The piece below is a follow-up to a previous six-month performance review of Zinedine Zidane’s tenure, to read that segment: click here
It is now been a year since Zidane returned to Real Madrid to play the savior and help the club rise from the ashes. “There will be changes” was the quote pulled from his return press conference and plastered on to the cover of MARCA for the following day. Many assumed that those changes were in reference to an imminent squad revolution in the summer. In hindsight, it seems those changes were simply in reference to the on-field performance, not the personnel. Most would agree that the overall on-field aesthetics of the team have been better, the defensive solidity has improved, and the gap vs Barcelona in the league has been significantly reduced. But, the key to truly evaluating Zidane’s performance will not be in the current 50 game record of 28 wins, 10 losses, and 12 draws, but rather the deeper underlying statistics — i.e. xG (expected goals), xGA (expected goals against), xPTS (expected points), and deep ball completions (passes completed — excluding crosses — 20 yards from the oppositions goal). The culmination of this data over Zidane’s year in charge will be far more telling.
Maybe we start with the lack of major changes. The club brought in reinforcements with Luka Jovic, Eden Hazard, Ferland Mendy, Rodrygo Goes, and Eder Militao all forming as part of the squad in 2019-2020. Despite the influx of talent, the starting XI more or less stayed the same for Zidane. Jovic and Hazard were meant to bring goals and close the lingering gap left behind by Cristiano Ronaldo. There was a general acknowledgment by fans and media alike that the goals would need to be spread across multiple positions, as Eden Hazard was not a like-for-like replacement for Cristiano and Luka Jovic would likely play second-fiddle to Karim Benzema. Thus the summer was rife with rumors of Paul Pogba, Donny Van de Beek, and even a week of apparent interest in Bruno Fernandes. The common trait between the three aforementioned names is their high end production numbers from midfield. Each were among the elite in terms of goal contributions – goals, assists, and key passes.
Despite the persistent rumors, Madrid ended up not signing an additonal midfielder and instead retained the former Bayern Munich loanee James Rodriguez. Zidane was able to reinvigorate the likes of Kroos and Casemiro while unearthing Valverde and trickling out glimpses of the best of Luka Modric. The goal contribution from midfield ended up being the least of Madrid’s problems this season. In fact, compared to other top European sides and league leaders, Madrid’s midfield provided the most goal contributions of any team. That is aside from Manchester City, where Kevin De Bruyne’s numbers remain an insane anomaly:
If you reduced Kevin De Bruyne’s 9 goals and 20 assists, to Manchester City’s average for a midfielder – 3 goals and 5 assists – they would still remain as leaders, but with just three more goal contributions than second placed Real Madrid at 44.
Zidane has seen his midfield step up since returning, yet the team are still dramatically off their expected goals; the team is off by 10% to be exact. Karim Benzema shouldered the goal-scoring burden for the early part of the season, but when his form started to drift after the turn of the year, no other forward has taken the responsibility. The idea was for Eden Hazard and Luka Jovic to help cover much of the gap, but the Belgian has spent most of the season injured and the Serbian has not found his feet at Madrid with sporadic minutes making it impossible to find a rhythm. If La Liga returns this season, and Madrid want to truly challenge for the title, Zidane needs to find goals from his other forward options. The Frenchman has bizarrely ostracized 2nd - top goal scorer Rodrygo Goes. Couple that with the very limited minutes provided to Mariano, a 20-plus goal scorer during his year in Lyon, and it appears Zidane does have alternative options to his current “defaults” to help close the variance to the team’s xG woes.
There is a revealing pattern in the above data – Madrid’s away form. They struggle to generate quality chances away from home. An xG of 55.7 at home vs an xG of 32.3 away from home, that’s a 42% decrease in quality goal-scoring chances created away from the Santiago Bernabeu. Of the 25 points dropped in the league in the 2019-2020 season, 68% have come away from home.
What could be causing the poor results? Zidane may be approaching away fixtures too cautiously. On average, Zidane’s Madrid complete about 2 less passes in the oppositions final third then they do while playing at home. They also allow the opposing team one extra completed pass 20 yards from their own goal in those same away matches. Those numbers are significant. One could infer that Zidane’s Real Madrid are not pressing high enough or transitioning quickly enough to defense when they lose the ball. If the team was higher up the pitch when winning the ball back, there would be a greater opportunity to increase their deep completion numbers. Likewise, with a more organized high press away from home, it would be more difficult for the opposing team to break Madrid’s lines and complete any passes in their final third as they would struggle to build out.
Overall when looking at the team’s deep completions in a vacuum—for both home and away matches — there is room for further improvement. Zidane’s men average around 9 deep completions per match while their La Liga title rivals, Barcelona, are closer to 12. Fortunately for Madrid, they have one of the league leaders in “creative passes” out on loan at Real Sociedad. If recalled, Odegaard would likely help improve Madrid’s deep completion numbers.
Compared against other elite attacking teams like Liverpool and Manchester City, Zidane’s men are far off the pace. If the goal-scoring numbers are going to improve, with our without reinforcements, then Zidane needs to start with a greater focus on progressive final third passes.
Where the French manager deserves massive credit, is an area which previously wasn’t associated with his tactical resume, the squad’s defensive solidity. Real Madrid have one of the best defenses in Europe. The integration of Ferland Mendy and Fede Valverde coupled with the return to form of Casemiro, Sergio Ramos, and Varane has molded this defense into an insurmountable wall. Their goals against numbers are 20% better than what they were expected to concede this season! This holds true for the combined Champions League and La Liga numbers. The team has conceded 29 goals vs an xGA of 36 goals. Only Getafe has bettered Madrid’s “opponent’s deep completion” (ODC) numbers. Forget the league, this is one of the best Real Madrid defenses in history.
In conclusion, Zidane’s twelve months in charge has definitely improved the team and made Los Blanocs far more competitive. Against the top six sides in La Liga, Madrid have taken an impressive 18 points out of 24, without a loss to either Barcelona or Atletico Madrid. The team’s defensive numbers are among the best in its illustrious history. The Cristiano Ronaldo goal-scoring void is still the elephant in the room for Zidane. His “plan A” of Hazard and Jovic, in tandem with additional midfield production, did not go as expected. The midfield was revived and produced their numbers, but Hazard’s injuries and Jovic’s poor form leaves the team short. The reintroduction of Rodrygo Goes and the continued minutes to Mariano could be a short term fix. In the off-season, Zidane will need to identify opportunities for more progressive passes and a more organized high press to win the ball higher up the pitch. This will give the team more opportunities to improve their deep completion numbers and create more goal scoring opportunities, especially when away from home. A fit and healthy Hazard will do wonders for Madrid’s deep completions as would a player like Martin Odegaard.
In terms of “expected points”, Madrid would be in 1st place in La Liga, 2 points above Barcelona had they performed closer to their xG levels. There is reason to be optimistic as a Real Madrid fan. Despite some strange team selection’s in recent months, Zidane has the squad on the right path and has revived a team that was a shadow of itself just twelve months prior.