There are four pillars to the game of football: technical, tactical, physical, and psychological. Each of the four pillars are crucial to a team and an individual player’s success. Yet, how often is that fourth pillar - the psychological side of the game - overlooked, glossed over, or just flat out disregarded? For those at the highest level of the sport, the psychological aspect is often seen as the most important. It’s the pillar which can provide that marginal edge, in a game which requires minute details to win. A consistent result among studies on peak performance is the direct correlation between self-confidence and successful sporting performance. Zinedine Zidane’s legacy during his first tenure in charge of Real Madrid was the unprecedented three-peat of the UEFA Champions League. More than luck, it was an aura, a mentality, and a confidence that was instilled in the side which allowed them to overcome any obstacle.
Upon his return last March, Zidane had said it was important for him to see just how bad things were from the inside. Internally, Zidane had found a broken Real Madrid squad. A team that was shadow of their former selves. A team cast with doubts and demons from a season that had simply spiraled into what felt like a never-ending negative loop. Former stalwarts under Zidane, the likes of Kroos, Casemiro, Varane, and Marcelo, were labeled as failures. They were quickly cast aside with the team in need of — according to the press— a dramatic revolution. That word, “failure”, was used to label members of the club at nearly every level; from directors and board members, to coaches, and ultimately down to the players. Above all, Zidane recognized he needed to rediscover his existing core’s best form and reinvigorate the team with confidence. Bring back the aura. He persisted with that plan despite the pressure of many influential voices and outlets feeling radical squad changes were a necessity.
In a team environment, particularly a football team, the value of what other people say or do, particularly coaches, cannot be underestimated. The best coaches have a persuasive power on their players. At times they can influence players’ self-confidence with just a single word. Self-confidence is a funny thing, it’s ever changing and malleable, easily susceptible to instability. When players succeed in tense, pressure-filled situations, you will predictably see comments like, so and so has “ice in their veins.” Flipping the perspective, players who fail in the same type of scenarios are described as “choke artists.” More often than not, the simple ingredient which separates the two, is self-confidence or a strong mental fortitude. Arguably, what Zidane does best, is recognize this simple factor. He molds his team’s to be calm in the face of adversity, to expect it, and his composed aura gradually seems to be inherited by the squad.
The French coach has worked to eliminate the doubt and distraction that comes with the word “failure” or “choke artists”. At this time last season, with a very similar squad, 8 losses had been recorded between La Liga (6) and the Champions League (1). This season, the squad has lost two matches, once in La Liga and once in the Champions League. And unlike the previous year, where one loss led to another, there has been a response after damaging defeats. Following the PSG debacle, Zidane’s Madrid harnessed their frustrations for good. In the always difficult trip to the Sanchez Pizjuan in Seville, the team dug deep providing fans with the on-field personification of the word grit. It was a character performance that had not been seen for over a year. Then, after the Mallorca loss, Real Madrid refocused. It was the first loss in La Liga, and since then they have produced in the season’s biggest test’s: at home vs PSG at home and Sociedad. Sprinkled in during this period was another character performance. Away in the Basque region of Vitoria, the team suffered and found a way to grind out a result. The attitude from Vitoria and the desire to never give up, had been lost in the previous season.
There can be little evidence to doubt the influence of Zidane’s return on stabilizing the squad and rebuilding their belief, their mental fortitude. Statistical analysis and data prove the team have improved in each of the other three pillars, but the overlooked yet vitally important psychological pillar, is harder to measure. Be it Benzema’s 95th minute equalizer vs Valencia, Hazard’s mazy run vs PSG to set-up the opening goal, Caravjal’s scrappy winner in Vitoria, or the gluttony of goals found at the Bernabeu against Galatasaray – the team have seem to rediscovered their love of the game, rediscovered the belief in their quality, and rediscovered the values of Zizou-ball and of Madridismo: to never give-up. The scars from last season are now finally beginning to heal. Fans are slowly beginning to buy in, and the players now have one last test to prove that the dark memories of last season have been put to bed.
The ultimate test awaits with a performance against eternal rivals Barcelona.