Pecking order the root of Zinedine Zidane's problems at Real Madrid
It fell to Sergio Ramos to sum up the feeling at Real Madrid after one of the darkest nights at the Bernabeu since the turn of the century, the 4-0 Clasico humbling at the hands of a seemingly unstoppable Barcelona in November 2015: “They should enjoy this while they can, nothing lasts forever.”
Luis Enrique, whose side were the reigning Liga, Copa and Champions League holders, agreed in his usual laconic style: “It’s a reality that’s pretty obvious; football goes in cycles and no team always wins all of the trophies.”
Barcelona would go on to retain their Liga and Copa titles but relinquished the European crown to Real Madrid, who had installed Zinedine Zidane as coach to replace Rafa Benitez shortly after that Clasico humiliation.
Now, the weight of expectation falls on Zidane, who has guided Real to consecutive Champions League triumphs and wrested the Liga title from Camp Nou last season, the cycle completed.
To his credit, and perhaps because his upbringing has lent him a broader view of life than many in the game, the Frenchman simply smiles in news conferences and pronounces himself unconcerned by whatever latest setback he has encountered: “I’m not going to change. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. I make decisions and that won’t change just because of one bad game. I believe in what I’m doing.”
That statement came after the draw against Levante back in September but was reiterated after Real drew another blank in San Mames at the weekend. The problem, Zidane noted, is that his side are not scoring the late goals that last season so often turned one point into three.
Two words have circulated frequently in response to that issue: Alvaro Morata. There is little doubt that a striker of the Spain international’s quality is a huge asset, as Cristiano Ronaldo was quick to point out after the Champions League loss to Tottenham Hotspur.
What Ronaldo elected not to say was that he, among others, is part of a wider problem.
Many observers have pointed to a flawed summer transfer policy, with the emphasis on youth, but Zidane had his hands tied: few top-level players want to move to the Bernabeu to adorn the bench. That is why James Rodriguez and Morata decided to seek their fortunes elsewhere. Attempts to lure Kylian Mbappe from Monaco were always destined to fail when PSG were willing to parachute him straight into the starting lineup, no matter whose feathers were ruffled.
At Real Madrid, there are too many peacocks allowed to strut whatever their form. And that is the fault of the club, and whoever happens to be coaching it.
If Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale are seen as sacrosanct when fit, why would any attacking player wish to trade first-team football for the Copa del Rey and the occasional 15 minutes in a Liga rout? Benzema perhaps summed up the catch-22 best earlier this season: “There is no need to leave as long as I’m starting.”
That certain players are guaranteed a place in the XI is the root of Real’s current Liga predicament and not purely because Ronaldo and Benzema are not finding the net. It is unlikely Madrid did not sound out other players in the summer but the response from established stars is rarely going to be positive when they are fully aware how the pecking order works. Politics is as much a part of a Real Madrid manager’s considerations as form and fitness. Zidane is fortunate he has few large egos in midfield or at the back.
But he is not entirely blameless. A lack of tactical flexibility is affecting performances. Lucas Vazquez, an instrumental cog in the machine last season, has fallen out of favour and Zidane is reluctant to play 4-3-3 in the absence of Bale, which is becoming the norm rather than the exception.
That leaves Ronaldo and Benzema jostling for the same spaces and prevents the Frenchman from drifting to the flanks, where he is such a menace to opposition defences. It also means that when he does, Ronaldo cuts a frustrated figure in the area, closed down by defenders who have only one white shirt to monitor.
Zidane clearly has little faith in his bench and has made almost half his changes this season after the 75th minute. In San Mames, he didn’t bother to use his third.
With Bale and Marco Asensio available, Real are a different proposition. On the Welshman’s fleeting appearances this season, he has been a force to be reckoned with and Asensio can turn a game on his own. But the simple fact is that Zidane’s Plan B, so effective last season as then-Depor coach Pepe Mel noted after a 6-2 thrashing, are now conspicuous by their absence.
Nothing is won or lost in December — except the Club World Cup, which may provide a trinket shiny enough to distract fans and president alike briefly — but failure to deliver anything more significant in May could exhaust Zidane’s credit at the Bernabeu.
Although the frugal Frenchman will view it as an affront to his ethos, Florentino Perez may insist on January business. Due to Zidane’s reluctance to use his summer acquisitions, Real have plenty of barely used bargaining chips.
Rob Train covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Cafc13Rob.