Zinedine Zidane took Real Madrid from disappointments to champions.
Exactly 248 days after guiding Real Madrid to their greatest Champions League dynasty in the modern era, the prodigal son returned to the Santiago Bernabeu and put his legacy on the line in an attempt to commandeer what seemed to look like a sinking ship in Madrid.
When President Florentino Perez confirmed the appointment of Zinedine Zidane as the head coach to lead the Los Blancos for the 2019-20 season over other rumored names, fans were shocked and equally excited. Even though Zizou led the men in white to nine trophies in his initial reign and the famous Champions League three-peat, supporters were skeptical of this appointment.
Lack of firepower along with several other problems lead to Julen Lopetegui and Santiago Solari getting the boot in the same season, which turned out to be one of the worst seasons for the Blancos in recent years. They got humiliated in the Round of 16 of the Champions League by Ajax in their own backyard and ended third in the league behind champions Barcelona and city rivals Atletico Madrid.
Even though there were several looks of improvements by both Lopetegui and Solari, it wasn’t enough to keep going because in the end, only the silverware talks for a club of Real Madrid’s distinction.
It wasn’t smooth sailing for Zinedine Zidane at first
This seemed like a monstrous task for the Frenchman, especially with the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo. An already aging core which looked like the dire-win mentality they were famous for, had dried up after their Champions League dynasty.
Given his status at the club, taking this rebuild into his hands seemed like a gamble even for a man with the hottest CV in managerial football. A 7-3 loss to City rivals Atletico Madrid in a pre-season friendly just pulled more doubters than believers.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing in the league for Zizou. There were rough patches in the first few months and Zizou’s position at the club was a topic of discussion in the media. Some wondered if Zidane’s managerial legacy would be washed out just because he decided to come back. He always mentioned in the press conferences that the squad will keep improving and that the results would show for the work put in.
Fast-forward a year, Zinedine Zidane and his squad are now the champions of Spain and have secured the La Liga title over eternal rivals Barcelona. To top this off, Real Madrid now boasts of the best defensive record in Spain as well as in the top five European leagues this season.
Real Madrid had trouble at forward after losing Cristiano Ronaldo
Zinedine Zidane lost over 50 goals a season with the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo. It didn’t exactly help him that his marquee signing Eden Hazard turned up at Real Madrid for his first season looking out of shape, out of form and his season disrupted constantly due to injuries. He lost another goal-scoring winger in Marco Asensio as he ruptured his ACL in a pre-season friendly and was out for almost a year.
Gareth Bale looked out of form while Luka Jovic, Brahim Diaz, Mariano, and Lucas Vazquez had their fair share of injuries. This meant he had to somehow find a way to get the attack ticking by mix-matching youngsters Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo alongside Karim Benzema, who looked like the only notable goalscorer in the squad.
Many fans don’t seem to understand the magnitude of impact that Zinedine Zidane has on the current squad and season. I’m not sure if any manager in the world could have replicated this feat, with the visible lack of firepower and lack of goals in the lineup. Zidane had to do something to make things work, especially with the departure of CR7.
Even though Real Madrid or Zizou’s Madrid are least known as a defensive side, the Frenchman decided to focus on the defensive aspect of games. He remodeled the defensive system/structure and made sure it wasn’t down to heroics to win games.
Real Madrid were led by a reformed and world-class defense
With Ferland Mendy being the new star in the back four and Thibaut Courtois in stellar form, the Real Madrid backline only conceded 25 goals in 38 gameweeks – a record better than Diego Simeone’s Atleti and that speaks a lot.
They have only conceded only 18 goals from open play, and statistics showed that they should’ve conceded 23 (Expected Goals to be Conceded (xGA) according to understat.com).
Thibaut Courtois arguably has been the best goalkeeper in Spain keeping 18 clean sheets and making a staggering 76 saves this season.
Goals Conceded by Real Madrid in recent years in a league season:
Conceded 38 goals (1.00 per game) in the 2014-15 season under Carlo Ancelotti
Conceded 34 goals (0.89 per game) in the 2015-16 season under Zinedine Zidane
Conceded 41 goals (1.08 per game) in the 2016-17 season under Zinedine Zidane
Conceded 44 goals (1.16 per game) in the 2017-18 season under Zinedine Zidane
Conceded 46 goals (1.21 per game) in the 2018-19 season under Lopetegui and Solari.
Conceded only 25 goals in the 2019-20 season under Zinedine Zidane. (0.66 goals per game)
From a backline that used to leak goals on the counter-attack to boasting the best defensive record in Europe’s top 5 leagues, the work has been nothing short of monumental and has been the story of the season under Zidane.
Here we take a look at the key changes made in gameplay by Zidane and how Real Madrid look in terms of structural and systematic play.
Pressure and defensive structure
Real Madrid under Zizou have a different organised pressing scheme.
Orchestrated by Karim Benzema up front, they force the opposition to move the ball to their fullbacks in the buildup, cutting passing lanes in between the defenders by body positioning/shadowing a press.
Real Madrid fullbacks Daniel Carvajal and Ferland Mendy/Marcelo man-mark the opposition wingers which forces the opponent to use either route-one football/long balls or go back to the goalkeeper. If the ball is played over the top due to pressure, Madrid win the ball back in deeper areas of the pitch.
When the opponent is in possession in Phase II, the midfield trio settles conservatively inside their own half, rather than pressing high which would often result in turnovers.
As the play progresses, one of Kroos or Modric/Valverde goes in for the press with Casemiro right in behind playing the destroyer role and sweeping balls in case they get dribbled past. The ball is won in the deeper areas of the pitch with Sergio Ramos commanding the backline perfectly.
Every player has a marker in check when the opposition builds in Phase II.
In buildup, Real Madrid play from the back aided by Ramos and Varane while Carvajal and Mendy move to the baselines out wide, stretching the pitch and the opposition press.
Casemiro moves up the pitch in a central position moving his marker along with him while Toni Kroos drops deep collecting the ball. With Kroos’ exceptional ball playing abilities, Real Madrid seamlessly get past Phase I while Luka Modric advances upfront pulling the midfield back into settled shape.
In Phase II, Carvajal and Mendy move up in a RWB and LWB role providing width. Real patiently progress the ball pushing the opponent to settle back as they do it, with the backline slowly moving upfront as well.
One of Madrid’s biggest strengths this season has been the way they keep the ball in possession in the opponent’s half, resisting pressure with ease.
As they build up patiently, whenever either Carvajal or Mendy has the ball in tight spaces, the midfielder and the centre back form a triangle with the fullback – successfully keeping possession without giving away the ball. Whenever there is a press, they shrug off pressure going back/building again or work with quick touches and open up spaces.
Modric and Carvajal frequently run into empty spaces and take up advanced positions that constantly change the opposition shape.
In Phase 3 – the final third, Ferland Mendy, Toni Kroos, Luka Modric, Casemiro, and Carvajal form a flat five in midfield creating a numerical overload which also gives an ease in ball circulation. The LW and RW come inside and tuck in between the lines allowing either Carvajal or Mendy to exploit the space on the outside.
Carvajal or Mendy put in a low cross to the 6-yard or the 18-yard box when in space creating a dangerous situation and often ends up with a shot.
The majority of Real Madrid’s attack comes from the channels or the wings. (overloading midfield and exploiting spaces)
If the opposition takes the gamble to mark the fullbacks while both the wingers stay inside, ample space opens in middle of the park allowing the Real Madrid Midfield to take a shot or to play a pass between the lines. More than half of Real’s shots have come from the middle of the park. (Overloads › exploit space on the wings › play the ball into the 18-yard box )
Real have scored 52 goals from the 18-yard box, 10 goals from the 6-yard box and 7 goals from outside the box
With the acquisition of French fitness coach Gregory Dupont, Real Madrid have increased the intensity of pressing as well as their gameplay compared to the previous years.
They have scored 41 goals in the second half compared to 29 goals in the first half. Real Madrid have always managed to drill through when the game seems to be heading for a stalemate. They increase the intensity in their gameplay during games like these and have been rewarded. They have scored 11 goals from 61-75 minutes and 15 goals after the 75-minute mark alone. (Source: Understat)
They’ve managed to find goals in every manner possible, be it penalties, set-pieces or from open-play; they have always managed to clutch on whenever the game seemed to be getting out of hand. They’ve scored 49 goals from open play and 11/11 goals from penalties with Sergio Ramos taking on the responsibility after the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo.
Different roles and balance
It is not easy to keep everyone content in a star-studded squad like Madrid with minimal game time. Most players could leave and still land starting spots in other big clubs. However, Zidane has managed to keep almost the whole squad fairly content with their roles to the team. Real Madrid this season has 21 different goal scorers in a single season which exactly highlights the contributions from each individual. Real Madrid have a very good squad depth meaning that there are no huge differences in quality in case of injuries and suspensions.
Alphonse Areola for Thibaut Courtois, Lucas Vazquez for Daniel Carvajal, Eder Militao/Nacho to cover for Sergio Ramos or Raphael Varane, Marcelo for Ferland Mendy, Fede Valverde for Casemiro or Luka Modric, Isco/James Rodriguez for Toni Kroos, Vinicius Jr for Eden Hazard, Luka Jovic/Mariano for Karim Benzema and Marco Asensio/Gareth Bale/Brahim Diaz for the youngster Rodrygo.
The contributions from every single player in the squad are the reason that Madrid have crossed the final hurdle. Be it a big win or grinding out results, the Real Madrid squad have seen it through all.
Zizou’s influence on this side are much more than what the statistics show. Real Madrid’s favorite son practically steered away the ship that was heading into an iceberg.
Zinedine Zidane instilled a new mentality at Real Madrid
For me, the biggest positive from Zidane’s season is revitalizing the hunger in the same squad that looked lost just a year ago. He instilled in the squad with the same mentality and belief that won them the three-peat.
The problem of an aging core doesn’t even look like an issue right now. Sergio Ramos and Luka Modric look like they’ve turned back time while Karim Benzema had a wonderful season as he finished number two on the top scorers’ list with 21 goals, falling only behind Lionel Messi.
Everyone comes in and fights for the win – be it a substitute or a starter. Every person on the pitch wanted that La Liga title and that is exactly what differentiated them from the rest. That is something that even having the best tactician in the world won’t get you.
You don’t know what Zidane does or say in the backroom, but it is impossible to find his players looking uninterested on the pitch. He’s a genius as far as we are concerned, a manager capable of setting up his team to their strengths and motivating them to the fullest. Watching Real Madrid play every single week, watching every single player try to give in absolutely everything on the pitch is truly a wonderful sight for a fan.
The road ahead for Zinedine Zidane, Real Madrid
Ever since the restart the squad looked hungrier than ever, fitter than ever they’ve looked in the whole season and make no mistake about it – it’s sheer determination and the grit mentality along with the performances that match it, that have made them cross the final lap as the champions of Spain.
Winning both the La Liga title and the Spanish Supercup, this has been a brilliant season for Zidane and his squad.
Right now there seem to be a lot of doubts and questions piling up after Real were kicked out of Champions League in the round of 16 to Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. There seem to be a lot of questions to be answered and a lot of problems to be solved.
The Frenchman probably lets out his usual half-smile as he prepares his squad for yet another season and hopefully yet another story to tell.
Like always, only time will tell.