Tuesday, September 20, 2016

How Zinedine Zidane has turned Real Madrid Around

When Zinedine Zidane was appointed Real Madrid manager in
January, the Spanish giants were in disarray.

Rafa Benitez's ill-fated reign had left Los Blancos trailing both
Atletico Madrid and Barcelona in La Liga, with points dropped
in four of their previous eight games and memories still fresh
of a humiliating 4-0 home thrashing by Barca.

Now, less than nine months later, not only are Zidane's Real
reigning European champions, but they are also on the verge
of breaking La Liga's all-time record for consecutive victories.

Sunday's 2-0 triumph at Espanyol was the 16th straight
victory for Zidane's men, who ended last season just one
point behind champions Barca after winning their final 12
games. This season they have established early control of top
spot with maximum points from four games.

That winning streak is a Real record and also equals the best
winning sequence in Spain's top flight, achieved by Pep
Guardiola's all-conquering Barca in 2010-11.
And they have the chance to beat that on Wednesday with
victory over Villarreal at the Bernabeu.
So, how has Zidane done it? Not in the way you might have

Introduction of casemiro

Saturday, 27 February 2016 was a major turning point in 44-
year-old Zidane's early managerial career.
Real lost their local derby at home to Atletico 1-0, jeered off
by dissatisfied fans who felt the team had failed to progress
since Benitez's exit.

Until then, Zidane had shoe-horned as many attacking players
into his line-ups as possible in an attempt to fulfil his pledge
to deliver the kind of exciting, free-flowing football associated
with his own playing days.

It wasn't working. The forwards were getting in each other's
way and the lack of defensive instincts in midfield was making
the team vulnerable, brutally exposed by the way Atletico
strolled unchallenged through the centre of the pitch for
Antoine Griezmann's match-winner.

Zidane knew that something had to change - and that
something was the introduction of defensive midfielder
Casemiro, the low-profile Brazilian who had previously only
played 23 minutes under his management.

Casemiro, 24, originally moved to the Bernabeu from Sao
Paolo in February 2013, making his debut under Jose
Mourinho in a 3-1 home win over Real Betis two months later.
But Carlo Ancelotti sent him on loan to Porto for the season in
the summer of 2014, then was largely left on the bench by
Benitez and initially by Zidane, with both managers
compromised by the pressure to field more flamboyant,
attacking talents.

However, that derby defeat forced Zidane to rethink, and
Casemiro has rapidly become indispensable, with his powerful
physique, tackling ability and positional discipline giving the
team a previously lacking defensive presence in midfield.

A new-found pragmatism

Real began their winning streak with a 3-1 triumph at
Levante, and were five victories into it when the game that
would prove to be their turning point arrived: the Clasico at
Barcelona on 2 April.

Barca were paying tribute to club legend Johan Cruyff, who
had died a week earlier, and they had every intention of
marking his memory with another crushing victory over their
biggest rivals.

Instead, it proved to be a prototype performance from
Zidane's new-look team, who were undeterred by falling
behind to Gerard Pique's header and bounced back to win
with goals from Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo.

There was little flair in Real's victory, but the players obeyed
Zidane's command - delivered in the wake of the defeat by
Atletico - to "run more".

Notably, the French coach delivered the same message in the
build-up to the Champions League final against their city
rivals in May, urging: "What we have to do is run, run, run and
Forget spectacular, attacking football inspired by megastar
Galacticos, Zidane was turning his team into a bunch of
grafters committed to their defensive duties and increasingly
confident in their ability to grind out wins even when not
playing well.

Seven of Real's past 19 victories have been secured by goals
in the last 10 minutes - most recently the Champions League
triumph over Sporting Lisbon which prompted Marca to hail
them as "Comeback FC" and state that Zidane has "recovered
the virtue of never giving up".

Squad rotation

Although his strongest XI more or less picks itself, Zidane is
committed to a policy of squad rotation, regularly emphasising
the importance of a group mentality and insisting that every
player is important.

Every manager says similar things but Zidane's talk is not
just empty rhetoric, with his commitment to rotation backed
up statistics.

He has fielded 21 players in Real's four league games this
season - and only goalkeeper Kiko Casilla (deputising for
Keylor Navas) and Sergio Ramos have started all four.

Furthermore, Zidane has selected five different forward lines in
his team's six competitive games, and their 12 league goals
have been scored by 11 different players. You can't get much
more 'group mentality' than that.

Spain's most famously pro-Real journalist, Tomas Roncero
from newspaper AS, this week saluted Zidane by writing:
"Zidane leads a squad of 24 players, not 11.
"This squad doesn't just have a plan B, but also a plan C and
plan D. I've never seen a Madrid so complete, versatile, and

That tribute is also, naturally, an unspoken dig at Barcelona,
who are routinely accused of being too reliant upon their
Messi-Suarez-Neymar forward line and, when the second-
stringers started at home to Alaves 10 days ago, lost 2-1.

Calm and assured man-management 

Not many managers could leave out a player for months, recall
him into the starting line-up, see him score a record-breaking
goal and then hear that player declare the manager "will
always be my idol".

But Zidane was given that endorsement by James Rodriguez
after the Colombia international, making his first start of the
season, rifled home the opener in Real's hard-earned 2-0
victory at Espanyol on Sunday.

And it's clear that Zidane, a 1998 World Cup winner with
France who became a Real legend with a brilliant volley in the
2002 Champions League final victory over Bayer Leverkusen,
is benefitting from the credibility provided by his stellar
playing career.

Zidane commands automatic respect - and his aura makes it
easier for him to retain good relationships with players he
leaves out of the team.
So, too, does his constant reassertion of the team ethic and
his commitment to squad rotation - it's much easier for
dropped players to stay motivated when they know they have
a genuine chance of starting next week.

Considering his penchant for petulance during his playing
days, it is perhaps surprising that another quality which has
helped Zidane manage Real's egos is his calm and composed

Whether on the sidelines, in front of the media or at the
training ground, Zidane looks relaxed and always ready to
smile, even maintaining his good-humoured patience when
asked, as he has countless times this summer, whether he
was intending to sell James.

Lady luck

If you ask Barcelona fans whether Zidane is a great manager,
they will scoff and say he is a lucky manager.
When asked on social media for his hopes from the
Champions League, Barca star Pique ironically replied he
would like the kind of campaign enjoyed by Real last season.
"Easy group. Third-placed team in Italy in the last 16 [Roma],
eighth in Germany in the quarters [Wolfsburg], fourth in
England in the semis [Man City]. Return leg always at home,"
Pique tweeted.

And it's true that Real - with all those late winners - have
enjoyed some fortune during their record-breaking run, most
recently when Sergio Ramos avoided a second yellow card for
handball at Espanyol on Sunday by successfully pretending
the ball hit his face.

Although the "lucky" argument only takes you so far, it's
certainly too soon to proclaim Zidane as an unqualified
coaching triumph. The season is young and it's never wise to
bank on too much stability in the soap opera that is Real

Nevertheless, a Champions League title and 16 straight league
wins cannot be discounted lightly - and victory over Villarreal
would be another step forward in Zidane's coaching career,
which is so far threatening to be every bit as successful as
his playing career.

No comments:

Post a Comment