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article imageReal Madrid stuck in cross-roads under Zidane's management

By Tyrrell Meertins     Feb 26, 2016 in Sports
So it’s beginning to feel like deja-vu at the Santiago Bernabeu. What appeared so promising in Florentino Perez’s second stint at Real Madrid is slowly wilting to the ground.
Rafa Benitez’s hiring in the summer was the catalyst, and as we approach the final stages of the La Liga/European season, the Spaniard himself failed to survive Perez’s cut-throat wrath. A fan favourite in Carlo Ancelotti was fired and replaced with a carbon copy manager – they’re teams tend to perform well in cup competitions, but rarely win league titles – that strays away from playing the possession-based football employed by the Italian.
It was a relationship that wasn’t destined for the long-term, and for all the emphasis on structure and defensive solidity – a trait Real currently lack – Benitez was sacked despite the club’s second place position. Yet the arrival of Zinedine Zidane hasn’t really changed much in terms of Madrid’s collective performances.
Essentially, everything has gone as expected. Interim managers tend to shift the atmosphere in the dressing room, and earn results, which Zidane has done so far. But in terms of personnel and tactics, there hasn’t been a general improvement. The former, again, isn’t Zidane’s fault, but there’s a sense of pragmatism that could be utilized to help Madrid in the final stages of the season.
This managerial pattern trends back to the turn of the decade. Manuel Pellegrini was sacked for his lack of pedigree both domestically and in Europe, and replaced with Jose Mourinho. Mourinho claimed a league title and a Copa Del Rey crown during his three-year stint, but the toxic atmosphere in the dressing room required a father figure in Ancelotti to steady the ship.
Though Ancelotti finally guided Real to La Decima – he was on the verge of being sacked if they had lost that game – the following season ended trophy-less, only to be replaced with Benitez. The move was peculiar because the Spaniard isn’t renowned for the entertaining football Perez craves, but focuses heavily on instilling collective organization.
Last week’s draw set Real nine points back of leaders Barcelona in the league, and with the Copa del Rey out of contention, a miraculous Champions League triumph is the only possible way to save a season hovering around failure.
With Barca and Atletico improving this season, Real have been stuck in the same phase that witnessed the club barely capture La Decima, two seasons ago. Meanwhile, no substantial improvements have been made to turn the club into a genuine contender in the league, nor has there been a considerable intent on doing so – apart from the summer transfer saga with Manchester United goalkeeper David De Gea.
The starting XI is practically the same with Raphael Varane offering mobility and athleticism alongside Sergio Ramos, whereas Zidane’s preferred Isco and James Rodriguez opposed to the defensive-minded Casemiro. Likewise, Zidane’s decision to hand the free role back to Cristiano Ronaldo has witnessed a slight improvement in his performances, and more importantly, goals.
Ultimately, Real’s main issue still persists in midfield. While the Merengues can easily dispatch of inferior opposition, the lack of a natural ball-winner in the XI has seen Modric and Toni Kroos overrun in midfield. Even by Perez’s standard, it’s peculiar that the club hasn’t addressed this issue following the debacle that transpired subsequent to Claude Makalele’s sale during Zidane’s playing days.
Real still possess the quality to dispatch of most teams in the world, but when it comes to the elite, they’re slowly spiralling downwards. A possible FIFA transfer ban could potentially expand the current gap between Barcelona and Zidane’s men, but it would be the ideal time to stray away from the current core that’s only claimed one league title since 2009 – while they’re still enabled to sign players – and on the verge of a second consecutive trophy-less season.
In the end, this all comes down to the quality of recruitment at the Bernabeu. The last two managers aiming to improve the squad for the better were in warfare with the players, and therefore left the star-studded Galacticos 2.0 imbalanced.
Now the club must determine whether Zidane is their man for the foreseeable future, and if so, the Frenchman is faced with an uphill task of modifying the current philosophy at the club. With their European rivals moving forward, and the possible resurgence of Manchester City under Pep Guardiola next season, Real can’t afford to overlook the issues at hand.
"Simply being next to them [the players] can be enough and you don't have to say too many words on certain problems,” said Zidane. "Sometimes, communicating well is knowing when to shut up. And that's something I do well.
"I know what I want. It's difficult, but I'm capable of getting it."
Nevertheless, while the league may be lost, Real’s derby showdown remains significant. For one, a win provides confidence and will see Zidane’s men move into second. Also, the collective effort on both ends from Simeone’s men represents the ideal platform Zidane aims to achieve if granted a long-term spell as Real manager.
The individualism at the Bernabeu has failed to permanently overcome Atletico’s resilience, and the contrast in this regard has stalled Real’s evolution. A manageable schedule that sees Real play majority of the top teams at home offers hope, but a loss to Simeone’s men could be the final blow to a forgettable season.
Breaking down an organized Atletico deep-block has frustrated Real in recent years, and a counter-attack spearheaded by the speedy Antoine Griezmann could pose several threats in transition. While the quality on the pitch is truly outstanding, Real still lack the leadership, and grit required to be a champions, and for that, they need to recruit elsewhere.
For once, this is bigger than the league table – Real should learn from Atletico’s recent success in terms of recruitment and establishing an identity for long-term success. Zidane’s presence has lifted the club, but now, they must overcome the stylistic and psychological contrast with their city rivals.
It’s time for Real to tread in a different direction.
More about Real madrid, Ronaldo, Zidane, uefa champions league, Atletico Madrid
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