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Why Having the Best Players in the World Hasn’t Been Enough for Real Madrid

While Zinedine Zidane’s hands-off approach has led to two straight European titles, he hasn’t had any answers in a season that’s already seen his club fall out of the La Liga title race. It sounds unthinkable, but if Madrid don’t get past PSG in the Champions League round of 16, Zidane could be out of a job.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Zinedine Zidane was on track to become the greatest player-turned-manager in history. While making his way into the history books as one of the best playmakers ever, the gifted Frenchman led his teams with unmatched elegance, and he continued to do so once he hung up his boots and put on suit and tie. At 45, Zidane has already won over a dozen major trophies as a player and a coach, including one World Cup, one European Championship, and three UEFA Champions Leagues. Failure has rarely even been something he’s had to consider—until now.

Zidane’s career will always be linked to Real Madrid. He joined them as a player in 2001 and stayed in the Spanish capital until his retirement in 2006. Three years later, he returned to the club as an adviser before becoming sporting director in 2011. But in order to hone his coaching skills, he moved out of the front office—first to an assistant position on Carlo Ancelotti’s staff and then taking over Real Madrid Castilla in 2014. In early 2016, Ancelotti’s replacement, Rafael Benítez, was fired, and in what many considered a premature move, Zidane was given the head gig despite no first-team coaching experience at any level. Benítez had managed to win 17 of his 25 games, but a 4-0 home defeat to Barcelona, in addition to his fielding of an ineligible player (Denis Cheryshev) in the Copa del Rey, led to his dismissal.

Instead of crumbling under the immense pressure of a club that expects to win every trophy, Zidane thrived. Just five months after his promotion, he lifted the Champions League trophy. He and his team defended the title successfully the next year, which had not been done since 1990. On top of that, Madrid won the domestic championship last summer for just the second time since 2008.

But ever since Madrid’s win over Barcelona in the Spanish Super Cup last August, which seemed to solidify the narrative that they had finally surpassed their rivals from Catalonia, things have gone south for the team and their head coach. The Spanish championship is already out of reach, as Madrid are trailing 17 points behind Barcelona. Losses to the likes of Leganes and Villarreal have undermined Zidane’s once-vaunted position, and if Madrid don’t advance past Paris Saint-German in their round of 16 Champions League matchup, that could be it for the two-time defending European champ.

When Zidane and his team were riding on a wave of success over the past two years, people remained skeptical of his tactical nous, but the French head coach received universal praise for how he managed the club’s star ensemble. In the wake of mediocre performances this season, Zidane has so far dodged a lot of questions as to what is wrong with his team and only given vague explanations. “It might be a mental aspect that is stopping us from winning,” he stated recently. Of course, as Zidane must know, it’s never that simple.

When he replaced Benítez, Zidane entered the locker room with a playing résumé unparalleled in soccer and the kind of authority only a former world-class player like him could radiate. Man-management has always been one of (if not the) most important tasks for any Madrid coach. The front office signs as many star players as they can without necessarily taking the team’s chemistry into consideration. The clash of large egos can cause rifts within the team, and that’s ultimately what did in José Mourinho’s tenure. And Carlo Ancelotti was brought in as a replacement because he could handle the stars and their airs and graces. While other clubs look for tactical brilliance nowadays, it is not the highest priority when Madrid go out and sign a new head coach.

With Zidane at the helm, Madrid heavily relied on individual quality rather than tactical sophistication in the past two seasons. The general regression in tactical quality across Europe—with more and more coaches going back to simpler, less risky defensive schemes—helped Madrid win most of its high-profile matches. The vast majority of opponents played man-to-man, and Madrid’s men are almost always better than any other club’s. Even if Zidane did not come up with elaborate pre-practiced plays to move the ball up the field, he could trust central midfielders Toni Kroos and Luka Modric to free themselves from their markers and feed the three strikers—Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, but Karim Benzema in particular. The French center-forward is far more agile and intelligent than he’s ever widely received credit for, and he’s been crucial in setting up Ronaldo or Bale in favorable positions. Pulling man-markers out of the center and laying the ball off to one of the two is textbook Benzema.

This season, Madrid have seen an increasing number of opponents abandon man-marking, and it’s exposed their limitations in build-up play. Fewer defenders still take the bite and follow Kroos or Modric while leaving central zones unmarked. They instead remain compact in narrow shapes and willingly give up space on the fringes of the field. It is a defensive approach every top-tier team has to deal with—be it Barcelona, Manchester City, Bayern Munich, or Real Madrid. But it’s not just that Zidane has not found the right answer; he has not even acknowledged the question. Despite the new approach from his opponents, he still lets his creative midfielders run the same plays over and over again. Kroos has the tendency to drop back into the left half-space (the zone between left back Marcelo and defensive midfielder Casemiro) if he does not feel comfortable with what he sees in front of him. Modric has shown similar tendencies, as the Croatian playmaker often moves into the right half-space. It ultimately creates a U-shape when Madrid are building up from the back.

That leaves Casemiro in the center, but he usually tries to hide when his team is in possession since he does not seem confident in his abilities to hold onto the ball under pressure. Integrating Casemiro into the midfield slot between Kroos and Modric was one of Zidane’s most important tactical changes. But for as valuable as the Brazilian midfielder has been in terms of stabilizing Madrid’s defense, he can be a liability in offensive phases. The U-shape still allows Los Blancos to move the ball around the opponent’s formation, but it makes it much tougher to penetrate the final third and get the strikers involved since the defense is able to drop back into a shell. Wing play worked when opponents allowed Ronaldo and Bale to seek one-on-ones in isolation and break through. But the two star players have a hard time finding these one-on-ones when opponents use zone coverage. Ronaldo has lost his cool in several games and made horrific shot selections. Per WhoScored, the reigning Ballon d’Or winner has scored only 11 goals from 95 attempts inside the box this La Liga season. He often goes for power and not precision, for the quick move that ignores the position of the goalkeeper.

Zidane has tried to tweak his team’s approach, but his attempt to implement Isco as a no. 10 and switch from the 4-3-3 to the 4-3-1-2, with the Spaniard roaming behind Ronaldo and Bale, did not turn things around. Isco repeatedly drifted toward the wings. The impractical U-shape re-emerged. And a weak structure in possession causes a weak structure in defensive transition. With the midfield stretched wide and the fullbacks pushed up high to help with the buildup, the center of the field is exposed whenever they lose possession. Turning the ball over means trouble.

Zidane’s players have thrown away several points in matches they superficially dominated in terms of ball possession. Just recently they did so in a 2-2 draw at Celta Vigo and another 2-2 draw at Levante. Long and repeated spells of possession may make the team even more vulnerable. Frequent lateral passes, where the ball travels a considerable distance, and risky attempts to enter the center of the field when Madrid become impatient invite opponents to make the one interception needed to spring an attack. “We know that the opponent can hurt you on the counter attack,” Zidane pointed out after their match against Levante earlier this month. But being aware of the threat has not helped the team to address the issue.

Currently, Madrid are only fourth in La Liga. A title defense is already out of reach in early February—and the club has already dropped more points than it did in the entirety of the 2016-17 campaign. Given Zidane’s history with the team, club president Florentino Pérez may hold on to him longer than to any other coach, but the Frenchman may have to win the Champions League for the third time in a row to keep his job. Asked if his future depended on the outcome of the PSG matchup, Zidane said, “Yes, that’s clear.”

Knowing how he has handled his coaching duties in the past few years, it is unlikely Zidane will try to outsmart his opponent and solve the issues through tactics. Instead, he will try to light a fire under his superstars once again. But that’s the thing about relying on intangibles to get results: The fuel almost always runs out.