Real Madrid have now lost two straight games in all competitions, and while that may prompt some to view it as a cataclysmic event, in fact, it’s not entirely unusual. It’s happened on 12 different occasions in the past 10 years. Heck, it happened most recently earlier this year with Zinedine Zidane at the helm.
Back in January, they lost away to Sevilla in the league (2-1) and then fell at home to Celta Vigo in the first leg of the Copa del Rey quarterfinal. It happens.
Now, were Madrid to make it three in a row — which is rather unlikely given they’re at home to Las Palmas this weekend — it might be a different matter. That hasn’t actually occurred since the five consecutive defeats at the end of 2008-09 Juande Ramos campaign. But we’re not there yet. Still, it was Real’s heaviest European loss since 2013 and that 4-1 at the hands of Jurgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League semifinal. And it came after a horrid performance away to Girona when Real were deservedly beaten. What doesn’t help matters, either, is the fact that they’re eight points back in La Liga.
This is where Zidane’s doubters — and, yes, I was one of them when he was appointed, only to be proven wrong by back-to-back Champions League crowns — highlighted potential weaknesses in the great French stone face on the sideline. How would he handle things when he hits a big bump in the road?
“There is no crisis,” Zidane said after the Spurs game. “You ask me if I’m worried? No, and I won’t be worried going forward either… we did not play badly, we played against a team that performed better on the night, and we have have to accept that. We had chances to score, but as has been happening recently, we didn’t take them.”
So far, so good. He said the right things, and he’s right: Real Madrid did have opportunities that went unconverted. You worry when you don’t create, but when you don’t convert, you’re less concerned.
“We’re not happy, the dressing room isn’t happy,” Zidane added. “In life sometimes you have to accept things. This is not a good moment, but we have time to turn things around. It’s a tough defeat, but it’s a game we deserved to lose. We know how to turn things around, and we will turn things around.”
The question is what he means by turning things around. Is it personnel? Is it scheme? Is it mentality? On the former, Cristiano Ronaldo tried to bail him out, although his words can be read both ways.
“Guys like Pepe, [Alvaro] Morata and James [Rodriguez] made us stronger last year; this season we have younger players, plus we were missing [Dani] Carvajal and [Gareth] Bale,” he said. “We’re not a worse team, but we have less experience, and experience is very important.”
He’s right in terms of experience, although the team that was out there on the pitch (with the exception of Achraf Hakimi at right-back) had plenty of experience. Of the departed players only Pepe, maybe , would have been in contention for a starting spot and, frankly, a 34-year-old central defender who started 13 Liga games last season and didn’t play a single minute of Champions League football from the quarterfinal on will not move the needle. Isco filled in for Bale at the end of last season, and his absence wasn’t noticed much though Carvajal was a miss, sure.
When it comes to scheme, it’s hard to find fault with Zidane’s set-up.
Part of it is Real Madrid’s DNA, particularly in the Florentino Perez era. Some clubs have very distinct styles and formations, and messianic managers who play a certain way. Not Real Madrid. They haven’t had a revolutionary tactician at the helm since, arguably, Benito Floro in the early 1990s. Instead, they’ve opted for very savvy bosses who played familiar schemes and tried to execute them well, from Jose Mourinho to Carlo Ancelotti to Vicente Del Bosque. Less hocus-pocus, less reinvention of the wheel and more man-management, execution and letting the players’ talent make the difference. After all, there’s a lot of merit to the statement that the mind and ability of a great player will be more unpredictable and effective in the final third than anything a coach on the sidelines can dream up.
During Zidane’s tenure, we’ve mostly seen a 4-3-3 (with Bale) and, like Wednesday night, a de facto diamond with Isco coming inside. It’s not really a problem, and frankly it’s hard to imagine this team lining up much differently unless you effect major surgery on the starting lineup: again, his options here, other than finding room for Marco Asensio (but at whose expense?) are limited. There’s little doubt that these are the best players available to him right now, and this is where they go.
And so you’re left with the only possible explanation: that other than Tottenham and Girona playing well, the defeats were mental. And if Real Madrid are going to improve, that’s where it has to happen, at least until Bale, Carvajal, Keylor Navas, Mateo Kovacic and Raphael Varane return, and that could take a while.
Like most metaphysical answers, it’s not satisfying because it involves playing pop psychology but let’s try it on for size. There’s a school of thought that maintains Ronaldo has been thrown off-kilter by the five-game suspension he served earlier in the season. The thinking is that a maniacal trainer with a preset routine like Ronaldo gets thrown off when he ends up playing just three games in the space of a month (two with Portugal and the Champions League opener with Real). His rhythm is thrown off, and he’s paying the price. It’s entirely possible.
Then again, he missed most of preseason last year too and didn’t actually play a competitive match until Sept. 10. By this stage last season, he had seven goals, which isn’t much more than the five he has now. Yes, he’s taking a ton of shots per game, but he did that last year too. And yes, he’s taking bad shots, but that’s no different from last year.
The others? Karim Benzema isn’t scoring much, but then he didn’t score much last season either. Luka Modric has a major off-pitch distraction (the Zdrakvo Mamic trial), but that was bubbling under for most of last year too.
This is where you take a step back, concede that Zidane is better placed than we are to identify the problem and let him have a go. It may well be that they simply ran into a Tottenham side that were “en fuego” on Wednesday (while still creating chances) and that Girona was simply a horrendous blip. (If expected goals is your thing, it may be worth noting that it was the first time they were outperformed in terms of xG in La Liga since the December 2016 Clasico, and the first time this season they didn’t finish ahead by at least one whole goal).
Managing Real Madrid is unlike managing most clubs. Ancelotti used to say that the Bernabeu is the place where some will boo a misplaced pass in the 88th minute of a game where Real are leading 5-0, and it’s true. Given the resources, there are no excuses and there’s nowhere to hide.
Zidane knows that, and he knows he need to get in under the hood, figure out what’s wrong (if anything) and fix it. Or if there’s nothing wrong and this is just random variance, do nothing but appear as if you’re doing something. Whatever he does, he needs to do it in double-quick time because this is also a club where patience wears thin very quickly.