Many corporations conduct a six month performance review with their new hires in order to properly gauge their progress and evaluate their results. Zinedine Zidane has been given one of the most important roles within Real Madrid’s organization. It would only be right for the Frenchman to be evaluated based on the body of his work thus far. Despite winning three consecutive Champions league titles and the first double for Real Madrid in over 50 years while in charge from 2016-2018, the Frenchman will be judged solely on his numbers from his second stint as manager. But, the key to truly evaluating Zidane’s performance will not be in the current 14 game record of 6 wins, 4 losses, and 4 draws, but rather the deeper underlying statistics — i.e. xG (expected goals), xGA (expected goals against), xPTS (expected points), xG spikes (minutes in which Real Madrid have been most likely to score), and deep ball completions (passes completed — excluding crosses — 20 yards from the oppositions goal). The culmination of this data over Zidane’s six months or 14 league games in charge will be far more telling.
Let’s first rewind to the final 11 matches of last season for which Zidane was in charge. The team had absolutely nothing to play for and the actual football played represented that – Madrid were hard to watch. Those games included one of the worst displays of Real Madrid in recent memory with a 1-0 loss away to Rayo Vallecano, where Madrid produced only 3 shots on target. Couple that with the back to back losses at the end of the season to Real Sociedad and Real Betis, Madridista’s were clamoring for the season to end. Had the season been 11 games long, Madrid would have finished in 8th place below the Europa League spots.
Yet, the underlying statistics tell a very different story. Madrid greatly underperformed their xG, scoring 16 goals from xG of 20. Had Madrid been more clinical with the opportunities they normally would have converted, they would have finished with close to 19 points rather than their 17. In fact, had each team in La Liga over those 11 games stayed on par with their xG and xGA, Madrid would have finished second, just 3 points behind Barcelona:
Now let’s move back to the present, as Zidane’s six months in charge entail more than just the last 11 games of the previous La Liga season. We have already begun to embark on a new La Liga campaign. Adding those three games played to the analysis, we get a sample size of 14 games of which to judge Zidane. One area which has remained a gripe of fans over both of Zidane’s period in office is his insistence upon crossing. But if we exclude crosses, how does Madrid’s deep ball completions compare to that of other teams in La Liga or even attacking juggernauts like Liverpool and Manchester City? Over the 14 games, Madrid on average complete 9.6 deep ball progressions per game. The more passes you complete within 20 yards of the opposition’s box, the more likely you are to penetrate and tire that defense, meaning you have a higher probability of scoring goals. So how does Zidane’s Madrid compare to other teams over the same 14 league match period:
In La Liga, unsurprisingly, Barcelona top the charts with an average of 11.2 deep ball completions per game. That number, arguably, could be higher had Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi featured for all three La Liga games in the new season. At an average of 9.6, Madrid sit second, still well above the likes of Valencia and Atletico Madrid – two sides better known for their defensive attributes rather than their incisive attacks. So let’s broaden the picture, how does Zidane’s Madrid compare against English powerhouses, Man City and Liverpool? Pep’s team is an astounding outlier with an average of 15.9 deep ball completions per game, while Liverpool are right in line with La Liga leaders, Barcelona, at 11.2. If Madrid are to keep up with Barcelona in the league, there is arguably greater opportunity to improve their offensive structure than their defensive issues, as it’s in Madrid’s DNA to score goals and with the attacking talent on hand, Zidane has the tools to improve his team’s deep ball completion numbers. Eden Hazard, once fully fit, will be key to improving the average, but Zidane may look to utilize a central attacking midfielder or “#10”, in his system to help play between the lines and facilitate the disconnect between Modric and Kroos and the likes of Bale, Benzema, and Hazard. The team would likely find more success looking to improve their attacking numbers than their leaky defense.
Further evidence to support Madrid’s need to improve on the offensive front, is there numbers in comparison to those same team when evaluating opponent's deep completions or “ODC”, which is the number of passes completed by the opponent 20 yards from goal (again excluding crosses). Madrid are exactly level with Barcelona on an average of 4 ODC allowed per game over the last 14 league matches. Meanwhile, Valencia and Atletico Madrid, two defensive counter attacking stalwarts, came in expectedly higher, a 6 average (Valencia) and 7 average (Atletico). Meanwhile, Manchester City and Liverpool were again impressive with only allowing, on average, 3 deep completions by their opponents. Given Madrid’s ODC numbers, it’s fair to say the team defensive organization and transition defense is not as poor as has been suggested.
Though, we are just scratching the surface, and like any good review, we need to dive deeper into the numbers. The data tells a clear story on Zidane’s Madrid, the team are greatly underperforming vs their expected or normal levels.
The above table reveals two concerns: Madrid continue to underperform relative to their xG by about 4 goals. Or, another way to read that data, is per game, Zidane’s Madrid are off their xG by an average of -15%. The other alarming concern, is Madrid’s dismal away form. Ask many fans and they will feel that the Santiago Bernabeu is not the fortress it once was, but the bigger problem is the fact that Real Madrid scored 75% less goals away from home and are 20% more likely to concede on the road than they are at the Bernabeu.
The good news for both Zidane and Real Madrid fans is that you would expect this data to normalize over the remainder of the season. With new signings like Eden Hazard and Luka Jovic both the xG and deep ball completions should improve.
During this 14 game span, most of the team’s spikes in xG occur in the second half around the 60th minute and the 75th- 80th minute. That means teams begin to tire and lose focus against the Madrid attack as the game wears on, this is the time where Zidane and the team must capitalize. If in search of a goal, it’s during this time period that Zidane should carefully calculate his substitutions and potentially look to incorporate a #10 into his system if he has not already done so in order to aid the team’s deep ball progressions.
As we conclude our review, it’s obvious that Zidane’s first six months have been well below a club like Real Madrid’s expectations, but there are clear patterns in the data above that represent an opportunity for Zidane to right the ship. Composure and confidence in the final third will be critical as the team needs to ruthlessly convert the golden opportunities they are presented each match. Real Madrid is a club predicated on their offensive potency, thus Zidane would be better off gambling on the attacking scheme in sacrifice of some of the defensive balance. The Frenchman has been experimenting with different formations all season, but a focus on the 4-2-3-1, with a disciplined midfield pivot and an advanced central option to link the attacking trident, could be crucial in improving Madrid’s deep ball completion numbers and get them into the 80,90, or even 100 goal scoring figures this league season rather than the meager 63 league goals scored in the last La Liga season. When away from home, a focused, pragmatic, counter-attacking scheme may be the best course of action to improve Madrid’s dismal traveling record. Lastly, the team need to capitalize on any dominant spells from the 65-79th minute as that is typically when their xG spikes, meaning they are most likely to score a goal during that time period.
Let’s remember, despite the Frenchman being in charge for 6 months, he’s only had 14 games on which to draw conclusions. However critical one wants to be on the above data and the on-field aesthetics of the team, a coach still requires time for his ideas to ferment and grow, it’s still early days in the second era of Zidane. The following six months will be the true test, to see if Zidane can rectify the teams issues.