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How Zidane Guided Real Madrid To A League Title Without His Most Crucial Weapon - Ronaldo

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Kiyan Sobhani’s column, on how Zinedine Zidane pulled off a League title two years after both he and Cristiano Ronaldo left.

Villarreal CF v Real Madrid - La Liga match Photo by Maria Jose Segovia/NurPhoto via Getty Images

These observations — where I look at Real Madrid’s history, its players on loan, Castilla, tactical tidbits, and other relevant thoughts — are now a regular thing. All previous editions can be found here.


At Valdebebas on May 31st 2018, Real Madrid announced to the media — with almost unparalleled short notice — that they were to hold a press conference that same day. The night before, Florentino Perez and Zinedine Zidane had a private chat. The day after — and not long after Real Madrid had beaten Liverpool in Kiev, and not long before Cristiano Ronaldo said goodbye — Florentino looked at Zidane with puppy eyes, facing the elusive alternate reality that for once, he didn’t sack anyone. He watched as Zidane said his unexpected goodbye.

“Until soon” was Zidane’s memorable quote from that day. Everyone knew the door was still open, to some capacity, for him to return. Maybe he would be the Jupp Heynckes of Real Madrid. Leave, return when needed, win, leave again, return when needed, win, ‘retire’. Few knew that Zidane would leave and return to not only reopen the door less than a year later — but to knock it down and win a league title within his second year back.

“I am doing this for the good of this team, for this club,” Zidane said the day he left the post as Real Madrid manager. “It would have been difficult for me to win again next year.”

“...If I do not see clearly that we are going to continue winning, a moment comes when you say better to step aside.”

That came as a surprise. Some said he was a genius to leave when he did. (He was.)

Zidane is one of Real Madrid’s greatest ever players. When he took over mid-season from Rafa Benitez in 2016, some were concerned about his legacy. It doesn’t end well for anyone at Real Madrid, regardless of what your name is. Zidane already had the respect of fans. This wasn’t supposed to go well, based on evidence from the past 60 years of manager roulette. Most thought Zidane was a mere transitory presence. A placeholder — a traditional Castilla promotee and eventual martyr.

Still, there was a sense of excitement from his appointment that overshadowed the anxiety and overall gloomy state Benitez left the squad with. Even if this project tanked, how much worse could it get? Zidane is still Zidane. We remember Alfredo di Stefano as a superstar, not as a mediocre manager. If Zidane didn’t work out, we’d move on, and the history books would barely remember.

But Zidane had different standards. In his first game in charge against Deportivo la Coruña, the Bernabeu was electric, and the team was recharged with a psychological boost that comes with a new manager — only this was loaded with an extra jolt from a legendary figure. Some players lacked respect for Benitez because he never played at a professional level. Zidane, in comparison, was a Greek God.

That night, Real Madrid smacked Depor 5 - 0 at the Bernabeu. When things normalized, the regression to the mean was not that severe. Zidane lost just one game in the league after being appointed as manager in January, and picked up 55 out of a possible 60 remaining league points — including a victory at Camp Nou. The Champions League trophy ensued. And another, and another. He made history, then made it again, just to ensure it would be absurd if anyone were to surpass what he did in our lifetime.

What started as an interim role rolled over into a dynasty. Zidane joined Miguel Muñoz’s mythical bracket. The team just couldn’t stop winning trophies. Zidane now has 11 pieces of silverware — three shy of Muñoz’s club record.

It’s been pointed out so many times before but worth pointing out again: What Zidane has done is unprecedented, not only in Real Madrid circles, but in the annals of football history. Only Miguel Muñoz has achieved a European dynasty on this scale.

When Cristiano Ronaldo left Real Madrid shortly after Zidane did, it felt like two major organs were gutted from the club’s body, left to bleed out a cyclical death. By that time, Zidane had a crack at two full seasons. He won the league in one of them, and spiralled in the other. He came back mid-season in 2019 to inherit a lost cause, and could not do much to revive a team that was, for all intents and purposes, dead and lifeless. His sole aim was to see up close what the damage was. Which players still had a pulse?

What Zidane decided to do with the roster over the summer went against the status quo. Real Madrid’s heartbeat during the comatose 2018 - 2019 season came from young players: Sergio Reguilon, Marcos Llorente, Vinicius Jr, Dani Ceballos. The veteran core from the three-peat suffered a severe World Cup hangover. Zidane put his trust in the ageing core — most of whom underperformed as Real Madrid withered. One season later, that trust has paid off. It’s easy to scrutinize decisions — even wrong ones — but impossible to argue against the final results. Zidane proved that a ‘revolution’ (a word used often to explain the dramatic upheaval needed to fix the team’s issues) is not always necessary. Sometimes pragmatism, tweaks, and patience wins.

Sometimes it’s hard to hedge towards continuity when things hit rock bottom, but football often proves breakthroughs can follow swiftly enough if you stick the course without panicking. Zidane was always good at ignoring outside noise. He built the squad in his eyes, and even gutted some of the team’s depth. He inherited a squad that was virtually identical to the one Solari and Lopetegui had, then in the summer, added two pieces: Ferland Mendy and Eden Hazard. Hazard has bounced in and (mostly) out of the lineup. He’s contributed sporadically, in key moments. But Zidane has not relied on him for the bulk of offensive invention. Mendy has been a huge two-way presence.

That is far from a revolution. The only uprising Zidane stirred was not so much from a squad construction standpoint, but from a tactical one: Casemiro’s positioning became more rigid, and even when he’d snap out of line the central midfielders would shield him. Valverde emerged. Ramos and Varane were no longer left treading water alone in transition. Courtois improved. The team’s press did not improve in any significant way (PPDA remained the same from last season to this one; and pressures in the final third dropped by about 300 total), but the team’s overall shape did. The team’s xGA dropped from 48.68 to 33.15.

Zidane has been jabbed by many for releasing young talent like Alvaro Morata (Zidane will forever by vindicated), Mateo Kovacic, Marcos Llorente, and Achraf Hakimi. Question marks still loom over players like Ceballos, Odegaard, Kubo, Reguilon, and others. (We have not been exempt from this, although we ask questions more than we scrutinize, and ultimately nothing is black and white. Football is holistic.) Zidane may not have had a choice in the Kovacic and Achraf deals given the playing time either of those two players wanted. With Llorente, Zidane didn’t seem enamoured. Llorente has now found a home as an integral part of Simeone’s scheme in a new role. Players succeed elsewhere. The club has to detach itself from that. You can’t entertain every good player that exists.

It is yet to be seen how much some of those departures will affect the club long-term. You don’t always feel the hit immediately. But there is only so much you can do to jostle the team’s core with young up-and-coming talent. That is why it can be so hard to sustain winning beyond a handful of years. The club has done a good job of keeping a steady flow of young talent to breathe life into the lungs of the team.

What Zidane lost in Kovacic, he gained in Valverde. To be clear, Fede and Mateo are two different types of players — but both fill in for an ageing Modric in different ways. Kovacic is the better dribbler and ball-carrier. He grinds defensively. Fede is a ball of energy, an underrated line-breaker and undervalued offensive menace. He covers ground better than anyone on the current roster not named peak-Modric. Fede’s timeline worked better with Zidane’s roster-juggling than Kovacic’s, who became good enough to demand a starting role elsewhere.

(Kovacic’s situation is slightly more complex than mere playing time. Something deeper did exist which made the Croatian happier in London, even after a season where he spent large stretches getting benched behind Ross Barkley and Ruben Loftus-Cheek. Now he’s flying under Frank Lampard’s wing.)

Fede was too young and too unproven when he broke into the team to demand anything. It’s also worth noting that while he was in the team when Zidane took over, Zidane unearthed a different version of him, then unchained the Uruguayan as a crux of the team. Fede under Lopetegui and Solari was a squad player. Fede under Zidane was a new signing.

Real Madrid are not infallible with their decision making. Far from it. No team should be praised blindly for everything they decide to do. The board can often sell and keep the wrong players. But they have put themselves in positions to recover when said mistakes arise. Having an infinite amount of young wingers gives them leverage and abundance. They are not toast like some other clubs are when they lose out on a future star. Valverde coming up as Kovacic leaves requires luck, but the club put themselves into that fortuitous position by keeping the blood of young talent pumping through.

Real Madrid under Solari and Lopetegui were, on average, mediocre — with some peaks and multiple valleys. Lopetegui’s idea of succeeding the Cristiano Ronaldo era — one that would be defunct of goals — was to create a counter-pressing and possession blueprint to mask the team’s weak defense. Score less? Concede less. Can’t defend? Do it with ball retention while stopping attacks in the opponent’s half. But Lopetegui’s pressing dropped off a cliff after an initial honeymoon. Bale dropped off a cliff too. Players regressed. Goals dried up to a historically bad level, and the transition defense melted.

Solari took a different approach. He focused on defense, and believed that the team needed to be rejuvenated. He felt the older players were full of success, and not hungry enough. He sidestepped away from the emphasis on possession, dug up Llorente, Reguilon, and Vinicius, and went to work. Some of that was thrilling, even if ugly to watch through stretches. We got a glimpse of Reguilon’s feistiness over the course of the season (in particular some of his Madridismo in games against Atletico and Barcelona), and saw up close how good Llorente was defensively and with the ball at his feet under pressure. Vinicius’s development was accelerated to an unexpected level. It was, admittedly, kind of exciting. At the very least, Llorente was showcased and had his value boosted before being sold.

But the club never truly saw the team in contention for major trophies under Solari, even if cute moments arose. As Solari bounced out of all competitions in the span of one week, Real Madrid reached out to Zidane, per source, but were turned away. Things turned again, though, and Zidane returned to the club under certain stipulations: full control.

There was real reason to believe that the club may have rushed into things by bringing Zidane back so early. The season was lost. No manager was going to turn this around into a trophy. Had the club waited until the summer, Zidane would’ve still been there, and they could’ve explored multiple different options, including one Mauricio Pochettino. But one of Zidane’s reported stipulations was to come in mid-season to view the team’s mental and physical health under a microscope. That would make his decisions for the ensuing summer more calculated.

Of course, the tone is naturally optimistic after winning the league title. Real Madrid almost didn’t. It came down to the second last matchday, against the worst Barcelona side in some 12 years. If Barcelona — five points away — somehow climbed to the top in their state, this quickly goes from a celebration to a morgue.

These margin of errors are fine. What if Real Madrid don’t earn that penalty against Getafe, when their attack was paralyzed? What if Courtois doesn’t create that chaos in the last second, from a corner kick, against Valencia at Mestalla? Those moments are out of Zidane’s control. The ball either bounces his way or doesn’t. In the end, does it matter? No champion is unscathed from lady luck.

Of course, there is an easy counter to all of this. What if Real Madrid get those penalty calls they should’ve gotten at Camp Nou? This would’ve been over sooner. What Courtois did at Mestalla is the stuff you reflect back on and say ‘these are the games that win us the title.’ If Ramos didn’t score that penalty against Getafe, the team still crippled Bordalas’s men with their defense. This team carved out its own path, put themselves in a position to win, and improved their defense — all things that helped them rebound from the games they dropped points in where they shouldn’t have.

Perhaps the biggest hidden wrinkle amid this title run are the seeds planted for the future. After the title-clinching win over Villarreal, Florentino Perez stated that the club won’t be making any additional signings this transfer window. As Florentino implied, that may not even change any time soon — including next season — if the global situation doesn’t improve. He does not want the players to take any further salary cuts, nor does he want to rub salt in the players’ wounds any further by using their salary cuts to purchase players that would compete with them for a starting spot — or ultimately even replace them.

What fans need to remember is that the team already has potential ‘new’ signings within its current roster. Hazard and Asensio barely played this season. Having both healthy almost feels like having two news signings for the 2020 - 2021 campaign, and gives the team a new-found offensive ceiling. Rodrygo and Vinicius Jr will be improved players. That’s what continuity brings. No signings — in certain positions at least — forces you to play the cards you have and levelling-up with them. It’s like a video game character gaining new strengths with each passing level. Chelsea may be the best example of this forced method. Their transfer ban forced (or, in a more positive light, allowed) them to polish gems from their academy, putting them in possibly a better position than they would’ve been had they splashed cash and signed players that would’ve hindered the development of those young talented players.

Looking back now, some were too optimistic about the outlook post-Ronaldo; and others were too doom-and-gloom. It was always going to take a lot to recover and rediscover your verve after losing the greatest player in club history. Problems also existed when Ronaldo was in the team — that was obvious as the team drowned itself in a whirlpool of bad performances and bad results in the apathetic league campaign of 2017 - 2018. People also underestimated just how big the collective uptick needed to be to make up for Ronaldo’s absence. That uptick never arrived apart from Benzema’s heightened contribution. Those who thought Ronaldo’s departure would give the team a chance to find some stability by slotting in a more defensive-oriented winger probably overestimated how much of a difference that would actually make. Vinicius was tremendous defensively in his breakout season, and worked every blade of glass to help Marcelo and Reguilon. The team’s transition defense was still cataclysmic.

There is precedence for sports teams losing their all-time greats, and having a reasonable turnaround. I won’t go down the rabbit hole, but one glaring one was Barcelona losing Ronaldinho shortly after losing to Real Madrid 4 - 1 in the infamous pasillo humiliation in 2008. But that was a freak turnaround, as Messi, Xavi, and Iniesta arose to the call. Real Madrid don’t have the next Ronaldo ready to go. A player of that ‘ilk’ may not arrive until (unless) Mbappe does. Hazard was supposed to bridge the gap, but he was rarely available. That makes what Zidane did this season even more impressive. He sold everyone their role. The players bought in.

“Zidane once again proved he’s an excellent person. He makes us calm, he’s very polite when he approaches his players,” Modric said this week. “There are always players who don’t play as much as they like and that makes sense, but Zidane’s approach affected how those players felt they were a part of this team so that they accepted their role. We have great people in this dressing room, nobody creates issues, we have no bad apples,”