Pressure is mounting on Zidane after a loss of this magnitude. That might seem a little dramatic given it was in Copa del Rey, but not in the context of this continually worsening follow-up campaign to winning a second straight European title.
Let’s be honest about the Spanish domestic cup, though. Clubs like Barcelona, Madrid and arguably Atleti only truly embrace and value the Copa if their title push is faltering. I’d say faltering is an extreme understatement for Madrid’s season thus far.
This Leganes quarterfinal victory over los Blancos was no fluke. Madrid were maybe just as bad in the first leg last week in south Madrid, but it’s unfortunately impossible to give them that credit given the result. Leganes were extremely solid defensively, leaving the home side to continually drop out to the flanks and attempt cross after cross.
Sergio Ramos made his first start since El Clasico, and his presence wasn’t nearly as influential as we all hoped. Given Nacho’s recent form, I almost can’t believe he might be the best center-half currently on the roster. A player of Ramos’ caliber will return to form sooner or later, but the canterano had a brace on Sunday against Villareal and turned in Madrid’s only strong individual defensive performance.
Recently, pundits and fans have been overcritical of Zidane’s role in the club’s poor form and disastrous campaign. As noted in our player ratings, however, the Frenchman is certainly to blame for this one. Knowing that the only league silverware Madrid has a reasonable shot to win this year was on the line, he decided to leave his biggest play-makers off the lineup entirely.
The team were markedly better after Modric and Carvajal came on for the badly struggling Llorente and Achraf, but the moral of the story is don’t underestimate your opponents, especially in a tournament this contextually critical. It’s easy to forget this ‘B-team’ are mostly the same players Zidane relied on last winter/spring to conquer Spain and Europe.
1 - Leganes are the first team in Copa del Rey history to knock out Real Madrid at Santiago Bernabeu after losing at home in the first leg. Correction. pic.twitter.com/tO51r3r4HK— OptaJose (@OptaJose) January 24, 2018
After throttling Deportivo 7-1 on Sunday, it really felt like the tide was turning in a very timely manner. The team looked energized, creative, and seemed to be communicating effectively on the pitch. That false promise flew out the window after being exposed at the back AND the front on Wednesday.
I’ve never been at the Bernabeu after a loss (or draw for that matter) but am extremely glad I wasn’t there tonight. It looked and sounded like a truly miserable experience, and it was hard enough to watch on a screen in a different country.
Tactically, there is question whether Zidane should start playing the 4-3-3 he did Sunday against Depor, as it proved extremely effective. Madrid just look confused in midfield when Modric and/or Kroos aren’t playing. It also doesn’t help when Ramos jolts up the pitch to play as a forward for two-minute periods at a time, leaving the midfield and Nacho strung out.
Clearly, the strongest midfield setup we have is Modric/Kroos/Casemiro in the 4-3-3. It’s even been suggested by writers and pundits that Zidane should experiment without Casemiro, which he clearly seems unwilling to do. When Bale and Ronaldo get involved with the build-up play from just outside the final third, they avoid being polarized and rendered ineffective offensively.
With seemingly never-ending jawing about the Spanish giants signing Harry Kane from Tottenham, or more recently Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah, the transfer rumours all madridistas want (or should want) to see is for quality defenders, especially in the center. I think Toby Alderweireld is the Tottenham player Perez should be targeting. The Belgian defender is young, physical, tactically flexible and very disciplined: exactly what Madrid are desperately missing at the back.
The concern right now shouldn’t be for forwards, as there are currently plenty of quality forwards already vying for playing time. Jonathan Tah of Leverkusen is another intriguing option, but the real problem isn’t a lack of overall quality on the roster. It is a lack of consistency, bad positional habits, and collective lack of confidence as a unit that are painfully elusive at the moment.
Since Madrid drew PSG in the Champions League Round of 16 back in December, I’ve been deathly terrified of what is to come in February. I just don’t see any way this team will make the defensive and overall adjustments to handle Neymar, Mbappe, and the entirety of the Parisiens’ quality. Not to scare you or anything, but don’t forget they’ve just rewritten the Champions League group stage record book by scoring an astounding 25 goals in just six games.
The first round against PSG and the following Champions League campaign this year will determine Zidane’s future with the club, there’s no doubt. The Catalans look primed to win the league and a fourth-straight Copa del Rey, with Sevilla, Valencia, and Leganes their competition in the semifinals. (Assuming they advance over Espanyol on Thursday night)
If you are in need of some comic relief, apparently a reporter actually asked the Leganes manager if he’d rather face Espanyol or Barca in the semifinal:
Leganes coach Garitano asked if he'd prefer Espanyol or Barca in the semi. One word answer "Espanyol"— Dermot Corrigan (@dermotmcorrigan) January 24, 2018
In any case, no one who supports Real Madrid are laughing now. The 2017/18 season seems to be burning down in flames as the matches and weeks go by. Zidane is in serious danger of losing his job, and something tells me he won’t underestimate PSG the way he did Leganes.
Before European competition kicks off in a few weeks, los Blancos visit the Mestalla this weekend in what could be a real litmus test. After, a couple of momentum-building opportunities against Levante and Sociedad.
Real Madrid really have just two things left worth fighting for at this point: a 2018/19 Champions League berth, and dignity.