juventus had to prepare for Bale, or Isco, or both—all three systems would have brought something completely different.
What Zidane knew that so many gloss over, above tactics and physical conditioning, was the mental side of the game. Often forgotten, these players are human beings and the variable that is most difficult to control is the emotion and confidence of each individual player. Lucas Vazquez would replace Bale and not miss a beat. Kovacic, once left in exile, came back into the fold and replaced Modric and the team just pressed along. Hell, even Fabio Coentrao put in some good performances at the tail end of the season. Zidane’s unwavering faith in each and every player pushed them to their greatest heights. The Frenchman’s actions spoke louder than words—too many coaches say they have utmost confidence in their squad, but so few actually use them. Every player felt relevant and a part of the success.
Young guns were brought in this summer, but few have been given the confidence nor the chances that Zidane was heralded for last season. Some sectors are calling for winter signings, but what is the point if Zidane continues to persist with the same players game after game? Fans and pundits alike say no replacements were made for players like James, Danilo, Mariano, Pepe, and Morata, but each (barring Morata) were replaced. The simple fact is, their replacements haven’t been given the same opportunities. How often has Nacho played at right back? How many match day squads has Ceballos been left out of? How many stellar performances does Vallejo need to put in before he gets Pepe-like minutes? What’s Mayoral’s minutes per goal ratio? The replacements are there, they just haven’t been given the opportunities nor the confidence.
Zidane is still the best man to lead this Real Madrid side. The pressure of this great club now burdens his shoulder and the stress marks his face. This team and this manager can claw their way back to form, but persistence with the same old ideas is not the answer. It’s time to mix things up. Try a change in system, a return to the 4-3-3 with a pure 9 in Benzema or even Mayoral for some games? A 3-5-2, if adequately implemented, could provide some defensive stability and a fresh mental invigoration. Give the youngsters confidence which means giving them relevant game time. If the Frenchman remains stubborn it will be his downfall, there’s no reason not to experiment and push the limits of your squad. Hope still lingers with Champions League and Copa Del Rey matches left to play. The ball is in Zidane’s court, it’s time to re-instill his core managerial values.