When he first took over as coach, Zidane knew some of the more unpalatable aspects of Madrid’s culture would have to change:
When we don’t have the ball everyone will defend. It’s the message that I’ve given the players.
You can’t have three players who don’t defend.
The team actually complied. For at least the first 6 months of his tenure, Real Madrid defended together in a way they hadn’t under both Ancelotti and Benitez. Most notably, even Cristiano Ronaldo listened. When was the last time he tracked a fullback’s run into his own box like he did here in the April 2016 Clásico?
Zidane doesn’t feed pointless controversies, doesn’t contribute to crises — given that he faces the media around 130 times a season, it is astonishing how rarely he puts a foot wrong — and isn’t a dominant figure. There have been no conflicts with his squad. As a player, he was quiet; as a coach he is too.
— Sid Lowe
The players were the stars of Zidane’s show. His approach and reputation got everyone at every level to buy into his project. He somehow convinced the B-team below (excluding Marcelo and Varane), many of whom could’ve started anywhere, to head into the season scrapping for spots.
Madrid long needed a coach who could hold all the players accountable, while circumventing Florentino Pérez’s best efforts to influence team selection.
For better and worse, Zidane’s Madrid was virtually unscoutable.
On one hand, the improvisational style itself was groundbreaking. Players were given freedom to find solutions within games. They were brilliant and adapted on their own merits. The team’s offense, in particular, became inevitable. During 2016/17, they managed to win 17 points late in La Liga games, scoring 20 goals during the last 10 minutes.
On the flip side, Madrid lacked a collective structure on or off the ball. The late goals are a sign that they needed consistent individual heroics to win the league title. There were many patchy spells of form. Zidane is not one to optimize his team’s organization. He just tries to put out the best eleven.
Of course, the Frenchman’s lack of sophisticated coaching meant that he could rotate rather heavily, allowing Madrid’s starters to reach the end of seasons in great shape. They were primed to raise their intensity for Champions League ties.
Obviously, luck played a role in Madrid’s three-peat, but every little edge, including a less straining — and therefore less effective — style in the league season mattered. Madrid’s run to the latter two Champions Leagues was nothing short of brutal. It was more difficult than even your average winner’s path. This is why Madrid head into the season as a threat in any Champions League tie while simultaneously being a universal underdog in the league.
Recreating An Outlier
Zidane wouldn’t have returned to voluntarily tank the league season. But winning it like he did in the past appears difficult. With that said, the squad he has been given is any coach’s dream. He is looking to repeat 2016/17:
Approach will matter, here. The start to the season has been defined by the injury crisis. With every passing injury, Zidane has tried reverting to a crossing approach as a quick fix.
There is a line of reasoning behind the initial lineups. Jović resembles post-prime Ronaldo — not too involved on the ball and brilliant in the box both aerially and with his feet. The Serbian is the most natural goalscorer in the team.
Jović plays a lot more centrally, though. His touch map resembles that of a typical center forward:
As much as he was a shadow striker, Ronaldo still started out wide before moving centrally into the final third. He never played like a traditional center forward:
Jović’s more central play gave Zidane the license to play two touchline-hugging wingers. But both times he’s tried this 4-4-2, with Benzema, Jović, and occasionally Bale waiting in the box for crosses, the team has struggled to create.
The first issue is predictability. Madrid in a 4-4-2, frankly, aren’t going to do much else than cross it incessantly. Each additional cross gives diminishing returns. After a point, the strategy loses effectiveness.
Consider that Ronaldo’s average headed shot quality took a hit as Madrid’s attack became one-dimensional. His average header was valued at 0.12 xG in 2017/18. During the three seasons prior, that figure was never lower than 0.16 xG. That’s a 25% downturn.
The dip coincided with Madrid choosing to lump it into the box more than ever:
Madrid’s one-dimensional attack is well illustrated by their most frequent pass types. Look at the three seasons preceding 2017/18. The team wasn’t a one trick pony:
Then you have Zidane’s final season. Marcelo, Kroos and Isco would ensure the ball was in advanced areas on the left. The team would then send in cross after cross. The left touchline was severely congested:
If you need more evidence that the approach was actually different and not simply figured out, look at how Isco’s touches on the ball changed between those seasons. He went from primarily roaming to largely playing on the left touchline:
Zidane’s current reversion to a ‘whip it into the box’ approach is down to personnel. The squad isn’t built to withstand injuries to Isco, Hazard, and James Rodríguez. The team won’t cross the ball as much when healthy, as Hazard alone will help diversify the attack. With so many players out, Zidane was just looking for a quick fix, and he went to the strategy that once served him well.
A bigger issue will be transitioning away from Luka Modrić and, for as long as he plays, relying on Casemiro.
It’s worth noting just how much Casemiro’s role has changed. His performance in Zidane’s first Clásico, the one referenced in earlier clips, was among his best. The team sat deep, was well organized, and looked to release fast forwards on the counter. Casemiro was brilliant that night, playing a key role in shutting down Barcelona’s previously unstoppable MSN.
Those were simpler times at the Bernabéu. Teams would try and funnel the ball towards Casemiro before pressing, but Madrid could often bypass him in build-up because they had 2 generational central midfielders, Marcelo, and eventually Isco to compensate. In spite of all that, Casemiro’s weaknesses were exposed on occasion — his turnovers regularly caused defensive issues.
Now the team has come full circle and actually needs Casemiro to be good on the ball. With Modrić playing less, the Brazilian is the one responsible for buildup on the right side of midfield regardless of system.
In the 4-4-2 versus Villarreal, he was totally out of his depth. According to Whoscored, he had 96 touches to Kroos’ 80. That is a failure of the system. Casemiro pushed too far forward, as well, compensating for Madrid’s lack of midfielders between the lines. This shouldn’t be the heatmap of a player that should be sitting in front of the back four:
The drop off from Modrić to Casemiro is drastic. The difference goes beyond turnovers and awareness. Peak Modrić would find players in stride. He would rarely misplace a pass; instead, finding players with perfectly weighted balls. Casemiro even mishits passes that are on target, with the receiver needing an extra half second to control. At the top level, these little details make all the difference.
The changing midfield has implications for Madrid’s entire right hand side. Dani Carvajal’s attacking contributions have dipped with Modrić’s exhaustion and declining role. The Croatian was always the one to find Bale and Carvajal in good positions. Kroos often stayed on the left closer to Marcelo and, later, Isco. It’s no coincidence that Bale’s mediocre second season at Madrid coincided with Modrić missing a lot of time due to injury. This goes beyond friendship or even cliques, as has been suggested; Modrić’s ability to get the team flowing was second to none. His play gave the team attacking symmetry. As Luka’s form has dipped, Madrid’s attack has shifted to the left.
It is fair to say that with Marcelo, Isco and James, Casemiro wasn’t too badly exposed against Valladolid. But asymmetry was still an issue. Madrid’s attack flowed through the left more than the right. I don’t think Zidane can return to a remotely symmetric attack without benching the Brazilian.
I have trouble believing that Federico Valverde and a better defensive structure cannot replace Casemiro. But as long as the team is disorganized, employing a destroyer makes some sense. Even if Zidane chooses to try Valverde as the holding midfielder, he will have to organize the defense to truly find balance.
This points to the second issue created by Modrić’s absence. Zidane was largely able to circumvent attempts to organize the team during his first spell because of the Croatian. Modrić was the key to Madrid’s improvisational approach. His ability to plug any hole defensively, more than anyone else, made the team function.
Modrić would defend whatever position the team required. He would press high, defend wingers, track fullbacks and play holding midfield all in the same game. Most iconically, he marked David Alaba’s overlaps in the 2018 Champions League semifinals:
This is why I’ve long felt that Modrić was the team’s most important midfielder and one of the pillars of the side. He, along with Ronaldo, enabled Zidane’s approach to thrive with their singular production. Succeeding without them will prove much more challenging, meaning Zidane will have to step up his coaching.
How Will The Team Shape Up?
Predicting Zidane’s lineup is a fool’s errand, but he has a lot of talent at his disposal. There is also genuine competition for a few positions, which bodes well.
With Ferland Mendy’s arrival, the left back spot seems to be up for grabs. Marcelo is the clear choice in isolation. He’s arguably the best left back ever solely because of his dribbling and playmaking abilities. I think dribbling is a highly undervalued skill at his position. A fullback’s ball progression can totally transform a team’s ceiling in possession. They can transport the ball through a relatively safe area of the pitch, given that teams prioritize defending central areas. Few of the dominant teams in recent history deployed traditional fullbacks. Manchester City were in no small part eliminated from the Champions League last season because their fullbacks couldn’t progress the ball.
Mendy is a reliable progressor of the ball, though not the most press-resistant. But he isn’t in the same league offensively and likely never will be. Marcelo on the ball is equivalent to a world class attacker. Remember this run against Barcelona?
As good as that moment was, his run against Bayern will likely be remembered as his defining play:
If there’s an area where Mendy has an advantage, it’s defense. Don’t get me wrong — Marcelo’s defensive reputation is the result of the team leaning on him so much in attack. But Mendy’s comparatively limited attacking skills mean that he will always be positioned deeper. Their touch maps reflect this. Marcelo gets many more touches in advanced areas just because of his quality:
Mendy is a more static presence. He gets fewer touches as he approaches the final third:
There’s the small matter of Eden Hazard as well. The Belgian occupies advanced wide positions and could theoretically reduce the need for an overlapping threat. Perhaps Zidane takes advantage of Hazard’s skills and starts Mendy for defensive cover.
I doubt that Marcelo’s skills become redundant next to Hazard, though. Elite dribbling and playmaking usually scale well. Marcelo will alleviate Hazard’s responsibilities in deeper areas, allowing the Belgian to spend more time closer to goal. But, above all, Madrid’s left flank will become among the most deadly transition weapons once again.
Against high pressing teams, Marcelo will find Hazard running in behind. Only 18 months ago, he put in this peach of a pass against PSG:
Mendy will be a key rotation piece. He will keep Marcelo fresh for the games that matter, likely prolonging the Brazilian’s career. But I don’t expect the Frenchman to become first choice this season.
The same question applies to Benzema’s role in the team — does he combine well Hazard, enabling both to shoot more? Or does Hazard’s playmaking make it easier for Jović to bed into the team as a more traditional poacher?
This one is up for a lot more interpretation. Benzema could end up interchanging well with the Belgian, or end up producing too little. Regardless, Benzema’s tendencies to drift towards the ball will likely release Hazard in front of goal:
If the team fails to score enough, Benzema’s tendencies will become redundant. This was already an issue against Valladolid. Zidane started Marcelo, Isco, and James together, when the team could have used Jović’s poaching more than Benzema’s combination play during the first half. I think Jović may go as far as starting a significant number of league games this season based on that game, but Benzema’s link-up play should remain useful against the best teams.
Federico Valverde’s best shot at starting is also in league games. Against the best teams, Zidane will likely opt for Casemiro for defensive balance. But if the Brazilian continues to turn over the ball so frequently, I fully expect the coaching staff to make a change in games where Madrid dominate possession. Against Villarreal, he was dispossessed so frequently that it outweighed his defensive contributions.
The question of balance will rear its head throughout the season. I think Zidane may opt for a more offensive, goalscoring team for league games. For bigger games and Champions League ties, he could deploy a team better suited to play without the ball.
Bale’s willingness to track back to start the season is a big deal. Madrid defending with five midfielders is the type of defensive adjustment that could spur Zidane’s tenure to success.
If they simply track back as a collective, imbalanced lineups start looking potent. I think the most probable lineup has Bale in the ‘Ronaldo’ role of previous seasons, and a ‘number ten’ instead of Modrić.
There is a chance that the first lineup proves to be too weak defensively. For bigger games, then, we may see a throwback eleven, with no attacking midfielder or a diamond:
Both those lineups are fittingly similar to the misfiring team of last season. Madrid was never in need of an overhaul as much as they needed tweaks and rest.
Hazard, alone, should give the team a new dimension. His speed will be useful in big games and Clásicos, where he can exploit spaces in-behind defenses. We already saw a hint of this with Vinícius in the starting lineup last season:
Ultimately, those were only hints because of Vinícius’ wastefulness in front of goal. His finishing technique isn’t particularly clean yet:
And his vision still needs work too:
Hazard is a much more polished player. Obviously, his vision and finishing are better, but his ability to draw contact and sell fouls is superior, too. Madrid likely walk away from that Copa del Rey 2nd leg encounter with a victory if he is put in the same positions in the box. Playing next to the best talent of his club career, the Belgian is primed for a great season.
Zidane does prefer to change systems instead of using like-for-like replacements. In the event of injuries, we could see lineups that range between absurd and brilliant.
One example of the absurd lineup was the 4-4-2. He’s always been reluctant to use Isco as a third central midfielder and he doesn’t like playing James Rodríguez as a wide midfielder. In the event that he feels the need for a hard working right midfielder, he will likely opt for Lucas Vázquez.
But there is an absurd amount of talent on this team. Injuries and form may unlock even more deadly lineups that are hard to ignore on merit:
Asensio’s injury does hurt a bit, here. He was a more robust and frequently available option than both Bale and James. His athleticism and combinatory qualities could have enabled an energetic, vertical style. He was primed to start on the right-wing. There’s a chance that Bale still has the speed of years past — and, as noted earlier, he has been very willing to track back — but, unfortunately, his body could betray him at any point.
Ultimately, I think the same injuries and inconsistencies in form that lead to tinkering will hurt Madrid in the league. Without the versions of Ronaldo and Modrić he once had, I doubt Zidane reaches 90 points. The one time he won the league had an incredible plan B in Morata. “Cross to Jović” won’t be enough here. It may be till January before he finds his best lineup. The team is relying heavily on James, Isco and Hazard to rejuvenate the offense without compromising the defense. There is a scenario where they win the league, but skepticism is warranted.
A deep Champions League run is a serious possibility. Zidane’s overarching approach is conducive to success in the world’s toughest competition. He will tinker often and trust his players and, with a star-studded squad, that may prove to be enough yet again.
All expected goals figures are courtesy of Understat.