Real Madrid: Where Zinedine Zidane went wrong at Shakhtar Donetsk

Real Madrid, Zinedine Zidane (Photo by Stanislav Vedmid/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)
Real Madrid, Zinedine Zidane (Photo by Stanislav Vedmid/DeFodi Images via Getty Images) /

There were a number of reasons for Real Madrid’s loss to Shakhtar Donetsk, but tactical attacking decisions were at the forefront.

Real Madrid are spiraling after back-to-back losses to Deportivo Alaves and Shakhtar Donetsk. At no point in either match did Los Blancos look like a competent team, least of all a team on the level expected at this club.

Shakhtar Donetsk manager Luis Castro succinctly summed up a large part of Real’s struggles this season. They simply cannot create against teams in even an average block. All a team needs to do is sit back, let Real spam crosses, and counter the living hell out of them. And that’s exactly how Shakhtar won both of their matches against Real Madrid.

It is important not to overreact to Real’s loss. Zinedine Zidane should not be fired, and the issues go well beyond the man in the coach’s seat. Los Blancos have suffered some major injuries and lack squad consistency. But at the same time, Shakhtar suffered even bigger losses to their lineup and won, and you’d still expect Real’s backups to be capable of beating the opposition.

So a lot does fall on Zidane, just as it falls on the players who did not finish their chances or made absolutely abysmal mistakes to help Shakhtar on their way.

But the first crucial mistake Zidane made was with his lineup selection, which made no sense. In many ways, he doomed Los Blancos to fail with how he organized his attack.

The players he picked to start weren’t bad at all. With Fede Valverde out and Casemiro struggling, a midfield of Martin Odegaard, Luka Modric, and Toni Kroos was probably the strongest trio he could have picked.

But there were issues of execution specific to the gameplan. Modric and Kroos played well together in a double-pivot, but there wasn’t a real organization to how the midfield played at Shakhtar. Sometimes Kroos and Modric would play deep, sometimes Modric and Odegaard would be in advanced roles, and sometimes Modric and Odegaard would drift a little too wide. Modric was exposed defensively on counters, the mileage of the season picking up on him. And Odegaard found little joy offensively despite his best efforts, since the pitch was so clogged.

Casemiro not playing hurt Real defensively against counters, and they didn’t need the added press-resistance against a team that was not pressing. They lost a player who could bomb forward into the box and score headed goals in a game in which their attacking gameplan was focused on crossing,

Because the biggest issue was the tactical setup at the wide forward positions, which has been Real’s problem spot whenever Eden Hazard isn’t healthy (which is, sadly, often). It’s why Madridistas are so keen on the team going all-in for Kylian Mbappe this coming summer.

Marco Asensio started on the left and Rodrygo Goes started on the right, meaning Real Madrid were starting wide forwards who were cutting inside on their weaker foots, thus more inclined to stay wide and cross. With Karim Benzema, who likes to drift wide to the left himself, starting, that was hardly an ideal move.

Shakhtar were very glad with this decision, and they were even happier that Zinedine Zidane foolishly never adjusted the plan by swapping Rodrygo and Asensio on the wings as he did earlier this year when they both started a La Liga match.

Asensio and Rodrygo did their best, but they were put in a bad spot. The crossing from everyone but right back Lucas Vazquez was ineffective, nobody was really in the box, and Shakhtar had a joy clearing the ball with aerial dominance and generating counters against such a listless attack.

There was no plan. Real Madrid could have shifted to a more central attacking approach with Martin Odegaard running as a “point guard” of sorts in the attacking third, but he was isolated from the match, as his Sofascore heat map will show. And with Ferland Mendy playing as an inverted fullback (despite being left-footed on the left), Real had another player taking central space without any sort of attacking benefit.

Real Madrid flood the box and do their best to create chaos to make up for the fact that they are lacking in individual attacking quality right now. They could have done a lot more to get something out of young stars Rodrygo and Odegaard, but Zidane was complacent throughout the match with his attack and with responding to Shakhtar’s rather obvious low block, counterattacking strategy that was a literal repeat from the first matchup.

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Zidane must shoulder responsibility for the loss. He did not do a good job of setting up his XI from an attacking standpoint, his gameplanning was lackluster, and he did not adjust to the first match. Luis Castro thoroughly outcoached Zidane, whose decisions were really quite amateurish. He has done much better than this, but we are starting to see why Zidane’s tactical acumen has been questioned before. And now, he must respond.