Why Zidane is the Real deal and deserves patience at Madrid
Despite making wholesale changes, Real Madrid should have comfortably beaten third tier side Numancia at the Bernabẽu on Wednesday. Despite the 2-2 stalemate, meaning Madrid have only won one of their past four games, they still progressed to the next round of the Copa del Rey after a comfortable first leg away victory. The weekend prior to the second leg, Madrid also drew to Celta Vigo; a result which leaves Zinedine Zidane’s men 16 points behind runaway leaders Barcelona in the La Liga title race. Zidane was also humiliated by the Catalan giants 3-0 on home turf before the winter break, highlighting the current gulf between the two teams.
Much has been made of Madrid’s poor start, but it is also important to put it in the context of recent seasons and the achievements that Zidane has achieved in his first senior managerial role. After the Malaga draw, the Frenchman claimed that “We are all in this together. We have had two great years and that shouldn’t be forgotten.” After Rafael Benitez was relieved of his duties at the Bernabẽu in January 2016, there was more scepticism than optimism from Madrid supporters towards Zidane’s appointment. Whilst he was idolised on the terraces when he played for Madrid, his managerial inexperience was seen as a concern by many. He had previously been assistant manager to Carlo Ancelotti at Madrid, whilst he was also the manager of the team’s second-string side, Real Madrid Castilla.
However, since he took over as manager of the first team, Zidane has won the Champions League twice, a La Liga title, a Supercopa de España title, the UEFA Super Cup twice and FIFA Club World Cup twice. The Frenchman was also honoured with the Best FIFA Men’s Coach Award in 2017. Despite the 16 point gap, Madrid do have two games in hand over Barcelona, however it is of course very improbable that they will claw that back at this stage of the season. Their Champions League hopes are dependent on beating Paris Saint-Germain, arguably the in-form team in Europe over two legs.
Given his extraordinary start at Madrid, the recent criticism that Zidane has come in for can be seen as harsh. He has been without Gareth Bale for much of this campaign through injury, whilst Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema have not reached the dizzying heights of previous seasons. Even Luka Modric, so dominant and creative just last season, looks a shadow of his former self. Barcelona have also been re-energised since the arrival of Ernesto Valvedere; they now have Ousmane Dembélé returning from injury and another playmaker in Phillipe Coutinho to add to their stellar lineup.
It could be claimed that Zidane has been the creator of his own downfall this season. Loaning James Rodriguez to Bayern Munich on a two-year deal was arguably a mistake, given the worrying lack of depth in their current squad. The same can also be said of Alvaro Morata’s sale to Chelsea, given that Madrid’s current forward line is not firing. Whilst Sergio Ramos and Raphaël Varane are two exceptional central defenders, it could well be argued that Real miss the leadership qualities and experience of Pepe, who now plies his trade in Turkey. It is imperative that they sign reinforcements in January to improve their current squad, whilst Zidane needs to somehow get his team playing like they did last season. They have been heavily linked with Chelsea's Eden Hazard, but any deal for the Belgian will have to wait for the summer transfer window.
As mentioned previously, this all must also be put into the context of what Zidane, still a young and fledgeling manager, has already achieved. Zidane appears to be both a pragmatist and realist, with the Frenchman also having a good rapport with his squad. He deserves time, patience and the backing of club President Florentino Pérez. Pérez arguably made a mistake in rushing to sack the successful Ancelotti after a mini-slump; Zidane needs time to continue the legacy and dynasty he is currently creating in the Spanish capital.