Many would state it was a very bold move from Zidane, no pun intended, to make his return to Real Madrid only a few short months after leaving the club.
Zizou pretexted his inability to pull extra efforts from his team players as the main reason behind his farewell. Which can be disputed, as we shall show in this analysis.
There is not a single doubt that the Frenchman earned his spot in the hall of fame of great football coaches after his two and half years spell at Real Madrid. He went on to win nine titles, breaking every other record. His team went 40 games undefeated from April 2016 until January 2017. He equalled Guardiola’s record with Barcelona of 18 straight wins. He fancies a record of eight wins from eight finals played. Not failing to mention his all-time achievement of winning three back-to-back UEFA Champions League titles.
So let us look back at Zinedine Zidane’s first phase as a Real Madrid head coach and how it differs from this current one.
Zidane take one
Zizou inherited his team after the dreadful short spell of Rafa Benitez as coach of Real Madrid. Since then he managed to boost a new life in a soulless team. His main tactic relied on a 4-3-3 formation on attack mode, led by the B-B-C (Bale, Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo), with initially a line of three midfielders made of Kroos and Modric, with either Isco, or James. Before Casemiro returned from Oporto and claimed his spot by a majestic showcase of a defensive display at the Signal Iduna Park in Dortmund, during a return leg of the Champions League.
Without the ball, Zizou’s Madrid usually turned into a 4-4-2 block, with Bale or Lucas Vazquez falling back into the midfield. However, it has always seemed the Madrid side struggled without the ball and had much trouble recovering it. This was one of the few flaws of the 4-4-2. Real Madrid players fail to press efficiently, thus creating a rumble in that central midfield, and getting too exposed in the back.
In the year he won La Liga, Real Madrid had the fourth best defence in the league behind Atleti, Villarreal and Barcelona, with an average of 1.1 goals conceded per game. Only managing to keep a clean sheet 10 times, which ranked them, 8th in the number of games without conceding.
Another interesting historical fact about Zidane is that he was the first coach to repeat the same starting eleven, in two back-to-back Champions League finals. Another display of the enormous faith of the Frenchman in his squad’s main men.
Zidane returned to a very different Real Madrid than the one he left. He was the third coach to lead the club after Lopetegui and Solari did not manage to keep the winning spirit he left to preserve.
The main difference to his new Real Madrid is that the key players to his international success have left, or are in a bad shape. Cristiano had left to Juventus, Marcelo and Isco struggled physically and ended up in bad terms with the previous coach. In a desperate measure, the club contracted the five-time European champion to start some sort of a ‘purge’. Zidane promised big changes in his return and a new solid project.
Here is where the contradiction happened. Zidane had twelve games left in La Liga, with everything already lost. The average Madrid fan was expecting the premises of the revolution previously announced by the coach. The team included fresh blood represented by the likes of Castilla’s child Sergio Reguilon, Vinicius Jr, Marcos Llorente. All those names who played regularly and sensationally under Solari, and were expected to keep being used by Zidane. However, none of that happened, as the same line-up was brought back to date.
Zidane on his farewell presser stressed that he could not motivate his players anymore, and felt he had nothing more to transmit to them. Yet as soon as he was back in charge, he started using the same names, with the exact same tactical display. All the youngsters who proved their worth throughout the season got abruptly sent to the bench. The club lost four of those games, drawing in two and winning the other six. The season ended with a Bernabeu defeat to Betis.
Although after a hectic preseason, we are starting to see some grounds to Zizou’s upheaval. First, by the discharged players’ list. Reguilon was loaned to Sevilla; Ceballos to Arsenal, whilst Marcos Llorente was sold to arch-rivals Atleti. Zidane made it clear that he was willing to sell Gareth Bale and that for the moment he had no plans including James Rodriguez.
Nonetheless, the biggest adjustment was on the tactical level. Zidane tried out during these friendlies two different styles of play. A 4-1-2-1-2 formation, with either Fede Valverde or Casemiro as central defensive midfielders, behind Kroos and Modric, with Hazard and Benzema upfront. The recent game plan he used in the last two games was much different. A three men defensive line in a 3-5-2 block with Varane, Ramos or Nacho, and Milatao in the back. With both Carvajal and Marcelo as wingers that fall behind in defensive sequences to switch to a 5-3-2 display. Hence giving more freedom to Eden Hazard upfront.
The French coach also tried new positions for the likes of Vinicius by moving him to the right flank.
Maybe these changes are not bringing fruits yet, but Zinedine Zidane is attempting a new approach this season, trying to give the team alternative game plans. In order to be able to adapt according to the opponent. Zidane’s vision is yet to be completed as the transfer window is still open and many new players might join in like Pogba, Van de Beek or even Neymar Jr. Whether or not this new spell as a head coach will smile to Zizou, is a question of time, as La Liga starts for him and his men this weekend against Celta Vigo.