Until mid-January, one stat was ubiquitous on football forums: Zinedine Zidane has won more trophies than he has lost games in charge of Real Madrid. The Frenchman took charge of the Santiago Bernabeu outfit after the unceremonious sacking of Rafael Benitez in January 2016, and he guided the club to an unprecedented 11th European Cup trophy in May.
Real Madrid built upon their European success and started the 2016-‘17 campaign strongly, winning the European Super Cup after defeating Sevilla 3-2. In December last year, Zidane collected the Club World Cup following Real Madrid’s 4-2 defeat of Japanese outfit Kashima Antlers in the final. And that result meant that the Frenchman had won three first team trophies at Real Madrid against just two defeats in about a year in management.
The Club World Cup final was followed by three more unbeaten games. The last of which – a 3-3 draw against Sevilla – had stretched Real Madrid’s unbeaten record under Zidane to 40 matches – a new Spanish record, surpassing Barcelona’s 39-match unbeaten streak from last season.
Los Blancos appeared unbeatable and it was all the more reason to repeat the phrase, “Zidane has won more trophies than he has lost games in charge of Real Madrid.”
Another trip to Sevilla’s vaunted home on January 15, this time in the league, saw Real Madrid suffer their first defeat of the season. A 2-1 reverse ended their winless streak at 40 games and then the phrase changed to “Zidane has won as many games as he has won trophies”. Three days later, another 2-1 defeat, against Celta Vigo saw it change to “Zidane has lost only one more game than he has won trophies”. And with the way things are going for Real Madrid, this season’s oft-repeated line is fast on its way to becoming obsolete.
A dash of luck
Zidane had no first team managerial experience before he took Benitez’s spot in the Real Madrid dugout. At the time, he was in charge of Real Madrid Castilla, a job he had taken up in the summer of 2014. As such, not much was expected of him for he had not really established himself as a managerial prodigy unlike a certain Pep Guardiola who had a similar start at Barcelona. However, as the cliché goes, nothing succeeds like success. Who could argue against the fact that the Frenchman guided a team, who were unable to put a string of coherent displays under Benitez, to European glory?
Amidst the laudatory comments, it somehow masked the fact that Real Madrid were extremely lucky with their Champions League draw. They put a combined 18 goals past European minnows Shakhtar Donetsk and Malmo in their four group games against them. The Spaniards only secured a narrow 1-0 draw at home against Paris Saint-Germain at home after a scoreless draw away at the Parc des Princes. And it was enough for them to finish atop their group standings.
Their rivals right up to the summit clash could not have got any easier. Real Madrid had Roma in their round of 16 clash, German outfit Wolfsburg in the quarter-finals and a listless Manchester City in the semis before they took on city rivals Atletico Madrid in the final.
The ease of their fixture list did not escape Barcelona defender Gerard Pique, who went on to take a cheeky dig at Real Madrid.
The draw was undoubtedly kind compared to what Real Madrid’s strongest rivals for the European Cup, Barcelona and Bayern Munich had had. However, their final opponents, Atletico Madrid were as strong as they come. Diego Simeone’s men had outwitted the Spanish and German champions in subsequent rounds and were worthy contenders for their first European Cup. But after a 1-1 draw in normal and extra time, Real Madrid prevailed, in what many call, the lottery of the penalty shootout.
The European royalty that Real Madrid are, for them, nothing counts greater than Champions League success. And in Zidane, they had a man that had now delivered them their last three of 11 European Cup wins; the ninth as a player, the tenth as an assistant to Carlo Ancelotti and the last as a manager.
He was at the Bernabeu for the long haul.
Zidane vs Benitez
Compared to his predecessor, Zidane has not really made a lot of changes to the side. The one obvious difference has been the inclusion of Casemiro in defensive midfield. The Brazilian was not a regular in Benitez’s first team and it was not because the Spaniard did not want to include him. The word on the street was, Casemiro is not in the mould of a “galactic” and Real Madrid president Florentino Perez wanted his manager to persist with players that fit the “galactic” template. Needless to say the lack of a defensive midfielder left Real Madrid extremely vulnerable to counter attacks.
Benitez was not seen in the same light as Zidane is. The Spaniard didn’t have much of an international career and it did not endear him to the team when in the 2015-‘16 pre-season, he refused to name Cristiano Ronaldo as the best player in the world when grilled about the same at a press conference. A 4-0 Clasico defeat and fielding an ineligible Denis Cheryshev in a Copa del Rey tie that saw the club disqualified from the competition undermined his position further.
There were no such issues when Zidane walked in. He was on good terms with the players, having known them from his time as an assistant to Ancelotti. And of course the gravitas that he has owing to his stellar playing career helped him immensely in earning the players’ respect and getting his message across.
No major tactical breakthroughs from Zizou
In terms of tactics, Zidane has stuck to a basic 4-3-3 formation with Casemiro as the deepest of the three midfielders with Luka Modric and Toni Kroos the other two midfield regulars. Ronaldo, Karima Benzema and Gareth Bale have been the first-choice forwards. There have been no tactical breakthroughs from the French manager. When the going has been tough, a core of technically skilled players has given his side an edge against most rivals.
Still, their 40-match unbeaten run was secured after several close shaves. They salvaged a point in the league against Barcelona with a last ditch goal, managed to get a 3-3 draw against Sevilla in the domestic cup with two late goals and were lucky not to lose against Sporting Portugal as well as Legia Warsaw in the Champions League. If close escapes can be seen as a mark of resilience, they can also mask deficiencies.
And it has been more of the latter for Real Madrid. In recent weeks, Los Blancos were second best in their 4-3 aggregate defeat at the hands of Celta Vigo in the Copa del Rey and Sevilla looked the better side in all of their three recent encounters.
Not just the losses, Real Madrid have also been hampered by long-term injuries to their key players. Bale and right-back Dani Caravajal have been out for some time, while Marcelo and Luka Modric have joined them in the injured list, giving Zidane another problem to address.
Real Madrid’s real test starts now
Last season, Real Madrid brought an end to Barcelona’s 39-match unbeaten streak with their 2-1 league win at home. That reverse for Barcelona was followed by two more losses in three games; first to Real Sociedad in the league and then 2-0 to Atletico Madrid in the Champions League. While the loss to Sociedad threw the league race wide open the Atletico defeat ended Barcelona’s European campaign.
In much the same way, the two defeats of Real Madrid following the end of their own winning streak has already ended their Copa del Rey campaign and opened up the league title race.
The last weekend of league action was billed as a crucial one in the league race with a depleted Madrid hosting a resurgent Sociedad, while Barcelona and Sevilla faced tricky away trips. However, Los Blancos secured a 3-0 win as both their closest title rivals dropped points.
Despite the contrasting fortunes over the past weekend, the race for the league title remains very tight. With half the season still to go, the onus is on Zidane to ensure his team recover from the recent wobbles for he would do well to remember that firing managers after winning European Cups is as much a Real Madrid tradition as their European glories.